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Dec 2, 2014

We Nova Heart Chengdu

A weekend in which we rock in the big city

Chengdu Nov 2014 from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

The Lion's Head Meatball at the chicken restaurant
Our weekend was all about the music, but we found some time for food, too.
Helen Feng rocks Little Bar
China’s Blondie rocks Little Bar.

Helen Feng is the Queen of the Beijing indie rock scene. It’s a small kingdom, admittedly, but one that looms large in our hearts. So earlier this month when Helen Feng came to Little Bar in Chengdu, we had to go.

Her voice is rich and inviting, deceptively delicate but delivered with precision and power. You can hear Debbie Harry when she sings, but Helen Feng is entirely a force unto herself. Nova Heart, her current project, is a shoegaze-electronica act that maintains the intensity and spirit of Feng’s punk past. We listened to her Soundcloud on repeat in the weeks leading up to the concert.

While in Chengdu, we hit up all of our usual spots, only to find that things have changed. Joker Bar’s still there, thank goodness, as is the Sultan. But Lazy Pug owners Danny and Dana have moved to Bankok! To open an American-style BBQ joint! The original, however, is still alive and thriving, thanks to local Stella and her Swiss husband. Devastated at the potential loss of their favorite date spot, the couple stepped up and bought the place! Stella filled us in on all the news during our visit. Apparently D&D are sick of the under-heated Sichuan winter, a feeling we understand quite well. But we’re pleased to report that the Pug is still serving up the best taco in China.

In the spirit of rock and roll, this trip we made a big effort to try some new Chengdu things. Not too far from our favorite hostel The Loft, there is a large grey building festooned with red stars, and a giant chicken on the top. It’s something we drive past several times each visit, and finally, this time, we went inside. It’s a fine-dining restaurant with a revolutionary theme, and really, really delicious traditional cuisine. One could really splash out there on hundred dollar (U.S.) fishes and deluxe cuts of meat; we went with the more modest but still fantastic Lion’s Head Meatball and perfectly seasoned stuffed buns. It was one of the best meals we’ve had in China.

Things are much more casual down by the river. Jah Bar sits unassumingly in a small strip of bars down a small alleyway. Not just the best bar in Chengdu, but the best in the world, said someone somewhere online. That’s not a review you ignore. Jah is a cozy little room dominated by a big stage in the middle. There are guitars, basses and a drum kit for anyone to play, and a loosely organized jam swelled up as the night went on. Talented locals and foreigners swapped in and out, going jazzier here, funkier there. It’s a scrappy room, and a lot of fun. The bar did just the basics and food came from the street vendors outside, who delivered BBQ to hungry patrons much to the Jah Bar cat’s delight.

Next door, we found Carol’s by the River. A little brighter and more spiffy — and nowhere near as cool, but they did have a late-night pizza. And a DJ, and some dancing fools. It was Ladies’ Night, and the girls at the table next to ours were having a great time.

But this is all preamble. Little Bar, Saturday night was the main event. Nova Heart took the stage shortly after the finish of the opening act (荷尔蒙小姐 — The Hormones, who were quite good). In person, Helen Feng was electric. She flirted and joked with the crowd, who loved her in return. Little Bar is small enough that the gig felt incredibly intimate, but Feng really has the star presence that could fill a whole stadium. Which made it all the more special that she was there with just us. Feng threw herself into her performance, jumping and dancing around then striking impish poses. And that voice gripped us all. She sings in English, but the emotion she conveys needs no translation.

Then, at ten on the dot, the concert was over. As is the custom at a Chinese rock show, everyone packed up quickly and left in an orderly fashion. A small crowd lingered outside, where Nova Heart CDs were for sale. We bought one, and raved about what we had just seen for our whole journey home.

Nov 22, 2014

Video: Life along the Yangtze

Viewing the world from our perch in Luzhou

Traveller from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo. Music: Devin Townsend, “Traveller”

A typical fall afternoon, hanging out by the river.

Nov 1, 2014

Video: A Good Night in Tai’an

Dinner in our favorite countryside neighborhood

A good night in Tai’an from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

For dinner most nights, rather than go into Luzhou city, we hang out in nearby Tai’an. And it’s always a good night.

Oct 18, 2014

Video: Postcard from the Moon

Fun on the night of the eclipse

Postcard from the moon from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Dancing around after the October 8th Blood Moon. We missed the blood, but we found the dance. Music: Pugwash, “Answers on a Postcard”

Oct 8, 2014

Video: Hello, Uncle Foreigner!

What if we were living a sitcom?

Hello, Uncle Foreigner from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo. Music: Josh Pike, “Clovis’ Son.”

We bought a new camera. Can you tell?

Oct 6, 2014

Video: Impressions of Luzhou

About town, 3 years

An original Whoop Wu production. Original score by Peter Sikoski (with some familiar voices).

Jul 4, 2014

Once more in Chengdu, the old and the new

It’s never the same river twice

Belly Dancing at the Sultan
I don’t know if every night at the Sultan is film-shoot exciting, but the food is always top notch.
The Pug's new location
The new Pug is hidden away in a huge shopping complex, but inside it’s delicious business as usual.
The abandoned side of the street on Xiao Tong Alley
Taggers have hit the abandoned buildings of Xiao Tong Alley pretty hard.
Live music in the German Bar
We weren’t expecting much from the parade of pop singers at the German Beer Bar, so we were really blown away by these two who were actually fantastic.

School’s out for the year, and we just got back from a little retreat to Chengdu for some international-style R&R. It was a trip conceived primarily with the goal of stuffing some tacos in our faces at the Lazy Pug; beyond that, we weren’t really aiming for anything other than revisiting our old favorites: Middle Eastern food at the Sultan, wine and book shopping at the Bookworm, maybe a performance at New Little Bar.

Checking in at the Loft — never stay anywhere else — the desk clerk recognized us from our last stay a year ago. As the sage voice of Uncle Foreigner, Peter and I like to pretend that we’re fade-into-the-background observers, but of course we stick out everywhere we go. That same day, Dana, owner of the Pug, clocked us as returners as well.

The Pug, by the way, has moved. South of the city, in a new mall, but the tacos are still fantastic. (I gorged to the point of physical discomfort.) So too has the Sultan relocated. Their new home, hidden down a quaint little alleyway, is fantastic with outdoor banquettes facing small private dining rooms all decorated in a fresh, beachy color scheme. The night we were there, a local television station was filming a piece about the place, and we were treated to a belly dancing performance with our meal.

Meanwhile, on Xiao Tong Alley — where the Loft lives — more and more of the south side of the street has been abandoned (a process we saw beginning almost 2 years ago). On the north side, however, there’s Joker Bar, a phenomenal new beer bar with a list of more than 100 brews — including a locally brewed IPA. Tasty. We made it our regular for the duration, and had some good chats with the owner’s girlfriend. Her English is great, and she keeps sharp watching “Breaking Bad.” She informed us that the government is moving everyone out of the south side of the alley so that they can tear it all down. My guess is that they’re running a metro line through there.

We did make it to Little Bar to catch Fat Shady, a local Chengdu rapper, and his posse. Peter and I laughed a little at the idea of Chinese rap, but they were really, really good. You could here shades of influence of everyone from Busta to Eminem — in a way that showed these kids knew their stuff, not that they were derivative. The crowd loved them, responding enthusiastically to English exhortations from the stage to “Put your hands up” and “Make some noise!” It was a lot of fun and we are definitely converts.

The big surprise of the trip had to be the German Beer Bar in the touristy fake “ancient town” of Kuanzhai Xiangzi. Our first visit was in January 2012, and we were the only customers in the bar. This time, however, the joint was jumping. They had a stream of live performers playing mostly harmless pop tunes that made for nice background noise. One woman, with a voice that ranged from Keren Ann delicate beauty to Melissa Ethridge strength and intensity, just killed it, however. She took that night from “fine” to “KA-POW.”

We try some Chengdu hot pot
We were a little underwhelmed by the Chengdu hot pot, but the place we chose was definitely a tourists-only affair. The atmosphere was pretty fun, anyway.

Jun 3, 2014

Cruising through the Bamboo Sea

By car, through the air and on foot

Nature is pretty cool

— Emily

Yeah, especially when it’s been harnessed by man.
Or as I like to say: Fixed.

— Peter

A sea of bamboo
Our room was simple and serviceableBamboo right outside our window
Our hotel was pretty basic, but beautifully situated.
Drinking the bamboo wine
There were many ways to enjoy your bamboo, including a locally made bamboo wine, in which we indulged our first night …
Our wildman driverOn the road
… making the swift and twisty ride through the mountains the next day extra exciting! Who doesn’t like battling the threat of vomit in a stranger’s car?
here is some meatOne of the Bamboo Sea's small villages
We stopped for a lunch of Yibin kindling noodles (they’re fiery!) in the small village of Wan Li.
The waterfallAt the top of the waterfallThe glory of the Dragon's Head FallsWalking down the fallsWe took a little boatNear the bottom of the fallsCow stone
The views from both the top and the bottom of the Dragon’s Head Falls are pretty awe inspiring. To get from one level to the other is a twisty, steep 20 minute hike, which includes a short boat ride across the falls.
The path to the cable carCable car number oneGetting a ride
Cable car number one is at the end of a long, beautiful walk through the bamboo, and involves a short ride across a deep gulch.
High above the gulchOur cable car was very crowdedLook at the valley!
On our return trip, two young kids clamored into our car to see the waiguoren, and then hid from us for the duration of the ride, choosing instead to scream in fake terror “救命了! 救命了!” (Save us! Save us!) as the gondola swung high in the air.

If all goes according to our Kunming plan, we’re about to embark on a pretty big series of changes to our China life. It’s exciting and scary, and a little bittersweet to think of leaving our first home in Luzhou. But, we’re ready to be ready to move on, and as part of that process, this spring we’ve been conducting an ongoing “Say Goodbye to Sichuan Province” tour.

Our most recent destination: Yibin’s Bamboo Sea. About an hour and a half away from anywhere (we took a bus to a bus to a bus to a cab to the park), this is true countryside that’s been bounded and sculpted to be impressive and inspiring, but also safe and comfortable. The Bamboo Sea is a self-contained resort: 11 kilometers of rolling mountains covered in massively tall stalks of bamboo, housing two small villages, clusters of hotels, and a small community of local farmers. Hiking trails crisscross the mountains leading to dazzling views of waterfalls, caves, and, of course, bamboo. The movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed there, as many, many people will tell you. It’s gorgeous and serene and lovely.

But it’s also a strangely mediated experience of nature. Each short hike through the bamboo is isolated in its own lush Thoreau-ian enclave, which then spits out into a parking lot, from whence you drive the couple of kilometers to the next spot. All the tourists have the same map, and all of the local service people want to help ferry you through the same route. It’s kind of like a Disneyland for nature walkers. Which is totally our speed: Peter hasn’t been camping since he was a kid, and I’ve been informed that a weekend in a Girl Scout tentalo does not an outdoors-woman make.

The most efficient way to “do” the Bamboo Sea is to hire a driver to take you around to all the spots. Or, you know, have your own car — which many of the other tourists did. (This is where I’ll mention that by our observation, the Bamboo Sea is definitely a destination for China’s celebrated emerging middle class.) We got a guy our first afternoon and were scooted through a series of the best sights in a little red Hyundai Elantra. We had a bit of a battle of wills when we wanted him to stop in one of the villages so we could have some simple noodles for lunch. “Why didn’t you eat at the hotel?” he asked us. All the hotels served sumptuous feasts made of stir-fried bamboo specialties. We were obviously doing it wrong. But we got our noodles and they were delicious.

Day two, we were determined to get somewhere on our own two feet. Fortunately, according to our map, our hotel was a short walk (along a sidewalk-less road) from two recommended sightseeing points. One was a spectacular cable car ride that floated us slowly, in a gondola for two, over the striking gullies and peaks of the sea. The quiet hum of the cable machinery only punctuated the eerie silence of the up in the air. From time to time, returning passengers would call hello, but essentially we felt alone, hanging from the sky above acres and acres of susurrous bamboo.

At the other end of the ride, there was a crumbling pagoda which afforded some fantastic views of the mountain landscape, perfect for your nature photography needs. We also took some glamor shots with some other tourists who were excited to see some Americans on their vacation. Everyone’s dressed in their very best, Peter observed, because this rollicking, green wonderland is one giant photo op.

Upon returning to our side of the cable car line, our next destination was represented on the map as a short, looping walk to nowhere in particular. In reality, this represented an hour and a half hike through the bamboo that turned out to be our favorite part of the trip. A stone path meandered here and there, by small streams, sheer cliff faces and burbling waterfalls. There was technically no sight to see — no paddle boats, no temples or shrines — so the trail was mostly ours. The bamboo made hollow clacking sounds as it swayed in the wind, and Peter and I walked in near silence through the green, unsure of the final terminus, but continuing confidently on.

The magic ended in a small parking lot, of course, where we circled back to home on the asphalt road. And then, actually, someone offered us a lift back to our hotel along the way. We were back in time for bamboo dinner. And then a bamboo snack at the hotel next door. (There’s not a lot of nightlife in the bamboo sea.)

The day of our departure was actually the first official day of the May 1 holiday — being foreign teachers, our vacations are always slightly off from everyone else’s. On our way out of the park and into town, we bused past a miles-long inbound line of Audis, Volkswagons and Range Rovers; the woman running our hotel said that they were bracing themselves for the rush as we were leaving. We felt lucky to have experienced the relative calm of the few days prior. And after another bus, cab, bus and a cab, we were back home. We went out to celebrate — Labor Day, our trip, and just life — in the chaotic environs of our favorite Tai An restaurant. Ah, back to the noisy city life!

Cable car twoA pagodaHigh on the hills of the bamboo seaPeter and the PagodaThe pagoda areaEmily and the Pagoda
Cable car number two is definitely the more spectacular (and spooky) ride. At the summit, there is a small pagoda for picture taking.
An overlooked trailMore waterfall action
Here's a cliff
The bamboo trail
We had this trail almost all to ourselves, and it was easy to forget that the rest of China was out there.

Mar 29, 2014

The girl gang

Pinkay and friends down Qian Dian Alley

I run wild with the girl gang by Changjiang River

Down Noodle Street — aka Qian Dian Jie — by the old school, there runs a pack of girls, daughters of the business owners there. Pinkay, 9, as the oldest and boldest, is the undisputed leader. Her parents run a restaurant; as do the parents of Shuper and Little Sister; and those of the Not-Twins, who are styled the same but are different ages. Lovely Rita, who probably doesn’t remember this is her English name, belongs to the shoe repair shop. And Ling Ling, the youngest, comes from a small hotel down the way. Sometimes she bounces around on all fours like a puppy, and it’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.

We know them because we eat down that street at least twice a week. They’ll hover over our table as we dine, peppering us with questions, and then walk with us as we pick up some nighttime shopping and head home. Pinkay is the best conversation partner I’ve ever had, chiefly because she doesn’t believe that I can’t speak Chinese. She’s willing to repeat herself endlessly, and accepts all kinds of faces as legitimate responses. Our chats, naturally, hew closely to my recent language lessons. (Thanks, Hello Mylo!) Can you swim? Aren’t these flowers pretty? I can’t play badminton. Can you dance?

At a recent dinner, we had an especially sensical convo. We talked about families and our animal signs. I’m a goat. This is when I asked if they could dance. They said yes so I asked them to do it, and THEY DID! From now on, I’m asking everyone to dance.

They pop up now and again, in different configurations, and basically have an unsupervised run of the neighborhood. They’ve got beef with the dog at the hardware store, but other than that, they’re tolerated and sometimes welcomed everywhere.

Peter and I have started checking out their parents’ restaurants, this week hitting the BBQ place owned by the parents of Shuper and Little Sister. “The girls won’t be around until Saturday,” mom informed us. But we were there to eat. Pinkay, Rita, Ling Ling and a new girl showed up as we were finishing. We talked fruit names, they gave Peter a Chinese name — 圆绿帅, or Handsome Green Yuan — and then they walked us home.

Me and the girls at chuan chuan
From left to right: Shuper, Rita, Pinkay, Ling Ling and Emily

Jun 11, 2013

The many faces of Listening Ling

A king of masks in training

Listening, after the show

Our friend Listening Ling (formerly called Alex) has been studying the Sichuanese art of Face Changing this past year, and we were psyched last night to go see him in his first public performance. We met up with our new Australian friend Cori (whom we me through Listening; if you speak English in Luzhou, Listening with find you) and waited in the city center for Listening to come pick us up. And then, Listening called and said that the restaurant was too crowded for us to come; we were basically planning to crash his graduation party, so we were bummed but we understood.

As an alternative plan, we decided to take Cori to Golden Hans for some good dark beer — in the week and a half we’ve known him, we’ve basically been giving Cori a dissertation on the beers of Luzhou, whether he wants that or not.

At Golden Hans, who should we run into, but Listening! The restaurant was in fact very crowded, but we squeezed into a table at the back. Listening came to visit with us periodically, updating us on the status of his performance. We could tell he was very nervous and we tried to pep him up. “My friends are all singing or telling jokes,” he told us. “I’m the only one doing the face changing.” “So then you’ll be the best,” I said. “That’s too much pressure!” he said.

But the show must go on. Listening changed into his costume, and we gathered at the front stage with the rest of the restaurant. Everyone had their cameras out, even people, I think, unconnected with the school crew. This was a special event.

And it was amazing! Listening did a “Gangnam Style”-inspired dance and his masks appeared from nowhere and then disappeared back into the air. He had previously told us that the kids these days are losing interest in the traditional arts, and it was important to him to modernize the form. We think he was a total success!