“The Classical Music Revolution of China”

I just read an editorial piece in the New York Times about classical music and it’s place among the Occupy Wall Street movement that got me thinking about my own family. “From the Medici family and Ludwig of Bavaria to Andrew Carnegie and David H. Koch, classical music, like other performing arts, has long depended on the 1 percent,” writes Anthony Tommasini. This is not so far off in China either, at least not nowadays.

The arts are an important component to China’s cultural inheritance. Mao himself was a poet and a lover of music — granted, the only music allowed during his regime were “Red Songs” with lyrics from his own poetry, but it was music nonetheless. Classical music was not introduced to China until the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. A professor from the Central Conservatory of Music had written Deng a letter requesting permission to enroll students after a 10-year dry spell during the Cultural Revolution–a timely request as Deng was set on modernizing China, opening doors to western influence, and consequently classical music. Permission granted,  17,285 people lined up for the college entrance examination. Narrowed down to 105 total enrollments, my mom was one of 20 singers from all of China to join the ranks. This was the first wave of a new revolution — what I call the “Classical Music Revolution of China.”

My dad followed my mom’s footsteps shortly after, and post graduation, followed her to the United States where she pursued her career in opera, and had me. Growing up,  classical music and the arts in general, surrounded me. (I am writing this post while my mom’s student is roaring Italian lyrics downstairs.) Our family friends were literally all involved in the arts, and while I dabbled in it, I did not end up a musician–a great mystery and shame to many.

My mom as CioCio Sun in Madame Butterfly.

In the west, my mom could study music with American and European teachers, while in the east, the field was still developing. I remember as a child touring around the States watching her perform in Madame Butterfly, La Boheme and Carmen, among others. She also traveled all over the world, singing operas in various European languages. Her career flourished in the west, where opera was an occasion for dressing up and showing off wealth and culture. In the wake of rising tuitions and increasing economic disparity, this is one of Occupy Wall Street’s arguments; performing arts are elitist.

There is no doubt that classical music has historically been limited to the upper class, but as Tommasini points out in his article, there is today an abundance of free and affordable performing arts events throughout New York City.  Similarly in China, attending a performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts is not a cheap ordeal. But there are events scattered throughout Beijing that are accessible to those who are curious or interested. The school my mom works for (the high school attached to the Central Conservatory of Music), for example, often puts on free performances for the public. Too bad the turnouts remain to be low.

Many of my mom’s students come from the wealthiest of families — sons and daughters of leaders in the coal industry, an army surgeon, TV/movie stars, political figures, and various successful businesspeople. This is a major difference between music students today and music students from my parents’ generation. My parents were extremely poor when they began schooling, as were all families during that time, but again, classical music was just a budding interest then. Now that the west has full-blown influence over Chinese society and culture (much to Hu Jingtao’s dismay), classical music has become a popular career path. However, only those who can afford the education can find a place in that field, unless you are blessed with a voice that penetrates the heart and soul of the judges at your audition.

I completely agree with Occupy Wall Street protestors that “the main issue regarding performing arts institutions is not inaccessibility but insularity,” because as I said, you have to have the funds to pursue this career. I have questioned my parents’ morality for working for government-run and arguably profit-oriented schools, but after having witnessed their frustrations, the dead ends, and watching my mom teach tirelessly, my mind changed. My parents’ passion for music and grounded dedication to their students are reason enough for my admiration (besides being their only child of course). And from personal encounters with these students, they’re not so bad. Sure, some are snobby teenagers with brand name clothing and a private apartment, but where in the world are there not such people? They are like any other child striving to achieve their dreams as musicians–just like hip hop artists, baseball players, doctors and lawyers–who happen to come from the 1% (most who work their butts off to support their child’s dreams).

There are  many things I find wrong with Chinese society (as you may have determined from my previous posts), but one thing I have come to appreciate during my time here is the cultural fervor. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that many Chinese artists are suppressed, exiled, jailed, because I am lucky to have an outlet to both eastern and western news, but just knowing that they exist excites me because I sense the kindling of a counterrevolution. And knowing that my parents are part of this movement — whether they see it as that or not — makes me very proud to be their daughter.

Life is definitely different now that my parents are classical-music-big-shots as opposed to lower- to middle- class immigrants, but I will never consider our family elitist. We are just a loving bunch of teachers committed to passing on what we know to whoever will listen.

Emily, the Awkward Turtle

I just taught one of my Chinese students the meaning of “awkward turtle,” a phrase my college friends commonly used to break moments of, well, awkwardness. Then last night, I realized that I am an awkward turtle.

When I was living in Brooklyn, I went out more often than not. I loved going to bars by myself; who knows who you might meet in this wild world? I was a social butterfly! I talked to everyone; the bartenders (I love bartenders), men, women, the underage, war veterans, the elderly… it was the best of times. Since I moved to Beijing, however, I’ve been spending my weekdays exhausted at work and weekends with my parents. Sporadically I’ll go out with Dingding (my only friend–I don’t know what I’d do without her), but she’s always busy (with her boyfriend), and I can’t depend on others all the time. I need to make friends! I crave entertainment (aside from WordPress)! So, I looked online and found a show to go to by my lonesome. Actually, I was quite excited because I thought it would be a great chance to get myself out there and make some new friends!

Boy am I naive.

I went to a bar called D-22 to see an indie rock band from Shanghai–Boys Climbing Ropes–which consists of three tall Canadian men and one little Chinese vocalist who they call Little Punk. She was AWESOME. They were awesome.

While I was sitting at the bar slurping down my whisky ginger waiting for the opening band, Me Too, to start,

I noticed a very studly foreign lad looking my way. Sure I threw him a few glances, but I got tired of doing that and was too nervous to walk over so I opened up an issue of Timeout Beijing, which got me to the show in the first place. While I was reading and pretending I was totally independent and cool and didn’t need any friends, Studly Lad came over and fiddled around with the drink menu on the bar. I thought I would just raise my head ever so slightly to perhaps make eye contact, but instead–I don’t know what came over me–I blurted out “HELLO!” like an overeager beaver. The bartender had also just come over to offer him a drink. Studly Lad became flustered, looked back and forth between me and the bartender and walked away. I wanted to sink back into my hard shell and never come out to face this harsh world ever again.

No, this is not Studly Lad. But close.

And this wasn’t even the first Emily, the Awkward Turtle moment of the night. This incident occurred after my encounter with an American who worked at the bar. Though this conversation wasn’t as awkward as the Studly Lad one, I noticed that while I was “conversing” I had trouble thinking of things to say or even words to express what I wanted to say. When the American introduced me to one of the band members of Boys Climbing Ropes, I said, “Oh wow! Good luck!” to which they responded with chuckling. Do you say “good luck” in that kind of situation?  I can’t remember! Was I supposed to say, “Have a far out show!” or “You guys are awesome (even though I have never heard of you before). Can I have your autograph?”

Anyway, I got over my Studly Lad tragedy and hoped things would improve as the night progressed and I had more to drink. When the music started playing, I wanted so much to dance my brains out as I used to do, but I was too shy. So, I just bopped my head to the beat of X is Y in the corner.

Here and there I made small talk with Chinese girls, too intimidated to approach English-speaking foreigners. And when Boys Climbing Ropes came on stage, I was front and center and even jumped up and down to their heavy beats. They even dedicated a song to me–Socially Awkward. But as soon as the show ended, I walked straight out that door–no goodbyes, no telephone numbers, and no new friends– without looking back except to take a photo to remember the place where I changed forms.

What has come over me? And what am I afraid of, you might ask?

Well, here are my theories as to why I have traded my wings for a hard shell:

1) I have been living with and hanging out with my parents too long. Besides Dingding, I don’t socialize with people my age.

2) My opportunities of speaking English are limited and I am forgetting it orally, as was the case with my Chinese.

3) I felt awkward to begin with because I showed up at a bar alone (even though it used to be a favorite sport of mine).

4) I am currently facing an identity crisis which I shall elaborate on in another post.

Whatever the reason, I have forgotten the art of socializing and I desperately want it back. That night was a kick in the butt I’ve been needing to get my groove back. It might take a while, but I am determined to make friends while I’m here, because life just ain’t worth livin’ if friends aren’t in it.

Anyway, less talkin’, more walkin’. Wish me luck (this is a more appropriate situation to wish someone luck, right?)!


The Elderly Have it Good

The Chinese elderly, like children, always seem to find things to do. And they have so much fun doing it! With public parks scattered throughout every city and courtyards in every neighborhood, all you need is a few pals, a thermos of tea, some playing cards or mahjong, some music, and you’ll have yourself a ball!

The Knitting Club

Club Mahjong

Boys Club

Choir Practice


Dance of the Red Fan

Dance Class

Band Practice

Some prefer to just sit around and chat.

While the folks above are having fun, others still have to work.

Selling Chinese "hackey-sacks"

99 cent store

When the retirement age is 55, what else are you going to do?


Carsick Cars and Mean Drivers

In more exciting recent news, I had friends visit last week! My new friend Zach, to whom I was introduced in Brooklyn by the lovely Kelly, and his girlfriend Anastasia took a week-long trip to Beijing. This is us with Dingding at the DJ Shadow show:

Sweaty, glowing cheeks, blood-shot eyes, pearly whites

I hope they don’t mind I posted this picture…. eeks! Dingding will never know.

A few days later Zach and I went to see Carsick Cars, a Beijing-based rock/pop band at The Old What? Bar located at the west gate of The Forbidden City. The bar was cozy with a nice balance of foreigners and local youth, with regular New York prices. Below are some blurry photos of that sweaty experience.

The Old What? Bar

An usual location for a bar, especially when the policemen at the end of the long street told me there were no bars here. That must explain why when the show ended, a ferocious employee shooed us all outta there and insisted that we knew nothing (nothing about what?!). Maybe I wasn’t supposed to write that, or post the pictures of what I saw. Oops!

Neat earthy decor

Sung Wukong, The Monkey King, a childhood favorite

the interior

Opener: one member French band
Carsick Cars: 3 dudes, small stage, lots of noise! 
The mosh-pitting crowd

I didn’t capture any foreigners in this photo because they were all standing in the back or on the sides. Carsick Cars were obviously a local favorite. Must say though, it felt like home being around so many foreigners. It also felt good to be able to converse in English, however, I think after a month of purely speaking Chinese, my English is already dwindling. What kind of English teacher am I?! I should teach Chinglish instead. I’m an expert.

Moving on…

Carsick Cars were selling cassette tapes of their music! Yay for old-school, except I don’t  have a tape player at home…The last cassette I owned was Shania Twain’s. 

The best part of the night was while Zach and I were getting fresh air and noting how life-threateningly fast the accordion buses were whizzing down the narrow road, we saw this fella across the street practicing martial arts Mr. Miyagi style.

Just like Karate Kid.

On my way home, oh wait. None of the cabs would drive me home because I live so far from the center of the city. I had to hop in Zach’s cab and drop him off first before the cabbie would drive me. And during that ride, burning my heart and soul, he had the nerve to make fun of my Chinese! Gosh, my English is dwindling and my Chinese is barely improving. I guess I should start writing a Chinglish dictionary.

Beijing, a very international city indeed

It’s only day 3 but it already feels like day 23, quite possibly because my days have been jam-packed.

The other night, I tagged along with my close family friend, Dingding (formerly known as Tutu, English name Olivia), to watch her boyfriend perform in a rock music competition.

Me and Dingding at the show

A few unexpected things occurred that night. The first was my dinner. At Amigo. A Mexican restaurant. In China.

Fork and knife, Chicken tacos and a Margarita

"Nachos" or rather cheesy fries

The other more strikingly bizarre events that followed were the performances at the show which I have documented for your viewing pleasure. To provide a bit of context, the show we attended was the final round of an ongoing rock band competition. I have never in my life seen so many faux-hawks in one place (faux-hawks because there’s excess hair on the sides so they don’t quite count as mohawks). I have also never before seen skinheads (that’s how they identify) in China, but there they were –suspenders and all–rockin’ out on stage throwing the f-word left and right (I couldn’t upload my video because I’m not technologically savvy):

They describe themselves as punk rock. Why not?

You think I was shocked then? Well wait till you see who performed next…

They blew my mind

I liked them (they, and the emo band, won) because they called all the girls “rock ladies” and obviously I am a rock lady at heart.

Anyway, the competition moved onto a funk bro-band and ended with the emo group (in which Dingding’s boyfriend played). Pretty diverse selection of music, I’d say. By the end of it all, I was so exhausted the taxi driver probably thought I was drugged.


Now for a different cultural experience, today I visited Tiantan gongyuan, or the Temple of Heaven, where emperors used to pray for good harvests. The park is huge and lined with trees and wandering tourists and locals who exercise, socialize and play music. It is comparable to Prospect and Central Parks, only there’s an entrance fee, 3 gorgeous Chinese temples, and a history that dates back to the early 1400’s. Anyway, under the blaring sun my friends and I followed our tour guide around the park and here’s what we saw:

An aerial view of the temple

the photo does not do justice to its actual beauty

An ancient hand carved tree


We only live once!

The park was beautiful, but compared to other historical places in China it was just “so-so” (as the Chinese like to say).


My day doesn’t begin or end without a hot meal that leaves me regretting my last bite every time. Tonight it was Szechuan hot pot (“huo guo”), which I ate heartily even though I wasn’t hungry to begin with since I had a humongous lunch. Here’s a snapshot of what “huo guo” is for those who don’t already know:

The hot pot’s the steaming spicy pot(s) of soup in the back into which you throw raw foods like fish, meats and vegetables (my favorite is dried beancurd skin…YUMMMM). Knowing that I would feel physically awful if I didn’t digest before coming home, my mom and I took an hour long stroll around the neighborhood. Nothing too exciting in this area (except the McDonald’s of course). And a public bathhouse which we’ll visit soon if it’s still hygienically sound. More details on that later…

I must sign off now because I have a job interview tomorrow morning 2 hours away!! It’s for an English-teaching position at an Australian owned international school with a GOLF COURSE and A PRIVATE LAKE? Luxury? I think so. I hope they don’t mind my nose ring… Either way, I don’t really want this job since it requires me to dorm at the school during the week, and I don’t know how I feel about teaching at a school with a golf course, but I’m going to the interview because I need the practice. Wish me luck anyway!

Wan an! Good night!