It’s a Wednesday night in Shanghai, and I’m at the Tang Hui Club, a four-story music venue just off Huaihai Road, the city’s main shopping street. The Tang Hui used to be a scummy little dive on the outskirts of town; in the spirit of New China, it has been given a slick makeover, resurrected as a clean and modern music pub in an unbeatable location.
A World Cup game has just finished, and throngs of partygoers mingle around, waiting for the band to start. The group is called Alhambra, and they’re a strange-looking crew: the drummer is a skinny Chinese hippie in a baggy T-shirt and Rasta hat. The rhythm guitar player is thick and well built, with broad shoulders and flowing black hair. He looks vaguely like a Tibetan or another ethnic minority—stockier and darker than the average Chinese.
And then, at the front of the stage fiddling with his guitar, there’s the kid. The superstar.
The kid’s scrawny, with pale, white skin and the ethereal beauty that is often bestowed by the hand of genetics on people with mixed blood. His deep brown eyes are partly hidden under a hairdo that’s half Afro, half hippie-era Beatle shag.
He wears a tailor-made, floral-print shirt, open at the collar, exposing his hairless chest. A silver medallion dangles around his neck. His jeans hug his skinny legs in true rock-star fashion, and simple flip-flops hang playfully off his feet. He twists his even features into a bad-ass expression, brushes his hair off his face, closes his eyes, and starts to play.
His hands are fast, insanely fast. Most amazingly—and like almost no other music in China—the kid’s improvising. He’s rattling off little motives from Spanish folk songs and then, without notice, shifting his fingering patterns and taking the music in completely new directions. Sometimes, the music seems so standard-flamenco that it wouldn’t be out of place at a club in Barcelona; seconds later, though, the kid will shift into a darker, more psychedelic style.
Behind him, the drummer and guitar player are laying down a simple groove, and the kid’s just going nuts, playing whatever he wants. It’s easy for guitar virtuosos to descend into wankery, but the kid’s so talented, so in the moment, so versatile, that the entire crowd is hanging onto each note he plays. Growing increasingly ecstatic, the audience starts clapping for the kid, hooting, cheering. He glances up at the crowd, for just a few seconds, curls his lips in disdain, and then returns to his music, moving his hands up and down the neck, firing off quick little riffs.
After a little more than an hour, Alhambra finishes their set. The other house band comes on, a mediocre one with Cure covers and an American bass player, and the kid steps outside to get some fresh air. He breaks little mouse-dropping-size pieces of hash off the ball and mixes them with the contents of an emptied-out cigarette, then rolls the whole thing up into a joint with the dexterity of an experienced craftsman. He appraises his work like a jeweler looking at a freshly cut diamond, lights the joint and takes a long hit.
He sucks in a lungful of smoke, exhales a thin stream, and smiles, looking at me curiously. I’ve already asked if I can interview him; at first, he acted quite dismissive but I’ve explained that we have a good friend in common, this old travel buddy of mine who works for an English-language magazine in Shanghai. He’s really looking at me hard now, judging me just like he judges everyone he meets: What can this person do for me? What can I get out of this guy?
“Okay,” he says in accented but fluent English, “call me tomorrow. Here’s my home phone number.”
It’s well into the next afternoon, and I’ve called several times and left messages on the kid’s home answering machine, but that was hours ago, and so I am stuck, waiting for the kid’s phone call, sitting in an air-conditioned café near Tang Hui on Huaihai Road, Shanghai’s central shopping artery. The street is known as “The Champs-Elysées of the Orient,” as Huaihai Road was originally constructed by the French who modeled it after their own most famous boulevard.
Today, most of the old buildings are long gone, replaced by colossal shopping malls: Times Square, Hong Kong Plaza, Plaza 66. A Porsche dealership sits next to a park where migrant workers from a nearby construction site are taking their noonday break, chatting, picking their bare feet and sipping from thermoses of tea.
Both sides of the street are absolutely jammed with people, going to lunch, coming back from lunch, going shopping, looking in store windows, buying things. There’s something for everyone, here, with stores selling tea and cigarettes next to stores selling international luxury products; Gucci next to Shanghai Famous Cigarettes and Alcohol.
Right in front of the Pacific Ocean Department store—a standard Chinese multi-story monolith with hundreds of tiny shops selling mid-priced consumer goods—and just next to the exit of the Huangpi Road subway station, a crowd has gathered around an old woman.
The woman is dressed in a grey shirt that has Chinese characters handwritten all over the front and the back, like some kind of homemade sandwich board advertising. She wears a white hat which looks like a cross between a nurse cap and a dunce cap. The hat’s also covered with messy black characters like her shirt—they are written all over her clothing with a marker.
The woman has what she wants, which is the attention of the crowd. She’s addressing them in a series of pitiful screams: she punctuates the end of each sentence by thrusting her head forward ever so slightly, and streams of spittle fly out from the many gaps in her teeth. The bystanders, their hands toting shopping bags, are listening with a mix of interest and befuddlement.
Her rural dialect is very thick, and I can’t understand what she’s saying nor get close enough to read the sloppy characters that are written all over her clothes. A mall security guard who’s way too young for his too-big blue uniform stands in the crowd near the woman, nervously running his hand over the peachfuzz on his upper lip. He knows that he should get her out of there, but he can’t; there are too many people around her, and besides, she’s a force, she’s got some power, everyone in front of the Pacific Ocean Department Store can feel it.
“I HAVE BEEN INJURED!!!” She’s screaming. “I HAVE BEEN INJURED! THEY KILLED MY HUSBAND! I HAVE BEEN INJURED! I HAVE BEEN THE VICTIM OF GOVERNMENT INJUSTICE! THEY KILLED MY HUSBAND!”
She takes a plastic bottle of water that’s all crinkled and bent, it looks like it’s been imported directly from the city dump, out of her purse, which is an old plastic sack, and she unscrews the cap carefully, takes a sip before slipping it back in her bag.
“I HAVE BEEN INJURED!!!” She starts to scream again.
By now the young security guard has called for reinforcements. Two Pacific Ocean Department Store blue-uniformed guards, Chinese rent-a-cops, take the old woman gently by the arm and lead her away.
Just as this drama concludes, my phone rings. It’s the kid. He gives me his address, tells me there’s a party going on, to come over to his house, he’ll wait for me.
As I get out of a cab in front of the kid’s house, I see him getting into the cab in front of me with the bass player from his band. I wave to the kid and he beckons for me to get into his taxi. I hop into the back seat and close the door behind me; from the front seat, he turns around and fixes me with an incredulous, wide-eyed stare.
“What the fuck took you so long, man?” He’s wearing a sleeveless undershirt, and locks of his thick black hair stick out in every possible direction. It’s well into the afternoon; clearly, the kid has just woken up and smoked a joint, before hopping into this taxi just as I was arriving.
“I thought there was a party going on,” I say. He turns away without response.
We ride in silence for a bit before I ask him where we’re going. A zany smile crosses his face, and he starts ranting in his speedy, stoner English: “We’ve got to get the Internet fixed, man, without the Internet, what are we going to do, man, we can’t do anything, we can’t download music, we don’t know anything, man, you know?”
I nod, and he smiles, and repeats what he’s just said over again. “We’ve got to get the Internet fixed, man ...” Hyper, kinetic, he starts blabbing to the cab driver in Mandarin about the World Cup. Then he begins a long, impassioned speech in Uighur to Madan, his bandmate, who’s been sitting stoically next to me, smoking Panda cigarettes, throughout the whole cab ride.