Category Archives: China

Kevin McGeary on Chinese melodies, WH Auden and life after coronavirus

In yesterday’s blog, I chatted with Northern Irish born musical performer Kevin McGeary about how and why he started writing Chinese-language songs. This is Part 2 of that conversation…


JOHN: Are you worried one night there is going to be a knock on your door and a Chinese man will be saying: “We have been reading and listening to your work in Beijing…”?

KEVIN: If it happens, it happens. Isn’t there an old expression: If you’re gonna tell the truth to people, you’d damn well make ‘em laugh, otherwise they will kill you? Fortunately most people find my lyrics funny, so they don’t get that offended.

JOHN: You have a following in China?

KEVIN: I have fans, because the vast majority of pop songs there are just love songs or patriotic songs. My style is so different: just a massive slap in the face to the idea of being populist; so some people really dig it… You know the theory of The Second Dancer?

JOHN: No.

KEVIN: When you just start dancing in the middle of the street, people think you’re a madman. But, if someone joins you, then you’re a bit of a flash mob.

I had been writing songs in Chinese for over three years by the time I got my Second Dancer – Jennie Li who was an opera singer, a Mandarin-teacher and an academic. When the China Daily were researching their article about me, they interviewed her.

Another person who really liked my songs was a literary translator called Bruce Humes, who loved the satire.

I don’t often get a chance to perform my Chinese songs in public now, because I live in Manchester and there aren’t many Chinese people who come to English-language comedy club nights.

JOHN: You sing your English language songs at the clubs?

KEVIN: Yes – and occasional covers of Kunt & The Gang songs.

JOHN: Have you tried doing covers of his songs in Chinese?

KEVIN: I did a Chinese version of Women Love a Bastard. The Chinese title is the Chinese expression ‘Men aren’t bad. Women don’t love’ and it’s just too catchy not to write a song.

JOHN: So, you have released two albums in the last two weeks: one English-language, one Chinese-language. What next?

KEVIN: I’m going to dust off, revisit and rewrite some old songs from the back catalogue to provide the backbone for a new album. In the meantime, with all this coronavirus solitude, I’m going to step aside from comedy music for a bit and record an album of film soundtracks… The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, The Magnificent Seven, Once Upon a Time in The West, Rocky, The Great Escape.

JOHN: In one music video, you seem to be wearing a cowboy shirt.

KEVIN: The song was called I Hate Hunan The Least. When a foreigner wants to become famous for writing Chinese songs, they will usually cover a Chinese love song or sing a Red song – something glorifying China or the Communist Pary. So I thought I would turn the idea on its head… I Hate Hunan The Least mentions every province and then the chorus is I Hate Hunan The Least – just to subvert all those suck-ups who try to endear themselves to the Chinese people.

JOHN: I seem to remember the Chinese, when I was there, had a rather worrying love of Country & Western songs.

KEVIN: Yeah, John Denver is huge there… Patsy Cline…

JOHN: Dolly Parton?

KEVIN: Yes, Dolly. She’s big.

JOHN: Yes… but there seems to be something about the Chinese accent that makes it good for Country & Western.

Are you regionally popular in China – popular in one bit but not another?

KEVIN: I don’t know.

JOHN: You are still persona grata? You could still go back to China?

KEVIN: Oh definitely.

JOHN: You should do a tour.

KEVIN: Well, to get a visa to tour is… In the mid-2000s, Björk ruined it for a lot of people because she gave a concert in Shanghai and, at the end of one of her songs, she shouted: “Free Tibet!”… So now they are very strict about who they will allow to perform.

JOHN: I was at a concert in Chongqing in the 1980s which had lots of musical acts and, if they liked the act, the audience clapped. If not, total silence. Did you ever perform to large audiences in China?

KEVIN: Yes, but not my comedy songs. I was invited to play Chinese-language songs in large halls to a family audience as a sort-of token Westerner – the sheer novelty of having a foreigner sing in their language. I would play whatever was in the Chinese charts at the time.

JOHN: And the clapping?

KEVIN: Yes. I think they were genuinely enthusiastic – and they would throw flowers as well.

JOHN: How did you get your head round the different tone structures of Chinese songs?

KEVIN: As a teenager, most of my musical heroes were the 1990s Britpop acts like Pulp and Blur, so it took a while to grasp… the Chinese put a really strong emphasis on melody. The melodic steps are qi-cheng-zhuan-he (起承转合)- wise-step-spin-unite.

So bands like Radiohead or the Manic Street Preachers would never be that popular in China because they don’t follow this strict melodic structure. But something like The Carpenters – they are really good with this melodic structure.

It’s very important to gain mastery of that four-step melody before you write songs in Chinese.

“It’s very important to gain mastery of that four-step melody”

JOHN: So is Country & Western structured in a Chinese way?

KEVIN: It is, because the melodies tend not to be very subversive.

JOHN: What is a subversive melody?

KEVIN: Most things by Radiohead. A lot of Leonard Cohen stuff. Bob Dylan isn’t popular there at all because, well, he can’t really sing, for a start.

JOHN: I suppose Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Radiohead share a drone sound. But why is Country & Western more attuned to their tastes?

KEVIN: I think it’s just the simplicity, the universality. I would not say Country & Western is particularly Chinese-friendly; it just has that universality to it. A purity.

JOHN: Who were the big Western musical heroes when you were there?

KEVIN: Kenny G, the saxophonist, is massive. Boy bands like the Backstreet Boys are really popular, even among 20-something guys. Justin Bieber.

JOHN: You must have this schizophrenic creativity to do a Western album AND a Chinese musical album…

KEVIN: There’s one song where the lyric is basically Tell Me The Truth About Love by WH Auden, slightly changed, and there is an English version and a Chinese version of that.

Some of my Chinese songs are melodies that have been kicking around in my head since I was a teenager – ones I never quite found the right English lyric for.

I have been writing songs in English since I was 14 and I’m very aware of the figures whose footsteps I’m trying to follow in – Paul Simon and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. But I think one of my big strengths as a Chinese-language songwriter is that, aside from going to karaoke, I was largely pretty ignorant of whose footsteps I was following in. So I had that freedom to explore and generally be unaware of what rules I might be breaking.

JOHN: Might you go back to China?

KEVIN: I was seventeen when 9/11 happened, and twenty-four when the Global Financial Crisis toppled the economic superiority of the West, but this is the first time – the coronavirus pandemic – I have been so directly affected by an international upheaval.

The virus originated in China, but that country appears to be over the worst of it while Europe and North America could be six months away from starting to revive their industry. During the inevitable recession, I may consider returning to East Asia to ride out the lean years.


THERE IS A TRAILER ON YOUTUBE FOR KEVIN’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE ALBUM …

AND THERE IS A TOTALLY UNEDITED AUDIO VERSION OF MY CHAT WITH KEVIN ON THE PODBEAN WEBSITE HERE.
IT RUNS 42 MINUTES.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, coronavirus, Music

Kevin McGeary on writing satiric Chinese-language comedy songs

I talked to musical performer and writer Kevin McGeary about how and why he came to “write controversial songs in the world’s largest authoritarian state” (his own turn-of-phrase). 

He got in touch with me because he had read my blog chat last November with Kunt & The Gang.

Coronavirus conversations via Skype are becoming the norm. He was self-isolated in his flat in Manchester while I was self-isolated at my home in Borehamwood.

Kevin McGeary talked to me from Manchester via Skype


JOHN: In the last two weeks, you’ve  released an English-language album TMItastic and a  Chinese language album 失败博物馆 (Museum of Failure), both humorous. How are they different?

KEVIN: My English comedy songs are often foul-mouthed and use a lot of swear words, though not to the extent of Kunt & The Gang. My Chinese songs tend to be offensive in a different way: they satirise Chinese culture and society. The Chinese ones are PG-friendly. They are not sweary; they are more satirical. They satirise aspects of society like wealthy men who keep mistresses. There are entire villages in China where pretty-much everybody is a ‘kept’ woman.

JOHN: Presumably you could not sing these Chinese songs in China… The authorities would take exception to them.

KEVIN: Well, my initial wave of creativity in writing Chinese songs came just before Xi Jinping took over as President. Under him, censorship of the media and the blocking of websites has got a lot stricter. But I used to busk in China; I used to perform on the streets singing my songs in Mandarin and people were very friendly.

JOHN: Are there loads of buskers in China?

KEVIN: No, not at all.

JOHN: So you must have been stopped, surely. They have Party people on every block, don’t they?

KEVIN: Urban administrators, yes. But they’re not really very powerful and they’re only there to stop violence or actual crime. I wasn’t committing a crime and I got away with it because my stuff was so off the wall. 

Kevin McGeary busking in Shenzhen (Photograph by Jesse Warren for China Daily)

JOHN: You were in China for…

KEVIN: …for eleven years. The first 3½  years, I was teaching English. I studied the language very hard, so I was conversant within a year and could read a newspaper within two years. 

The second year, I lived in a small city in the middle of the country in Hunan Province – the equivalent of living in Arkansas or Oklahoma.

The only form of entertainment, really, was karaoke: I went almost every night and that’s where my Chinese songwriting grew.

JOHN: And, after you finished teaching English…

KEVIN: I worked on a  newspaper for two years – the Shenzhen Daily. Then I left China, but I missed it, so I went back 2014-2018, working for a massive Chinese company Midea who make home appliances.

Kevin McGeary on GuangdongTelevision

JOHN: Not a creative, artistic job, then…?

KEVIN: Same as Kunt & The Gang, I don’t expect to monetise my creative work, so I need a steady job that gives me the material basis to be creative. You can’t be creative if you don’t have a roof over your head and clothes on your back.

I started writing Chinese-language songs in November 2008 and, in February 2012, it just suddenly struck me to start writing comedy songs.

When I started writing songs in Chinese, I had only been learning the language for 18 months, so my pronunciation was not perfect and also the novelty of having a white person singing in Chinese meant most people were just laughing at my attempts. After a while, I realised I had to turn this weakness into a strength. If people are laughing at my attempts, I might as well try to make people laugh. That’s how it started.

JOHN: Is satire a good idea in China?

KEVIN: Well, people are more open-minded than you would imagine. There was a feature in China Daily about my songwriting; I also performed and was interviewed on Chinese television.

JOHN: So being offensive is OK?

KEVIN: A lot of my stuff is beyond bad taste. It’s too silly to even be offensive.

JOHN: You don’t have any problem getting your music heard online in China?

KEVIN: I didn’t originally but, within a year of the Beijing Olympics – which was supposed to be China’s ‘coming out’ party – they blocked YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Back when blogging was big in the early 2010s I had quite a popular blog with a decent audience – tens of thousands of hits for a video – but now, with the internet being more heavily censored and pretty much all Western websites blocked in China – the New York Times, the BBC – it’s harder now to get my stuff heard. 

JOHN: So how do you get it heard? What sites do you put it on?

KEVIN: Youku and Tencent and QQ – Chinese-owned video-sharing sites which are the equivalents of YouTube. Youku is owned by Alibaba; QQ is owned by Tencent. They are not as censorious as some people might imagine. You can get almost anything on there unless it’s sexually explicit or violent.

JOHN: The Chinese love Yes Minister, don’t they? And that satirises bureaucracy. So there must be a liking for taking the piss out of your own system – though keeping low-key about it!

KEVIN: Definitely. I think Yes Minister was a vastly superior show to The Thick of It because, for a start, the characters are a lot more likeable… and there’s a lot more subtlety. When the Chinese criticise the regime, they tend to be very subtle about it.

For example, when the #MeToo movement broke in 2017, all internet posts with the Mandarin phrase for ‘Me too’ – ‘I also am’ – were censored. So the way to get any subversive message across was to use the image of a bowl of rice and the image of a rabbit. Because (in Chinese) ‘mee’ is the word for rice and ‘to’ is the word for rabbit. So ‘mee-to’ sounds very similar to the English expression. If you do that, you are not breaking the law.

JOHN: Very subtle.

KEVIN: Yes, images of Winnie the Pooh were banned because there was this paranoia he looked like Xi Jinping.

JOHN: In a sense, you must have had to change your ‘self’ to live in China. What terrible Western habits did you have to drop?

KEVIN: There is a lot more subtlety to the way people communicate in China. In a country like America or Australia, where people came from different parts of the world and they grew as a nation state in a very short time, the only way to get by was to be very direct. But, in China, a much larger percentage of communication is unspoken. So much is about context and reading between the lines. Criticising people as individuals is generally very taboo in China.

JOHN: Are you worried one night there is going to be a knock on your door and a Chinese man will be saying: “We have been reading and listening to your work in Beijing…”?

… CONTINUED HERE

… There is a taster for Kevin’s Chinese-language album 失败博物馆 (Museum of Failure) online…

… There is a YouTube playlist for the album HERE

… AND THERE IS A TOTALLY UNEDITED AUDIO VERSION OF MY CHAT WITH KEVIN ON THE PODBEAN WEBSITE HERE.
IT RUNS 42 MINUTES.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Comedy, Music

Praising the Lord in Kenya, as dirt is shovelled over a dead 12 year old boy…

Copstick is in Kenya

Journalist, comedy critic and charity-founder Kate Copstick is currently in Kenya.

She is, once again, working there with her charity Mama Biashara.

Here are the latest extracts from her journal.

Fuller versions are posted on the Mama Biashara Facebook page.


Moses (left) enjoying his favourite nyama choma (roast meat)

Friday 26th April

We head for Mutalia, near Ruai, to visit the family of Moses who died of meningitis last Monday, aged 12. Mama Biashara buys him a coffin. And coffins are important in Kenya. 

We were with Moses in 2010, when he arrived at Felista’s suffering from extreme malnutrition. His baby brother had a serious chest infection, his sisters had infections in liver and spleen and his big brother had a growth on his back. 

Their ‘father’ had abandoned them after their mother died. That was 2010. Their great uncle took them in when they left Felista and Mama Biashara paid school fees and bills. Now the children are with their great aunt. ‘Great’ both in the sense of being their great uncle’s wife and ‘great’ in looking after them when she herself has very little and four children of her own. They call her mum.

All the children flourished. But Moses was the little academic star. He was always No 1 or No 2 in his class. He wanted to be an engineer. He was so much fun. Lively and lovely. And now he is dead. Science tells us we are all stardust, but Moses, more than most. I hope that wherever he is, whatever he is, he is shining brightly.

President Uhuru Kenyatta was seeking a loan from China

Saturday 27th

The market is full of people worrying about the Chinese invasion, new taxes and getting angrier by the second at a government that borrows vast fortunes to build roads while people starve. Everyone – even the Kikkuyu – is finding some happiness in the fact that the president has just come from a trip to China without the extra extra extra loan he went asking for. 

“The Chinas say No. I am very happy,” says one of my pals and we all nod vigorously. 

The personal debt of each individual Kenyan is calculated to be just over £1,000. Much more than a huge percentage of them see in a year. 

Now, do not get me wrong. I am a HUGE fan of their cuisine, the noodle is my staple food. I am in awe of their State Circus and their religion seems lovely. I personally do not have a phone made there, but many of my best friends do. However, the Chinese have all but destroyed the Kenyan fishing people in Lake Victoria. 

Our ladies (and men) who were doing SO well for many years have now returned to prostitution, Doris says.

What happened was this. 

The Chinese came, at the invitation of the Kenyan Government, they saw, they liked the tilapia and the tilapia business. They bought entire boatloads of fish, removed the eggs, shipped them back to China and now China farms Lake Victoria tilapia and sells it back to Kenya where it is bought, frozen, sold in supermarkets, because it is much cheaper than the fresh stuff which comes from Lake Victoria. And the Kenyan Government allows this to happen. The Kenyan fishing people of Lake Victoria are collateral damage. 

Moses: “He was so much fun. Lively and lovely. And now he is dead. Meningitis”

Tuesday 30th April

Today is Moses’ burial. 

Langata Cemetary is huge and we are over at the back amongst what Felista tells me are temporary graves for those who cannot afford permanent resting places. 

There is a huge crowd. People from the school, people from churches and I have no idea who else. Also a couple renting out chairs, a bloke selling peanuts and someone setting up a little stall selling soft drinks and snacks just behind the seating area. 

We take our places and, as a tiny, shiny little man in a shiny suit welcomes us, there is much clanking as scaffolding for a gazebo tent is erected and the coffin placed underneath. 

I am invited to sit with the family which is very touching and a great honour. Dinah has pretty much arranged everything and I think it is due to her that so many have come. 

The proceedings start with the tiny, shiny man explaining that we should all be rejoicing because this was God’s plan for Moses. I am thinking that, if it was, it was a rubbish plan. 

We then sing for around ten minutes about how great the Lord is and how wonderful/excellent/glorious/powerful/great/amazing/fabulous is his name, clapping and doing that step-dig step so beloved of the Four Tops. 

Then there is a lovely, lovely bit where people come up and talk a little about Moses (including, in an unexpected turn of events, me). 

Dinah spoke wonderfully and some kids from the school sang. But, apart from that, it was like an extended episode of Nairobi’s Got Pastors. 

There were about six or seven of them, welcomed to the microphone by the tiny, shiny man who has missed his vocation as a comedy club MC because he really whipped up the applause for each pastor. And the pastors’ wives. And every church elder who was with us. And anyone who ran a youth group, church choir or had at any time had anything to do with any church. 

I understood about 60% of what each of the suited and booted septet was saying but no one really mentioned Moses.

They name-checked their churches and I wish I had counted the number of times the words Bwana Sifiwe (Praise be to God) were uttered because I think a record must have been broken. 

I am invited to view the body. I say goodbye and wipe dust off the window covering him. Then there is a scramble for others to see him. 

I have no idea who these people are. 

There is more extended praising of Jesus’ name in song.

The family (and I) are surrounded by the suited and booted ones and prayed over with still no mention of Moses. And then we go to the graveside, marching, as we do, over dozens of unmarked graves. 

Now things rachet up a notch with much howling. 

As Moses goes into the grave, a brightly-dressed woman flings herself to the ground and threshes around shrieking. Most ignore her, but she upsets the small children. 

It turns out that she is an aunt. The mother’s sister. It turns out there is actually a family who have ignored these kids for the nine years they have been with Mama Biashara. The shrieking one is a little late in her feelings for her nephew. 

We stand as the grave is filled-in, which is horrible.

It is made even more horrible by a weeny woman with a bad weave who bursts into enthusiastic song about rejoicing. 

She really goes for it. 

For a long long time. 

Praising the Lord, as dirt is shovelled over a dead twelve year old boy.


Mama Biashara works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. It gives grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. It offers training and employment in everything from phone repairs to manicures. It has built a children’s home, which it still supports. It has created water-harvesting solutions for drought-devastated areas. And it helps those fleeing female genital mutilation, forced marriage, sex slavery and child rape. It receives no grants and survives totally on personal donations (and sales at its shop in Shepherds Bush, London), 100% of which go to its work, none of which goes to Kate Copstick. She herself covers all her own personal expenses, including her accommodation costs and her travel costs.
www.mamabiashara.com

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Death, Kenya, Politics, Poverty, Religion

Lynn Ruth Miller meets her idealistic, optimistic, innocent 21 yo self in Beijing

In her last missive from China, comedienne Lynn Ruth Miller was in Shanghai. Then she progressed to Beijing…


There are definite pluses to being small and old in China. I have survived because of the kindness of strangers just like Blanche did in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but I did not have to sell what she did. Actually, mine is not worth selling these days, not even on eBay. Don’t tell ME it is never too late.

It is too late.

You would be amazed how confusing things are when you cannot ask directions or read the signs.

The road from Beijing airport into the city was lined with trees and it felt almost as if we were going through a forest to get to my hotel. The driver walked me into the lobby and left me there. No-one spoke English and I was thinking I might just have to unpack there and set up shop when, to my utter delight, a little angel appeared in a fuchsia hat that proclaimed: “Here to BREAK your heart”.  

A carbon copy of idealistic 21 y.o. Lynn Ruth

But she didn’t. Instead, she helped me find my room and figured out the lights and the internet. Her name was Diane and she was a carbon copy of the idealistic, optimistic innocent I was at 21, eager to learn more, do more and see more but afraid of all the unknowns in the universe. I discovered she also had challenges with relationships and food.

I had thought the only nervous, insecure wrecks were Jewish girls like me from Toledo, Ohio.

That evening, I sat and talked to this lovely human being who cares so much about life and thinks she can do so little. We talked about writing and the arts. We talked about philosophy and we talked about the ways society tries to limit us.

Then we walked to see my venue, The Bookworm.

I was struck with the way the main street looked like any street in Central London, filled with recognizable shops. I was told this was a very up market part of town and, indeed, it felt very Fifth Avenue but with a difference. Motor bikes go up on the sidewalks and weave through pedestrians and cars block the entrance to shops. I am absolutely certain there are no traffic laws whatsoever in Beijing.

Crossing the street is a challenge. Even when you have the green light, cars and motorbikes turn into the street and swerve around pedestrians. As I crossed on a green light, several cars turned into the intersection and just steered around me avoiding the ten bicycles coming the other way and motorbikes weaving through the entire mess trying to avoid severing toes and bruising hips. There is no such thing as right of way.

I did not get the sense that people feel repressed or unhappy even though we are told that they have a very repressive and controlling government that limits people’s freedom. Instead I got the same feeling I get walking the streets in London or New York of busy people living productive, secure lives.

Not all traffic – in the Soho area of Beijing

I was struck by how fashionable the women were and how beautifully they dressed. I was also taken by couples with children and the way they hover over their little ones.

Until just lately, China only permitted couples to have one child and that child was hopefully a son. From what I hear, girl babies were often aborted or drowned.

Now the law has changed and you can have two children. Furthermore, amniocentesis is banned. You cannot try to find out the sex of your unborn child.

These parents are totally devoted to their babies and the children are all dressed adorably with cute tee shirts and adorable little jackets and shoes. The place felt like a fashion show. Perhaps that’s why I saw so few dogs. You only have so much love you can give.

When we got there, I loved The Bookworm. It is one of those all-in-one places where you can go to an event, eat food, drink wine and have good conversations. Very reminiscent of Shakespeare and Company in Paris.

In the hutong area, I saw a very different side of Beijing: very Chinese, very traditional, with narrow streets, shops jammed next to one another and people crowding each other on the street. Chinese people push and shove their way to where they want to go. There is no sense of courtesy to strangers as there is in Britain and yet, face-to-face, they are unfailingly kind. I had numerous people guide me across streets and one guy hugged me afterwards as if I were his best friend. Yet, if you are in their way, watch out.

My friend Jesse Appel runs a venue in Beijing: the US-China Comedy Center. He comes from the richest community in the United States, Newton, Massachusetts, and went to Brandeis University, an exclusive Jewish university that, despite its origins, is very diverse. Only half the student body is Jewish.  

Jesse explained to me that standup comedy as an art form is very new in China, but growing. He was part of a small team that initiated Chinese standup with Des Bishop, an Irish comedian from Flushing, New York, who is famous for doing comedy in the Chinese language.

That night, I performed at The Bookworm. It was an add-on show following the Chinese Comedy that Jesse was in.

I listened to the Chinese show and was astounded and encouraged at how eager the audience was to laugh. However, after the group of 125 chuckling Asians at that show dispersed, I was left with about 30 people, most of them from Beijing with English as their second language. There were about 5 people who were from the US and UK – one from Leeds, one from Newcastle and one man from Michigan where I went to University. He was the only one who got all the jokes.  

Lynn Ruth performed in English at The Bookworm in Beijing

The rest of my audience were polite; they listened; they chuckled. But they were not like Jakarta or Manila. The host was a man from Orlando named Mac who was very good. The opener was his brother who informed us that he was very famous in Orlando, Florida. He was supposed to do 10 minutes but he rambled on for 30.  

The show began on Chinese time (always late) and, by the time I got on stage 45 minutes later, the audience was half asleep. But the guy from Michigan laughed; the man from Leeds chuckled and drank gin and tonics; and the rest of the audience smiled, nodded and tried to figure out what “a suppository” and “a cellar door” was.

You cannot win them all.

That said, I got a tremendous amount of praise for the show from the very audience members I thought I had confused. So maybe they did get some of it after all.

When it was time for me to go home (about 1.00am) Justin from Leeds offered to walk me to the hotel.

As we walked, chatting about life and love and the high cost of sex in China, we missed the sign for my hotel. We ended up in another hotel about half a mile from where I was staying, where no-one could speak English to help us.  Justin has been here for 6 years. He understands a bit of Chinese but, unlike Jesse who has mastered the language to the point where he has no accent, Justin communicates only in English.  

We wandered around asking people who had no idea what we were asking until one wonderful human caught on. He WALKED us to our destination. By this time, I had a raging headache from having only eaten those soggy noodles and nothing else all day. Justin, being an English Gentleman, was determined to find me something to eat. That is why I love British men. They do what their mothers taught them and their mothers got it right.

We went into a bar adjacent to the hotel but, by this time, it was almost 2.00am and no food was being served. A man from Los Angeles named Eddie saw our plight, argued with the manager about the necessity of bending rules and regulations to no avail, then disappeared to go to a convenience store to get me a bit of bread. Eddie informed me that I had very young eyes but my hearing aid didn’t quite get what he said, so I responded: “Yes, it never turned grey.”

I staggered upstairs at 2.30am, still worrying about audience reaction to my show. I wrote Eamonn in Jakarta and said that it was not like the show I did for him and, being the modest, non-assuming Brit that he is, he said: “Nothing is.”

Beijing – “Everyone has the same fears, the same wants…”

And he is right.  Each place is different and that is what is so exciting about doing an international tour.

Everyone has the same fears, the same wants and the same needs but they express them in totally different ways.

And that explains why Chinese people love that horrid tea that tastes like soaked dirt and the English love fish encased in so much batter you cannot find the cod.

There is no accounting for taste.

The next evening, I went to The Bookworm to hear Ian McEwan discuss his new book Machines Like Me. It examines what makes us human. Our outward deeds or our inner lives? He pointed out that the novel is the one place where you can get inside another person. 

When I returned to my hotel, I received two follow-up e-mails from people who had seen me at the book talk and heard that I had published books of my own.

I think it is safe to generalize that Chinese people are very anxious to enlarge their scope and increase their understanding. There is a tremendous amount of intellectual curiosity that I find very refreshing.  

Once you decide you know it all, you know nothing.

… CONTINUED HERE

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Travel

Comedian Lynn Ruth Miller walks round Shanghai and leaps out of a taxi

So far, on her Far Eastern tour, 85-year-old Jewish-American comic Lynn Ruth Miller, based in London, has blogged about her recent visits to Manila and Jakarta.

On her last day in Jakarta, she was suddenly told that her gigs in Shanghai had been cancelled because the Chinese authorities had closed down the comedy club. But her flights and her accommodation there were already booked…


I was not happy about my trip to Shanghai because I thought I had two nights performing comedy and now I was just visiting the largest city in the world to see sights I really did not care that much about.  

Promoter Andy Curtain and his sidekick Mohammed were lovely and caring about the cancellation and had not only promised to guide me through the visit but to change plans so I went on to Beijing a bit earlier.  

It took an hour to get from Shanghai Airport to the hotel, but I was immediately struck by the lack of congestion on the roads compared with Jakarta. There were lots and lots of high-rise apartment and office buildings all along the route. Everything looked clean and very modern compared to Indonesia.  

The hotel was called Xiangyang Fandian. When we arrived the woman at the front desk took an instant dislike to me. Or seemed to. But she did not speak much English, so, really, we could not communicate.

The language was a mystery, not that many people speak English and I am not a good sightseer so I was very uncomfortable in the city.

However, Shanghai is interesting. There are lots of green spaces and, although it is huge, it does not feel crowded or congested. There are a lot of military around which is unsettling, but the police do not seem to bother anyone (or could it be they just didn’t bother ME?).

Andy helped me get on the Internet. China has blocked Google and Facebook and you have to pay for VPN to access these sites.

I got some work done on the computer and had lunch at a breakfast place called Egg, founded by woman from New Jersey who is very active in the restaurant scene in Shanghai.

Then I walked over to the park. Evidently people dance in the park all day but sadly, by the time I got there, there was only one man doing Tai Chi. I was amused to seeing so many men bring their babies to the park. I never think of men as doing that kind of thing, but – hey! – it’s a new world and a new way of thinking about life… or so I am told.

As I did not do a show, I felt very plain. I prefer to feel shimmery and amazing. I just don’t know how you ordinary people do it.

That night I took a walk to find an Italian restaurant and, on the way, I stumbled on a gorgeous and very expensive French bistro, Saleya on Changle Road. I ate in a vine-protected porch-like area with lots of rattan furniture. It was peaceful, relaxing meal: there was no piped-in music!!! The place was relatively empty but, over in corner, were two men with their very small elaborately coiffed  poodles. Evidently dogs are fine in restaurants in China. And there is a gay scene in Shanghai.

Andy recommended a tour of the Jewish section of Shanghai that his friend Dvir Bar-Gal offers and I signed up for it.

I am aware of the migration of Jews to China when Hitler began his purge of the Jews and I know they lived in abject poverty crammed together like sardines in unheated, inadequate shelters with one toilet for many and often no toilet at all, but this tour really brought it all to life. It was a long tour, 4 hours, but not tiring. What I noticed most was the smell. There is a close gamey odour to the streets, particularly in the poor area where the Jewish ghetto was.  

The people on the tour were aged 50 or more and one 73-year-old woman from Toronto, Katherine, befriended me which was nice. It was not a very friendly crowd other than Katherine and I am certain Dvir was a bit offended by my smart remarks. He asked us all what the motivator to the success of all Jews was and I said: “A Jewish Mother”. Silence.

It turns out that business is the foundation of all Jewish enterprise. Who knew?

When the tour was over, Katherine suggested I join Adrian, Shirley and her for dinner at M on the Bund a very fancy 7th floor restaurant.  

The Bund is an area of modern skyscrapers along the western riverfront in the city and is filled with flowers and lots and lots of people. The dinner was really wonderful because of the conversation. It turned out that Adrian is a psychiatrist and Shirley collects exotic perfume bottles. Katherine is an investment guru. Katherine talked about how she had had four husbands and someone accused her of serial monogamy. I had only two husbands and no real childhood hardship. My biggest conflict was which cashmere sweater to wear with which skirt (and I always picked the wrong one, according to my mother).

After the meal, the three of them put me in a cab and this was the only really horrid experience I had while there.  

The cab driver (like most of them) could not speak English.  

He agreed to take me home for 60 yuan and I gave him my hotel key envelope with the address on it. But, when we got to the hotel, he wanted 80 yuan. I didn’t want to argue, but wanted the address ticket I had shown him because that was how I could show people who cannot speak English where I am staying. I simply couldn’t make myself understood, so he just grabbed the money and sped away AS I got out of the moving car.

I am convinced that I handled it badly, however.

He really did not know what I was asking him. I could have asked a passer-by to translate but you always think of these sensible solutions after the fact don’t you?

I finished off my computer stuff after that fiasco and went to bed, setting the alarm for 8:30am. Sadly my clock was having the same problem as my circadian rhythm and I overslept until 9:25am. But I managed to pack and get dressed in 10 minutes, found the driver Andy had scheduled, and off I went to the airport.

Next stop Beijing.

… CONTINUED HERE

1 Comment

Filed under China, Travel

Worldwide comments on Louise Reay’s husband’s self-destructive court case.

Controversial Edinburgh Fringe show

If you want to complain about something included in a comedy show you have not seen, my advice is do not sue the comic. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the case, it will not make you look good and the media will love it.

Last Friday, I blogged about Louise Reay starting a crowdfunding appeal to cover court costs because her estranged husband is suing her for mentioning him in an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show Hard Mode last year.

As far as I am aware, he has never actually seen the show, which was about political totalitarianism and what would happen if the Chinese government took over the BBC.

I saw a preview of Hard Mode before the Fringe in which Louise mentioned how sad she was about her marriage breaking up. Without details.

I never saw the show in Edinburgh. Apparently her husband objected to some comments he was told she had made in a handful of shows and she removed the comments. Now, six months later, he is suing her.

Drawing attention to something only a few people heard by going into a public court and attracting inevitable media publicity is staggeringly counterproductive. As I mentioned in my blog yesterday, it triggers the Streisand Effect. I showed how the story had spread, virus-like – basically Husband Sues Comedian Wife for Talking About Him on Stage – and, since yesterday, it has spread further with people now commenting on it worldwide. The latest new references to it which I spotted on a cursory Google this morning are listed below at the bottom of this blog.

Eraserhead – Louise’s new show had to be written in 48 hours

In Australia, The Advertiser noted that the complained-of show “last year won an Adelaide Fringe Best Emerging Artist Weekly Award”. This year (Louise is currently performing in Adelaide), The Advertiser notes she was forced to write a new show Eraserhead in just 48 hours. It is “about the experience of censorship and the way it makes you feel like your identity is being erased”.

Louise is quoted as saying: “he’s suing me, which in my opinion is simply an attempt to silence me. As standup comedians, I believe it’s the very definition of our job to talk about our lives and social issues.”

Canada’s National Post wisely got in touch with Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award judge Claire Smith, who actually saw and reviewed the complained-about show in Edinburgh for The Scotsman last year.

She said that the show was about freedom of speech and political oppression. At one brief point in the show, she told the National Post yesterday: “My memory of it is that (Louise) said that she’d realized that she’d also been in an oppressive relationship. But it was so minor — there was very, very little detail… I’ve seen lots of shows where people talk about relationships where they’ve gone into a lot of detail about their relationships, their marriage. Mostly what she was doing was making a political point. It seems extraordinary that he has taken this view of it.”

The Malaysian Digest quoted Mark Stephens, a libel lawyer at Howard Kennedy in London, who told the UK’s Guardian:

“There’s a long history of British juries – before they were abolished [in defamation cases] – not finding in favour of claimants when it’s a joke… This will be the first time [the issue comes] before a judge. It’s going to be a test of whether the British judiciary understands a joke – I mean that seriously. It’s a test case for the judge to see whether they will follow the same route as juries used to take, which was to throw libel cases which were based on humour out on their ear. Judges have traditionally had something of a humourless side.”

The Malaysian Digest continues: “Drawing from personal experience has been key to vast numbers of comedians’ work. Last year’s Fringe, even, featured separate shows by ex-couple Sarah Pascoe and John Robins in which they discussed their break up, the latter winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award for Best Show, shared with Hannah Gadsby. Sarah Millican won the if.comedy award for Best Newcomer in 2008 for her show Sarah Millican’s Not Nice, inspired by her own divorce.

“It was a show about censorship and authoritarianism…”

“(Louise Reay’s) solicitors have also issued a statement on the case, reading: Louise started to write her Hard Mode show when she was still with her husband. It was a show about censorship and authoritarianism, asking the audience to imagine that the BBC had come into the control of the Chinese Government. It was in no way a show about her husband. While performing the show after their separation, Louise mentioned her husband a couple of times but this was in the context of telling the audience how sad she was that they had recently separated.

“At certain performances of the show, she cried at this point. While she used Mr. Reay’s image of a couple of times, she invited the audience to admire how good-looking he was and expressed sadness that the marriage had come to an end. She used an image and some footage from their wedding that she had been using in her shows for years without any objection from Mr. Reay.

Mr. Reay had claimed that there are sections of the show which will have been understood by the audience to mean that he was abusive to Louise. Louise’s position is that the key sections that he claimed are defamatory of him were not intended to be understood by the audience to refer to him. During the most of these sections, Louise was playing various different characters, including a newsreader and Jeremy Clarkson. Should this case go to trial, there will undoubtedly be debate over the meaning of the words complained about and whether they can truly be said to refer to Mr. Reay.

Claire Smith’s review of the show in The Scotsman last year, by the way, said it was: “an absurdist show about totalitarianism which intentionally makes its audience feel uncomfortable. We are hustled to our feet, given identity papers and surrounded by masked guards who are watching our behaviour. In the past Reay, who is fluent in Chinese, has been sponsored by the Chinese government to create absurdist mime shows in Chinese. It is safe to say Reay and the Chinese government are getting a divorce – particularly as she has worked on this show with dissident artist Ai Weiwei. It’s a bold experimental comedy.”

In fact, the Chinese, as far as I am aware at the time of writing, have not yet threatened to sue Louise.

Louise’s TV documentary work covers difficult subjects

Incidentally, Louise’s TV documentary credits include BBC1 Panorama, Channel 4’s Dispatches, BBC2’s study of income inequality The Super Rich & Us, Channel 4’s series on immigration Why Don’t You Speak English?,  BBC2’s series on education Chinese School: Are Our Kids Tough Enough?, BBC4’s History of India: Treasures of the Indus and Channel 4’s History of China: Triumph & Turmoil.

I don’t think the current court case could easily be the subject of some future TV documentary. More a TV sitcom.

Louise Reay’s crowdfunding page is HERE.

The latest batch of media reports are:

THE ADVERTISER (AUSTRALIA)

BBC NEWS, SCOTLAND

DAILY EXPRESS

DAILY RECORD (SCOTLAND)

(LONDON) EVENING STANDARD

GIZMODO

THE i

LINDA NIEUWS (HOLLAND)

MALAYSIAN DIGEST

MANDY NEWS online

NATIONAL POST (CANADA)

NEW YORK POST

THE SCOTSMAN

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Comedy, Legal system

Louise Reay’s Chinese language comedy and a man bangs a nail into his penis

Louise Reay Chinese

The Thoughts of Louise Reay – 喜剧演员和电视制片人

I missed a preview of Louise Reay’s show It’s Only Words a few weeks ago. Not that I would have understood it. Her show is billed as “the first ever stand-up show where the audience will literally have no idea what the person on stage is talking about.”

This is because her show is performed totally in Chinese for audiences who speak no Chinese.

“So,” I told her when we met, “you studied Chinese at university. That was very sensible of you, given they’re the rising world power.”

“It may sound sensible now,” she told me, “but it wasn’t at the time. I did it on a whim. My parents are hippyish and we were like a host family for foreign students. When I was like 16, a lot of my siblings had moved out so there were spare bedrooms and we filled them with foreign students.”

“How many siblings have you?” I asked.

“I’m one of four, but I have three step-siblings, so my parents have seven between them and, when each one left, we put like two foreign students in their bedroom until there was just me and my little brother left of the original siblings. We would have these big dinners with like 2 Chinese, 1 Swiss and 3 Mexicans. At one point, we had 4 Brazilians living with us who we couldn’t get rid of. They just kept inviting more people to live with them.

“It sounds terrible to say it today but, at that time, it always felt like the Chinese ones were the most alien. I was like 16 and going clubbing all the time and we had one Chinese girl who came to stay with us and she just read the Bible all the time. It felt weird.

“So I chose to study Chinese on a whim. I thought: Chinese people seem the weirdest to me. That will be the most fun. I can go to university in Beijing. It was as simple as that. It sounds so bad now, but I was only 17. About a year later, the Chinese economy took off and everyone said to me: What a wise decision you made. It was a complete whim.

Louise Reay, fitting in with Chinese culture

Louise always tries to fit in with Chinese culture

“I was at university in Beijing for a year and later I went back to work there for another year. in business. All my colleagues were Chinese women and all my clients were middle-aged Chinese men and that’s why I came home. It was like just really weird?”

“When did you come back?” I asked.

“Quite a long time ago – like 2010 or 2011.”

“The first three times I went to Beijing,” I told her, “were 1984, 1985 and 1986.”

“Oh!” said Louise. “You’re so lucky! Deng Xiaoping! Cool! I went to Beijing again last December. There’s a cool TV series coming out on BBC this summer – The School That Turned Chinese – about a school in Surrey which gets Chinese teachers for a month and I was out there getting the Chinese teachers.”

“Your day job in TV is what?” I asked.

“Assistant producer. Freelance. I just fell into it about five years ago because I speak Chinese. I do all kinds of projects. I did a big economics series for BBC2 that came out in December. I do really random stuff. I’m an assistant producer, so I just run round after the middle-aged man. I came home from Beijing to avoid hanging out with middle-aged Chinese men and all I do now is run around after middle-aged British men. Apparently that’s my destiny. My first ever job in TV was in Zambia filming a documentary about middle-aged Chinese men who were entrepreneurs in the Copper Belt.”

Louise in London’s Soho last week

Louise could not escape China in London’s Soho last week

“So,” I said, “you do live stand-up comedy AND these serious BBC2/BBC4 documentaries…”

“Yes,” said Louise. “I first did stand-up when I was 16. I stopped at 18 after a weird gig in Eastbourne. They had a racist joke competition led by the compere. Then a man in the audience said: If I hammer a nail into my penis, can I get free entry to this club night for the rest of the year? And they said: Yeah! Sure! and they ran around and got a stool and a hammer and a nail and he hammered it in.”

“We are talking here about hammering it into skin,” I checked, “not into the more solid bits?”

“I didn’t look,” said Louise. “But, an hour later, he stood up and said: If I hammer a second nail into my penis, can I get free drinks for the rest of the year? and the audience went Yeeaaaaahhhh!!!! and basically, like, at the end of the night, he was doing a wee into a basin and I went to wash my hands next to him and he turned to me and said: Oh, I really like your set. And wee was coming out of the different holes in his dick. So I thought: I can never do comedy again and I didn’t do stand-up for about six years after that.”

“I have to say,” I told Louise, “I would book him as an act… What have you just been working on recently?”

Louise in China, blending in with the locals

“Dude, we WILL be able to understand what you want…

“It’s really random. There’s like a Harvard professor and he has a TV company in the UK so we were doing like a history of capitalism thing?”

“Why,” I asked, “are you doing this Brighton Fringe and Edinburgh Fringe show It’s Only Words in Chinese?”

“I’ve always been interested in communication. I made a documentary about a Chinese woman called Apple who lived in Croydon. She could not speak any English and she did not go outside except for once a week to go to the Chinese supermarket. She was so isolated because she didn’t speak the language. And I thought: Dude, if you go to an English language shop and try to buy something, we WILL be able to understand what you want.

“People have a real mental barrier about languages and the way we communicate. But just one look can mean so much. We communicate all the time. Look at my hands. I can’t stop them moving. There’s so much more than language going on. That’s what my show’s all about.”

“So,” I asked, “people sitting in the audience will able to understand what’s going on?”

“Yes. That’s the thing. It will prove that you can. There was a very spurious 1960s experiment which proved that only 7% of communication was verbal. So my whole show is an experiment in the 93%. If I did it in French, it wouldn’t work, because most people maybe understand enough.

“A really weird thing is that, depending on where you live, your face ages differently, because you use different muscles in your face depending on what language you’re speaking.

Louise Reay, cleaning a great wall

Louise Reay, a woman with experience, cleans a great wall

“I know a Western man who has lived in China for the past 40 years and he looks like a Chinese person now, because the muscles that he’s used from speaking Chinese every day… Like Chinese is very much in the front of your face, whereas European languages are much more throaty? The whole face changes, because you have some muscles that are not used and other muscles that are used a lot more. It’s like really nuts that you can age your face differently depending on what language you’re speaking each day. It’s mental.”

1 Comment

Filed under China, Comedy