Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Aspirational on The Bund

Beautiful sunny day here in town on this first day of the New Year.  For some reason my wife scheduled her and my daughter’s guzheng class for 10:00 AM New Year’s day morning.  Well, I’m up.  But I’m definitely the only one conscious.  Boil some water, make some coffee and, queue up something for the headphones, I’m afraid.  It's too early for those sounds. 

Drop down into a minor hook and I’m off into “Look Out!” Big swinging bop from 1960 by Stanley Turrentine.  Later known for commercial soul-backing on disco albums, this recording is straight up bop and its lovely.  Yet another Pittsburgh native who was early on a protégé of the man we profiled yesterday, Illinois Jacquet.  Rudy Van Gelder’s Blue Note studio there in New Jersey must have been booked every single day in those years.  http://www.theguardian.com/news/2000/sep/15/guardianobituaries.johnfordham

I’d mentioned earlier that I was looking forward to the days getting longer every day now.  This will continue all the way till June.  And that will be another milestone I think I’ll subconsciously be aware of and hope to tick past.  100 years ago this June 28th our unfortunate Austro-Hungarian heir apparent Archduke Franz Ferdinand was popped in Sarajevo ending the perky upbeat, can-do Western world elan of the beginning of the last century and launching one and then another World War.

I always think of Robert Mussil’s “The Man Without Qualities” for a glimpse into that time, the Vienna of 1913, the apogee of charm.  It’s idle to put much of anything into a 100-year anniversary, I suppose.  100 years prior to 1914 in 1814, you can’t point to much decisive.  The War of 1812 was winding down, the “Star Spangled Banner” was written, and over here Hong XiuQuan was busy being born.  Plenty was about to happen but there was nothing decisive that June, for example to suggest a shifting of anything irreversible.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1814

And, like they say about 1587, this may also be a year of no significance.  http://www.amazon.com/1587-Year-No-Significance-Dynasty/dp/0300028849
Certainly though some rather ominous storm clouds are gathering and I think the swirl is proceeding most obviously right around where I live.  (Imagine that, it all seems most pressing, where I actually reside.)  And just as Pax Britanica was about to be buffeted sorely, how much longer in this century will you give Pax Americana?  Nothing definitive is likely to transpire this year or the next.  But this will be the century in which America either learns to further share the arbitration of world power or have it taken from it. 

But that’s years off.  Or at least month’s off.  Well, it won’t happen today.  And perhaps it will be a transition that all sides derive greater, and not lesser stability from.  Last night we did something we rarely do, we turned on the Television.  You need real-time broadcasting to see a countdown.  We had on one of the CCTV stations and it was broadcasting New Year’s Eve from Shanghai.  There was the silly song and dance routine on the freezing Bund platform where a group of ladies who looked like Santa’s elves sang a banal song called “I Love Shanghai.”  Yawn.  Come on Sanhainin, that’s New York’s IP. 

But then there was a light show on the old British Customs House and HSBC buildings.  My stepson had just been down and he said he’d seen them practicing for it.  Unabashedly drenched in some sort of Sino-psilocybin, this 4D show was fabulous.  I absolutely wished I’d been there to see it in person, flashed up against the old deco buildings, casting them, somehow as larger by far than any of the giants looming over them across the Huangpu.  

Necessarily a triumphal march through time, that necessarily marches right past many decades of relevant history, of course, right up to contemporary moon landings, and no I didn’t like all the music or the cartoon character imagery and I know that light shows of some fashion like this have been projected on buildings around the world for years and on and on and on.  But it was cool.  It was challenging and entertaining.  It contained surprises. I found it 独具匠心[1]  I think it would have been more fun than watching the ball drop in Time Square.  Good for China.  Good for Shanghai.  Good for the world. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pR9rhbqV6W4

Nothing could have been less 4D-acidic than the Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng’s speech, which followed the countdown.  I can’t find a clip of it, but it must be out there.  Whoever was in charge of the ‘bread and circus’ countdown production in the Propaganda Ministry certainly tapped into something aspirational.  That urge to compete globally for that most illusive of chalice, the distinction of cool. They pushed the envelope and the 4D light show was cool.  The mayor was not.  Both must be broadcast to the nation and world, as this civilization finds its voice this century.   

May these teens we’re in the middle of now, continue to unfold peacefully.

[1] dújùjiàngxīn:  original and ingenious (idiom) / to show great creativity

Desert Winds

Listening to Jean-Baptiste Illinois Jacquet, playing with the guitarist Kenny Burrell from a 1964 set, “Desert Winds.”  We’ve got a bit of Gobi-wind here in Beijing today.  Born of a Sioux mother and a Creole father in Louisiana, Illinois Jacquet had nothing to do with Chicago, as the name might suggest, but rather grew up in Texas.  Remembered for a solo that launched a hundred solos, and introduced the honk to jazz and rock, during “Flying Home” with Lionel Hampton’s band. The year was 1942 and he was nineteen.  He was lucky, or perhaps there is another reason, why he was not called up to fight, in the war that still hasn’t really settled out in this part of the world.

Positions are hardening.  China has now said that none of its leaders will even meet with Prime Minister Abe, until he apologizes for having visited the Yasukuni Shrine a few days back.  Certainly Abe of all people knew this sort of reaction would follow.  The Chinese refused to meet with his predecessor Prime Minister Koizumi from 2001 till 2005 when he left office, after he too repeatedly visited the shrine.  The first regular state visit was only resumed with Abe himself, after he came to power for the first time in 2006.

One has the sense that many of the thrust counter thrust gestures are all calculated out long in advance.  China knows that such a visit must be pending for Abe’s second time as prime minister.  Abe was pilloried by the right during his first shot at Prime Minister.  But this time around Abe had to show economic progress before driving the rest of his agenda.  Abenomics, the quantitative easing of monetary flows to arrest Japan’s deflationary cycle, has had an effect.  Japan’s economy appears to be growing for now.  Before Abe can methodically turn to his patriotic agenda, China interrupts with a purposefully disruptive gesture.

Was the new air defense zone announcement rushed to the fore for just this purpose?  Did Japan see such a gesture coming?  Certainly that effort was clumsy on the one hand and served to push South Korea back, away from China, and annoy the U.S. who called China’s bluff, by flying B52s, straight through their newly minted zone of interest.  The gesture did, however put light between the U.S. and Japanese positions, right before Joe Biden’s visit. It accented some of the alliances tension points.   

And now this shrine visit occurs.  The Japanese head of state is once again a persona non grata.  To-date, it does not appear that South Korea has gone that far in saying no engagement with Abe whatsoever without an apology.  The article from today’s China Daily went further though than just saying leaders would not meet leaders.  The article states that Abe has been declared: “not welcome” by the Chinese people.  What does that mean?

It is a bold thing to say.  You can state that Abe is not welcome by the Party or the leadership, or that the people are offended.  But how can you say that the Chinese people don’t welcome you.  The Party speaks on behalf of all Chinese people it would seem.  Would a U.S. president ever say such a thing? Hugo Chavez, is “not welcome by the American people”?  No.  They would necessarily use different language.  Indeed, he frequently came to New York, along with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others  to speak at the United Nations, (a fact which more than anything just reinforces the U.S. august hegemonic prowess.  New York, the capital of the world.)  Leaders might not meet with Chavez, but no one could claim to speak for all of America’s ability to welcome or refuse someone. 

Meanwhile this effort to impose right wing textbooks on Japanese jurisdictions that don’t want them, like Okinawa, is rather unfortunate as well.  The right is always simmering below the surface in Japan, like some malevolent force that must be endured with their loud trucks and hints of thuggish violence.  Perhaps the Japanese know best that the proper strategy for such people is to ignore them.  But one would hope for a bit of brave articulation, a firm critique of this historical whitewash.  Backing down from statements about comfort women, and other atrocities is shameful.  Japan can be a proud, modern, “normal” as they say, nation, without whitewashing the Imperial Army’s legacy.   

There was a popular slogan after 9/11 that said something to the effect of “don’t use our grief to justify your war.”  Something in Japan is required along the lines of “don’t use our annoyance with China’s disruptive behavior, as a cover to justify the rewriting of history.”  Both sides, nations certainly have尽心酸[1].   Denying that legacy can only delay real resolution.

Clear sky today, but a haze is building up.  Illinois Jacquet’s ‘desert winds’ are blowing through the capital.  All the yellow dust is being picked up into the air, from off the roads, up off the trees, and off the sidewalks where it had settled.  It’s December 31st and we haven’t had a single snowflake this year.  I was just up on a 25th floor earlier today looking out at a forty foot high wall of dust that covered the city like a blanket below me. And oddly, the sky itself is quit blue and lovely.  Look up.  That’s the moral of the story.  Look up and smile and marvel at what’s up there.  And don’t breathe. 

Ahh yes, and a special Capricorn birthday blessing to the loyalist reader any blogger could ever hope to have.  The last baby born there in Poughkeepsie, that night, that magic year, which shall remain nameless. Happy Birthday Mom.  

[1] chángjìnxīnsuān:  to experience one's full share of sorrows (idiom)

Monday, December 30, 2013

Important for Russia's Development

My older daughter was home early yesterday.  Picked her up at 3:00PM which is when any normal American kid would presumably get off school.  I like to try to look at the New York Times with her regularly, but often she gets back she’s too tired and there isn’t time.  So we sat down and had a look yesterday.  I let her pick whatever article she wants and let her read it out loud. 

Well, she chose to read about how Pussy Riot’s Academy Award nominated documentary was banned in Russia. The director of the Gogol Center, where the film was to be shown, received calls from the authorities, threatening their jobs if they went ahead with the screening.  An official ban followed.   Maxim Pozdorovkin, who directed the film with Mike Lerner, suggested he might just show the film on his lap top to people instead. 

My daughter remembered that we’d talked about them before.  I took the time to explain to her the idea around “all the news that’s fit to print” that while the New York Times will never print the word “fuck” or “cunt” it was obligated to repeatedly print “Pussy Riot” on the front page.   So just by their name alone, they had pushed the envelope.

Oddly, though, for someone who claims a punk affinity as my earliest identity of choice, I had never really seen anything they had done.  I’d long been intrigued by the story and after reading the article we thought to go to Youtube to check them out.  We had a look at the Punk Prayer piece that got them imprisoned.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALS92big4TY

Sacrilege, protest, feminism, anarchism, free speech, Russian history, punk history, Red Square, Tiananmen Square . . . There was quite a bit to discuss, watching these young ladies with day glow balaclava’s cut out like hijackers, disrupt a service at a Russian Orthodox cathedral.  They are, in fact articulate and attractive but they perform anonymously, in outfits, 目迷五色[1], that deny any sexuality. If nothing else, the simple message that they stood behind what they did, and went to prison for it, conveyed that this wasn’t simply dance music or a boy band.  This took courage.  And, of course, time.  We only got to talk about it for a while before she was off to rendez vous with a friend. 


I dug a bit deeper and found an interview with the directors of the film that had clips from the documentary.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tH4hjg83Mt8.
Check out the clip around 18:13 or so for the Riot in Red Square.  And then later around 25:02 to see them interviewed after they are arraigned.  They're awesome. The first bit in Red Square has subtitles which make quite a bit of difference. 

The masses rise up and move on the Kremlin
Explosions set off at security headquarters
Bitches piss themselves behind red walls
Riot is here to abort the system
Attack at Dawn?  Don’t mind if I do
When we’re whipped for our freedom
The Mother of God will learn how to fight
Magdalene the feminist will join the demonstration
Uprising in Russia
The charm of protest
Uprising in Russia
Putin pissed himself
Uprising in Russia
We exist

Uprising in Russia
Riot! Riot!
Take to the streets
Occupy Red Square
Show them your freedom
A citizen’s anger

Um, wow.  As has been written, it's been quite a while since punk, let alone popular music of any stripe had a whiff of anything like real danger.  These ladies asked for trouble and they found it and they paid for it and are still standing, still pushing to end the Putin era.  I don’t know about you, but I’m Pussy Riot fan.  I don’t need to agree with tactics, ideas, strategy, setting, musical sound, and on and on and on.  But that is, they are, punk rock. 

The short interview with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, which I referenced above in the clip on the documentary, is fabulous. 

            What is Pussy Riot?
            It’s a feminist punk group
            It’s important for Russia’s development
            We need a group like this
            It’s just one of many groups that should appear
            After all this attention
            I hope others will do similar things
            That would make me happy
            I hope to hear about it in jail

Right on.  That is a powerful meditation to consider:  Punk rock is:  “Important for Russia’s development.”  It is important, in different ways for any country's development, to have a civil society and freedoms that can withstand taunting, profanity, disruption.  China, with its history of Red Guard hooliganism, where teens were clearly manipulated into “making revolution” is despite the obvious parallels, a different world from Russia.  Tiananmen Square was already “occupied” once by disaffected youth.  The country still hasn’t faced up to what happened as a result.  A punk concert in Tiananmen today would be hard pressed to continue beyond the first bar chord before everyone would be whisked off.  The mapping from Russia to China, doesn’t fit for a myriad of reasons.  Punk will play out differently in China.

But the purpose of punk, of conceptual art, is to shake you into thinking about something, looking at something, differently.  Regardless of whatever else they do, Pussy Riot have succeeded in that.  And, I am happy to report, that they are, as yet, not banned, here in China. The same video of "Punk Prayer" is also available on Youku.  

[1] mùmíwǔsè:  the eye is bewildered by five colors (idiom); a dazzling riot of colors