Passport RPG

Jul 22, 2012

Replace Your Passport: Rock out!

The premier rock club in Chengdu

☆ Side Quest: (New) Little Bar

Objective: Go see a rock show

We found the rock and the roll

Here in China, pop is king. Our students are constantly asking about Justin Bieber, Whitney Houston, Adele, et al. The hardest western band they’re into is Linkin Park. And the popular home grown acts are similar: all moon-eyed crooning with nary a crunchy guitar in earshot. For the last week of school, we played some rock videos for the kids and they were perplexed at best. (They were completely horrified by Sonic Youth.)

But that doesn’t mean there is no rock in China. It’s just something you have to do a little digging for. One of the mainstays of the Sichuan scene, we heard, is the New Little Bar in Chengdu. (New Little Bar is the younger brother of Old Little Bar. Both were founded by a hip collective of musicians and artists.)

As the great Sir Elton once said, Saturday night’s alright for fighting, so the Saturday night show was the one for us. One thing that’s different between Chinese and American concerts is that in China, if the show is listed from 8-10 pm, it starts promptly at 8 and the last band finishes at ten. (This includes set-up and break-down of 4 different acts!) In America, if doors are at 8, the headliner won’t even start their set until 11 p.m. or 12 at the earliest.

The little bar inside the Little Bar
The little bar inside the Little Bar.
Each member of Dongjiayan Band radiated personality.
Let’s conga!

We were still on New York concert time, so we arrived at nine — and missed the first two acts. Aside from the punctuality issue, however, walking into New Little Bar felt just like walking into Arlene’s or Rock Shop. It was dark and close, with a long bar down the side of the room and a small stage up front. The kids looked awfully hip, as well: one young man was wearing an aggressively loud button down shirt, and another had a Ramones-style haircut and thick-rimmed glasses. The scene was straight out of Brooklyn, making me realize how much I had missed going to shows.

Black River
The lead singer of Black River

The first band we caught was called Black River. Adorably, they all wore matching T-shirts, and they were decent with their instruments. But really, I was so euphoric to be back in a rock club that I just loved them.

About ten minutes after Black River left the stage, 董家堰乐队 (Dongjiayan Band) was ready to go. And they rocked from the first chord. Their style was loose and relaxed, and each band member radiated individual presence and personality. Their front man was especially charismatic — throughout the show, kids from the crowd kept coming up to wreath him with garlands. He sang at the top of his range, giving off waves of passionate, intense energy. The audience responded to that energy, pogoing and skanking all over the floor. At one point, most of the dancers joined in one large conga line and snaked around the room. When we got jostled by the dancers, that clinched it: We were at a rock show.

As their set progressed, however, my sense of “this is familiar and so comforting” was replaced by the thought that “this is really different and exciting!” I could recognize a ton of western influences: a ska beat with shades of reggae, metal, grunge, folk, British new wave … But 董家堰乐队’s music wasn’t just a mish-mash/rehash of those genres. It was something fresh and new.

We have since learned the term “摇滚” or “yaogun,” from “Red Rock,” by Jonathan Campbell. Yaogun literally translates as “rock and roll,” but as practiced, it’s a new Chinese genre that takes western music as a starting point, rather than just a Chinese version of a western sound. And I think that’s what we were hearing from 董家堰乐队, and that’s why it was so exciting.

Take a listen for yourself:

Listen to excerpts of Dongjiayan Band’s performance.

It’s time to stop goofing around and finish the darn game! Back to Luzhou it is …

Jul 22, 2012

Replace your passport: The final chapter

I’m me again

Chapter 6: Luzhou — Exit/Entry

Objective: Get a new visa

It was nice to be home after our Chengdu adventures, but I still had some unfinished business: I still needed a visa.

That may sound daunting, but it was really just a matter of compiling paperwork (including a passport-sized photo; never embark on anything official in China without a pile of small self-portraits), and heading back to Exit/Entry. I submitted my paperwork, paid my 400RMB and waited 5 days. Blammo: new visa. I was now officially a U.S. citizen and temporary resident of China. Again.

Quest complete!

Jul 8, 2012

Replace Your Passport: Turn it up!

Browsing Chengdu’s music street

☆ Side Quest: Music Street

Objective: Check out Chengdu’s guitar and music shops

Chengdu's Music Block
Tom Lee Music in Hong Kong
Above: We had to go all the way to Hong Kong to find flat-wound bass strings. Right: But Chengdu’s Music Block is a fun ramble.

Moving to China, one of our biggest logistical hurdles was figuring out how to get three of our six seven guitars here with us. Shipping is very expensive, and there are some nightmare stories out there about guitars on airplanes. “Why are you even bothering? Just buy new guitars when you get there,” advised the man who bought Peter’s Vypyr 30 amp from us.

But who knew what we’d find in China’s guitar shops? Definitely not us. So the guitars were coming with us (some of them, anyway).1

Now, since we’ve been here, we’ve made it our habit to check out the music store situation in every city we’ve visited. It probably won’t surprise you to know that Hong Kong is basically like New York, in terms of what you can find. The excellent Tom Lee Music, a Guitar Center-like Sam Ash-like [Peter: Guitar Center sucks!] super store, carries pretty much everything — including some things that we had somewhat of a hard time tracking down in NYC, like flat wound bass strings for my Hofner.

Our hometown music store
Our hometown music store.
The worst statueBig guitar
You can tell its Music Street by the wonderful statues.
Ming Wu Music
The Ming Wu Music Store is the gem of the bunch in Chengdu.

In Luzhou, by contrast, the pickings are much slimmer. We actually live right near a bunch of music shops — we met our first non-school friend, Hank, at the store that’s right next to our school. But the main focus of these stores is either pianos or traditional Chinese instruments. Good rock gear is hard to come by. (Though we were able to find some serviceable amps, guitar stands, a guitar cable and a modeling stomp box.)

Where there are guitars, most of them are acoustic, with little space devoted to electrics. And pretty much all of the guitars are knock offs; fake Fender, Gibson and Ibanez being most common. One store even had a knock off Steve Vai Jem Signature.

Chengdu’s a bigger city, so we were hoping for a bigger range. A Google search of “Chengdu Guitar Shops” offered surprisingly little information, but we did glean that the area around the Sichuan Conservatory of Music is fertile ground.

We had to wander a little bit to find “Music Street.” One false lead pointed us to the South First Section of First Ring Road. (Tip: It’s near First Ring Road, not on First Ring Road.) But you’ll know when you’ve found it, because there are literally dozens of music shops all packed into just a few blocks, selling everything from traditional Chinese musical instruments to hard-rocking guitars. There are also giant, mostly horrible, sculptures relating to music that line the street — a grotesque figure playing a distorted Ibanez guitar was particularly bad.

Hands down, Ming Wu Music (which also might be called Famous House) is our favorite store. Someone online called them “The best guitar store in Chengdu,” and we totally agree. (They are located at 69 Qunzhonglu, I think.) This crowded little shop carries authentic guitars and equipment from the brands you know and love. They have acoustics upstairs, but the whole first floor was devoted to electric guitars — quite heavy on the Schecters.

The display guitars were all shrink-wrapped in plastic, which we found kind of strange. My guess is that it’s to keep the guitars scratch-free in their densely packed racks, but a side effect is that Ming Wu is surprisingly quiet for a guitar store. The cacophony of seven different kids butchering seven different versions of “Stairway to Heaven” was definitely not missed.

The amp selection was great as well. They had the Vypyr that Peter just sold, as well as the beloved Roland JC120 that he sold in an earlier life. (“It still breaks my heart,” Peter says.) When we’re ready to upgrade our amps, this is probably where we’ll go.

The other stores in the area mostly seemed to carry knock-offs. A lot of different kinds, but knock-offs just the same. We checked around for my bass strings, but no one, not even Ming Wu/Famous House, had them. We didn’t come away empty handed, however. Peter loaded up on picks, with a good handful of Dunlop stubbies among his spoils, and I got a decent guitar cable to replace the crappy guitar cable I bought in Luzhou. Success!

But the music just gets louder …

1. How did we get three guitars to China? Well, we took a chance on the airline, planning to take two guitars as carry-ons and checking the third.

The recommended strategy for carrying your guitar on is act first, apologize if you have to. If you confidently take it as your carry-on like this is something you’re supposed to be doing, people around you, including the gate staff and cabin crew will also act like this is something you’re supposed to be doing.

The other tip I have is: Board as early as you can, so that you can find an empty overhead compartment, and then stash your axe in the first free compartment you see. We had no issues with this on the four legs of our very long journey. And all three guitars arrived safe and sound with us in Luzhou. Big ups to American Airlines!

Jul 3, 2012

Replace your passport: The Airship!

Getting around becomes a breeze

Item obtained: The Airship!

There were many factors, but the two biggies were that it was no longer freezing outside and that I can speak just enough Chinese. So this trip to Chengdu, we zipped around the city with ease — in taxis, on public buses, the subway … it was almost as if we had an Airship.

Enjoy a slideshow of our tour around the city, with an original score by Peter.

In the midst of our celebration, we hear music rising in the distance …

Jul 2, 2012

Replace Your Passport: Blinded with science

Time for museuming

Sichuan Science covers the whole world
Chairman Mao overlooks Tianfu Square

☆ Side Quest: Sichuan Science and Technology Museum

Objective: Learn something, fools

The museum is set back from Tianfu Square, behind a giant statue of Chairman Mao. The day we visited, it was also behind a large construction site. But we’ve learned that construction sites are not necessarily off limits to civilians, and after traipsing right through, we found that the museum was open for business as usual.

The museum is mostly geared toward children, as most science museums are. But, I’ve never seen rides at a science museum before. Yes, that’s right, there were rides: In the Aviation and Spaceflight hall, there was a human gyroscope and a spaceflight simulator; In the Virtual World, you could play an arcade-style car racing game wherein your controller was an actual motorbike. Each of these extra special interactive experiences cost an extra 5-10 kuai.

Take a nap

A lot of the installations were closed for repairs, or just plain broken. On one floor, we caught a docent sleeping. Also, the rigor of each exhibition was wildly variable. The astronomy wing was just a bunch of old astronomical instruments, presented without much comment, while the mathematics wing actually engaged with the basics of calculus in a series of interactive installations. (Nerd alert: Maths was my favorite wing.)

But it was it was an amusing and somewhat educational way to spend the morning. And, our trip coincided with the day of China’s launch of Shenzhou-9, carrying Liu Yang — China’s first female astronaut. When we got home from the museum, we put on the English language CCTV channel to watch all the coverage. It’s a really exciting time to be in China!

The robot band at the Sichuan Science Museum

Click on the photo above for a slideshow from the Sichuan Science Museum.

Chengdu continues to provide good times …

Jul 1, 2012

Replace your passport: Thinking of home

The western afternoon

A bustling market in Chengdu

☆ Side Quest: Western Chengdu

Objective: Find the West in the East

Once we made our realization in the Subway, we decided to embrace our longing for home and have a totally western afternoon.

Level 1: Grocery shopping

The first thing we needed was supplies. The Pug owners told us about the item shop, Carrefour, that might stock what we were looking for. We got a tip that it was to the southeast of our Inn, aka the Loft, so we took a bus in that direction and then wandered a bit.

I joke sometimes that I don’t just have a bad sense of direction, I have the wrong sense of direction. And sure enough, I was a millisecond away from saying, “Peter, I don’t think this is the right way,” when we spotted the little red, white and blue logo.

Welcome to Carrefour. Here you can buy items that will heal you and your party, and satisfy your desire for western products. What do you want to buy?

All of our goodies
Carrefour appeared as a mirage on the horizon and beckoned us to spend our money …
  • Wasabi
  • Dijon mustard
  • 100% Tomato juice
  • Ground black pepper
  • 2 American mustard
  • Pickled gherkins
  • Tobasco
  • Twinings Earl Grey
  • Rosemary sliced
  • Basil chopped
  • Prosciutto
  • Red wine (from France!)
  • Brie
  • Parmesan cheese

You may notice that something is missing from the list; they were out of olives the day we were there!

Level 2: Relax

After hauling our treasures back to the inn, we were in need of some chill time.

Have a rest

Level 3: Impulse shopping

I bought a new dress and purse

One thing that we missed at Carrefour was a good loaf of bread. They had some, we just thought we could get some closer to home (breaking Rule of Chinese Acquisition No. 5: If you see it, buy it because you may never see its like again). But when we scoured the area near the Loft, we found no good bread. Bright side: I did see a dress that was so cute I had to have it RIGHT NOW.

I have excuses for what happened, but they’re not good, so I’ll skip it and just admit I bought the dress one size too small. I had a bad feeling about it, so I tried it on again back in our room, and, yup, I couldn’t raise my arms above my head.

But! We went back first thing the next day, with 交流 written in my translation notebook. No worries, they gave me the bigger size. They even made me try it on again, and I think the woman said to me something like, “I tried to tell you that you needed the XL last night!” But it was totally no hassle! I’d shop there all the time if I lived in Chengdu.

Level 4: Hors D’oeuvres for dinner in the room

Our western-style hotel feast

Back in Brooklyn, one of our favorite meals was something we called “party dinner”: veggies, dip, cheese, crackers, pickles, olives, etc. So it was great to re-create it with our supplies from Carrefour. It was as delicious as ever — more so, actually, for its rarity.

The pickles, specifically, were so good that we even considered bringing the brine home in a thermos so that we could pickle more stuff in it. (We didn’t follow through, which I kind of regret.)

But wait! There’s more …

Jul 1, 2012

Replace your passport: Cocktail hour

Take a break with some bloody Marys on the patio

Drinks are on us

After dinner, we retired to the patio for a round of Bloody Marys.

Jun 30, 2012

Replace your passport: Eating freshly

It’s sandwich time

A real, live Subway sandwich

☆ Side Quest: Subway

Objective 1: Put it all together: This trip, occasioned by a visit to “American Soil,” has become a total western long weekend
Objective 2: Don’t feel guilty about it; You’ve given China its due, and you just miss some things from home. That’s OK!
Objective 3: Have a sandwich

It was a hot and humid afternoon, we were a little lost and a little hungry when Subway the Sandwich Chain hewed into view. We were curious (and, don’t forget, hungry), so we decided to take a break from being lost and try out a Chinese Subway sandwich.

Subway in China? Is exactly the same, down to the smell, as every other Subway in the world. They’re even on the lookout for good “Sandwich Artists” or potential franchisees. (We took a flyer, just in case we get bored of this teaching thing.)

It was totally surreal. Outside the window was China, but inside was always and only Subway. This is where we realized that the occasion of our “trip back to America, sort of” had unconsciously triggered a sort of west-stravaganza for us. All week, we’d been hunting down cheese, English-language TV, felafel, scotch, new books, olives

Part of the reason we moved to Luzhou, rather than a bigger city, was so that we could fully immerse ourselves in Chinese culture, without being tempted by the ease and comfort of, say, taco nights, or ex-pat Scrabble groups, or whatever. Not that these things are bad, and I’m sure that plenty of ex-pats live fulfilled Chinese lives with them, but for us, having access to them would mean that we’d still be saying to each other, “One of these days we’ll get to learning Chinese, making Chinese friends, venturing out from our comfortable English-language hidey-holes …”

But cutting ourselves off from our home culture completely and forever was never part of the plan. So when we’re on vacation, we have some cheese!

And, realizing what we were doing - indulging in western goodies - cast the crappy theft and replacement of my passport in a totally different light: That crook did us a favor!

And the sandwich was pretty good, too.

Jun 29, 2012

Replace your passport: The nature of Chengdu

A walk in the park

☆ Side Quest: Wangjianglou Park, aka, The River Viewing Pavilion Park

Objective: Commune with nature

A Qing dynasty-era building

Chengdu has a reputation for being an ugly city. The architecture tends toward large, looming and concrete, and the atmosphere is hardly helped by the southern Sichuan weather that envelopes everything in gray for most of the year.

The city’s parks, however, are lovely. We had a free sunny afternoon, so we made our way down to Wanjianglou Park, which sits along the Jinjiang River (hence the “River Viewing”) in the southeast of the city.

Much like Renmin Park, which we visited in January, Wanjianglou is a hive of social activity. Scattered over the grounds you can find tea houses, restaurants, mahjong tables, etc. But the main attraction of the park is its Historic Preservation Area - home to luscious groves of bamboo and some beautiful Qing-era architecture.

The garden area of the park was gorgeous. It actually reminded me a lot of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. The landscaping was meticulous, with little sculptures and fountains tucked into cozy little groves. Each species of bamboo was labelled in English, Chinese and Latin - a surprising amount of the bamboos’ namesakes were westerners.

Nestled in and among the bamboo was a small compound of Qing Dynasy-era buildings, dating from the late 1800s. This may not seem terribly historic, especially in the context of the thousands of years of history China has, but until recently, preservation hadn’t really been something that the Chinese were very interested in. There are some pretty complex reasons for why that’s so, but to sum it up as I understand it (with a huge debt to Peter Hessler’s “Oracle Bones”, among other sources), Chinese re-creation of the past is more tied up with language and narrative-building rather than structures and artifacts. Written Mandarin is pretty much exactly the same today — barring Simplification — as it was from the beginning, meaning that ancient texts are still perfectly legible. Meaning that the past didn’t need to be divined from ancient shards of pottery, etc. It wasn’t really until the last century that Chinese scholars started pursuing archaeology in any academic way.

I'm taking notes

Add to that the fact that structures were often built from degradable materials that weren’t intended to last — fun fact: most of the original Great Wall has crumbled into nonexistence; what you can visit now is a modern reconstruction — and that China as a concept is essentially a 4,000-year series of extreme political upheavals all in the same place … well, permanence is just not a expected or valued quality. This means that buildings from the 1800s qualify as old.

Tang dynasty poet Xue Tao

So in the park, the buildings are very nicely preserved. During our visit, we saw maintenance crews all over the grounds. At the entrance to the Chanting Pavilion, a kid with a clicker sat making sure visitors heeded the warning: “National Cultural Relic: Wooden architecture of Qing Dynasty, Only 50 people are allowed on pavilion at one time in order to avoid resonance.”

These buildings were not intended as a monument to themselves, however. They were built to honor Tang Dynasty poet Xue Tao (ca.768-832). (See, it’s all about words!)

Xue Tao served 11 Sichuan governors in her day. (I’m not sure what exactly that means, but I’d like a world where more government had artists-in-residence.) The buildings are miniature museums devoted to her work, displaying huge stone inscriptions of her poetry, as well as murals and small statues depicting the poet herself.

Out in the courtyard, old men practiced their calligraphy on the slate. They used long-handled brushes that looked homemade and cans of water, to write out poems that would exist only for a moment before evaporating away. This is a pretty common sight anywhere there is a nice, clean expanse of tiled ground, but it felt especially resonant to see the living practice of such an old art. They took the writing work seriously, there seemed to be a real camaraderie between the old guys, with plenty of laughing and joking going on between them.

Outside the preservation area, as I said, it was your basic urban park. But we did stumble upon what appeared to be a shrine to garlic. It was a small, bamboo hut, decorated with large, wood-carved bulbs of garlic on the outside, and garlands of real garlic inside. We were pleased to see garlic getting its due.

The other striking sight we found on our way out of the park. There were stalls selling drinks, souvenirs, toys, etc, all over, but sandwiched in between two little shops was a fully functional art studio. We saw two artists inside, working on paintings that seemed to incorporate western and Chinese influences. It was a perfect symbol of what appeals to us so much about Chengdu.

Wanjianglou Park in Chengdu

Click on the photo above for a slideshow of pictures from the park.

We’re on a roll now …

Jun 28, 2012

Replace your passport: Back to the Consulate

I can almost prove my identity in an international context

Should you try a hot dog?
No hot dogs for me

New to Passport Quest? Follow the adventure from the beginning here.

☆ Side Quest: 7-Eleven

Objective: Have a snack

We were about an hour from having the best tacos in China, so Peter talked me out of the 7-Eleven hot dog, though he did take a photo of it. That’s for you, dad! (Coincidentally, we later read a small write up of 7-Eleven in Chengdoo. About the hot dog, they said: “It’s depressing to look at. … All I taste is ketchup and soggy bread.”)

Instead we got some juice and a Snickers. We sat at the counter to eat our snack, because 7-Eleven has a dine-in option here. A nearby school let out while we were there, and the place flooded with junior students on break. You may already suspect this, but I can tell you for sure: being a 12-year-old boy involves a lot of punching and shouting, wherever you are.

☆ Side Quest: The Lazy Pug

Objective: Mexican food!

Part of the reason that we planned our return trip to Chengdu the way we did was so that we’d be able to hit up Taco Night at the Pug. We’ve been salivating for these tacos since the last time we were there in January.

And they did not disappoint. What’s more, our delirious memories of cheese and tortillas had overshadowed what was a superb drinks menu, so we were pleasantly surprised all over again. They had bitters! And ice cubes! And mint! And ginger ale! And … wait for it … GREEN OLIVES! They were big and meaty and stuffed with peppers.

Giddy with delight over the meal we had just had (OK, and the drinks may have played a role in this too), I went to pay the bill while Peter went to the washroom. I struck up a conversation with the bartender/half-owner:

Me: Where do you find olives here? Do you have to have them delivered?

Bartender: No. They’re just at the grocery store. At Carrefour. [He seemed a little surprised that I wouldn’t know this, I think.] Though they can be hit-and-miss.

Me: Really! I’m living in Luzhou. We don’t have olives there.

Olivetender: Oh! Where is Luzhou?

Me: Four hours south of here. We don’t get a lot of western things there - like olives, and olives - so we’re excited to be here for a short trip. So we can have olives.

Oliver: What do you do in Luzhou?

Me: We’re ESL teachers. We never get olives! OLIVES!!!

Here's where the tacos happen
Tacos and martinis make me awkward with strangers.

There’s no official transcript of our conversation, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it went. On first analysis, I thought the awkwardness came from the fact that I hadn’t small-talked anyone in English in ten months, but now I think that each of us just thought the conversation was about something different; he was having a nice back-and-forth about a Chinese city near to his own, and I could not be swayed from my single-minded pursuit of olives.

Regardless of the awkwardness, the takeaway was that the Case of the Olives in China was back open!

(Actually, the literal takeaway was a couple of extra tacos that we enjoyed back in the hotel room later that night.)

Chapter 5: The Consulate

Objective: Pick up your new passport

When we got to the consulate on Friday afternoon, the line for Chinese nationals wrapped around the block. And there were a ton of school groups (we could tell by the uniforms) on line; our guess was that summer study abroad programs were starting soon. Being American, I got to jump to the front of the line - which felt like fair play; at the Chinese Consulate in New York last August, we waited forever while Chinese nationals just cruised right upstairs.

I presented my receipt and paperwork, and received my shiny, new, visa-less passport.

The main quest beckons us back to Luzhou, but there’s still plenty to do in Chengdu before departing …