The Beijing Big Easy

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The Beijing Big Easy David Moser August 21, 2000. Turn of the millennium. New Orleans, China: I’m sitting in a pseudo Louisiana-style restaurant called the Big Easy, near Chaoyang Park. The building looks like a miniature American southern plantation, an architectural non sequitur plunked down in the east side of Beijing. Tonight I’m sitting in with the house band, replacing their regular guitar player. The music is a mixture of blues, Motown, and pop-jazz, performed by a mixture of American exp
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  The Beijing Big Easy David Moser August 21, 2000. Turn of the millennium. New Orleans, China: I’m sitting ina pseudo Louisiana-style restaurant called the Big Easy, near Chaoyang Park. The building looks like a miniature American southern plantation, an architectural nonsequitur plunked down in the east side of Beijing. Tonight I’m sitting in with thehouse band, replacing their regular guitar player. The music is a mixture of blues,Motown, and pop-jazz, performed by a mixture of American expatriots and localChinese musicians. During the break we all sit around and talk, munching on the freemeal the club provides us. The drummer’s name is Danny California (stage name,I’m guessing), a weathered middle-aged American wearing a cowboy hat, work shirtand striped pants. He looks a bit like Don Imus. The Chinese musicians sit theretrying to eat their stuffed eggplant N’Awleans style and Po’ boy sandwiches.“This… is… real… Cajun… food,” Danny says to them slowly, in a loudvoice, as if they were deaf. They nod politely, even though they haven’t understoodhim. Huang Yong, the bassist, says to me in Chinese, “This is awful stuff. Why isWestern food so tasteless?” I have to agree with him. Danny continues to talk tothem in uncompromisingly idiomatic American English. “What’s wrong with the  groove tonight?” he complains. “I don’t feel like it’s really in the pocket  . It’s like wekeep  shifting gears up there. And I think the bass amp is about to croak  .” The twoChinese musicians stare blankly at him, then at me, waiting for a translation. We talk a bit more about the music, with me acting as interpreter. Huang Yong asks me whythe club is called the “Big Easy”. I tell him that this is the nickname for New Orleans    or maybe the state of Louisiana?     but I don’t really know the srcin of the name.Huang Yong finds it amusing that I can’t answer his question.“You’ve learned so much about Chinese culture, you’ve forgotten your own,”he laughs. After a while the Chinese guys go outside to smoke cigarettes, and Dannyand I continue to talk. Though the two of us have almost nothing in common, there isnevertheless a kind of easy affinity I feel when talking with another American. It’slike switching from dialup to broadband. Every nuance is registered, reflected or deflected. Danny tells me that in addition to playing music, he also repairsmotorcycles in Beijing. He takes me out to the parking lot to have a look. Sureenough, in the parking lot there are a couple of Nazi SS-style sidecar motorcycles, both reconditioned, with plush padding on the seats and gleaming chrome. Beijing, Nazis, California, James Brown, New Orleans. No such thing as a non-sequitur inthis day and age.“Why motorcycles?” I ask. He eyes me with beady annoyance.“Why anything?” he growls. “Why do I play jazz? Why do I fuck womeninstead of men?” I nod sheepishly. Silly question.One of Danny’s Chinese friends spots Danny and walks over to him, givinghim a high five. They have a strange conversation, with Danny speaking in Englishand the Chinese man speaking entirely in Chinese. It’s not clear they understand eachother at all, but it seems not to matter. We go back inside.  Danny is one of those self-exiled Americans, a member of an ever expandinggroup of permanent expatriots living in Southeast Asia, all escaping failed marriages,midlife crisis, deep depression, hopeless debt. I ask him if he plans to go back to theStates. “Nah, I’m through forever with the American thing,” he says. “America issupposed to be the land of the free. I tell you, I never felt free for one minute while Iwas there. I was a slave to everything. To the traffic, to the job, to the companies, thetaxes, even to the TV. I was being herded like dumb goddamned cow , walking aroundin circles in the corral, waiting to get my head conked and my guts pulled out to makesomeone else’s sausage. Here in the Far East I feel really free. I never know whattomorrow is going to be like, but at least I’m in control of today.” Danny haswandered Asia for the last decade, first living in Thailand for many years where hehad (or maybe still has) a wife, then working for a time in Hong Kong, where heorganized musical gigs on cruise ships. Now he’s in Beijing. I ask him how he likesit here.“I tell you,” he says, “It’s no longer a matter of where I live. It’s a matter of  how I live. I don’t care about getting into the life here, understanding the people, theculture. The longer I live the more I feel like culture is boring and pointless. It justgets in the way. I like to connect with a person as an individual. I don’t care if he’sChinese or Martian. If we can hook up, get something going, fine. If not, I just moveon. Life is too short. What can I say? Beijing has food, it has taxicabs, it haswomen. It’s a city. I live in it. What else do you want to know?”It’s time for the second set to start, and the musicians slowly assemble back onthe stage. Louis, the pianist, a balding black fellow in his late forties, is the nominalleader of the group and takes care of the perfunctory MC chores. Each set beginswith a few instrumental numbers, and then they bring on Jacqui, “Sugar Mama”Staton, the vocalist.“And now, straight from St. Louis USA, please put your hands together for Sugar Mama!” The crowd, about half of them foreigners, applaud enthusiastically.Many have seen Jacqui’s act before, and are coming back to see her again.Sugar Mama steps on the stage and the band kicks into an Aretha classic,  Respect  . I’m immediately impressed with her professionalism and natural stage presence. Jacqui is large. Not fat, exactly, just LARGE. Like a Cadillac. To many of the Chinese here she must seem almost like different species: the black skin, theimposing lioness mane of hair, the extravagantly extroverted body language, thefearless interaction with the audience. So different from the other professional femalevocalists in Beijing, who stand nearly motionless at relaxed attention, like a musicalMing vase, crooning soft pop tunes in cool, polished tones. Jacqui is more like afirecracker. She begins to work the crowd immediately, introducing each number with a relaxed, improvised rap. She’s soulful, funny, a bit self-deprecating, and a littleoff-color. She wails, bumps, grinds, sweats. She scoops up the low notes and nailsthe high notes. Since I’ve never rehearsed with the group, I have a little troublekeeping up. There are no charts for the songs, so I’m watching Huang Yong’s fingersand occasionally asking him for the chords to a bridge section. I keep quiet when I’mnot sure about a chord change, and let loose when given a solo. During an intro to  Georgia on My Mind  , I happen to play exactly the same dominant-7-flat-9 chord asLouis the pianist plays, and he smiles beatifically. But Jacqui is so much in charge,that I just follow her for beginnings, endings, rhythmic interludes. The crowd lovesher, and by the end of the set, they are standing on their feet and cheering.“This Motown stuff is like a universal language,” Louis says to me as we walk off the stage. “Wherever we go, people dig it. The Chinese can’t get enough of it.”Jacqui hangs out with the band in the break room, stealing nachos off the plates of theChinese musicians, much to their annoyance. She is gregarious, relaxed, and playfulwith everyone. She chats with me for a while.“Damn, your Chinese sounds good, Dave,” she compliments me. (In a placelike this, I’m always “Dave” it seems.) “There must some reason you speak it sogood. Did you spend time in prison here, or what?” I tell her I’ve studied thelanguage for 15 years, and the process did seem a little like being in prison at times.“Well, that’s something. All I can say is, if you’d spent that much time and energy onthat guitar, you’d be goddamned Segovia by now, and we’d be paying money to see  you .” She’s right, of course. And seeing how these westerners are living and playingeffortlessly in Beijing without a single phoneme of Chinese in their vocabulary, I’msuddenly wondering if my 15-year quest to learn Chinese was more Don Quixote thanMarco Polo.Jacqui used to sing backup behind Ike and Tina Turner, honest to god. She’sgot stories. She’s also been floating around Asia for more than a decade. A firebrandonstage, offstage she begins to take on the mannerisms of the 60-year-old African-American woman she is. “Ah, Dave,” she says to me, massaging an aching back, “If Ihad known how long I was going to live, I would have taken better care of myself.”When Jacqui goes off to get some food of her own, Huang Yong and asksDanny and me “Can you understand everything Jacqui says? Doesn’t she speak withsome kind of dialect? We can all speak some English, but we can never understandanything black people say.” I tell him her accent is indeed different from the one theyhad learned in school, but I can understand it perfectly well, because what she speaksis not really a dialect (in the sense that Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese), but merelya regional accent. Danny snorts at my hoity-toity English-professor explanation.“Hell, you don’t need to listen to her words,” he says to Huang Yong. “Justlisten to her sing. The singing is communication, all the communication you reallyneed.” Huang Yong grins and nods.“I sometimes think Danny is a genius,” he says to me in Chinese. “But a real jerk. He’s always having arguments with Louis. And he criticizes my bass playing allthe time. Some Americans are so blunt and crude. They don’t take into account thedignity of the other person. I don’t mean to say you’re that way, but a lot of Americans are.” Yes, I tell him, I know exactly what he means. My attention drifts toa pudgy foreign woman at a table next to the wall    I assume her to be American    wearing a University of Michigan sweatshirt and reading a bible, the kind with asturdy black leather cover. “What’s she doing in a club like this?” I wonder. Butthen, I’m not sure what I’m doing here myself. Maybe Danny is right. What are anyof us doing here? And what does it matter?  I have been ignoring the ubiquitous TV mounted in the corner of the ceiling, but suddenly I notice on the screen a commercial for Tide detergent, in Mandarin. Ina format mindlessly copied from classic American commercials, a dozen frilly-aproned Chinese “housewives” (who don’t look anything like real Chinesehousewives, but more like 1950s American June Cleaver clones) dance ecstatically ina flawless green backyard, amidst fluffy white sheets flapping on clotheslines.“Wow,” I say, tapping Danny California on the shoulder. “Do you sometimeswonder where you are?”“At my age, I’m more confused about when I am,” he says. “I’ve becomeunstuck in time.” – He seems unaware of the reference to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse- Five – “I never care what year we’re in now. I lost a whole decade to cocaine. I’mliving in the future now, and I don’t even know how I got here.” I nod in agreement,still staring at the screen. Yes, I somehow got transported to the free-floating future,as well. The Tide commercial segues into a commercial for Kentucky Fried Chicken,with an animated Colonel Sanders speaking in giddy Mandarin about the astonishing bargains available at his restaurants. Huang Yong makes a vomiting noise, makingfun of the Colonel’s cuisine.“God, I miss drugs,” Danny says to me. “But for the Chinese, food is their drug. They’re fucking junkies. I can take or leave food. They gotta get their fixevery day.”As if on cue, Huang Yong says to me “Let’s go out and get some real  food.”There is a Xinjiangese guy in the alley outside selling  yangrouchuanr  , a kind of mutton shish-kebab cooked over a charcoal fire, and we all head outside to buy a fewdozen skewers. As we stand there wiping grease from our chins, the Xinjiang guy,who has surmised that we are musicians, asks what kind of music we play.“Blues!” says Huang Yong, though he says it with the usual string of Chinesemorphemes, “  BU-lu-SI  ”.“Motown!” adds Danny. “Do you know who Aretha Franklin is?” I smile andwait for the Xinjiang guy’s reaction. It seems unlikely that he understands anyEnglish at all, much less that he listens to Aretha Franklin.To my surprise, the Xinjiang guy laughs and shouts “Aretha! R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” I nearly drop my  yang rou chuanr  . My sense of disorientation is deep and dizzy.Danny California seems unfazed.“My man !” he says, biting off a piece of cooked mutton with such force thatthe flimsy wooden stick breaks. My mind seems to travel out of my body and swirlinto the sky along with the charcoal smoke and mosquitoes, where I look down from a bird’s-eye view at our little group of world citizens, communicating with a million-year-old language of hands and eyes and vocal grunts saying we’re still here, we’re still evolving  .And I think: “Culture is dead. Long live culture.”
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