On Music in Shenzhen…

In two words: it sucks.

Well, sort of. There is sod all in the way of a music scene here as a) nobody really wants to play in the PRC as it isn’t exactly a haven for creative rebels and b) whatever little dregs are left get pinched by Hong Kong just across the border. Westlife came last month on their farewell tour. Yes, you heard: Westlife. That is the quality of music that Shenzhen gets. The gig was sold out. Ugh. That is not to say there aren’t other bands kicking around the city, but most of them are Filipino covers bands (I guess it’s like Peruvian pan-flute bands in the States) who are very slick and professional, but are intended solely as background entertainment. Some of these bands are brilliant – Down the Hatch and Mind the Gap at X-Ta-Sea, Harmony at McCawleys or the Terrace All-Stars for example are some of the best musicians I have ever met – but many are crushed by their commitments. Many of these bands play the same covers five to six days a week and that repetition shows. A lot of the time these bands don’t look like they’re enjoying themselves.

Being played music by people who look depressed (unless its Radiohead, Nick Cave or Loudon Wainwright III) while doing so is miserable, and as a result it’s not surprising that very few people ever go to ‘gigs’ here. So, the only option seems to be DIY, and there does seem to be plenty of bedroom musicians kicking around. Last year for example, I recorded a bunch of acousticy things which a sum total of seven and a half people have listened to, and I know I’m not the only one doing this sort of thing

Then however, out of the blue, a group of incredibly wonderfully magically talented musicians (naively <evil laugh>) asked me to join their band as guitarist. I said yes. Beautiful things ensued. We play every Sunday night to drunk rich Chinese people who have no idea what good music is but love us anyway. We are OK with this. Alas, as we are all poor, we sell our souls to “covers” in exactly the way I was complaining about about the Filipino bands (I know, what a hypocrite), as that’s the only thing drunk rich Chinese people want to hear, but we do occasionally get to play our own stuff. Still, we push it a bit with song selections and it’s a pretty good feeling to be in a band again. I only sing a couple of songs (the band may be wonderful and magical, but they ain’t stupid), but click the picture below to watch me only half-murdering Johnny Cash

Highlights include: 1) Peter “Bassface” Hayes’ country-shuffle wiggle at 00.40, 2) Amir “Honky-Tonk” Jafarian’s nimble fingers at 1.02, 3) the idiot guitarist’s sudden realisation at 1.27 that he’s been playing the song totally wrong and desperately reattaching the capo and hoping no-one noticed 4) anything Elliott “Facial Flex” Kettler and Shelby “I’m Over Here, Now I’m Over Here” Charnoff do during the whole video and 5) my left knee seemingly giving way for no reason at 2.53.

For anyone in Shenzhen, we play every Sunday at 10pm at V-Bar in Nanshan. Also, if you want to get involved in any way, check out the new http://shenzhenlocalmusic.com/ website. They’ll be happy to have you contribute/recommend/help and so on.

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16TH JUNE 2013 UPDATE: after a disturbingly large number of views from god knows where (I think I do know now: the expat Filipino community. Not made myself many friends, well done Al) on the 14th June 2013, I would like to say the following.

These were my own personal experiences of Shenzhen’s music scene in late 2011 and early 2012. I’m certain things have improved for the better since then, due in no small part to the work of Shenzhen Local Music, so my observations are likely somewhat out of date. I still stand by everything I say, mainly out of a hope that things will improve (as they well appeared to have done), but like to add that I had some of the best nights of my life at X-Ta-Sea and McCawleys, with some truly consummate musicians. I feel a bit put-out that people feel irked by a general observation, but what I saw was (mostly) true. Anyone still unsure should go see for themselves. Make up your own mind. Happy musical travels!

On Prometheus (and Movie Trailers)…

I love movie trailers. I would quite happily sit through forty minutes of trailers before a film and not bat an eyelid. The main feature isn’t going anywhere. Watching trailers in a cinema makes everything seem so damned exciting, and I just know that somewhere out there are hundreds of films I still haven’t seen even though I swore (post-trailer) that they looked like the most incredible things ever made. Yes, I know each and every one is a cliché, and I am aware that you can make a great trailer out of a bad movie; I don’t care. I still like them. They’re getting better too; the recent trailer for Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was utterly genius, and shows that at least someone is beginning to tinker with the form.

Thing is, watching that trailer through a crappy internet connection is just not the same. There’s no sense of occasion, and I just don’t get excited in the same way that cinema manages to evoke. Which is a shame. Until this. This I am excited for. This I am very excited for. Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes. If I saw this in an actual cinema my brain would start to liquefy. Now watch. Preferably in HD full-screen mode:

On the Language Gap…

In our office here in China there is a girl. For the sake of polite non-accusatory and anonymous argument, let’s call her ‘Alison.’ Up until four days ago, I thought ‘Alison’ was the nicest, politest, meekest and most overwhelmingly peaceable person I had ever met. I’d remarked before on how she seemed to embody that stereotypically indeterminate midpoint whereby ‘being shy’ and ‘being terrified’ intersect. This is because at times it can be tricky – as a male foreigner – interacting with women in China, and this inscrutable behaviour (i.e. not being sure if someone is just shy or actively scared of you) as evidenced by our here Alison typifies a hefty chunk of your interactions. With Chinese men it’s pretty easy, and if you pick one of a) drinking b) smoking c) card games or d) team sport, and engage in aforesaid activity with aforesaid men for an agreeably short amount of time, you’ll gain a new zui haode pengyou in minutes. Unfortunately, there is nothing so simple when its across genders.

Eggshell Walking Boots: On

Now, I realise I am walking on extremely treacherous ground here. As it’s the central tenet of this blog, it’s fairly obvious I don’t feel bad talking about cross-cultural divides. Usually this can be quite contentious (it’s spelt “racism”), but the thing is, all I really need are my pseudo-amateurish observations. It’s simple: if I see something that is different from my culture, I am qualified to talk about it because a) I am from that culture and b) I live in this culture. Easy peasy. However, the tightrope line of argument I’m currently wobbling down is especially tricky seeing as a) I am not a woman and b) I am not a Chinese woman. Who’dve thunk it? For that reason, it’s entirely possible I don’t know what the bollocks I’m talking about, and I should probably be disqualified for having one too many appendages. However, I tiptoed my way through the University of York’s most severe feminist death panels (18th century British and Irish literature seminars) with only the most perfunctory of maulings, which for an 19 year old from an all boys’ school was quite a feat. It was during these anti-chauvinist grillings I discovered that sometimes you get extra credit for showing your work, even if you arrive at completely the wrong answer. Sometimes trying to understand, and concluding that you can’t, is much better than not trying at all.

So I’m going to plough on…

Different Language, Different Personality

Alison to the left, my good self on the right. China hasn't changed me.

So back to Alison. Last Friday, the nice lady with the keys to our office decided she was going to have a little lie-in. For an hour and half. There isn’t much of a lobby outside our warehouse, and ninety minutes hunched on a linoleum tiled floor waiting for her to turn up left us all a little chilly and a lot irked. And sweet baby french-fry Jesus, Alison was miffed. Yelling in the loudest, angriest, machine-gun-quickest (and probably most foul-mouthed) Mandarin I’d ever heard, she spent a good half an hour calling the poor key lady every three minutes to ream her out. Previously, every single time she had spoken to me in English she had been unfailingly quiet and polite, but now all of a sudden she had turned into Little Miss Foghorn. It was unexpected to say the least. I think I rid the world of possibly three or four buzzy flying things in my agape state.

He has two specialities: fractal calculus and punching himself in the face.

When higher brain function finally returned, it brought with it thoughts about how the language gap, and indeed speaking in a different language, might actually lead you to act and think in different ways. There has been quite a lot of research on this, and if you can be bothered, you can check out some of it here, here and here. The best is by a guy called Malcolm Gladwell, who argues in a book called Outliers that the reason Asian students show a particular aptitude for mathematics is because the concepts are much more easily explained in Oriental languages. In Mandarin, to say “eleven” you just say the equivalent of “ten one” (shi yi); for forty two it’s “four ten two” (si shi er) and so on. Fractions are even easier, where for “one quarter” you say “from four, take one,” which is basically the whole mathematical idea rather neatly encapsulated in words. Gladwell is basically saying that people who speak Mandarin are at a natural advantage when it comes to mathematics because of an in-built linguist predisposition. He also says that Westerners don’t ‘get’ maths as easily because “it doesn’t seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.”

Physical and Psychological Impacts

It’s not all in your mind either: speaking a different language can cause physical differences too. In Chinese there is no “v” sound, so when I tried to teach my students words like volcano and vampire (I taught cool lessons), they came out as waaaaampire and woooooooolcano. Which was hilarious for me, but not so good for their fluency: they sounded like Mr Chekov:

The inability to pronounce sounds alien to your own tongue is not just consigned to the Chinese either. Many people pronounce the Scottish word for lake (i.e ‘Loch’ Ness) as “lock” instead of ending the word with the throat-clearing cccchhhhccckkk sound that it actually should be, the tongue-rolling rrrr’s in Spanish can be extremely tricky and the guttural clicking noises in Khoisan languages give people from the Anglosphere nightmares. Of course, some people can be taught (I get the rrr’s maybe 30% of the time), but at least on a small scale the language you speak can cause physical differences.

I was also having a discussion the other day with someone infinitely more observant than I about how French people seem to have a different mouth-shape than English-speakers. I had no idea and assumed that it was to do with the whole “Gallic shrug”  and “Europeans-are-just-more-expressive-than-you-uptight-snooty-and-most-likely-sexually-repressed-Brits” thing. Not (necessarily) so, apparently. The theory is that the different movements used when forming sounds alien to English end up causing different facial features to develop over time; features that don’t really exist on non-French speaking faces. Not wholly scientific I admit, but extremely interesting all the same.

So, if the language you speak can  impact the way we think and the way we look, why not the way we behave? It’s not just Alison where I have seen this seemingly split-personality in China; in my experience, this has been true of a great deal of the Chinese women I’ve met. Teachers at my school who seemed so shy and giggly in English would suddenly become fire-breathing Chinese dragon-ladies when yelling at an unfortunate third grader (it was always third-grade, the hellions) in Mandarin. I also once saw my very charming and demure Mandarin tutor dressed in a kinky sailor outfit yelling at some pervy old man in a Chinese nightclub. Most amusing. OK fine, I’ll exclude times like the latter when alcohol is involved (in its great and oft-overlooked capacity as Cultural Leveller), but even then, the most common character traits that have emerged from English interactions with Chinese women seem to tend towards the diminutive and submissive. And I say that painfully aware of the stereotype.

Linguistic Lessons Learned?

However, when I brought my other braincell down off the shelf, I started to wonder. Alison’s English is pretty damn good, but it is still her second language so whenever she is talking to me it’s probably a little harder for her to get the words she wants to out. Talking softly and quietly is conducive to getting it right, or rather not getting it wrong, which is an important distinction to make in a face-saving culture like China’s. Moreover, our interactions are usually inane small-talk (weather, work, weather, air quality, weather, evil boss, weather, etc) which aren’t exactly the most provocative or emotive topics. This wondering then stepped up a notch when I realised it was taking a depressingly familiar turn. I started to wonder if, as usual, it was wholly My Fault. Maybe she usually is loud and ballsy, it’s just when she’s forced to speak in English (to a tall scary white man no less) she comes across as different. Perhaps I am mistaking linguistic non-proficiency with the character trait of shyness.

In truth, Ockham’s Razor wins again: it’s probably a lot more to do with me being a big, white non-Chinese-speaking foreigner than it is bilingualism causing rampant bipolarism (aaaaall the -isms) amongst China’s female population. That said, there is definitely something to the idea that speaking in a particular way will cause you to think a particular way and therefore act a particular way as well. Whether that manifests itself in personality shifts is debatable, but there does seem to be some fairly weighty circumstantial evidence to suggest that something is going on. The whole notion of words existing in some languages but not in others lends at least some credence to the notion that different languages cause different thought processes. Examples include loanwords like ‘schadenfreude’ and concepts that don’t really have counterparts in other languages, like the idea of l’esprit d’escalier from the French or the lack of a word “privacy” in Chinese. Not conclusive, but definitely indicators of a sort.

I’ll end with a spectacularly pretentious quote from a Frenchman called François de La Rochefoucauld (I know, hard to believe he’s from France) which is a nice little riff on what I’ve been rambling about. Hopefully the meaning hasn’t been lost in translation.

The accent of one’s country dwells in the mind and in the heart as much as in the language…

Indubitably. Or true dat. Same same.

On Foxconn Factories…

Or, more alliteratively: are Apple’s claims about its manufacturer Foxconn’s factories fair and factual or foul, feeble fabrications?

Everything is addressed quite succinctly in the report from ABC’s Bill Weir below, but to summarise: all your iPods, iPhones and iPads are manufactured right here in Shenzhen, just down the road from me. Last year, one of my best mates lived at a school in Longhua district, right opposite this notorious factory where the initial spate of suicides that caught the world’s attention happened. There was a lot of Apple/China bashing in the media after those initial reports, but no-one seemed to know what was what and everything seemed confused. Since then, this is the most balanced and impartial (and I say this as someone writing this from the inside of a Chinese factory/warehouse at this very moment) piece I have seen on the issue. The video below is the full-length ABC report, but its hosted on Youtube so it may be taken down due to copyright infringement. I’ll keep an eye out and try and find new links if this one becomes inactive.

All in all, an absolutely fascinating glimpse behind the veil. And for those of you (very few) who read this and aren’t someone I already know here in China, you now have a very tangible link to the hitherto unspeakably far-flung place I’ve been living for three years. You may even be reading this on that link’s screen right this second.

It’s a small world after all.