Hello Uncle Foreigner

music

Dec 12, 2017

Big changes

You may have noticed some changes around here. A new facelift, and Hello Uncle Foreigner is now responsive and mobile-friendly. We are ready for the future!

And the changes are not just cosmetic. We know that the in past few years posting had slowed to slightly more than nothing. Since mid-2015, we were busy moving across the country — twice! — but more than that, Hello Uncle Foreigner entered into a period of rumination. After four years of regular blogging about our daily life, travel, and hot pots, we had reached the end of what we wanted to say on those fronts. We went dormant. And then Peter got sick.

But that doesn’t mean we had given up. During our two-year time out we still worked and traveled and ate hot pot, and refilled our creative reserves. Now, I’m excited to say that Peter is well on the mend, and … we’re back! We’ve got so many new stories to share, and so many different ways in which we want to share them.

First up, we are extremely proud to present, “Hello Uncle Foreigner: America.” Peter and I spent a month of summer 2016 back in the U.S., and basically eating everything in sight. “What’s it like to be back?” was the main question people had for us, and at the time, we struggled with a good answer. More than a year later, I think we can explain how that felt …

We’re very grateful to all of our friends and family who hosted us, partied with us, and just generally showed us a good time. To those who didn’t make the final cut (there was a 45-minute version, but even we were bored by it), just know that you’re too much fun for Peter to waste his time with you behind a camera. And, uh, to those who did make the cut … you’re just too telegenic to leave out!

Our other big news, you’ll have to go elsewhere to find. This summer I spoke with Chengdu rap group Higher Brothers, and you can find my article in the September issue of NYLON magazine. It was great fun to exercise those muscles again: chasing leads, contacting strangers, asking invasive personal questions, and writing and rewriting on deadline. The guys are really talented artists. I don’t know if they’ll successfully cross over to the American market, but I do know that they deserve some attention.

So, keep an eye on this space! There will be many new movies and other projects coming down the pike in the next few months. It’s our goal to join the greater discussion going on about China and Chinese culture, as well as share the fantastic stories that Luzhou (and beyond) has to offer. But mostly we’re just excited to keep pushing ourselves to the limit of what two people, a blog, and some a/v equipment can do.

Jan 10, 2015

Huun-Huur-Tu comes to Chongqing

And we do, too

Huun-Huur-Tu on stage at NUTS Club in Chongqing, December 2015
Peter filming 小舟 at 16th Bystreet Music Bar in Chongqing
Peter, in action, at 16th Bystreet Music Bar
A mixologist at NUTS Club
The bartender pours some kind of ’tini at Nuts Club.

I’m not going to lie, this weekend away was a little difficult. We only had a few days free, Peter had a cold, and the trouble I was having purchasing concert tickets at one point had me in tears. (A Chinese-language website, international banking and computer-related issues all conspired to let me know that I was a failure as an adult.) The dark, cold winter days only amplified our discomfort.

But we weren’t in Chongqing to be comfortable, we were there for the music. And the hot pot. But, mostly the music.

First up, 小舟. We dropped in on our favorite hole-in-the-wall venue — the 16th Bystreet Music Bar — to find him and his friends doing a loosey-goosey jam. 小舟, unbeknownst to us at the time, is actually a Beijing folk-rock artist of some renown. Sound at the Music Bar is kind of crap — the house drum kit has the timbre of a bucket of nails — but these guys were really great. With each new player to take the stage, the style meandered from traditional to funky, or sometimes both at once. The audience was small but into it, and the staff particularly was having a good time. You could tell that they love working at a live music venue.

The whole reason for our trek, however, was the legendary Tuvan throat singers of Huun-Huur-Tu. Peter has loved these guys since the early ’90s and the second he saw that they’d be at Nuts Club, he said we had to be there.

Nuts is now in the basement of a downtown shopping mall. (Lots of stuff is in malls in China.) Jogging through the empty corridors, past closed-down shops — we were late, because getting anywhere from anywhere in Chongqing takes FOREVER — we followed the sound of music to find our destination. New Nuts is slightly bigger than the old club, and they now have one of the best bars in China with a meticulous staff.

When we arrived, the four men of Huun-Huur-Tu were already on stage, wearing their traditional Tuvan costumes. Between songs, Sayan Bapa — one of the group’s original members — addressed the crowd in English, explaining the meaning of each piece. “Each of our songs is a short story,” he said. About friendship, love, loss, homesickness and, of course, horses. All very human things, but some more specific to the nomadic Tuvan culture than others. Before a song about caravan migration, Bapa joked, “[it] usually takes three months, but we’ll play a shorter version.”

Some of their songs are as old as the 12th century, he told us. And the group plays mostly traditional instruments — including one wooden clopper that mimics the sound of horse hooves perfectly. But their vital spirit and the plain emotion that comes through the music keeps the experience from feeling musty. Live, the overtone singing becomes something you feel as well as hear, and it was almost as if you, too, were there on the central Asian grasslands, with the nomads. And the horses. It was a truly fantastic performance.

After the show, the guys changed into street clothes, and sat around the merch table eating takeaway noodles. We shook their hands on our way out, but being shy (and unsure of which language to address them in) we didn’t say much beyond “thank you” (and 谢谢).

Huun Huur Tu from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Mar 2, 2014

The Chongqing stopover

Oh, let’s just stay

Ciqikou, teeming with tourists
An acoustic performer at 16th Bystreet Music BarHere's Sheldon!
Need some “Big Bang Theory”-inspired art? You can find it in Ciqikou.
We eat hot pot in Ciqikou.
The return to Sichuan spice at our favorite Chongqing hot pot.

Chongqing has been our transfer point often enough that we’ve developed a cozy routine: Check in at the Perfect Time Hostel, snack and mingle with the tourists in Ciqikou Ancient Town, eat hot pot at the place, and take in a drink at the 16th Bystreet Music Bar. Maybe hit up Carrefour for some imported goodies. Then, catch the bus home to Luzhou.

Once we settled in this time, however, we just wanted to stay. The weather was nice, Ciqikou was humming with activity — we saw some shops go up literally overnight. And we didn’t have anywhere to be for at least a month.

Adding on some extra days meant we had some time to go exploring around the city; we went book shopping, Sichuan-food eating, and neighborhood wandering. “It feels like we’re back in China,” we said to each other as we meandered down a small alleyway filled with hair salons, mahjong parlors and kids playing outside. Sanya is on the mainland, too, but it felt like another world.

The main event was a Saturday night surprise, to us, concert at the Music Bar. The band drew a small crowd, made up of a small group of their friends, us and some other extras, but they were amazing! Their music mixed Chinese traditions and western rock influences — Dylan, Hendrix, Costello — in the best way. It had a dark and moody vibe that held together through it all, and the frontman had a simmering intensity that captivated the small audience. It may have been a mostly friends event, but they performed like they wanted to rock the world. I just wish I remembered their name.

Jul 28, 2013

Listen up Kunming

Where the rock’s at (and the yaogun and the jazz and the trad …)

Punk rockers at Camel BarCamel Bar has fun artThe crowd at Camel BarOur Camel Bartender readies the absinthe
Kunming punk band 零一路 plays Camel Bar, and the hometown crowd takes it in.
The group show at TGC NordicaTGC Nordica
When we looked a little lost after we got out of the cab, a neighborhood man knew right away we were there to see the gallery. He directed us toward the alleyway that is the home of TGC Nordica, an art and theater space/cafe. The group show on view was super cool!
Guitar jam at Wenlin MementoZoltan's Trio at Alei Lounge
l: Guitar jam at Wenlin Memento; r: Zoltan’s Jazz Trio at Alei Lounge
South Cats' keyboardist at Camel Bar
The keyboardist from South Cats, also on the bill with 零一路.
The lead singer of 零一路 at Camel BarCamel Bar's bathroom
The bathroom at Camel Bar had one of the greatest interior decorating schemes we’ve seen in China.

We were ecstatic to find that among the wide range of experiences that Kunming offers is a lively art and music scene. There’s a small but growing network of art galleries, and you can find live music somewhere, every night of the week. People make stuff here! Creative stuff!

Perusing the events calendar on GoKunming ahead of time, this is one area where we allowed ourselves heightened expectations. Our plan was to take it easy on the daytime tourist stuff, and follow an aggressive schedule of nightly rocking. Two shows a night, some nights. Venues were various, from western restaurants to dedicated rock clubs to the aforementioned art galleries, and the styles of music was similarly diverse. We were excited.

And we weren’t let down. We found music even when we weren’t looking for it. Small combos in bars played covers everywhere you turned. And in Green Lake Park, large groups gathered under every tree to play traditional tunes. Our every move was soundtracked.

As far as intentional music, there were a few standouts:

Zoltan’s Jazz Trio played abstracted standards at Alei Lounge Club and Tapas Bar, with a bass line through out that could have walked us all the way back to Luzhou. The band was two-thirds Chinese (Zoltan himself is Swedish, I believe), and the audience skewed young, fashionable and local. This is a precedent that we would happily see repeated all week. You see, even with hopes so high, there was a fear that the whole scene would be a grafted-on, expat-only social affair. Something unsustainable and exclusionary. It was great to find that this wasn’t the case.

At Wenlin Memento, a sophisticated little club with an NPR vibe and a family crowd, we caught an acoustic jam with guitarist 鄢文杰. He and his friends were wicked talented, their fingers dancing all over the fret board with speed and mellow agility. Our only complaint was that the club was so smoky that we had to leave before the performance was over.

Our favorite show, however, had to be 零一路, a Kunming punk band, at the Camel Bar. They were opening for another local band called South Cats (whom, to gauge audience reaction, was the real reason everyone was there), but to us, their scrappy little punk show was it. Incorporating influences like Nirvana with a yaogun sensibility, they totally rocked. There was a nice give and take between the bassist and the guitarist as dueling frontmen, with the guitarist prowling the stage like a wild animal kept in check by the bassist’s stern rhythm. They did a punk version of “The Powerpuff Girls” theme song, and at times they were one dissonant chord away from thrash metal.

The band played to a loving and supportive hometown crowd. (And keeping with what I’ve experienced so far in China, the genders were an even 50/50 split. Go girls! And go boys, for making the girls feel safe and welcome!) The club was spacious and large, with two well-stocked bars — we even had absinthe shots, all proper with the sugar cube and the spoon and all. It may have been here that we decided for certain that Kunming is our next home. Not because of the absinthe, though. The music! It’s all about the music.

Every aspect of our trip outstripped our expectations, but none more than the opportunity to see live shows. And I didn’t even mention that all of this was free! No cover charges anywhere. Only good vibes and excellent music. The only thing we could say is: Yes.

Jun 5, 2013

Snaps: Rocking closer to home

The cool kids make some noise

A concert on the school grounds
Our rock band

Shortly after arming ourselves with new instruments, we found that Tianfu Middle School had been training up some little rockers as well. It was showcase day for the school’s various clubs, and one of those clubs was rock club.

The group gave a performance, rotating in new singers for each song. They ran into some sound issues — like you do, in China — but it was a pretty cool show. Mixed in with the poppy tunes were some proto-post-Joy Division droners. Extremely cool.

Jun 2, 2013

Guitar shopping

And bargaining practice

Our family of guitars

With rock in our ears as we returned to Luzhou, we decided it was time to go guitar shopping. It was about time we acquired a cheap acoustic for the old apartment.

On our initial recon trip to the half dozen music stores that surround the old campus, we walked away with a brand new ukulele. The instant I picked it up, I just wanted it. The price tag was 860 yuan — a little over US$100 — though we accidentally bargained the clerk down to 840, because she waved away our debit card and 840 was all the cash we had on hand. Score!

After spending the afternoon with the newly christened Ramona Mona Ramone, Peter decided that what he was really after was a nylon stringed classical guitar. So the next day, we returned to the most promising of the shops. There was a cool-looking crew hanging out there: An older manager-type, a young man expertly jamming on an electric Paul Reed Smith, two post-high school girls with a little English who seemed to work there, and an additional girl who looked girlfriendy.

They all watched — well, not the girlfriend, she was busy with her phone — as Peter tried out the guitar he wanted. A small step up from the cheapest of the cheap, it was a huge leap in quality, and it was to be ours. The price tag said 1600 yuan, but “I’m going to ask for less,” I told Peter in English. Then in Chinese, I tried to say it was too expensive. Whatever I did manage to say, they understood my meaning, and the manager knocked 300 off.

They also didn’t take cards, so I had to run to the bank for cash, leaving Peter with all of our stuff. Peter took a spin on the young man’s guitar. “Oh, wow! So cool,” his audience cooed. As he was looking through a Fender catalogue, one of the girls asked Peter if he liked Fender. “I do. But they’re very expensive,” he said. They all laughed, knowingly. (They may have the catalogues, but most of the guitars we see in the stores here are knockoffs.)

There was a poster of Ibanez guitars on the wall, and Peter pointed to it and said “That’s what I play.” The girl retrieved an Ibanez catalogue from the back, and flipped to a picture of Steve Vai. She pointed to the boy with guitar and said “That’s his favorite guitarist.” Peter said “Me too!” And the boy launched into some Steve Vai songs. He was pretty good, too.

Luzhou’s not a live music town — everyone tells us that we have to go to Chongqing or Chengdu for that. But, of course, the kids who like music hang out at the guitar stores! Duh. Some things are not so different between the US and China.

Jun 1, 2013

Chongqing Punk Fest: Going to the show

RAAAAAAAAAAWR!

Punk Rock at Nuts Club

A punk rock show was enticing enough, but when we found out that the Chongqing Punk Festival was to be headlined by SUBS, we were totally committed. The Beijing-based garage punkers come up in any discussion of yaogun as one of China’s foremost practitioners, and we leaped at the opportunity to see them live.

Stickers in the bathroomBlood on the bass

The Nuts Club, the evening’s host, is a small rock club near the campus of Sichuan University. Much like (New) Little Bar in Chengdu, the ground floor space is intimate and modern with a well-stocked bar. The walls are covered in arty posters, and the walls of the bathroom are stickered with various band names. Think CBGBs but much, much cleaner.

We skipped the early afternoon skateboarding portion of the festival, and arrived in time to catch Hell City. The band was fronted by a tall, mohawked man wearing a dress military jacket — totally punk rock. Their sound had a delightfully aggressive metal edge to it. “I would fight anyone for these guys,” I wrote in my notes. They ended their set with a rollicking cover of “Death or Glory.”

The Wheels took the stage shortly after Hell City left it, and they were a fun bunch of guys. Kind of Green Day-ish with a machine gun for a drummer. The bassist literally bled for us, and the crowd enthusiastically moshed for the first 10 seconds of each song.

As much buzz was in the room from the start, there was a noticeable uptick in energy as SUBS took the stage. Fronted by Kang Mao, a wild-child punk siren, SUBS captured the crowd and whipped us into a frenzy. Kang was all over the stage, screaming her guts out into the mic, and pounding on the keyboard. At one point she dove into the crowd, and she grabbed my hand! It was intensely Yeah Yeah Yeahs meets Battles meets Birthday Party, but a thing that was all its own. Both Peter and I agree, this ranks up there with some of the best live shows we’d ever seen.

After the show, we searched in vain for merch. I even asked Kang, who was exiting through the front room, if they 有 CDs. She told me to look online. As the club emptied out, we followed the exodus to the parking lot next door, where an enterprising crew had set up a BBQ situation. We midnight snacked on broccoli and lotus root (this is why we’re thinner in China), and yelled to each other about how awesome the show was.

We found delicious BBQ outside after the show

May 18, 2013

Friday in China

May 10, 2013 • 2013年 05月 10日

Can you spot Uncle Foreigner?

Fridays, we teach Juniors, and it’s Peter’s earliest day. His first class is second period, 8:40am. For me, it’s my sleep-in day; my first class isn’t until third period, 9:30am.

The kids today are more rambunctious than usual. Opening class with “How are you?” gets me answers of “Unhappy!” and “Terrible!” Their parents are coming in for school conferences.

I hear more about it at lunchtime. Peter is taking a nap and I am done for the day, so I walk down the hill with my student, Amy. She is wearing a shirt that says, “We are all greedy bitches.” I know that she knows what the word “bitch” means, because she keeps calling her history teacher one. “I know what the rules are! I never break them,” she complains to me, her voice quivering with the rage of the unjustly wronged. And yet, her history teacher yells at her a lot, and will presumably give a bad report to Amy’s mother and father. Amy is also worried what her parents will think about the 0 she got on her math exam. “I don’t like math,” she says in defence. She did, however, get a 95 in English.

After we say goodbye, I go up to the track. On my second lap, a Senior 3 student, Zhang Rae, joins me. We try to run together every week, and he’ll practice his English on me. He tells me he really liked the movie “Silence of the Lambs.”

We discuss films, future plans, Chinese history … everything. “Many young people think Deng Xiaoping was a great man,” Zhang Rae says. They don’t like Mao. But, he adds, Mao was a great man.

On my way back to my apartment, I’m met by one of my neighbors, an older man in his 70s. With Zhang Rae’s translation help, we have our first conversation: He sees me running all of the time! Would I like a plant that will cure my freckles? Chinese people really don’t like freckles.

Curious, I take him up on his offer. The plant turns out to be aloe — my neighbor is cultivating, like, hundreds of aloe vera plants. He chops me a few stalks and mimes rubbing them all over my face. When I run out, I am free to pick some more, he tells me.

After the lunch break, Peter goes to his final class. Ten minutes later, he returns. It turns out parent-teacher conferences are happening during afternoon classes. Not for the first time, our classes are cancelled without anyone telling us. But it’s a hardship we’ll bear. The internet is out, so we spend all afternoon reading comic books and playing cards.

For dinner, we are meeting a new friend, Melody. She spotted us at chuan chuan a few weeks ago and introduced herself. Her English is really good. She’s actually a former English teacher from our school, and these days she does private tutoring while she stays home with her baby. She keeps current on her English by watching and reading American TV and books.

While we wait for Melody, at the corner near chuan chuan, one of Peter’s students spots us. Walking with her father, she proudly says hello. They disappear around the corner … and then she comes running back. She offers us a bag of delicious flaky pastries filled with red bean paste. We eat two on the spot and have the rest for days.

Before dinner, Melody takes us to get Chinese massages. These are the best massages either of us have ever had. More theraputic than, like, a pamper-yourself spa package, they treat all of our aches and pains. As we’re finishing up, Melody asks if we’d like to try cupping. “Does it hurt?” I ask. Not really, she said.

Peter got cuppedMelody brought us to a new restaurant
Left: Peter’s post-cupping back. Despite the welty look, it doesn’t hurt. I promise. Right: Melody and me, and the many fine cuts of beef we ate.

Cupping is one of those things that the hosts of Chinese travel documentaries have to try out, always with an air of, “Isn’t Chinese medicine wacky?!” But it didn’t really feel any stranger than other poking and prodding I’d been through in the name of beauty and comfort. I was thinking of Gwyneth Paltrow, though, the whole time the cups were suctioned on my back. In the end, I felt great and Peter said that his 22-year-old back injury felt better than it ever had.

In this state of bliss, we go on to dinner. Melody takes us to a new hot pot restaurant that specializes in beef. We get individual pots, and a large spread of delicious food. They also have a spice bar there, and Peter and I go a little nuts. Looking at our bowls, Melody says she can tell we are newbies because we took so many different things. But I need garlic, peanuts, oil, 2 kinds of peppers, tahini AND sesame seeds!

The conversation is equally as delicious. We talk about what it means to live a good life and how to follow your heart, both philosophically and pragmatically. We also talk English; Melody asks us what a trust fund is — something she’d come across in her reading. “The characters are always saying, ‘Don’t touch my trust fund!’” she says. She’s surprised when we tell her that not all Americans have trust funds.

After dinner, we say goodbye to Melody and cap off the night at Manchester United. They always have interesting music there. Tonight on rotation: “Rock and Roll All Nite,” KISS; “Personal Jesus,” Depeche Mode; “Get it On (Bang a Gong),” T.Rex. Why? Who can say. That’s just China.

We ate BEEF

Nov 22, 2012

Tofu soup and spelling contests

And shampoo jeans

Alex introduced us to tofu soup

During the National Day holiday, we made a date to meet up with our pal Alex. He was preparing for a big speech competition that was to be held in the following month, and he had asked for our help. Of course, lunch was part of the deal as well.

He took us up a windy road to a set up that looked a lot like our 串串, with burners set into the middle of tables and a bubbling pot on top. But, in fact, it was something totally different: A tofu soup!

(Now Peter and I both enjoyed tofu in the states, but coming to China we’ve realized that the way tofu is served in the US is often the most totally boring way you could do it. No wonder no one likes it. Here in China, tofu is treated as a real food and seasoned and cooked with accordingly. So when you read tofu soup, don’t think “Ugh,” think “Yum!”)

The soup was a live bubbling broth with tofu, veggies. beans, and a delicious cured pork. We ordered some extra cabbage from an extremely long menu of side dishes (“I don’t even know what everything on here is,” Alex said.), and a few lunch beers. It was vacation after all.

Alex showed us his speech, which was an incredibly thoughtful meditation on being a teenager and what your youthful opportunities and responsibilities are. I copy edited the crap out of it, and tried to reassure him that I’ve marked up native English speakers’ work as much. And then we just chatted. For the kids willing to take advantage of it, fluent conversation is really the best resource Peter and I can offer in terms of English language acquisition. It’s fun to have friends, but it’s also really cool to know that we’re helping those friends just by sitting around and talking.

At this lunch, we also solved a mystery that we’d been thinking about for the past year. Our favorite Chinese pop song came on — a song we had been calling “Shampoo Jeans.” And I started to sing along with our made up words. “You know this song?” Alex asked. We explained to him what “shampoo jeans” is and he laughed at us and revealed that the song is actually called “伤不起” [pronounced Shang Bu Qi]. Give it a listen and try not to hear “shampoo jeans” in the chorus.

Aug 7, 2012

Na na na na na na na

We took our sad song, and made it better, better, better …

The other night, I went to dinner with some teacher friends. And dinner, of course, means karaoke to follow.

I was talking music with one of the women; she named some western pop singers and I mentioned that I prefer rock to pop. (“Oh, like Linkin Park?” she asked.) But we found a point of overlap on Paul McCartney, who had just performed at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.

Which is how I ended up singing “Hey Jude” with a room full of Chinese women. Ostensibly, it was a duet by the two of us, but excitement for the song meant that everyone joined in. Especially on the na na na’s. At the end, they chanted “Beer, beer, beer, beer!” and my partner and I toasted each other and the good Sir Paul.