Saturday, June 24, 2006

On the Road Again

From TIME asia Magazine, June 26, 2006 Vol. 167, No. 25

Ma Jian envisioned Tibet as Nirvana. The book he wrote after his journey offers a darker vision

In 1985, writes Ma Jian, he headed from Beijing to Tibet hoping to "work out what I should be doing with my life." Ma, like so many discontented romantics, envisioned the Himalayan land as a spiritual refuge from the modern world. But it was just a dream. What he discovered instead was a place whose heart had been ripped out. The few temples that remained after years of cultural and political purges by the Chinese government were guarded by soldiers and littered with slogans instructing allegiance to the Communist Party. The Dalai Lama had been exiled for more than three decades, and those who had stayed behind seemed consigned to a ruined fate.

In an afterword to Stick Out Your Tongue, a newly translated collection of short stories he wrote following his three-year journey to Tibet and other far-flung parts of China, Ma says he returned home more confused than before, feeling "as pathetic as a patient who sticks his tongue out and begs his doctor to diagnose what's wrong with him."

The diagnosis from Chinese officials, when Ma's book was released in 1987, was that his treatment of Tibet was "filthy and shameful" and had "nothing to do with reality." Every copy was ordered to be destroyed. But the collection quickly became a hit among the samizdat set; some enterprising black marketeers even copied it out by hand. Ma, who had once worked as a government propagandist, thus found himself forced into hiding. After stints in Hong Kong and Germany—with the occasional secret return to Beijing—he ended up in London, where he wrote a superb memoir, Red Dust, which appeared in translation in 2002. Where that narrative bounces along China's dusty roads and industrial backwaters like a better, eastern On the Road, the five short stories in Stick Out Your Tongue paint a more meditative portrait of a land that barely seems to move at all.

That's not to say the book isn't moving. In cool, spare prose, Ma powerfully conveys the double dislocation at the heart of his stories: a people estranged from their own home are described in four of these tales by the same Ma-like narrator, a dissident writer whose own life has been uprooted, too—not only by cultural crackdowns but by a string of failed loves. A Han Chinese in a land where the Han are despised, he has abandoned any fantasies about Tibet's peaceful locals: instead of sticking out their tongues—a customary greeting in Tibet—they throw stones at him. The glistening lakes and wide plateaus of central Tibet—where we find the narrator at the start of the hypnotic opening story—offer no solace either. Potentially sublime rustic experiences are tainted by brackish water or the stench of manure and animal hides. The narrator's hunt for enlightenment has already ended, and the traditional Buddhist sky burial of a young woman beaten to death by an abusive father is little more than an exotic photo-op. Just as the ritual of dismemberment ends, when "every piece of her had vanished from the site," the emotionally distant narrator remembers his appointment to go fishing with the woman's former lover.

The mistreatment of women by men is a common theme in all five of these stories. Beneath Tibet's enchanting surface, suggests Ma, lies the reality that its women are routinely forced into marriage, sex, prostitution and drugs. Yet Ma's bleak descriptions of their lives are not without a dreamy—though somewhat perverse—sense of redemption. A feisty, unfaithful wife burns and withers on a bronze stupa that her husband has built, only to be rolled up by her lover and devotedly draped on his wall. The final story—the tale of a young female monk forced by her elders through abusive rituals of spiritual enlightenment—ends the book as it began, with a beleaguered corpse that again seems to disappear, magically, into the scenery. This time, however, the woman isn't destroyed but transmuted like a bodhisattva, her body transparent: "A fish that had somehow gnawed its way into her corpse was swimming back and forth through her intestines." The narrator, who buys the woman's skull as a souvenir and hopes to sell it to finance his travels, writes her story "in the hopes that I can start to forget it," but the memory will not disappear.

Nor will the impression left by Ma's book, with its captivating blend of despair and hope, violence and dark humor, death and regeneration. In Ma's ambivalent portrayal, Tibet is as uneasy a place to live as it is to describe, and Tibetans possess a nuanced humanity often denied them—on the one hand by the idealized fancies of the Western imagination, and on the other by the Chinese government's oppression. The tongue of the book's title, then, is not only a reference to the traditional Tibetan greeting, but a complex symbol of ridicule and illness and vulnerability—and an invitation to see inside Tibet's dark mouth some precious signs of life.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Russian Doll

It's an old story: Wide-eyed nine-year old Jewish girl flees Russia to the shores of New York with her parents, who barely make ends meet while she passes her time exploring their Bronx neighborhood, the old Tin Pan Alley, and the piano keys — a remnant from years of practice in the old country and exposure to the classics (Chopin but also Pushkin). Soon, the setting becomes a downtown Manhattan nightclub, and she's stringing ragtime ballads, jazz standards, folk renditions, energy and vaudevillian pizzazz across the keys. Sheer talent plus a twist of fate would attract the attention of a snazzy producer and a wealthy band of patrons and ta da: Our heroine enters a world of minor celebrity nearly as surprising and strange as her musical narratives.

"We stopped at this truck stop in Colorado, and I'm in the fucking Subway, and there was a girl there getting a sandwich," Regina Spektor recounts a few weeks ago, using the f-word in the most excited, innocent way possible. "I saw her staring and she saw me and I thought about going up to her, but I thought maybe she was just staring, you know, didn't know who I was. Well. I got on MySpace today and someone wrote ‘I love your music and I smiled at you in the Subway.' I mean, wow."

Regina Spektor is running into fans in the strangest places; she's playing sell-out shows in the English countryside; she's getting written about on a hundred message boards and websites; she's on the phone from a hotel room at her latest tour stop, San Francisco. She also has a new album on a major label, Begin to Hope, a follow-up to 2004's Soviet Kitsch. It was a rough version of the latter that first pricked up the ears of the Strokes, who invited her on tour with them, and their producer, who recorded Kitsch. Almost three years later, and 17 years after fleeing Moscow, wow is still very much the theme. When on stage, perched on the edge of her stool, playing with her hands, chatting, the 26-year-old SUNY Purchase graduate still seems amazed, impressed, perplexed by it all, as if she's still learning something big from the crowds fawning over her.

"I can't imagine that kind of devotion, it's really beautiful," she says of the dedication which pushed fans across multiple states to see her play in Colorado in early May. "I played a show in Scotland where kids said they flew from Australia. In Bristol, people had come from Berlin," she says. The curly-haired Russian Jew from the Bronx with real estate on MySpace is trying to figure out where she is, and why people would bother coming that far. "I don't even know how to drive."

When she gets behind the keyboard however, Spektor could hardly sound more in control. From her measured debut, 11:11 through the more fanciful Songs and through the rich Kitsch, Spektor's fingers have learned to dance in jazz and pop and blues rhythms — occasionally parting ways to handle a drumstick on the nearest chair — with a precision matched by a voice that soars and halts aspirated, speaks in tongues and Russian and French and New Yawk accents, raps and, when a chair isn't available, carries the percussion too, beatbox style. On "Twenty Years of Snow," a new song that imitates a Polish mazurka, Spektor's plaintive minor chord progressions twinkle rapidly beneath a voice that ranges from fragile to breathy to speak-y before rolling into a rap that beckons a bop interlude before the recapitulation, where she stutters it all to a close. Such idiosyncratic stylings have earned her the fad label "anti-folk," along with comparisons to Tori, Bjork, Norah, Fiona, Ani and Joni. While perhaps flattering, these names don't do much more justice to Spektor's style than, say, likening her to Ronnie Spector. "Associations are associations," she shrugs, "but I definitely feel like my songs are my songs."

Whereas the adventurous vocal experiments of Soviet Kitsch could sometimes border on preciousness, Spektor's verbal tics on Hope — grunts, breaths, word-bendings and so on — become neater devices for her four-minute fables. The addition of electric guitar courtesy of The Strokes' Nick Valensi and the machinery of producer David Kahne even uncover a new, upbeat poppiness ("Fidelity," "Better," "Hotel Song"), while making room for even more improvisational tricks (see the Billie Holiday tribute "Lady" and the funky admonition "Edit"). Spektor recalls her reaction to first hearing a finished Hope: "I was like, ‘I love you, record." While she only had two weeks to record Soviet Kitsch, Spektor had a leisurely two months for her latest. "It's the first time in my life where I'm so excited that I want people to hear it, where I'm not giving a record to people with a disclaimer that it's not what I wanted it to be. I made it how I wanted to make it."

When asked about what inspired the record, Spektor characteristically points to nothing smaller than the world. "It's so diverse, it's a dream for anybody documenting anything. It's here! The world, write it down!" Her reluctance to talk shop is less a sign of coyness than honesty. "You know — a lot of it is imagination." And this is what most makes the record Spektor's: as usual, each of her songs is a character study in which love is cradled by the tragic knowledge that it can't last. The effects differ, as seen in the heartbroken biblical riff "Samson" and the exhilarating Joni Mitchell-flavored ballad "On the Radio": "This is how it works / you're young until you're not / you love until you don't… you hope it don't get hard / but even if it does, you just do it all again." Her large revelations writ small are sung with the same naïve wonder and confusion and graciousness she shows before her audiences — and which her rapt audiences in turn often show before her.

From a distance, the paradoxical feelings of her song-stories appear as echoes of lost nights, secret loves, and, inevitably, of her own complicated bond with the motherland. Mention returning to Russia, and Spektor sighs. "It's actually really complicated. I haven't figured any of that out. I definitely want to go back but haven't figured out when, or how. It's intense." When her family fled Russia, they were, as Jews, legally considered aliens within their own home. "I definitely love the culture, the people. But it's also very anti-Semitic, lawless, harsh. It's a place where I don't really feel like it's my home at all." Her first lyrics in Russian come in the album's most haunting ballad "Après Moi," where she quotes the poet Boris Pasternak: "February. To take ink and weep, / To write, sob your heart out, sing."

Spektor acknowledges the influence of another Russian literary genius, the tragic comedian Anton Chekhov — but not because of the dramas for which he's famous. "In the plays, he gets too rambly or too philosophical or something, which ends up pushing you out, and reminds you you're a reader or an audience member." It's an impression that hasn't gone lost on her own work. To her, his short stories are more compelling. "They're amazing because they're completely all encompassing. He takes you within them."

Begin to Hope is out on Sire Records on Jun. 13.

This story was published in Paper on June 13, 2006.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

City Scene: Sizing Up our Newest Sibling

that's Beijing, June 2006

Eager to make friends with the rest of the world in advance of the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing’s vice mayor Sun Anmin jetted down to New Zealand last month to toss another municipality into its pile of “sister” cities, which already includes Madrid, Athens, Budapest, Bucharest, Havana, Manila, and even Tokyo. Though Beijing treated Wellington to the longest Chinese New Year fireworks display the Kiwi city had ever seen two years ago, no such large public events have yet been scheduled in Beijing to celebrate its link with the Kiwis. For now, the cities are relying instead on what Chinese state media calls “very strong” cultural, economic and political ties. Which consists of? “Well, for one, there’s the obvious connection – they’re both capitals,” says Grahame Morton, the first secretary at the New Zealand embassy. “Also, Wellington is a cultural center; and Beijing would like to think of itself as a cultural center in China.” It’s also worth mentioning that New Zealand’s famed kiwi fruit – one of the country’s biggest exports – is a native fruit of China, known as “mihou tao” (monkey’s peach) or Chinese gooseberry. If that’s not enough for you, here are some pointers to guide you through Beijing’s latest international sisterhood: Alex Pasternack


Large public gathering
Watching the Wellington Hurricanes rout other rugby teams


Current large-scale Municipal Project
The renovation of the Queens Wharf Events Center, adding 538 additional seats

Epic similarity
Home to Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, it was the main construction sit
for “Middle Earth.”

Place to find Beijingers
Haining Street

Outdoor athletics
Mountain biking on beautiful Mt. Victoria

Hometown hero known for violent outbursts
Wellington-born Russell Crowe

Strong winds blowing in from the gorgeous Cook Strait

At the center of Wellington’s ten-year plan is the “proposal to improve the region’s passenger transport system through new and refurbished trains and better bus services after 20 years of under-investment in this service.”


Large public gathering
Watching the Beijing sandstorms rout badminton players

163,824 times 87

Current large-scale municipal project
The construction of the National Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest,” which will contain 91,000 seats

Epic similarity
Now extending to the Sixth Ring Road, it’s the main construction site for “The Middle Kingdom”

Place to find Kiwis
The New Zealand Embassy

Outdoor athletics
Combat biking on, um, scenic Guloudong Dajie

Hometown hero known for violent outbursts
Beijing-born Jet Li

Strong winds blowing in from the Gobi Desert

Country’s five-year plan calls for “comprehensively strengthening economic, political and cultural construction, and the development of a harmonious society.”

City Scene: How to Repel the Sand

that's Beijing, June 2006

In the old days, village officials in China’s arid north would pray to the gods for rain. These days, when rainfall is badly needed to end droughts – or, increasingly, to clean up the city in advance of Beijing’s “Green Olympics” – the government doesn’t need to offer sacrifices to the heavens: it shoots chemicals at them with anti-aircraft cannons.

While China has been using rainmaking technology since the 1980s to stem droughts, the worst rash of sandstorms to hit Beijing in a decade has given officials new cause for aiming at the skies: giving the city a good rinse. After the roughest of last month’s sand attacks dumped 330,000 tons of sand on the city, the government responded by launching seven rocket shells and burning 163 pieces of “cigarette-like sticks” containing silver iodide. And voila! “The heaviest rainfall in Beijing this spring,” reported Xinhua.

While the effects of rainmaking on local ecosystems and health still remain unknown, there’s something disconcerting about forced rainfall (and it’s not just because cleaning the city apparently must involve chemical apparatus suggestive of a cigarette). “It’s a passive solution, it’s not a solution at all,” says Wen Bo, the local representative for the San Francisco-based group Pacific Environment. Like the “green wall” of trees currently being built to shield Beijing from sand, Wen says rainmaking is at best a quick fix to the sandstorms, which magnify the health dangers of the city’s already heavy smog. Beach weather in Beijing would be better addressed, Wen says, by local governments in nearby Hebei and Inner Mongolia making greater efforts to improve irrigation and vegetation practices and replanting trees.

Complicating the matter, as two recent government studies demonstrate, is disagreement over the cause of sandstorms. One study blames traditional spring ploughing techniques, which loosen topsoil prior to planting, while another identifies the routes that such storms take to reach Beijing, pinpointing the origin not in Chinese farmlands but in the deserts of Mongolia. Whatever the causes may be, Wen worries that rainmaking in Beijing threatens to “wash away not just the dirt, but people’s memory” of the actual problem – a case of saving face, but not necessarily the environment. Alex Pasternack

City Scene: Quincy’s Olympic Theme

that's Beijing, July 2006

When Quincy Jones came to town in late May – to announce, according to a press release, that he would “write songs for the Beijing Olympic Games,” tbj naturally had a hundred questions to ask the 71-time Grammy Award nominee. Unfortunately, the press conference answered few of them. For instance, will his song actually be used?

The organizers are running an open competition for Olympic theme music that has just entered its fourth round and will continue until 2008. This is not unusual – while every Games employs the original Olympics theme song, “Bugler’s Dream,” a fanfare written in the 1950s by French composer Leo Arnaud, each host city traditionally chooses another piece of music to mark its turn.

What was unusual was the lack of consensus about Jones’ involvement. Before they began their press conference, Jones, the executive vice-president of Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG), Jiang Xiaoyu, and some advisors held a planning meeting in a side room, during which Jiang seemed to say that, once finished, Jones’ song would be thrown in with the work of the contest winners for a final assessment.

The misunderstanding didn’t stop there. Jones underscored that instead of a song, he’d be working on theme music. “Do you know the words to Star Wars?” he asked, then da-da-da-daa-dah-ed the famous theme by John Williams (an erstwhile Olympics theme composer himself). “You catch my drift? Theme music, it doesn’t have words.”

Regardless of the end result, Jones, who was encouraged to participate by his pal Jackie Chan, said that he would not accept money for his piece. And while he hasn’t started writing it yet, he imagines his theme would be a “global gumbo,” incorporating pop music, Western themes, and of course, traditional Chinese stuff.

“I love that instrument, the one with the strings,” he said pantomiming the guzheng, or zither. But that certainly wasn’t all the impresario loved about China, which he considers “awesome,” as he told the room of reporters.

“I’ve several times considered selling my home in California and staying here,” said Jones. “Between the food, and the culture, and the beautiful people – the beautiful ladies, incredible ladies, the most beautiful, beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life, whaaaaow! Oh, good God. I don’t know how you’re going to translate that.” Alex Pasternack