Token White Guy

[25 May 2005]

By Jonathan Campbell

Enlightenment comes with little regard to time or space. I learned this in a hidden corner of a central Beijing shopping mall last Christmas. If it hadn’t hit me before then, I certainly came to a satori of sorts as I was pounding on a conga to the fourth round of ‘Girl from Ipanema’ in as many days. It’s not that I don’t like the song (there’s a time and a place for everything, after all), or that the conga is completely unnecessary for a live version of this tune, to say nothing of the dozen other jazz standards that I played over the course of four afternoons. It wasn’t even that our audience was composed of uninterested shoppers, mall employees and the staff of the Adidas shop not six feet from the ‘stage’. It was the fact that my face was more important to the gig than either my drum or my abilities thereupon: I was there not in the capacity of conga player. I was there in the capacity of Foreigner.

I was in the mall because a Chinese friend of mine, a bassist, called, desperate for foreigners to join him for this mall gig: management insisted that his band add at least one foreigner to their lineup. The conga was the only instrument for which I could offer my services (they already had a drummer).

Actually ‘foreigner’ isn’t quite specific enough. I was there as White Man. ‘Foreigner’, to those hiring bands for gigs such as, say, Christmastime in a central Beijing shopping mall, doesn’t just mean ‘someone from outside of China’: Oftentimes, the word ‘foreigner’ is supplemented by ‘Westerner’, which is supposed to make it clear that the person about whom we are talking is supposed to be white, as if there is no such thing as ‘Westerners’ of color. As if, say, Morocco isn’t in the geographical ‘West’. But I’ll leave the Orientalism aside for now. Besides, West may be West, but in China, we’re in the Centre.

The Chinese were ‘Orientalists’, to use a completely inadequate word, long before Napoleon and his stable of philologists put Egypt in their sights: China’s name, The Middle Kingdom, meant - and still means - quite literally, that it was the country at the centre of the universe (non-Chinese outside of China are still referred to as ‘foreigners’ in the language of the Chinese diaspora). Thus, the historically patronizing attitude toward anything from outside of China: The Qianlong emperor told Lord McCartney, at the end of the 18th Century, that China “possess(es) all things” and that they “have no use” for the things the Brits brought. Fair enough: Back when Europeans were in the Dark Ages, China was more technologically, politically and generally far more advanced than Europe would be for centuries. Of course, China didn’t do such a great job at keeping itself ahead of other civilizations through the modern era, and the Qianlong emperor had no idea that the Centre was shifting.

Possibly in defense of those searching for entertainment based on race, but more likely in order to shut up the annoying self-righteous foreigners, we are told that there is a Chinese cultural facet called ‘face’ that, even if we were able to comprehend, we wouldn’t appreciate, being that we are, after all, not Chinese. Five thousand years of culture that we are constantly told makes China much, much better than everywhere else, but yet, putting barbarians upon the stage is the best way for a host to garner ‘face’. Perhaps this is merely an extension of the Qianlong emperor’s claim and of the Chinese superiority in general: Foreigners, here, are monkeys meant to entertain. But why, then, in a twisted bonus (for us, anyway), can ‘foreign’ bands command exponentially higher pay than locals?

I’d long heard about The Paying Gig, the Holy Grail for musicians looking to actually earn something resembling money for playing. Generally, these Gigs are reserved for jazz musicians, since in Beijing jazz is generally understood to be the music of money and a surefire way to add a fancy element to any event. As a rock musician, I’ve played gigs in bars and walked away with a whopping 20 kuai (US$2.50), not nearly enough even to get to the show, let alone buy a beer the bar wouldn’t comp. The shopping mall experience was my first crack at playing for Cash. Soon thereafter, through a string of luck, coincidence and whatever magic that seems to be in the air around here, I got on a few lists that resulted in a few chances to answer The Call. The Call comes most often from someone representing a real estate company, since most Paying Gigs are at the multitude of condominium and ‘villa’ developments going up around the city and country. I am genuinely curious as to whether there is such a thing as a Real Estate Gig anywhere else in the world. In Beijing, it has become a part of our common vocabulary:

Real Estate Gig ‘rE(-&)l is-‘tAt ‘gig; [noun]: 1) A musical performance given by a band, usually composed of white Westerners [see ‘Foreign Devil’], that coincides with the beginning of a sales period for units of a condominium development slated for completion some time before the Beijing XXIX Olympic Games. 2) Signifying a musical performance that will earn the performers large amounts of (cash) money: “I’d like to do that club show on Saturday, man, but we got a real estate gig.”)

The Call generally goes something like this:

“We’re looking for a foreign band,” they say, preferring to start with the least potentially-offensive description, though I have been asked to help find a ‘Black People Band’ and a ‘White People Band’ before.

“What sort of band are you looking for?” I ask in response waiting for them to suggest a genre - even one that I didn’t play.

“What kind of band do you have?” They answer back.

It’s at this point that the conversation goes in a few circles, until, finally, they get (back) to the point. “We’re looking for a band with foreigners. Jazz, I guess.” ‘Jazz’ in this instance has quite an elastic meaning - 99 times out of 100, what they want is a band of white folk to sing Western songs they know. These are: ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver, anything by the Carpenters, ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles (the Unplugged version, of course). And maybe a Richard Marx tune or two.

Depending on the time of day, my mood at the time, whether or not I desperately need to use the bathroom, and how low my cash flow is, I might make an attempt at an ethical challenge. “Look. My bands, we play particular kinds of music. It’s about what you hear, not about what we look like. I don’t know what kind of music a ‘foreign band’ plays.” Otherwise (i.e.: most of the time), I’ll just skip the formalities and list off the few bands I’m in.

“So you don’t have a jazz band?” they’ll ask.

“No,” I say. “But I do have a blues band. We play upbeat, rockin’ blues. Would that work?”

Here, the person on the other end of the phone pauses for what they will believe is the amount of time that might make me believe they are balancing the requests of the company that has hired them with my question. But since the company that has hired them has only asked them to get a bunch of foreigners, they’re likely thinking something more along the lines of: I’m sure the Carpenters are blues. And the Eagles, I think that could be blues. Blues is like jazz, right?

Note that at this point in the conversation, the Holy Trinity of cover tunes have not been mentioned. They won’t be, until the agent and a manager or two from the real estate company comes to see the band you’ve described, on multiple occasions, as a blues band.

Here is where a diversion into the television - and pop, in general - factor is necessary. The Chinese want to hear that which they know, which is, to an extent, like, most people anywhere. I could say here that unlike the rest of the world, the Chinese desire to hear the familiar is deeply embedded in thousands of years of artistic traditions: Whether music or painting, the goal was to recreate that which came before. Confucius called for a return to the ancients’ way of thinking and living. Artists judged to be the best of their eras were, for millennia, copying, not creating. More simply put - and certainly less academically so - I see, every day, how much people here want to be able to sing along. As popular as karaoke may be overseas these days, it pales in comparison to the Chinese fervour (and I don’t mean here to imply that locals are addicted to karaoke: The Brits are not ‘addicted’ to going to the pub for a pint, and in the same way that doing so is nothing more than the most common way of socialising, so with the Chinese habit of belting out a few tunes after a dinner out. Karaoke as the final step in reaching a business deal - which is certainly common - on the other hand, leans a bit more toward the pathological).

Now add into this mix the seemingly ever-expanding crop of foreigners that appear on Chinese television dressed in period or theatrical costume singing Peking Opera classics, selections from the Monkey King’s Journey to the West, or classic pieces of Chinese Abbot-and-Costello-type comedy routines. I do not wish to lay judgement upon them: They, like me and my Real Estate Gigs, are simply giving the people what they want. What I object to is the way that I see the studio audience responding to them. I see the crowd golf-clapping with big, fake smiles on, screaming ‘HAO!’ (Good!), and a deep anger rushes through my veins: I can feel their patronizing cutting deep into my being and I cringe and nearly scream, I believe, on behalf of all foreigners. Ditto for the way I am constantly told that my Chinese is amazing: It is decent, but it is not amazing, and I wanted to hug the cabbie who, after discovering I’d been here for a few years, told me that my Chinese ought to be a lot better. The compliments on my language ability come from the assumption that non-Chinese are physically unable to master a language as complicated as Chinese, so the slightest ability is rewarded with the equivalent of a golf clap and a hearty “HAO!”. Here again, I hear the echoes of the Qianlong emperor’s words. And just as Chinese television audiences expect to hear foreigners perform the same few songs and/or acts, so do those in the outside world.

At this point, you might say, why not just learn Those Songs? You’re already selling out, so why not go all the way?

It’s a fair point, I suppose, but I’ll say this in my defence: I don’t want to play them. I want to play music that I like - isn’t that why we play? But I’ll go one step further: Because playing them would put me in another category of musician - a category of my own construction, perhaps, but a category I want nothing to do with. In short: I have to look myself in the mirror, and knowing that I play ‘Country Roads’ for money would make that a lot harder.

And hey, why not use the Real Estate Gig as a way of introducing something (gasp!) new? It was such a great feeling to get the staff and guests of the marble-heavy baroque monstrosity that was Chateau Glory (my blues band’s first Real Estate Gig), wasted as they were on the free wine and five-star buffet, up out of their seats and dancing to covers of the Allman Brothers and Junior Wells. They couldn’t sing along, but they sure as hell could - and did - shake their thangs to it.

And it’s moments like that - when it’s clear that the line between condescension and appreciation has been crossed in favour of the latter - that make playing even the most bizarre and initially frustrating gigs worthwhile.

That, and when they hand over the pile of money at the end of the night.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/campbell050525/