Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lost & Found

Meeting at Anhui Grand Theatre, then off to catch a flight home. I'm so used to China's big & bright new airports that Hefei's rather tatty, tiny one is a surprise. Still, I'm sure they'll have one the size of Gatwick by the time I return. 
Flight was delayed so had time to read Jan Wong's A Comrade Lost & Found. Wong is a Chinese Canadian journalist who, as a self confessed 'starry-eyed Maoist', was one of only two foreigners studying at Beijing University in the early 1970s. During that time she was asked by another student for advice on getting to the US, whereupon Wong - with a zealousness that a Red Guard would have been proud of - promptly shopped her to the authorities and the girl 'disappeared'. The book is an account of how, 33 years later, Wong tried to track her down. It's interesting, but I found the author somewhat self-obsessed and her style irritating.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Checked out of the hotel, meeting at the local Cultural Bureau, then half an hour's tourism on a section of the city walls. They are huge, 12 metres high, snaking (slightly incomplete) around the city.
Then off by train to Hefei, capital of Anhui province. It’s a classic 3.5m pop Tier 2 city. Booming, construction everywhere, including a massive cultural zone in the south-west... but the smog gives it a bleached-out panorama which makes it difficult to pick out whatever merits it might have. Still, we had a good meeting at the vast and impressive Anhui Museum and an absorbing one-hour guided tour of its collections, and in the evening a dinner with some of Hefei’s arts community which turned out to be a jolly affair. There was an artist, a photographer, a government official, a radio presenter, a publisher, a poet, a performing arts promoter, an academic, and a very quiet guy who turned out to be the official's driver. Not much international culture comes to Hefei, nor the other way round, so people are keen to see what can be done.
PS. I am getting tired of Chinese dishes on a big round table and pine for some baked beans on toast.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Nanjing and Mr Bean

Off to Nanjing on a fast train, flashing through the flat semi-industrial landscape of northern Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu provinces. A massive new, slightly-out-of-town railway station greeted us, the size and feel of Heathrow T5. We grabbed a sandwich at Costa Coffee which had a big sign boasting “Slow roasted in Lambeth”. Another cafĂ© said “Coffee Tea Brief Meal”.
Sadly the sunshine of Hangzhou had been replaced by the usual smog and as we checked into a shabby Sheraton with strange lifts, Nanjing was not looking its best.
It’s an important city, the capital of China at different times, most recently between 1912-37. But sadly it's best known for the tragedy at the hands (and swords, bayonets & machine-guns) of the Japanese army in the winter of 1937/8 when upwards of a quarter of a million Chinese were systematically slaughtered. Seventy-five years on and emotions still run high. Suffice it to say, Japanese businessmen keep a low profile - although somewhat amazingly there's a large Mazda car plant here.
In the afternoon we had meetings at Nanjing Museum (China's second largest, currently nearing the end of a massive renovation project), South East University (about an architecture exhibition), and Nanjing Arts University (which has a brand new and seriously impressive museum attached).
Evening spent in the company of a company called 1912 which runs upmarket retail, restaurant & heritage districts in several cities in China. This one’s round the back of Sun Yat Sen’s former residence and is a strange mix of that Republican style I mentioned yesterday together with a smattering of neon. A distracting evening to be honest: after dinner in a private room with a large TV showing a football match, we moved on to a wine bar thar was screening a Mr Bean film. British culture eh?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Retro Deco

Meetings at Hangzhou Cultural Bureau and Zhejiang Art Museum, and then, because of a cancellation, a stroll in glorious sunshine through Huanglong Dong Park, which is actually a hill overlooking West Lake. Although stroll’ was hardly the word – more a stiff hike to the top where an unusual 1930s-rebuilt pagoda looks out over the city. Nice to experience a park so unspoiled & undeveloped, with thick bamboo forests and few ‘amenities’. And all this in a city of 5m.

"Lovely" and "Chinese cities" aren't words I use too frequently in the same sentence, but it certainly applies to Hangzhou. With its enclosing hills and cultural vibe, it reminds me of Kyoto.
In the afternoon we drove via a long tunnel to the western suburbs to Inna Contemporary Art Space, a small artist-in-residency project with gallery. The current resident, a painter called Chen Dongfan, was producing some large graffiti-like works to the accompaniment of what turned out to be a recent Sakamoto album.
Another dinner for contacts in an art-deco styled restaurant. There seems to be a nostalgia for the days of the Republic – if not for its politics then at least its architecture, design and fashion.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Heap in Hangzhou

Off to Hangzhou - the start of a quick visit to three Tier 2 cities in East China. I'd been to Hangzhou before but it was fleeting, and this time have thankfully managed to schedule in a couple of hours free-time to walk around the lake. From freezing, grey Beijing to warmish, verdant Hangzhou is a real tonic.
In the evening had dinner with Imogen Heap and the Dushi Kuaibao crowd. The former did a very successful music residency here for us a year or so ago. We failed to meet then but by chance she's back now. Nice, unassuming, energetic character. As part of her residency she composed a song, Xixi She Knows which sampled the sounds of Hangzhou, and made a video in 24 hours, both of which have become hits here. 
Afterwards we strolled amongst hoards of people and bright, paper lanterns. It's Lantern Day - the last day of Chinese New Year.

Friday, February 22, 2013


A treat. A Friday night out with Liz, starting with a curry in Sanlitun, and followed by a gig. At our age!  The band in question were Beijingers, Nova Heart, whom I'd seen before but Liz hadn't. They're good - sort of Blondie meets Depeche Mode - and their fan base seems to be growing. We were probably twice the age of most people, propped up against the bar during the support act, trying to hear each other through the noise, and then standing in the moshpit for the main act. We left a bit early, clothes stinking of cigarette smoke, in order to relieve the babysitter. Ah, the joys of being parents and middle-aged.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mei Lanfang

Went to the Ministry of Culture's Chinese New Year party this evening. This year they held it at the Mei Lanfang Theatre in the west of Beijing. So alongside the New Year address by the Minister, Cai Wu, we were treated to a lecture on Peking Opera and a short performance. The former was a tad dry but the latter was well chosen: lively, fabulous costumes, lots of acrobatics... 
Mei Lanfang was probably the most famous star of Peking Opera, always playing female roles in a 50 year stage career which started aged 10. His hey days were the 20s and 30s when he frequently performed overseas, and palled it up with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
Anyway, nice evening and great buffet - though the plates were so heavy everyone had sore wrists by the end of it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Deux Filles

More obscure music. For many years I've followed the career of Simon Fisher Turner. The introduction was through his soundtracks for Derek Jarman films in the late 80s & early 90s, and I've since kept up with his myriad releases on Cherry Red, Mute, Creation etc, as well as delving backwards a bit, including a strange, self-titled pop album from 1973 (when he was 19), produced by Jonathan King. He was - indeed still is - a sometime actor, appearing in a few B-movies and TV series. I even had the pleasure of working with him on a film-making project in Tokyo. His most recent music was the soundtrack for a 100-year-old film about the Antarctic (see post).
But somehow I missed a couple of albums he did in the early 80s, recorded with Colin Tucker, just after both of them had left an early incarnation of The The. Recording under the name Deux Filles, they masqueraded as a mysterious French female duo, even dressing up in drag for the covers. Silence and Wisdom (1982) and Double Happiness (1983) came out on their own Papier Mache label and disappeared into obscurity. Both comprise short, vaguely ambient instrumentals of guitar, piano, basic electronics, some sampled spoken word and 'atmospheres', with Double Happiness being perhaps the stronger of the two. It's just the sort of music I liked then and still do. Don't know how I missed it. A great re-discovery.

(NB: this is not to be confused with another obscure album by Two Daughters from around the same time, released via United Dairies. And that's enough nerdiness for today)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Unsung Heroes & Heroines

Been delving into a BBC Radiophonic Workshop 2CD. At over 100+ tracks lasting an average of 1 minute each, it's a fragmentary but historically intriguing experience. The RW was set up in 1958 in the Beeb's Maida Vale Studios with a remit to produce music and sound effects for TV and radio. Back in those days it was mainly musique concrete: natural sounds recorded on tape, reversed, speeded up, slowed down, looped etc with a few oscillators and filters thrown in. 
The creators were pretty much invisible, portrayed (if at all) as white-coated 'engineers' rather than musicians or composers (an image that Kraftwerk proactively sought). The anti stars of that first decade included Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Maddalena Fagandini, Desmond Briscoe, Brian Hodgson, John Baker and the only one still alive, Dick Mills. The fact that there were three women in their ranks is slightly staggering given the era. 
Delia Derbyshire
The most famous piece of music was of course the Dr Who theme tune, written by Ron Grainer but utterly transformed by Delia Derbyshire in 1963, still amazing 50 years on. But there were plenty of other weird & wonderful (as well as trite and tacky) theme tunes as the RW struggled to keep up with demand through the 70s and 80s. By the 90s, though, there was competition. Synthesisers, home studios and music software were becoming commonplace and the RW closed down in 1998 (although a virtual version was established last year, headed up by Matthew Herbert). 
Listened to out of context, much of the music now sounds rather dry, if not cheesy. Technically adventurous but artistically mundane. But one could say they paved the way for a lot of electronica and ambient music, an assumption supported by the fact that this CD is released on a subsidiary of Mute Records (home of Depeche Mode, Erasure and Goldfrapp). 

Monday, February 18, 2013


Watched an intriguing film tonight: Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, directed by Lu Chuan in 2004. It's based on a true story (and in turn a documentary by Peng Hui) of Tibetan vigilantes who patrol the wilderness of Kekexili, trying to stop poachers from killing & skinning Tibetan Antelopes - reduced in quantity from over 1m to 20,000. 
The plot and acting is interesting enough, but the really amazing thing for me was the landscape. Kekexili is an extremely remote area the size of Scotland which straddles the borders of Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang in western China. Its bleak mountains and arid emptiness dwarf everything - the plot, the people, the antelopes, even the production (most of the crew became sick, one even died). 
Some good came of it, however. The Chinese government took note and turned it into a nature reserve, and the antelopes are on the up again.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Shanghai in Beijing

Last day of the Chinese New Year holidays. Mr & Mrs Jia, our landlords, took us out for lunch. "What food would you like - Mongolian or Shanghai?"  We ate Mongolian last time, so replied the latter. "Fine, I'll take you to Lubolang at the Landmark Hotel". Which is next door to my office is and where I have lunched many a time. Oh well, it's the thought that counts. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A New Bookshop

A new bookshop has just opened in our local shopping centre. Is that a big deal?  It is really. As books go the way of CDs and DVDs, downloadable from your armchair, it's refreshing to see an actual shop, and a big one at that, open in this day and age. The shop in question is Page One, which started 30 years ago in Singapore and has branches in Hong Kong, Taipei, Hangzhou, and now three in Beijing. It's beautifully designed and most of the books are in English, but to be honest, it's a bit disappointing. Partly it's the stock: masses of coffee table books on architecture, fashion and interior design, and acres of books on food & drink. And then there's the 'giftware': funky stationery, executive toys, brand bags, designer teapots, Audrey Hepburn plates... It was almost as if they didn't have enough books and had to fill the spaces with something.  
I much prefer the more independent Bookworm which is 200 yards down the road. It's part retail/part library, part cafe, and part great events space. It even has a piano which anyone can play anytime. But above all, it has that lived-in, slightly musty, bookish atmosphere which makes you feel instantly at home.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Rock Hits Russia

Amazing video footage of a meteor racing through the Russian sky and landing near Chelyabinsk near the Kazakhstan border. Apparently it was the largest object known to have entered Earth's atmosphere in over 100 years. There was a tremendous sonic boom (it was doing 40,000 mph) which shattered windows and even caused walls to collapse. Many injured but thankfully no-one killed. By the time it actually hit the ground there was very little left of it. What a journey it must have had...
Coincidentally, I'm reading a book, White Fever by Jacek Hugo-Bader, in which the author drives from Moscow to Vladivostock. He's just gone past Chelyabinsk and has stopped a few hundred miles further east in a place called Abakan. This is where a chap called Sergey Torop, re-named Vissarion, has set up a religious community of 2,000 followers. Vissarion says he is a reincarnation of Jesus Christ and proclaims stuff about the end of the world. Perhaps the meteor was heading his way, but missed? 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Temple of Fiddly Bits

A nice, domestic, sporty - if not overtly romantic - Valentine's Day. But building a scale wooden model of Beijing's Temple of Heaven from flatpack with no instructions certainly was a labour of love.
We're also going through a phase of playing Chinese Chequers - which isn't Chinese at all - it originated in Germany in 1892 (and was called Stern Halma). Whatever, the girls have grasped the fundamentals very quickly indeed and are now pretty good at it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


This is my 1,000th post in what has turned out to be part diary, part travelogue, part cultural musing, part life curation... as well as part mild obsession and part waste of time? 
I kept a diary in 1974 (you know, "watched Blue Peter, played football, had beans on toast") and again in 1979 and '80 (the end of school and beginning of univ), but stopped after that. 
Thirty years later it is still largely for my own pleasure, but the fact that it can be read by anyone means that Freud or Jung would have something to say about that...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

An Abdication

So the Pope is abdicating, the first to do so for 600 years. Makes sense to me. At age 85 (born a fortnight after my mum), one's critical faculties have got to be on the wane, so why not hand over to someone younger and live out one's remaining years without all that stress. Liz's sister met him last month, though we don't think she suggested it...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Winter Palace

Took the tube out to the Summer Palace which was very cold but rather magical. You could walk right across the lake to the island. It looked like a scene from the 17th Century when the Thames froze over. 
Peking Duck dinner at Hua Jia Yi Yuan, which started badly - our two taxis didn't know how to get there, there was no show (despite a personal text msg from the owner saying there would be) and Peter forgot his credit card. Would we have to do the washing up or could we leg it? Naomi came back from the loo: "Bad news. There's no window".
But the food was good and we had a laugh. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Impetuousness of Youth

Our annual ski trip to Nanshan, just north of Beijing. And like yesterday, we have the place if not to ourselves, then near enough. None of us are that good, but Naomi makes up for it with a fearlessness that is at times quite scary (Alyssa preferring a more cautious approach). Funny moment when four of us attempted to disembark the chair-lift leaving three adults sprawling and Naomi calmly gliding off as if she'd been doing it for years. Once we'd picked ourselves up, we joined her at the brink of the piste. "Wow, it looks scary. Here goes!" And she was gone - and I couldn't catch her.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Winter Wall

A gorgeously clear saturday and Chinese New Year's Eve to boot. Bad time to take Peter & Eileen to the Great Wall? Apparently not - we had the place to ourselves. True it was freezing, but it was still a (pleasant) surprise. I don't know how many times we've been here, but it still amazes. What's more, without all the tourists, we had a clear, fast ride down the toboggan slide. 
Deafening fireworks displays all over the city tonight, with one of the best right outside our compound.

Friday, February 8, 2013

+30 to -10

Peter and Eileen have arrived from Singapore. From tropical to sub-zero in six hours. Good to see them. Their arrival coincides with my being engrossed in Singapore: a Biography by Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow which documents the city from pre-Raffles to independence and beyond. One can criticise its controlled, conservative conformity and corresponding dull lifestyles, but there's no denying it's a successful, safe, still-thriving city, and with an incredibly absorbing history.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Celine Dion versus Year 4

Time for the annual school Chinese New Year show which this year featured songs, martial arts and the story of the zodiac. Alyssa's form sang Happy Homeland, a song about the mass trek home to see family, while Naomi's sang Jasmine Flower, a Chinese classic. 
Celine Dion and Song Zuying would perform the latter on China TV's mega New Year Gala Show at the weekend. I preferred the more homely, lo-tech version - the audience a sea of raised iPhones and iPads ('real' cameras very much in the minority these days...)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Ronald Reagan Roundabout

Today is Ronald Reagan Day. It was declared so by the State of California three years ago to celebrate the centenary of his birth, and seems to have caught on. While not a public holiday in CA, it is in Wisconsin, and there's even an organization that seeks to name at least one public landmark in each US state and all 3,067 counties. So let's hear it for Mount Reagan in New Hampshire; Ronald Reagan Avenue in Hickory Creek, Texas; and a 10ft statue in Covington, Louisiana - "the biggest in the world". And not just in America: there's Ronald Reagan Roundabout in Wroclaw (try saying that if you're Japanese), a street in Prague and a nuclear-powered aircaft carrier which roams the world. There's life in the Old Gipper yet. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


We gave Alyssa a flute for Christmas and she's making progress. I can barely get a note out of it. Funny instrument - sounds better in classical or folk than pop or rock. I seem to remember Eno once saying that it was the only instrument he didn't like. Strangely (coincidentally?), it's featured quite heavily on the Elliott sound system in recent weeks, mostly 70s proggy stuff. 
There's been Focus (see post a couple of days ago), a bit of Traffic, early Kraftwerk (Alyssa likes 'Ruckzack') and even a bit of Beatles' 'You've Got to Hide Your Love Away'... I could also have played, amidst much protestation, some Moody Blues, early King Crimson (they had two flautists), Camel, Genesis, Gong, Van Der Graaf Generator... and I haven't even mentioned Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, the image of whom, wearing jodhpurs & codpiece and standing on one leg, quite puts me off my dinner. 
It's rare to hear the flute in pop or rock these days. Saint Etienne like to dabble, in a kind of ironic, retro kind of way, often in cahoots with the equally proggy mellotron. But ultimately it's a bit too whispy, frail, fey? And if songwriters really have a yearning, then they can just hit the preset button on a keyboard or sample it from any of the above.  

Monday, February 4, 2013

Anshan v Sheffield

Watched a strange Chinese film last night called A Piano in a Factory. It's a comedy from a couple of years ago, set in the steel-making city of Anshan in the north-east. Anshan is twinned with Sheffield and there are parallels with the The Full Monty. Similar bunch of working men blokes struggling to earn a living as the city's once proud steel industry goes into decline in the early 1990s. Even the posters look similar. 
Of course, Anshan's steel behemoth was then largely state-controlled, and since then it's transformed itself into Anshan Iron & Steel Group, one of the largest steel manufacturers in the world, so there the comparison ends.
Anyway, the story revolves around a couple who are getting divorced. The man must provide a piano for his young musically talented daughter or lose custody. He can't afford one, tries to steal another and eventually ends up making one out of steel with his mates. The film uses Anshan's bleak industrial landscape to almost painterly effect; if David Lynch's Eraserhead ever got re-made, it would be shot here. There's lots of stylish tracking shots and a bizarre flamenco scene but ultimately it doesn't really hang together or make you warm to the characters.  
I met the director, Zhang Meng, briefly. We paired him up with British film maker Nick Whitfield a year and a bit ago.   

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Hocus Pocus & Sylvia

Forty years ago this week, aged 11, I bought my first record, a single, 'Hocus Pocus', by Dutch group Focus. It was basically a heavy, repetitive guitar riff with a good deal of yodelling. I must have seen it on Top Of The Pops, amongst the glam of 'Cum On Feel the Noize' and 'Blockbuster', possibly as background to the pleasures of Pan's People*. It went to number 20. 
Suitably impressed, I swiftly bought the 'follow-up', the yearning, elysian 'Sylvia', another instrumental, which unbelievably went to number 4. I bought my first album, Focus 3 (a double), and a couple of earlier albums they'd made, all bought over time with hard-earned pocket money. So there was more to music than The Beatles, Bowie, glam rock and the prog of my big brother's record collection - fine though all that was. Basically Focus introduced me to what was happening in Europe. It was hardly Krautrock or electronic, but it kind of pointed me in that direction.
1973 proved to be Focus's highpoint, though there's a version of them still knocking about fronted by stalwarts Thijs van Leer and Pierre van der Linden. They even have a new album out. Never ones for imaginative titles, it's called Focus X. I won't be getting it.

* TOTP archives confirm a grainy B&W video (more likely a 16mm film) of 'Sylvia' performed at the Hardrock in Bournemouth on 2 Feb, and Pan's People dancing to 'Hocus Pocus' on 16 Feb.

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Nice evening at home, entertaining cousin David and Oddveig over dinner. Still find it funny that they've joined us as Beijing residents... Who'd have thought?  
I have 14 cousins, ten on my dad's side, four on my mum's. We used to have quite big Elliott get-togethers every other year or so, but in the last decade, given our locale, we've not been to many. Any? So catching up is usually limited to a declining amount of weddings and (sadly) an increasing number of funerals. But it looks like we'll be able to attend the next one this summer. For some of my relatives, it will be the first time they've met our girls. Amazing. Has it been that long?

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Clowder of Cats

Woke up this morning to find the appalling polluted haze gone and blue sky in its wake. We could actually see Beijing's skyline for the first time in a fortnight. Instantly put us in good moods. 
Also good was receiving delivery of the UK Now book which we'd fairly hurriedly produced in the last weeks of the festival and over Christmas. Edited in Beijing, designed in London, printed in Guangdong. I'm pretty pleased with it. Nicely timed to send to all our arts contacts as Chinese New Year gifts, as well as a few hundred to contacts in the UK. 
Finished off the week with a family outing to the Chinese version of Cats of all things. I'd been given tickets by the producers, who are also planning to present Phantom and Les Mis. Not a big fan of musicals (see this, this and this), but I've never seen it and what the hell. 
Who would have thought a bunch of poems, TS Elliot's of all people, could be turned into one of the most successful musicals of all time? The story doesn't exactly lend itself. A patriarchal feline called Old Deuteronomy has to choose one representative from a clowder of cats (yes, that's the correct collective noun, I just looked it up) to make the journey up to something called the Heavy Side Lair. So the show is a series of numbers with each cat making its case for ascension. In the end, a faded glamour puss called Grizabella gets picked, sings 'Memories' a few times, and off she goes. I think this was an allegory for entering heaven, but to be honest I'd no idea what was going on for most of the time. People dressed as cats singing Andrew Lloyd Webber songs in mandarin amongst a scrapyard stage set which Einsturzende Neubaten would have felt at home in, did my head in. Still, we had a laugh dissecting it on the way home.