Friday, November 30, 2012

Xiamen Subtlemob

Rain, rain, rain. Spent much of the day praying it would stop before tonight's event - of which more anon - but it was incessant. Nevertheless, an interesting morning on the small island of Gulangyu, a 5-minute ferry ride across from my hotel. Xiamen, and Gulangyu in particular, have a strong colonial past. The Portuguese arrived here in the 16th century (when it was known as Amor), followed by the British in the 17th Century, and later by the French and the Dutch. The island is distinguished by the fact that there are no cars but lots of pianos. We visited a museum which has 100 of them and it is said that the streets are alive with piano music, though we didn't hear any, possibly because of the rain. Anyway, a pleasant, verdant, relaxing place.
Back on the bigger island, we went from meeting to meeting until finally we made our way to Zengcuo'an, the location for Duncan Speakman's Subtlemob event. I've taken part in two of these before (see posts in Tokyo 2010 and Edinburgh 2011) but this was the first time it's come to mainland China. Essentially it's a sort of secret - but ironically very public - outdoor piece of theatre. You register on-line, select a character, download a 35-minute MP3 file (with Chinese or English voiceover), are told to go to a street somewhere in the city and, at 7.00pm, you and your partner press play. Hundreds of other couples do too. You can spot them of course. It's funny being part of a throng of people, some of whom are in-the-know, others who have no idea what's going on. You carry out certain actions, separate, re-unite and, to cut a long story short, it ends with a slow dance. So I ended up waltzing down the street with my colleague Angus, which was all over Weibo (Twitter) within minutes. It was a kind of risky project to do on the mainland, and we held our collective breaths when a police-car drove by, but it didn't stop.
We celebrated in a great little bar run by 'Dave', a Chinese guy, who also DJs. As does Duncan. So together they did a great double act of an electronic set while we downed several Tsingtaos. Oh, and I forgot to say, it stopped raining just before the Subtlemob started. The gods must have been smiling. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dire Straits

Off to Xiamen on the south east coast. It's an island in a delta, connected to the mainland by a few very long bridges and an even longer tunnel. It reminds me a bit of Hong Kong - hilly, built up, but not that built up. And Taiwan is just 180km away... Or rather, it is just 10km away. I didn't know this before, but there are two Taiwanese-governed islands, Jinmen and Xiaojinmen, which are within full view of the mainland. So close, yet so far.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


I have this (fairly) funny butter issue with the young lady who runs the German Cafe in my office block. I have lunch there two or three times a week. It's not very adventurous of me, but it's convenient and I like a hearty bowl of soup - and you also get a really good mixed grain or muesli roll thrown in... although they're a bit dry, hence the need for butter. So sometimes she has butter, for which I'm charged an extra 1 yuan (10p), sometimes she doesn't. Of late it's been a Lurpak, Anchor & Kerrygold free zone. So today I brought my own butter in - filched yesterday from another cafe (where obviously butter wasn't a problem). The look she gave me: it encompassed so many signals within the space of a second: Why do westerners eat so much butter? How could you possibly bring in your own? Why do you force me to lose face? Whereupon, she produced a slab of the stuff and, with an exaggerated flourish of the knife, deposited two portions on my plate. I handed over my 30 yuan for the soup... A pause... Ah yes, and that all-important extra 1 yuan. The soup - courgette & noodles - was delicious. The butter? Worth all the cross-cultural angst.

Monday, November 26, 2012


My ex-colleague Manami Yuasa is in town and joined us for our regular Monday night Japanese dinner. Manami and I worked together in Tokyo from 1999-2005, and we still bump into each other every year or so. She is one of the hardest-working arts managers in the British Council; could organize Edinburgh Festival like that (clicks fingers). The last time she saw us all together was in Bangkok some four years ago, so she was taken aback by how the girls have grown. Nice to see her. We ate udon tempura.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Foreign Babes in Beijing

Foreign Babes in Beijing was a Chinese TV soap opera in the mid 90s, a sort of pre-Sex & the City, watched by an audience of some 600m. One of its stars was played by a young American PR consultant called Rachel DeWoskin who had never acted in her life and was paid $80 per episode.  She plays a seductress who lures away a married Chinese man, which was culturally quite controversial but people also liked the fact that she seemingly preferred Chinese men. She became one of China's most famous resident 'laowai' (foreigners) and later wrote a book about the experience. 
I just read it. It's interesting in that it's both an account of the cultural differences played out in the soap, as well as in real life. Real life reflecting art reflecting real life etc. DeWoskin has since returned to the States. There was talk of a  Hollywood movie version but the production appears to have been shelved.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Temple Food

Food food food. Pancakes for breakfast followed by a much-postponed and enjoyable lunch with our landlords in a nearby Mongolian restaurant - a first I think. Lots of mutton with cumin, cold glutinous rice with what looked like yellow lentils on top (but was apparently millet), beef pasties and potato noodles in broth. Wondered whether the girls would like it but they tucked in.
And then a work dinner at Temple Restaurant, out in hutong-land. It used to be a - you guessed it - temple, then a small factory producing China's first B&W TV sets, and now a very nice restaurant. My Education colleagues have been running a big, nationwide design competition and the dinner was the culmination. The guests included the comp's five judges, all of whom, coincidentally, I knew from some time ago. So very nice to catch up again with graphic designer Michael Johnson, Donna Loveday of the Design Museum, Tony Dunne of the Royal College of Art, Catherine McDermott, Head of Design at Kingston University, and the Science Museum's Creative Director, Tim Molloy with his stripey shirt and big plastic-but-probably-very-expensive specs. Also there was the young fashion designer Henry Holland with his gravity-defying quiff. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Big School

Next year, Alyssa will move up to secondary school. In advance of this momentous event, Liz and I visited the most likely one, which is out in suburbia, to talk to the teachers and check out the facilities. Alyssa was there too, with a bunch of her class who are also considering going there, but she stayed well clear of us. "Hey Alyssa, it's your parents!). It's a nice place. Big, new, well equipped, swimming pool, theatre. How different from Chi High 1972-79...

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hello! Turn on the TV, Turn off the Music!

Today is:
- World Television Day - a United Nations resolution in 1996 and as stupid a concept as I can think of, either for those with access to TV (no need) or those without (say no more). Britain sensibly abstained.
- World Hello Day - dreamt up by brothers Brian and Michael MacCormack, apparently in response to the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and running since then. The objective is to say hello to at least ten people on the day and encourage communication rather than force. Ask Israelis to try it in Gaza right now (or the other way round), and they might get to three?
- No Music Day - another of Bill Drummond's 'wacky' projects, protesting against the ubiquity & mundanity of music in contemporary society... To his credit (and probable surprise), it resulted in Resonance FM and BBC Radio Scotland not broadcasting any music on that day in 2006 and 2007 respectively. But even more impressive was the Austrian city of Linz's wholesale observation: shops, restaurants, schools and radio stations played no music, the cinemas showed only films without music soundtracks and theatres and concert halls held only non-musical performances. Quentin Crisp would have approved. Did I observe it?  Yes I did.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Confucius is back?

This evening Liz and I went to a lecture on Confucius (in, bizarrely, the Turkish Embassy, but that's another story). Actually, it was less about the bloke (although we learned that he was born in 551BC, on 28 September, a Tuesday apparently), and more about the resurgence of Confucian thought in modern China. 
He wasn't in official favour for much of the last century (too feudal), but in the search for meaning amidst rampant change, Confucian ethics are once again proving attractive to many. Even the Government has cautiously accepted him back: the Chinese equivalent of the British Council is called the Confucius Institute (though it's government run, not at arm's length).
Confucianism is difficult to describe. It's not a religion in the Christian, Juddaic or Islamic sense, which all worship a god, or even Buddhism (Buddha isn't a god, but people do 'worship' him). But it is a way to lead one's life. Many people say that China is not a religious country, but it depends what one means by religious. Aside from Confucianism and Buddhism, there's also Taoism, and around 50m each of Muslims and Christians, plus various other 'minority' beliefs. 
Anyway, you can't go wrong with a bit of respect for elders, the importance of study and being virtuous. "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself" was attributed to him. He wasn't particularly interested in the afterlife though he acknowledged a kind of omnipresent heaven. 
But what particularly interests me is his genealogy. Confucius's family, the Kongs, has the longest recorded pedigree in the world today. There are around 2m known and registered descendants. I know one of them. He's working with us on our British Film Week.

Monday, November 19, 2012


So Alyssa left her coat at Amy's last night which meant Amy's mum brought it into school to give to Naomi who left it on a table in the lobby where they have their art class. So Flute, the artist (I know, interesting name) finds it and phones to say I can pick it up at 9pm. So I race over, pick it up but lose my jumper. Where did I put it? Who are more forgetful: children or their ageing parents? I can remember the most detailed, useless facts from 40 years ago, like the names of Leeds United's 1972-73 squad, or Focus's bass players, or the names of all 50 US states... but can I remember where I put my jumper 5 minutes ago? 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Fate, 25 Years ago

25 years ago today, I saw Harold Budd, Michael Brook, Laaraji and Roger Eno perform at the Shaw Theatre in London. It was a fine concert, with visuals by Russell Mills and various alt-celebs inc Brian Eno, Andrew Logan etc in attendance. But the evening would be remembered for a tragic event not 400 yards away. At 7:30pm a fire broke out in King's Cross tube station. (I had come out of the station half an hour earlier). It killed 31 people. Fate.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


The Dunhuang theme continues. We laid on a lunch at the Ambassador's Residence (HMA in absentia) for around 20 people from London, Beijing, Urumqi and of course Dunhuang itself. It  went OK although we weren't sure whether the muslim contingent were halal or not, so played safe with veggie. I sat next to an archaeologist from Urumqi who looked longingly at my roast lamb, so perhaps we got that wrong. He spoke no English but we had Japanese between us which made for an interesting if stilted conversation. 
This turned out to be another theme as our Japanese friends Michiko, Kazuko, Takeru and children came round for afternoon tea. They'd been to Dunhuang. Most Japanese people over the age of 40 have seen the classic NHK TV documentary about the Silk Road. It took seven years to plan & film (mostly simply trying to get permission) before finally being transmitted in 1980 in 12 monthly instalments, followed by various sequels throughout the 80s. The soundtrack, by Kitaro, is almost as famous as the programme, and I have the original two LPs. There were ooohs and aaahs as I showed them the sleeves and of course, being original Japanese releases, they had tons of inserts which we poured over while eating Liz's delicious English sandwiches & scones. Never mind the British Council - this is cultural relations.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Raiders of the Lost Caves

Paul Pelliott, rumaging in 1908
This morning I attended the 10th anniversary celebrations of the International Dunhuang Project website. Sounds a bit dull, but there's a cracking story behind it. 
Back in 1900, a Daoist monk rediscovered a massive stash of manuscripts (mostly about Buddhism, but also history, mathematics, folk songs and dance) dating from the 5th - 11th centuries, in some caves that had been hitherto sealed up in Dunhuang in western China. In the following years, when Indiana-Jones-type characters roamed the world and China was in chaos, much was sold off to explorers like Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliott who took them back to the great libraries of the west, where they still reside. 
Although sensitive to some, the case has never reached Elgin Marbles proportions, and most Chinese and international scholars seem happy for the manuscripts simply to be accessible to as many people as possible - thus the website. To date, 378,465 manuscripts have been digitised, most of them by the IDP's UK office within the British Library.   

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Men in Black

Today,as I drove past Tiananmen Square in our office car, a once-in-a-decade event was happening within the Great Hall of the People: the changing of the old guard and the ushering in of the new. As expected Xi Jinping is the new General Secretary of the Communist Party, and will also become President next year, taking over from Hu Jintao. Under him are six new senior figures. Together they make up a slightly reduced (from nine) Politburo Standing Committee. The red flags fluttered, the red walls of the Forbidden City blushed in the morning sun, and we got caught on a red light. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Double dinner

This afternoon I attended the opening of Towards Modernity: Three Centuries of British Painting at the Beijing World Art Museum. It's an unusual exhibition in that all the works are from a loose consortium of small-to-medium sized museums in the north-west of England, spearheaded by Bury Art Museum. One might think that this would be rather limiting for a big survey show of British art in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. It's true, it doesn't include many of the major, iconic works which reside in the big national institutions, but it does include most of the major names: Reynolds, Constable, Turner, Whistler, Burne-Jones, Epstein, Piper, Hepworth, Moore, Freud etc. 
White Mountain (1888)
The big surprise was the number of artists I'd never heard of. Loads of them. And mostly surprisingly good. For example: a very abstract landscape painting by someone called William Stott-of-Oldham. (He wasn't a Lord or anything; he just called himself that to differentiate himself from another Lancastrian painter, Edward Stott). It's called White Mountain, from 1888, but looks like it could have been painted now. Anyway, if you'll pardon the pun, it all hangs together very well. But the really great thing is that it's going on to five other cities.
This was followed by two dinners: an early one at the museum (which I tried to pick at rather than devour), and a later one across town with Liz, my cousin David & his wife Oddveig. They both work for Shell, met in Norway, have been based there for the last ten years, but have just moved to Beijing. So we're 'family'... but, apart from a few family reunions, weddings and funerals, we barely know each other. Nice to be reacquainted actually. 
I returned home stuffed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


My little brother is 50 today. Happy birthday Patrick. Where does the time go...?

Monday, November 12, 2012


From musical nostalgia to industrial-strength hand-cleaner nostalgia. I'd got my hands covered in oil at lunchtime through trying to fix Leigh's bicycle. Would it ever come off with soap & water? Memories of  Swarfega came flooding back - a green, jelly-like substance with a smell that would make your hair stand on end. It was invented in 1947 by someone called Audley Bowdler Williamson from Derbyshire, and is still made today. It came in a tin with a big lid so you could get your hands in. The last time used it was probably in 1974. God, the stuff I write about...

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Words and Music

With the year drawing to a close but not quite over, one could be premature in stating a pop album of the year, but it's a safe bet that mine is Saint Etienne's Words and Music (or to give it its full title, Words and Music by Saint Etienne). Over the summer and autumn it's been played incessantly in this household, not least by Naomi (8), which may say something about its accessibility. For most, it's probably the perfect Saturday late afternoon music, alongside the chart rundown (does this still happen?) and in preparation for a night out. But for us - who are a bit past it, or too young - it's Sunday morning music.
Cracknell, Stanley & Wiggs are also a bit past it, but their love and knowledge of pop, in all its myriad forms, lends a passionate, irresistible nostalgia to this their eighth album. 'Over the Border' discusses travelling to Peter Gabriel's house, ("Peter Gabriel of Genesis", Cracknell helpfully reminds us, for this is the early 70s). There are references to "green and yellow Harvests, pink Pyes, silver Bells" (record labels & Mike Oldfield's debut), "the strange and important sound of the synthesiser," and whether Marc Bolan would still be relevant to a grown woman married with kids. 'Popular' is about an internet message-board populated by people who want to discuss Pussycat's 1976 no.1 hit 'Mississippi' in depth. If you were brought up on prog & glam, or were obsessed with music whatever the decade, then these and many other more recent references will immediately resonate. But young people will 'get it' too. The melodies and production are very strong and the whole album is wonderfully uplifting. 
Paul Morley, the music journalist, who knows a thing or two about pop, also wrote a book called Words and Music, but though it shares this album's passion, it's a bit too clever for its own good. Saint Etienne's eulogy is from the heart rather than the head.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Missed Woon (again)

Not bad. Three hours sleep on a five hour flight. Home, shower, then straight to a small hutong hotel near the Drum Tower. Last night Jamie Woon, the last of our Brit band tours, performed at the Mao Club just around the corner - which of course I missed. Thought I might catch him at breakfast, but he and the crew had already departed for Harbin. We brought him over last year too, for a music residency, and I failed to meet him then as well. Anyway, we're making a documentary film of all four bands' tours, so the cameraman stayed behind and interviewed me on the roof of the hotel. Cold, grey and damp. Bags under the eyes. Desperate for a coffee. Not ideal conditions.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Suvannabuhmi Mall

Finances, HR and wrap-up in the morning, then scores of emails... and all this with lovely Chiang Mai outside. The only glimpse we had was last night - and that was a trip to our office! Late afternoon flight to Bangkok then six hour transit in the airport which went surprisingly quickly (more emails) before the overnight flight home. Suvannabuhmi is one big - or in this case long - shopping mall. It's like Chelsea's Kings Road: literally a mile of fashion, cafes, perfumeries and designer this-that-and-the-other. And a bookshop. Which was full of Lonely Planets, coffee table crafts, business bibles, biographies of Aung San Suu Kyi and - non existent in China - English language magazines. I devoured Mojo and Q.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Early Loy Kratang

Conference time. Always good to see people, one or two I've known for 20 years, most for 5-10 years, and others who are new to me and the region. So we talked about various programmes and I gave a presentation on UK Now and how it's gone, what's next etc, before we all boarded a bus for a modest buffet dinner in the grounds of the small but lovely British Council Chiang Mai office. Only there wasn't much to eat. Still, plenty to drink, and we ended the evening lighting paper lanterns, three weeks before Loy Kratang festival, which drifted up into the sky as high as the eye could see. Beautiful.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Chiang Mai

Up at the unseemly hour of 4am to catch a plane to Bangkok and then onward to Chiang Mai for the once-a-year East Asia Regional Leadership Team Meeting. I can think of worse places to have it... Muggy & overcast, but it's nice to be back here; first time in three or four years I think. Whenever I go to Thailand, it feels a bit like coming home.
So, Obama's got a second term. Meanwhile, Hu Jintao has opened the Communist Party Congress in Beijing which will usher in a new leadership team, including a new President and Premier. Interesting times.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Being Boring

Met the photographer Martin Parr tonight. He has a small exhibition on at Pekin Fine Arts and this evening gave a talk at Bookworm, neither of which we were involved with, but we’re talking about a bigger one in a year or so.
I love his work. I remember Boring Postcards when it came out in 2000. The publisher was reluctant to take it on and only printed 2,000. It’s now on its 20th or something reprint. He turns the mundane into something interesting, revels in kitsch and saturated colour, and both celebrates & pokes fun at middle class suburbia (a club in which he himself is a fully paid-up member).
He has published over 60 books, most of which he has co-designed. He is an obsessive collector, including 12,000 photography books which have spilled out of his Bristol house and into a warehouse. He also has, he thinks (and who are we to argue?), the world's largest collection of Saddam Hussein watches – that’s with the dead dictator's image on them, not those which once adorned his wrist. He’s now gone on to Gaddafi.
And he showed us an incredibly high-end production, limited edition book… of parking spaces around the world. So obsessed is he with documenting the trivia of everyday life, that one forgets he’s also a member of Magnum and actually gets commissioned to do more glamorous assignments – like fashion. If I was commissioning a fashion shoot, he’d be the last person I’d hire.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Early Christmas

Guy Fawkes Day is cancelled. At least in Beijing. No fireworks allowed except during Chinese New Year. Not that anyone beyond the 3,473 Brits living in Beijing would know what it is. Nevermind, Starbucks have just put up the Christmas decorations.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Early Snow

It snowed last night. At 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning, the girls insisted that I come down with them before it turned to slush. It was not one of those nice, winter-wonderland-set-off-by-blue-sky type experiences. It was grey and windy. A tree had keeled over. It was also raining. Yuk.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Vronsky Beat

In the taxi, on the way to see The Monster in the Hall, a co-production by National Theatre of Scotland & Citizens Theatre, we got a call saying that the lead actress had been struck down by food poisoning and it was cancelled. Shame - we'd been looking forward to it. 
So we went to the cinema instead - to see Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright's new version of Anna Karenina. Interesting take on the Tolstoy classic: very theatrical - in fact set mostly in a theatre, even the scenes that were supposed to be outside. Very stylised and choreographed - a sort of musical without the songs, with wonderful sets, tons of jewellery and acres of fur. Keira Knightley very good as Anna, Jude Law ditto as her stiff husband, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson doesn't quite cut it as Vronsky. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

MFH review

Nice review of the MFH compilation in Volcanic Tongues mail order site:

Excellent compilation of a bunch of underground cassettes released during the post-Industrial cassette ‘boom’ in the early 80s by the duo of Andrew Cox and David Elliott: MFH turned up on Dave Henderson’s infamous The Elephant Table compilation while Elliott is possibly best known for his fanzine Neumusik and his championing of new music in Sounds. 
They were also the brains behind one of the most enigmatic of cassette labels, York House Recordings, YHR, which released tapes by Cluster, Conrad Schnitzler, MB, Asmus Tietchens and more. YHR also released the bulk of the MFH recordings and the best are compiled here from the time period of 1980-1985. 
The sounds are glorious, there are lonely synth and shortwave works that capture perfectly the circumstances of their creation – in bedrooms and campus laboratories in the middle of the night – odd minimal drone works, repeat keyboard fantasias that are as spooky and otherworldly as anything on John Fothergill’s wing of United Dairies (think Two Daughters et al), hazy shortwave constructs that relocate Europe Endless to the view from a Cornish cottage, TG-influenced distant tape work and cracked beats... something about the atmosphere of these recordings sits just right, with a teenage apocalyptic vibe that is pure science class. 
This is a major unearthing of Hidden Reverse proportions and a must for fans of the way that austere Krautrock and avant garde music was mis-translated by obsessive bedroom geeks in the early 80s. Can’t stop spinning this one – highly recommended.

Was that us?!