Wednesday, September 29, 2010

From lo-fi to hi-fi to lo-fi to middle-fi

In my youth, we had a clunky record player in which you could stack 45s, followed by quite a decent one with combined radio. We also had a massive Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder and a clunky little portable cassette player. Then, thanks to an inheritance, I was lucky enough to able to buy a set of Technics separates and Wharfedale Glendale XP2s. I grimace at the fact that I can remember the model and number. For the truth is, although I once got great pleasure from listening to hi-fidelity stereo while watching the backlit VU meters dance in the dark, it pailed quite quickly and all I was really interested in was the music.

Over the years, the record and CD collection has grown while the hi-fi has slowly got worse, as things broke down, speakers blew, separates got minitiarised, cassette-players became obsolete and now of course we mostly listen to music as lo-fi MP3s. I still have a half-decent Sherwood amp, Technics turntable, Pioneer CD player and TEAC cassette deck (grimace) but they go through a tiny pair of speakers which were bought for their convenient shelf size rather than because they were any good.

But today, finally, with encouragement from Liz (honestly!) and guided by my colleague Jason, I bought a pair of decent speakers. It wasn't looking good. Everything we saw was super-expensive (1K, 10K, 72K anyone!?) and the shops were starting to close. In the end we found a place which wasn't high-end and I sat on a sofa and listened to a few models while trying to act like I knew what I was doing. Turn the volume up and down, get up and take the grill off & put my ear to the cones, have a look round the back... all to the sound of Tricky's Overcome which Jason brought along to "test the bass". Finally I settled on a pair of slim, tall-ish, free-standing BNTNs - American apparently. I won't bore you with the model.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Our first visitor... Mireille, my French, now French-Aussie, friend from way back. She's here on a photography study tour with her Queensland university and had some of her work in an exhibition in Qingdao on the coast. Nice to see her (it's been over six years) and catch up on all the gossip without having to resort to Facebook. Also gave me the opportunity to give her a present to take back to her son, and my godson, Haydn, and with whom I should be more in touch with, guilt, guilt.

Monday, September 27, 2010

J is for...

Now that my records are installed, it's the return of the alphabet. So where were we...?

- Japan
- Jansen/Barbieri
- The Jam
- Joy Division
- Jean-Michel Jarre
- Journeyman
- Johann Johannsson
- Philip Jeck
- Elton John
- Michael Jackson

Dreadful first two albums aside, Japan were sublime if frustratingly short-lived. Quiet Life, Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum are up there with the best of them, all Euro-Japanese, Moroder to Sakamoto, and bursting with exotic arrangements. Karn's fretless bass, Jansen's off-beat drums, Barbieri's moody synths and Sylvian's languid vocals were perhaps the naissance of New Romanticism. Jansen & Barbieri are also worth adding for the albums they've recorded together since.

The Jam were around at exactly the same time as Japan but there the comparisons end. Played Snap! from start to finish the other day. Wonderful stuff. I have a slight problem with Joy Division in that the Curtis mythology tends to overpower objective opinion, but if you can put that aside, yup, great.

Jean-Michel Jarre!? OK, not cool, 90% dire - not least his overblown concerts. But Oxygene and Equinoxe, released at the height of punk/new wave, retain a strange charm. I hum'd and ha'd about Michael Jackson, but in the end, you've got to say Don't Stop Till You Get Enough and Wanna Be Starting Something, along with much of Thriller, are, er, thrilling. As for Elton John, I have a soft spot for the early stuff, especially his two '73 albums Don't Shoot Me... and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road which, like so much 70s pop/rock, were the soundtrack to my formative years.

More leftfield, we'd have to include turnrtablist Philip Jeck, if not for his albums, then live (I have fond memories of three shows in Japan particularly); Journeyman's dubby electronica; and Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson.

Those that didn't quite make it: James, Jane & Barton, Johnny Conquest, Jazz Jamaica, Keith Jarrett, Jesus & Mary Chain, Marsen Jules and respect to Robert Johnson. But forget Jamiroquai, Joe Jackson, Howard Jones (although, embarrassingly, I quite like his first few singles), Jane's Addiction, Jethro Tull, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Judas Preist and Journey - except their excellent version of (Don't Fear) the Reaper. Did I forget anyone?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Footie re-unification

Roped in, fairly willingly it has to be said, to the annual 5-a-side football tournament at the British Embassy all this afternoon. It's been four years since I played so I was bit rusty, but it was good fun. Somehow we (British Council) made it past the 'group stage' but were pitted against tough opposition in the semis. After an eventful 2:2 stalemate match (we scored direct from a corner and I toe-punted one in from our own half), it was penalties. And in true England fashion we flunked it. Mine hit the bar. There, I admitted it. Never mind, perhaps the most interesting thing about the day was being reunited with two players with whom I used to play regularly 20 years ago: Martin in Hyde Park in the late 80s and Stuart for BCFC in the early 90s before we went our separate ways. We're now back in the same city, a little older, greyer and paunchier, but otherwise just like old times.

Friday, September 24, 2010


On arriving in Beijing, I had the misfortune to learn that our second-most senior arts colleague, based in Hong Kong, and whom I've known for years, was leaving. Sheer coincidence I hasten to add. So today was interview day. Five candidates: four from Hong Kong and one from Manchester of all places. And it wasn't Ian Brown. We did it by video-conference with the applicant and a colleague in Hong Kong, another colleague in Shanghai and me in Beijing. The final interview added Manchester into the equation. Quite draining but I think we've got someone good. I know it's nothing new: I teleconference all the time, I skype, I occasionally 'chat'... but I'm of an age where it still amazes me that you can communicate with several people in different parts of the world at the same time on what is little more than a television set.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mooncake Festival

Zhongqiu Jie - Mid Autumn (or simply Mooncake) Festival - is one of China's most important, held in Sept/Oct to celebrate the end of harvest and when the moon as at its fullest. Here it is at midnight from that muddy field yesterday. Everyone gives mooncakes to each other. They're basically pastries filled with bean paste or dates, nuts, Lotus seeds... depends what region you're from. We like the nutty innards and less oily crust.

Anyway, it's a public holiday and unlike yesterday it's a beautifully sunny day so we combine continued unpacking with a visit to Chaoyang Park.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Music and mud

Most of the day at the office then off to Funhill Music Festival, outside Beijing, to catch the evening's entertainment. Sadly the rain of the last couple of days resulted in a pitiful turnout with tiny crowds huddled in front of the two main stages. There were a few food stalls, a Heinekin beer tent, a few optimistic souls selling T-shirts and crafts, halfway decent toilets and of course plenty of mud.

The first band I caught were The Tumbleweeds fronted by my colleague, Jason. Not really my thing - power rock: think U2 meets Korn? - but, I've gotta say, they were very good, and Jason's got presence and lungs. That's him above. Next was very much my thing, a Chinese duo called Supermarket: sophisticated electronica reminiscent of 90s IDM. Quite a surprise. After that, US-born Taiwanese Wang Ruolin whose cabaret-style songs were clever and quirky but not what the audience wanted. Further up the bill, The Concretes from Sweden were a relief but ultimately rather insipid. And headliner Ian Brown, who didn't come on until midnight, never really took off either. Perhaps it was the tiny audience. Strange feeling, watching the Manc Monkey do his thing in a chilly waterlogged field, a few locals waving union jacks (so far so Blighty)... except the field is near Beijing, the flagwavers are Chinese, and Security is a contingent of young soldiers.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


A cool day. Summer's over, welcome to Autumn, time to unpack overcoats - first time we'll have worn them for four years... This afternoon I was required to give a press conference at the Capital Theatre on behalf of London-based Gecko. We’re helping to bring their hit show, The Overcoat, to four cities in China in November. I talked about the show, British theatre, Edinburgh Festival, first impressions of China, our new strategy for working mainly in Tier 2 Cities and so on. It’s a bit irksome to be working on a Sunday but comes with the job, and actually I really enjoyed it - not least a pre-recorded Skype chat with Tang Wei who starred in Lust, Caution and who loves the play.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Slowly our flat is beginning to look like a home. Somehow we are finding places for things. Rooms are looking less like warehouses and more like we live in them. The record shelves, 20 years old, warped and splintered, are patched up and assembled for one last time before they collapse and kill someone.

In the afternoon we explore our neighbourhood in search of food and find two great little cafes. The first is trendy amost by accident, run by an old lady with a tiny, hyperactive dog which throws the girls into hysterics. But it only sells drinks. The other is equally small but more knowing and serves good western food. Hopefully we'll pluck up the courage to eat local Chinese before too long.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday. 6pm. Rain.

= gridlock. Trying to get home from 798 Art District was a nightmare. 20 minutes waiting for a taxi proved futile so we managed to find a bus which was going, if not in the direction of home, then at least somewhere else which wasn't 798 and a perpetual standstill. Thank Tao for bus lanes. Eventually we terminated at a bus station where we were to go our separate ways. Flagging down taxis was impossible, but my colleague spotted a motorbike with a tin compartment on the back and bundled me in. And so began an epic journey. It was like riding the dodgems, weaving in and out of traffic, missing cars by a whisker, mounting pavements and then, amazingly, taking a short cut through someone's garden. An hour later we arrived home, me a bag of nerves, the driver victorious and all smiles.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pavement art?

A curious feature of Beijing tube station entrances are these grafittied numbers, usually in yellow. At first I thought they were surveyors' measurements. Then it became obvious they were mobile phone numbers. Ladies of the night? Nope, migrants looking for work.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A rather big birthday party

A strange, interesting day. In the morning a contingent of diplomats and creative types (mutually exclusive?!) are whisked around the Jilin Animation Institute to help celebrate its 10th anniversary. It's impressive, with 5,000 students enrolled in animation, game design and other multimedia courses, all the vision of one man, Chairman Zheng Liguo. After that we join more dignatories to sit on an immense outdoor stage with the 5,000 colour-coded students as audience. It is baking hot and we wilt as six speeches are given and five congratulatory letters are read out.

Then off to lunch - my first real test of Chinese dining etiquette. It's formal - a big round table, many courses - but our speeches and "gambei!"s are on the light side. I like the custom of going round individually to each person to exchange a few words. Very inclusive. In the evening we return to the arena for a spectacular show with orchestra, pop stars, children in costume, the works. Even Zheng's wife, Deputy Chair and a trained classical singer, gets to sing an aria. Two things come to mind: how much did it cost, and lucky it didn't rain.

The Last Emperor

During the afternoon, my colleague Jason and I managed to slip away to visit the 'Illegitimate Manchukuo Imperial Palace Museum' where China's last emperor, Puyi, lived from 1932-45 as the Japanese-appointed puppet Emperor of Manchuria. It features heavily in Bertolucci's film, particularly the hall where a dance party was set.

It was fascinating. The rooms were beautifully restored and there was an excellent exhibition about Puyi's life, with commendably realistic dioramas and a fair amount of English captioning. Next to the palace is a huge, new, no-expense-spared museum about the whole episode of Japanese occupation which despite the hurry, made for a sombre experience.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

CDs from Bangkok and Changchun

Our stuff has arrived. 200 boxes of it, cluttering up the apartment. It will take weeks to unpack it all. Strangely anticlimactic. Half of it looks tired and redundant and whyever did we bring it all the way here. Boxes of CDs line the sitting room wall waiting to be put onto shelves yet to be assembled. I suppose everything just needs to find its proper place.

Left Liz to supervise and headed off to the airport for an hour-and-a-half flight to Changchun in Manchuria, not too far from the border with North Korea. It's China's 'motor city' and 'film city', though I'm more aware of its historical interest (China's last Emperor lived here for 13 years) and actually my colleague Jason and I are here for a birthday celebration - see tomorrow. But we have a bit of free time in the evening so Jason - who's an obsessive music fan - takes me to a record shop. Yes, a record shop. Selling bonafide (and not so bonafide) CDs. We spend an hour browsing the racks and I eventually buy quite a few things, mainly Chinese electronic stuff. Let's see what it's like. The shop manager brings out a bowl of water for our hands which are blackened by years of accumulated dust.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Chaoyang Park

This afternoon we explore our local Chaoyang Park, with new friends Stephanie and her two young children. It’s huge with several gates. We take the wrong one which leads to a large whitewashed building surrounded by a 6 foot fence with the park on the other side. It’s boiling hot so rather than walk all the way back, we illegally climb the fence, tossing the children over to the other side before walking in the direction of a big funfair in the middle. The children go on the bouncy castle while I try out a Segway, one of those 2-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle thingies. It’s fun but I’ll stick to the bike for commuting. Great park, and we've only scratched the surface.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lakeside tango

Glorious weather, so out we go to explore Beijing’s nooks and crannies – today Bei Hai Park, near the Forbidden City. It’s centred around a lake and an island, both artificial but very scenic. On the island is the White Dagoba, a Tibetan style stupa which was built to honour the visit of the fifth Dalai Lama in 1651, and the famous Fangshan Restaurant which serves court cuisine. Elsewhere, elderly couples practise their ballroom dancing in the dappled shade of trees and nearby we try our luck at calligraphy on the pavements with large water brushes. Liz does a pretty good 明 (“bright”) and the girls do 三 (“three”). A bit of boating on the lake rounds off a very pleasant morning.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Here's my office, 3rd & 4th floors, right hand tower. It's part of the Landmark complex of hotel, serviced apartments (where we spent our first month), a conference centre and offices, and there's a Sheraton Hotel next door. On the ground floor is a Starbucks and a Chinese coffee shop. I'm breaking with tradition and grabbing my morning coffee at the latter which is a third of the price. It doesn't do lattés but it does enable me to practise my "with milk", "a little sugar", "what are these?" etc. And the office itself? Desks, chairs, computers, usual stuff.

The tower on the left is home to a lot of German companies, and their German Café seems to be the best deal for a quick lunch.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

New Town Rock

This morning I am driven to a NewTown called Fangshan, just south west of Beijing. It's tempting to say that it's a bit like Milton Keynes but that would be lazy. Amidst the rampant construction is a field where they're going to hold a rock festival. The promoter has invited Ian Brown, Zero 7 and Mr Hudson from the UK to headline and they've asked me to say a few words at the press conference. It's all very formal but interesting in a surreal way. When asked what bands I like I'm mischievously tempted to say Brian Eno, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, but of course I say David Bowie, U2 and Radiohead. Afterwards, we are given some boxes of local peaches and grapes to take back to the office. As we set off in the car, I realise just how good my colleague Shen's English is: "That was a fruitful trip", he smiles.

Monday, September 6, 2010

5 minute commute

First day at work, proper. And a great commute on my new bike, briefcase squashed into the front basket. Five minutes through the backstreets, into the office via a back entrance and parked it amongst hundreds of others in a big outdoor shed.

Work itself was fine. Induction efficient and everyone very friendly. Shown where printers, faxes, kitchen, colour-coded meeting rooms, fire exits and (empty) first aid boxes were; IT guys reconfigured my PC; HR meeting; whisked round to meet everyone; then down to business. Before I knew it, 11 hours had passed.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Carrefour chaos

From residential calm to consumer chaos to buy boring-but-essential household stuff. Carrefour, called Jia Le Fu here (literally 'Family Happy Fortune') are big in China: over 150 stores. Tesco, eat your heart out. Loaded up the trolley with mop, detergents, bog rolls, ironing board, clothes horse, while negotiating packed aisles and screaming salesmen. The highlight was buying a great bicycle for 30 quid which I promptly tested by cycling down the aisles, and then home, leaving Liz and the girls to the whims of a taxi.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Moving in

The good news is that today we moved into our new home. The bad news is that, although our container full of stuff from Bangkok has arrived in China, we can’t – for visa-related reasons – get at it for another week or two. Anyway, it’s good to be in. The flat is modern, spacious with clean white walls. Bit empty at the mo, but for sure we’ll fill it up. We were wondering about these weird floor-level sockets in each room. Flip the cover and it simply reveals a hole. Turns out to be a centralised vacuum cleaner system! And the view is as nice as we remembered it: Beijing over a golf course.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Steel story

We're 'moving house' tomorrow. But how about this...

The appetite for steel in China is immense. Importing it is super-costly and building steel plants from scratch can take years. So one answer is to buy a loss-making one from abroad, dismantle it, ship it over right down to the last screw, and reconstruct it locally - not forgetting to bring an assembly manual. That’s exactly what happened to the ThyssenKrupp steel mill near Dortmund, which used to employ 10,000 people but by the end of the 90s was haemorrhaging euros. It was bought by a Chinese company called Shagang, dismantled in less than a year (two years quicker than the German experts had estimated) and was up and running in its new home, Jinfeng, in another year or so. Read more here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Class over

Tomorrow is my last day at language school. It's been an interesting, intensive 4 weeks. The 6 hours a day was exhausting (especially with homework afterwards) so halfway through I reduced it to 4 hours and that actually proved more effective. It's gone OK. Ups and downs. I've enjoyed this week, talking about people and places, and it sort-of clicked, although my tones are all over the place and I can't remember words. Anyway, with a bit of mental prep, I can now string a few mundane sentences together with the most basic of grammar.

Here's my Top 10 Homework Music, by necessity ambient, lyricless and what I happen to have on my iPod:

- Higher Intelligence Agency with Biosphere Birmingham Frequencies
- Vangelis Best of 1970-2002 (own compilation)
- Eno Music for Airports
- Aphex Twin Selected Ambient Works Vol 2
- Heavenly Music Corporation Consciousness III
- Kiln Holo
- Stefan Micus Listen to the Rain
- Paul Schutze Regard: Music by Film
- Simon Fisher Turner Best of (own compilation)
- Steve Hillage Rainbow Dome Musik