CCTV Music Review (Kind of)

CCTV (Chinese state TV) didn’t commission me. I’m just reviewing musical experiences in China. By that, I don’t mean Mr Oliver making his students wild at an end of year school show. Melodic music seems completely endemic here. Rhythm and blues do not. The exploration of music in China has been limited. Pop concerts are plentiful. Traditional music is out there. KTV is everywhere, seemingly only beaten in numbers by the dreaded mosquitoes.

Throughout travels, I’ve overheard piped speakers repeating at shrieking levels “wǒ ài Mǎnzhōulǐ” in deepest darkest coldest Inner Mongolia (内蒙古) to two people, in a field of ice. Actually, almost every province I’ve visited has had Mandarin language to its music. Rarely have I overheard local dialects, other than Cantonese in Guangdong. I’m convinced when my Granddad George Acton visited Qīngdǎo (青岛) and ShànghǎI (上海) in the 1940s, he visited at a time when local dialects were rife and strong. Whilst Mandarin has brought uniformity and literacy, it did also deliver annoying song xiǎo píngguǒ (小苹果).

Released in May 2014, the catchy Xiao Pingguo song refuses to go away. I think of it as China’s answer to the Crazy Frog. Wang Taili (王太利) and Xiao Yang (肖央) are the successful Chopstick Brothers (筷子兄弟). They’re not on my Christmas card list. Ever. They were even parodied by the Chinese Ministry of Defence, for recruitment purposes, in July 2014. I remember it being irritating then but if that’s how they plan to tackle the Taiwan problem, so be it. Siege by surreal music. Like Christmas songs in July, Xiao Pingguo never exits your head or seemingly airplay.

In education, I’ve witnessed a wealth of traditional instruments from China. Students plucking the Guzheng’s (古箏)’s 16–26 strings, or pear-shaped Pipa (琵琶), or similar Liuqin (柳琴) have formed mini-orchestras and solo acts throughout many school shows. A whole wealth of other stringed instruments hasn’t been seen in Xinjiang or Tibet, because I’ve yet to visit either region. I have heard and seen the two-stringed fiddle (Erhu 二胡) in action. I’ve had a go in Yunnan too. Maybe one day I’ll try it again. It can have an upbeat melodic ring to it, or deep blues. Mandopop and Cantopop covers haven’t been far behind.

Hugely popular song: WoMen Bu Yi Yang 我們不一樣 – by 大壯 Da Zhuang

There are countless string and pipe instruments throughout the land of China, with names too unknown to write and sounds heard rarely to explain. Clay, bells, silk too, and other instruments are fantastic to see in villages and countryside areas. The húlúsī (葫芦丝) is a gourd wind instrument that looks like a bulbous pipe swallowed a recorder. It can be played in a haunting manner, as witnessed in the foothills of Yunnan. Unlike Eason Chan, G.E.M., Jackie Chan, Jay Chou, the TF Boys, BTS, and other Chinese pop stars, I will miss traditional instruments like the húlúsī.

Dagu (大鼓) means large drum and would have been found in countless drum towers across imperial China. These days they can be found at school shows alongside the Zhangu (战鼓) or war drum. Likewise museums may encase them, just up the aisle from flutes made of bones. Yǎyuè (雅樂) translates to something like elegant music. The aristocracy and Confucius believed music could only follow one path for self-cultivation and governmental ruling. “March of the Volunteers”(义勇军进行曲 Yiyǒngjūn Jìnxíngqǔ) probably fits the yǎyuè mindset.

Originally known as The March of the Anti-Manchukuo Counter-Japan Volunteers, the national anthem of China can be found weekly at school flag raising ceremonies, all national holidays, supermarkets, and even playing from children’s toys. The national anthem was penned by Tián Hàn (田汉), a novelist and playwright). It was set to music by Yunnan’s Niè Ěr (聂耳) AkA George Njal, as was his wish. Sadly Nie Er drowned at a young age and never expanded on a blossoming and flourishing musical career. Many moons later I passed through his native Kunming and listened to the sound of heavy traffic. This after days of bird song, didgeridoo, and drums in Dali.

Hong Kong, the Magic Island Festivals at Zhuhai, Guangzhou, Dongguan (mostly Irene’s Bar) and Shenzhen remain the places I’ve seen the most live music during my years in China. A few live bands and DJs in Shanghai and Dali probably complete a short list for a large land. It hasn’t been that I haven’t been looking for it of asking for live music. Even before bloody CoViD-19 struck, it was hard enough to see live music and a million times harder to get tickets. Strip away the VIP, VVVIP, of Golden Platinum VIP options and music tickets are hard to find. Expect nothing for anything labelled VIP. The gimmicks are status only.

In Dongguan, whilst writing for Hubhao magazine, I was lucky enough to enjoy Netherlands band Atlantic Attraction. Their website is now about knees so I guess they broke up or faded out. I went looking for answers. None. Perhaps when I fly home to the UK via the Netherlands, Kevin de Haas will swap vocals and guitar for baggage handling, and Arend Lacked may have moved to Airbnb, or Joris van der Pole may have shed bass in favour of bus driving. The drums are out so perhaps Sibren Huijsmans will sell me a coffee. A good band. Missed.

Epic festivals at Hong Kong such as Clockenflap, seeing Paul Draper at Guangzhou’s Mao Livehouse, swinging by So What Livehouse and the various Brown Sugar Jar venues have been good experiences. Watching Mr Irish Bastard at an intimate night in Shenzhen or spending Christmas Day with an acoustic guitar concert will remain fond memories. And of course, Dongguan foreign band, Revolution, now dissolved… and out if their ashes, come Reload. That’s Sunday’s entertainment sorted. Big Band Theory at Murray’s were electric, as has been almost every music night at Irene’s Bar in Houjie town.

The journey through music in Asia and from China won’t end on leaving this country. I’m already booked into seeing The Hu, a Mongolian rock band later this year, complete with instruments, the morin khuur and the tsuur. How China can water down Mongolian dialect in favour of Mandarin in Inner Mongolia (P.R of China) is beyond me? Languages need preservation, and music has long imbibed that theme. I can’t wait to experience my next installments of Mongolian music after Taiga band in Bar Ink, Dongguan.

And of course, I can always say my former St. Lorraine students featured on a music video of the Sun Yat Sens. Wechat微信… Wechat微信…

And my Levellers lyrics were tattooed in Yunnan.

Dear Diary

Good day/Namaste/S’mae/How do/Hello/Nihao,

Wednesday, October 28th, 2020:

What was my favourite moment today? Was it receiving a beeswax candle from a student as a surprise gift? Was it passing the walking grade one students who all sang me happy birthday? Was it seeing a message from mum and the tribe first thing this morning? Perhaps it was the many well-wishes from polite students hither and dither? Maybe the unexpected gift in the post? Actually, it was one student, often of the alive and kicking variety, showing his gentle side and writing happy birthday on the whiteboard. That, and the many great displays of hard work he exhibited today. It is really pleasing to see some of yesterday’s frustrations shape into today’s delights. By the evening, I was shattered and went to bed early.

Tuesday, October 27th, 2020:

The Hunters has been a dynamic TV series so far. Brutal, grim and tantalizing with all the right comic book feel of fantasy and fiction overlapping reality. That’s the series I am watching after binge-watching series one to six of Borsch. I do like a good detective show, especially with the gritty cast, a splattering of suspense and the odd bit of wit. Titus Welliver plays a fleshy version of Michael Connelly’s novel character Harry Borsch. Some good co-stars in Amy Aquino and Lance Reddick make for a good run of episodes. The main star has his flaws and the first season justified a follow of five more seasons, with a post-COVID finale season in expectation. Having read several of Michael Connelly’s novels, this Amazon production was attentive and steered well. Little was overcooked, leaving an engaging piece of TV pie to chew on later. 

Friday, October 30th, 2020:

Our school, TWIS (Tungwah Wenze International School) held a marvellous book character parade and house sports day, sandwiched around parents’ day and a fantastic lunchtime buffet. After quite an exhausting day, I retired to my apartment before scooting over to Houjie town and Irene’s Bar. Here, without the day’s earlier bee costume, I met my friends Echo and Ani. Ani had recently returned from Argentina via Amsterdam and quarantine in Shanghai. Echo shall shortly say farewell and depart to Yunnan to live an adventurous life as an artist. Catching up was good. Also, Irene, Marcus and their staff at the bar were super-welcoming and the food was fantastic. It remains my favourite bar in a country of 1.5 billion plus people. A mixture of the west and China at its finest.

Thursday, October 29th, 2020:

My birthday cheesecakes arrived the day after, due to an error on my part, At the age of 37, I’d ordered them fully in the belief that my birthday fell on a Thursday. It didn’t. My class and immediate colleagues devoured the majority of the blueberry cheesecake. The chocolate cheesecake made the staff room refrigerator and mostly survived a whole night before being gobbled and scoffed accordingly. I had a slice the following day too.

Saturday, October 31st, 2020:

In the afternoon, I played 5-a-side with Murray’s F.C. for the best part of two hours. Following a late dinner, I had another early night’s sleep. I plan to work extra hard this coming week, so a spot of avoiding Halloween didn’t worry me too much. It has surprised me how a festival from Ireland became very American and is now very much here on Chinese shores in all its commercial glory. It’s for kids and adults to enjoy equally, but it certainly has become part of the fixture and fittings here as east meets west. Not bad for a festival supposedly banned in primary schools.

Sunday, November 1st, 2020:

Today, I discovered that the WeChat yearly balance is limited to 100,000RMB (12,504.44-ish Pound sterling). That’s great. My SPD bankcard has expired, possibly. Now, I need to affix my Bank of Dongguan card (which I have been trying for 3 years, and recently thought I had attached it, but it hadn’t). During this last year I’ve certainly handed over 340RMB weekly (football pitch hire, having received just under that amount from our team players) and at the weekends a similar of larger amount. So, that’s probably 14,950rmb since April, plus flights, salary, accommodation, travel, etc for me, and even others. So, I can see how I hit that limit now. Hindsight of a wee problem.

Monday, November 2nd, 2020:

Manchester Utd. footballer and social-influencer Marcus Rashford is campaigning to end child starvation in the U.K. He’s pushing for the Conservative-led government to subsidise and help kids eat during Britain’s pandemic conditions. Like many hungry children, Marcus Rashford is up against the elite House of Commons membership who get subsidised or paid lunches in the heart of the government. All this as England enters a month-long lockdown from Thursday. Not immediately does lockdown come. Only Britain, can delay it, as if it was a train due at London Paddington. The socio-economic nightmare that the U.K. faces is well and truly into a new wave. Godspeed and good luck. Stay safe.

Thank you kindly for your time.

The Mancunian Way, Dongguan

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

“I feel so extraordinary; Something’s got a hold on me; I get this feeling I’m in motion; A sudden sense of liberty.” – New Order’s song True Faith.

I’m patriotic towards the U.K. in a way. I sing praise and fly the flag for great people, wonderful history and fantastic places. I know that the story of the U.K.’s history has often been brutal, cruel and deserves little love. Even within the 21st century the U.K., as it moves away from a colonial and European past, and becomes less connected, yet more dependent on overseas trading and manufacture is and always will be a wonderful country. It’s my home. I was born in Manchester, England. I don’t call myself English. I’m British, when I choose to be. I’m Mancunian always. I have Celtic blood in me from my Irish and Welsh great grandparents. My roots are clear and free. But this tree doesn’t cling to the past and history. This tree wants to expand and be watered by different skies. For me tradition and culture are important but understanding and freedom to choose your own pathway are far more intrinsic to living. This tree is currently sat on its arse in Changping, Dongguan. Today’s and yesterday’s rugby and football have been washed out by Dragon Boat rains. I have some free time.


Today, I want to show a gallery and write a little about the culture of Dongguan and China. I’ve been here for the vast majority of the 2308 days now (11th February 2014). I believe many great days have passed and many more will follow. That’s why I am right here, right now. I arrived and didn’t feel too much way of culture shock. Around me a reasonably established cultured expat community threaded amongst the fabric of the local workforces and people of Guangdong.

“Because we need each other; We believe in one another; And I know we’re going to uncover; What’s sleepin’ in our soul” – Acquiesce by Oasis.

Since, I arrived I have seen Dongguan grow and grow. It is now classed as a Megacity. It seemingly will never stop growing. There are skyscrapers and apartment blocks skimming the sky in every single district of Dongguan. Whereas in 2014, I’d notice dozens of these mammoth constructions and many more sprouting buildings, now I am seeing hundreds and hundreds of established communities and hubs here, there and everywhere. I used to consider Nancheng and Dongcheng as the central axis of Dongguan. Now the townships of Chang’an (home of Oppo), Changping and the ever-growing former fields of Songshan Lake (home of Huawei), and the sprawls of Liaobu town could easily be seen as central areas. The arrival of the Huizhou to now West Dongguan Railway Station (soon to be Guangzhou East) or 莞惠城际轨道交通  /莞惠线 Guanhui intercity railway has added to rapid growth. As it joins the short-named Pearl River Delta Metropolitan Region Intercity Railway System (珠江三角洲地区城际轨道交通). That’s more than 65 railway stations in close proximity to Dongguan. Like all of the Pearl River Delta, this city is growing fast – and going places.

 

When not hopping on 200 km/h (124 mph) railway systems, I have ample opportunity to meet great people. Dongguan‘s community is largely migrant with people coming from all over China and the world beyond. International jet-setters with lives here, include Serbians, Kiwis, and even Scousers. They can be found in some of the office places, factories, bars and restaurants throughout the city. Playing football with Brazilians or Russians, or cycling with Dongbei people is possible or a spot of chess at Murray’s Irish Pub with Ukranian opposition. Anything goes here. Drinking homebrew at Liberty Brewing Company (曼哈顿餐吧) in Dongcheng after playing tag rugby with Tongans, South Africans, Germans and Malaysians makes me realise how lucky I am. This is a city that is tidying up and beautifying itself at an alarming rate.

Throughout the 6.5 years of life in and around Dongguan, I’ve slipped up and down ginnels, seeking out the new and old. There have been trips to pizza joints in obscure areas, Dragon Boat races watched, Cosplay events attended and English competitions observed. Dongguan, like Manchester, has a heartbeat that shows anything is possible and if it isn’t here, you make it. You can make something new, or your bring something to the party. You can sit and complain about people taking your photo or saying, “wàiguórén” (foreigner/外国人) or you can show the people around you, your worth.

This week I was asked by the Dongguan Foreign Bureau to teach them. Sadly, I cannot fit their demands into my day. I’ve bene lucky to narrate advertisements, wear watches for model shoots, test-drive new bicycles and play with new robotics before they reached their target audience or global factory floors. Daily life has been far from mundane here with oddities and pleasures as varied as can be. What’s around the next corner? Well, visas are quicker and easier to get, despite more rules and demands. It seems far quicker than when I first arrived. Sometimes, I doubt that I have done everything right, yet it seems clear and simple. Just a checklist. This week I received my medical report back. Now, I need just a few other items for the 2020/21 visa… That’s progress.

Bridges have been made and links that could prove lifelong. The west and east have collided in bizarre ways often forming a touch of the unique. There has been colour, rainbows and diversity amongst the traditional and the common. There have been flashes of light and inspiration. There have been days when solitude has been sought and there will be more, no doubt, but one thing I find, and have found throughout my time here, people are just that. Just simple down to earth, regular people going about their days, looking for peace and good opportunities to survive or better themselves. There are more cars and less bicycles, which shows that some people’s bank accounts and credit-ratings have improved. Quality of life needs balance, and with that the subway/underground system of Dongguan is projected to change from one line to seven lines.

Words can say how thankful I am for my time here. I am enjoying life in different ways to others, and being who I want to be, when I want to be. I’m selfish or I’m sharing. I’m open or I am closed. I read or I watch. I write or I dictate. There are times to slip unseen, and times to lead an audience. It is good for the mind to be bored or alone. I truly believe that’s where creativity lies. It sits there waiting to be tapped and delivered to paper, computers or other outputs. I can wander from craft beer breweries to model car clubs to fusion and western food restaurants with ease and all of the time remain connected to modern and old China.

There is plenty of ugly in Dongguan, just like the rest of the world. To quote the 18th century French phrase, “ne saurait faire d’omelette sans casser des œufs“:  You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Humans must learn from the stains and damage we have caused to our planet globally, whether disease or pollution. We can’t give in. Our cultures, our pride and our people need to fight on and find solutions. Just as #BlackLivesMatter, all lives matter – whether human or worm or bug or panda. Life must find a way. Dongguan is radically changing its energy consumptions, factory practices and the way its environment is being respected. This is good for all. Maybe, I should really put my words into action and finish studying towards the HSK (汉语水平考试 Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) course for the Chinese Proficiency Test.

 

Dongguan has gone from a place with a handful of limited cinemas, to those with the IMAX, vibrating seats, private screens and many of the latest releases from the west. KTV bars make way for baseball batting cages, ten-pin bowling, archery cafes and all the latest crazes. The great thing is that with Wechat (born 2011), Alipay etc, you can leave your wallet behind and pay swiftly with ease using these simple electronic methods. Gone are the days of using equations and haggling to get a taxi a short distance. Piles of services are available via your phone, including electrical bills, water bills and Didi (driver and carshare service) is one such saving grace.

During these COVID-19 pandemic times, your phone provides your health code, advice in travel, guidance on health services and help. Dongguan’s local services for healthcare, private insurance and banking are on your fingertips, rather than a a few hours out of work. Life can be as fast or as slow as you wish. In 2010, Dongguan was named a National Model City for Environmental Protection and greenways, green belts and other greenery followed. There are hundreds of parks now, over 1200… it is easier than ever to stay healthy.

There is culture around us, old temples, modern pagodas, relics of time and shells of history. Dongguan’s landmarks are a tad tough to visit now. The Cwa humid subtropical climate here is far above the reported average annual temperature of 22.7 °C (72.9 °F). The rainfall is typical of the land below the Tropic of Cancer now. It is raining cats, dogs and occasionally elephants. Wellingtons and umbrellas are common sights these days, rather than the Dongguan Yulan Theatre, GuanYinShan (Budda mountain), Hǎizhàn bówùguǎn (海战博物馆 Opium War Museum) or Jin’aozhou Pagoda. Even a trip to my local coffee shop, Her Coffee, is like a swim in a river. It is blooming wet lately. As a Mancunian, I feel at home.

I’m here for education – to both teach and to learn. This city has hundreds of educational institutions, even Cumbria’s St. Bees are opening a school here. I’ve heard there are around 550 primary schools, 480 kindergartens and several universities now. To bump into a teacher amongst the 21,000 plus teachers is not unusual. Although it seems every second teacher works for one of the many Eaton House schools here. I’ve heard Tungwah Wenzel International School (TWIS) in Songshan Lake is one school to really watch. Like its neighbouring Huawei school, it is massive with around 1,000,000 square metres of surface area. I’ve seen the modern sports gyms, performance space and technology labs. It uses the latest gadgets and networking. It really is 21st century over there at Songshan Lake. Although Huawei have a German-style train-tram zipping around, piping back to older days. Dongguan University of Technology(DGUT; 东莞理工学院) is one of universities in the area meaning that you can educate beyond your teenage years here. It really is a place to learn. Watch out Oxford and Cambridge! Maybe that’s why Trump is always bad-mouthing China’s growth?

From eating chicken anus, to two weeks of quarantine in XiHu Hotel, Dongguan has given me more time to turn the contents of my head to words. Now that I am ready to publish a novel, I need a publisher, but how to do this during a pandemic? I haven’t a clue, but I know one thing, the challenge will be tough and worth it. Nobody ever climbed a mountain to sit at the top and look down without seeing another mountain, right? At the end of the day, the sun sets only to rise again. Dongguan faced lockdown impeccably and other challenges, just as the world did and does. Chin up, keep going and let’s crack on.

Last night, I ate Korean barbecue with great people to celebrate a treble-birthday, followed by proof that I am terrible at ten-pin bowling and awoke today feeling optimistic. The world is often reported to be going through a pandemic-sized recession. As the world sailed a wave in 2008 and Dongguan grew from that recession, I will everyone to go on. Manufacture a bucket of optimism. Just like the strings of New Dawn Fades by Joy Division, there is darkness but remember these famous lines: It was me, waiting for me; Hoping for something more; Me, seeing me this time; Hoping for something else. In 2008, low-tech industry switched to the high-tech. Boomtime arrived. Chances are that one in five phones around the globe were made in Dongguan. Is your phone Vivo, Oppo, Honor or Huawei? It was probably made down the road from me. So, Dongguan is closer than you think.


Manchester isn’t any place I will visiting in person for some time, so it has to come to me via playbacks of Oasis gigs at Maine Road and the written word. Over the next few months, I plan to read the following Mancunian-connected books:

Hell is a City – Maurice Proctor; The Manchester ManIsabella Varley Banks; Passing Time – Michel Butor; Magnolia Street – Louis Golding; Fame is the Spur – Howard Spring; Lord Horror – David Britton; The Emigrants – WG Sebald; Cold Water – Gwendolyne Riley; The Mighty Walzer Howard Jacobson; Manchester Slingback – Nicolas Blincoe; Vurt – Jeff Noon; A Man’s Game: The Origins of Manchester City Football ClubAndrew Keenan; Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell; Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell; North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell.

“I was thinking about what you said; I was thinking about shame; The funny thing how you said; Cause it’s better not to stay” – The Last Broadcast – Doves