Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Beijing with purple fingernails and much hospitality

I have been busy finishing an illustration while attending rehearsals so my full exploration of Beijing has been confined to the evenings when Jim is free to join me.

We have been thrice to an upscale mall called "Sanlitun Village" which has an apple store and nearly every other franchise you would find in the US, McDonalds, Le Sportsac, etc. But we didn't go there to shop, really! It has to be the most expensive place in Beijing, costs just the same as a fancy mall in NJ. The cab ride takes us past the panorama of modern Beijing, part Miami part Dallas. Skyscrapers everywhere but spaced out more than Manhattan. In fact, it looks much bigger than the big Apple! The national bird of China is said to be the crane, the construction crane, and they were everywhere. Hopefully the urban planners realize they should preserve some of the old before it is all gone. What tourist wants to see only modern malls? But back to the one mall I kept seeing...

The first time we attended a 9th year party at Hatsune, a Japanese restaurant. The place was mobbed and almost half the party was foreign born. I met a young tall Austrian, Raphael, who is managing a jazz club and hotel in the art district. A friendly Chinese business man pressed his special projects card on me, he is apparently in construction. The owner of Hatsune, Alan Wong, was born in California and came to China ten years ago. He is a friend of Kemin's (one of Jim's cowriters). I spoke to a friendly young Beijing woman whose English wasn't quite up to telling me much but we smiled a lot at each other. The scene was so expat bar, full of mostly young chic types...for entertainment some drummers played lion drums and then 4 sumo fat suits were handed out to the owner and friends. It was so funny to see thin elegant girls climb into the ridiculous costumes and wrestle on the floor. Unlike a similar bar in Manhattan, I was treated as a person of interest. People wanted to exchange business cards with me...perhaps as a foreigner I represent potential investments? It was refreshing to not be met with the usual 20-something's disdain or avoidance of elders.

The next time we headed to Sanlitun Village it was to have my nails done, along with Louis St. Louis (music director), at a chic spa, Lovely Nails, just around the corner from the mall. Louis has more stories about show biz than an encyclopedia has entries. He has met EVERYONE and worked with many stars, John Travolta, Olivia Newton John, Ann Magaret, and on an on. But as interesting as his stories about others, he is himself an interesting story! He told me Jim is one of the most talented lyricists he has met in a long time! Some of his songs could be instant hits! He and I sat in adjacent chairs as dainty women sawed off our calluses with super-sized files. I was sure I'd lose a shoe size by the time they were done. I let Louis help pick a deep purply magenta for my fingers and toes. It just seemed to fit the mood, Louis brings out the diva in me. He had his back waxed, I sank into the upholstered chair as my polish dried and watched koi swim in a tank, their scales as glittery and my nails.

Jim took photos of me being primped, but alas, the next day his camera was lifted skillfully from it's velcro case on his belt, as we strolled the neighborhood around our hotel, and we lost all the photos he took.

The third trip to the mall was to go to the nearby, found at last!, Bookworm, a cafe, event space, and bookstore. It was everything Jim had said it would be. I loved it. Walls full of books, a lending library as well, tables galore, views (it is upstairs and has windows that show the sparkling lights of the curving and torqued modern buildings in the area) and a western style toilet! A book discussion was just winding up in one of the rooms. I heard bits of questions about philosophy and religion and wandered away, didn't sound like my kind of book judging from the earnest discussion. 

I have been having pains in my stomach, not Ghengis Khan's revenge! but jabbing acid reflux. So I went with one of our translators to a traditional Chinese medicine shop and was given two types of pills to take for two weeks. One appears to be a root turned into tiny ball bearing sized brown pellets, I take a table spoon of those a half hour before two meals a day. The other pill I take three a day and it has the color and flavor of a dehydrated lump of instant minty beef bullion. I am already feeling better.

The Chinese we are working with, both the actors, tech, and creative team, are remarkably generous and warm. They really want us to have a good time. Last night Jim and I and Mark Allen were invited out by the talented guy, we call Ben, who is putting together the score with the chinese lyrics in a program called Finale. He can do a rubics cube in nine seconds flat. He is also a drummer and both the translator (age 20) and a friend "Idy" (19) who joined us were his students. The friend also speaks English. We were treated to dinner at a traditional restaurant that had members of the Beijing opera singing in a stylized warble to two stringed instruments. The food was, well, terrific, and conversation flowed thanks to the two translators. We were a bit upset that Ben was treating us but were told this is the Chinese way, we could pay next time. It is a concept, guanxi, that involves planting favors and building networks of friendly connections. Hopefully I learn how much to accept and give so I can be a good visitor. 

Next we went to a hutang (alley) district on S. Luogu Alley full of shops and bars. The bus we took was as modern and clean as the subway. And, as always in China, more people are employed to provide services than in the US. Someone had a job to take tickets as well as someone else to drive the bus. We left behind the ancient gate and lion statue and the bus took us a few blocks to the famous hutangs. The old north south street we walked is unbelievably ancient! But it reminded me of Greenwhich Village, a bit touristy but full of fine goods and crafts. The single story buildings, fronts opened into shops, made for a warmer more human sized window shopping. I bought some tea and looked at blank leather and board bound books using tan paper inside with images of Mao--Andy Warhol style--on the cover... The first bar had some loud drunk Americans playing a game and cursing their luck or wins in the same vocabulary. Bleary and weaving they chugged and played on. Oh how they made me wince. The second bar, where we were joined by two more friends, was nicer, we could talk more easily and ate popcorn and I watched the men and one translator get a bit tipsy. The couple that joined us were really cool, he is a musician--traditional guitar--and she is in graduate school learning how the brain makes connections, the sociology of affection studied in the lab. She plans to do a post doc in the US if she can. 

Mark Allen (composer) did a bar game with Ben where he said if Ben could copy everything he did, then Ben could pay, but if he missed something Mark did, Mark would buy the round of drinks! We were all laughing at their antics. Mark did a little sleight of hand and won.

The bar was full of cigarette smoke, as was the restaurant, the streets. It was odd to feel like I'd gone back in time to a place where second hand smoke gave me a fuzzy second hand buzz and dry throat, I sure don't miss it. A lot of young Chinese smoke. Of course, a lot of young Americans smoke too. Idiots.

Before she left to go start college in Toronto, Kemin's younger sister Rosy played Rachmaninoff for us on the rehearsal grand piano. Kemin accompianed her on the other piano. What a talented skilled family they are. Rosy has a wonderful mix of sweetness and sarcasm. We enjoyed her so much. She plans to major in cello, not piano. I'm sure she will be terrific.

I am loving it here. Beijing is a city to rival any other world city. I only wish I knew the language better. 

Wish you were here to see all of this!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Welcome to Beijing

The first few days have gone by too quickly. But I do keep popping awake at 3 or 4 am so I thought I'd send my first dispatch.

13 hour flight was quite uncomfortable by the 9th hour. My legs just wanted to move, go anywhere but frozen in front of me. The small elderly Chinese woman to my right took to sleeping with her bare feet tucked into the magazine pocket. I wished I was small enough to do the same...the overhead projector had color problems and the movies became purple and green, as a result the feel good football movie had giant eggplants tackling each other on the fields and talking in blurry chinese characters. I couldn't see the subtitles or hear the sound track--my supplied headphones were not so good, so I turned instead to books I'd saved for free on my iPhone. I read Heidi for the first time since I was a kid. What a weird cultural experience.  By today's standards the story goes like this: A neglected Swiss girl is dumped on her crazy loner grandpa who lives in a mountaintop cabin cursing humanity. Despite her upbringing she is unaffected by any neuroses, takes to the hills like a euphoric goat, and reforms not only nasty gramps, but by novel's end she had three sugar granddaddies, heals a lame girl, brings religion to the entire Alps and still believes her friends, the goats, will frolic uneaten forever.. And her greatest reward for being cute, innocent, and prayer inducing? The most ardent sugargrandaddy wants to adopt her so she need never work again and her job in life will be to nurse him through old age and hold his hand when he croaks. Wow, have things changed, what I remembered wasn't what I read. It was a long flight...

Day 1

China in no way matched my ancient National Geographic images. The airport was huge, modern, attractive, and indistinguishable from any other international hub. Except for the signs in Chinese characters with Pinyin (sounded out in English) and English. They have tight security. Giant machines sniffed us, took our temperature (thank goodness I didn't have a hotflash at that moment) and filmed our entry down an astonishingly long corridor with moving walkways. The duty free shops sold all the usual brands.

We, Jim, Mark Allen (the composer) and I, were met by Mr. Li's driver and an assistant who spoke no English. They drove us on a modern highway, and since it was night, all I could see were tall modern buildings. It was like driving through Dallas. Then we left the highway, took some more local but still modern looking streets, and were soon at the Song Lie Hotel. There is also a SongLie compound of apartments and a rehearsal building behind the hotel. We were met by Mars, who spoke English and made us must welcome. I got a hug. Then we were taken to our quarters. Since I was with Jim on this trip they gave us a rather deluxe setup. We have a room with a bed, desk, and table--but our bathroom has a huge round water bed in the middle. And a jacuzzi.  All the walls within the bathroom are glass, from shower to toilet, so there could be such a thing as too much togetherness in my opinion. We are sleeping on the terra firma bed.
Waterbed in bathroom a problem with the frequent aroma of overwhelmed Beijing sewers.
We are behind the blue and purple stripes in the Songlei Hotel. Prison view.
The buildings behind are all part of the complex, with theatre rehearsal studio,
pool, canteen, and apartments.
By morning, I looked out our window, as best as I could. Since it is partially obscured by slats of exterior decorating and that has left the glass behind rather spattered with smoggy rain drops, I saw long thin views. Here was the Beijing of today, modern buses (rather like the ones in Manhattan) moving a steady stream of commuters from the nearby subway station. But also, people on bicycles of every description, some clearly off to the office, others were mini cabs, and some were3 wheeled and fitted with wooden trays on supports that turned them into leg powered heavy transport. A bike piled high with melons gracefully sped by. Street crossing looks dangerous, and it is! Cars, scooters, and bikes don't slow for pedestrians.

We were treated to a breakfast that was our host's best estimation of western, in our room. Two waiters placed trays of cold sunny side up eggs, glasses of hot milk, bowls of a powdery granola like substance, and a fruit platter that included tomatoes. And no utensils. Well, how would you know what was hot or cold just looking at a photo?

We were escorted around the corner to the large new SongLie musical theater workshop by the courteous Mars.It is a multi floor building with many rehearsal rooms.  This is really the first and best rehearsal space for musical theater in China! There Jim was reunited with the creative team and met the actors and new crew. I spent the first day watching the cast read through the play.His director and cowriter is Tony Stimic, tall and white haired.Tony started Musical Theater Works in New York City and he is starting a Chinese version out here. So in addition to directing and producing plays for Mr. Lei, he is launching this huge theater training and performing center being built outside of Beijing. The other cowriter is Kemin Zhang, a young Chinese man who is translating the play into Mandarin. Kemin is multi talented, he performs magic, plays piano, conducts... I got to share one of the scripts that had both chinese and english with Rosy, Kemin's little sister. Kemin and Rosie have been raised in Beijing and Toronto.
The building was only used for the musical Butterflies, but now has several productions going.
Note stair entry. My workout.
Largest musical theatre rehearsal space in Beijing. Big windows are the room we were in.
It was fun watching the cast get the humor and start to take on the characters they will be playing. THE JOKER'S GAME is a musical comedy with magic. But very much a Beijing show. Kemin has found Mandarin equivalents to some of Jim's colloquialisms and that in turn has suggested new but appropriate veins of verbal humor. That afternoon the cast did short auditions to show the range of their voices and they were invited to add any other skills they might have. We were treated to two displays of martial arts, one with a sword, the other with a stick, that were amazing! It is one thing to see it in an action movie, it is a thrill to have someone do spinning acrobatic leaps right in front of you. One plump actor danced the salsa at high speed, the comic relief guy did a funny singing scene he told us was like Lady Gaga.
First day, read through the script.
Creative team meeting.
We were treated to a formal round table luncheon at the hotel. The entire table center spun and bowls and platters of food would go by. It was all good, rather formal, I particularly liked the duck. A dessert, with cold inside and hot crispy outside was delicious.

For dinner, Kemin and Rosy treated us to a place in a nearby mall where there were 20 food stations...I started to feel overwhelmed as each station had a mock rivalry to get business. Kemin ordered some very traditional fare, we each had a rice bowl and added toppings. Bits of fish with mixed vegetables was outstanding. The subway is so clean, well marked, modern and air conditioned and  it puts the New York subway to shame. All the trains have an announcement of the stops in mandarin and English. Tight security includes scanners of bags.
Claudia, Jim, Kemin, Mark on Beijing #5 line subway, photo by Rosy.

Day 2
Learning the songs.
Rehearsals now focusing on learning the music. Jim has to write a new song. We went in search of an expat hangout THE BOOKWORM (bookstore and restaurant and at night book readings)  that was 3 trains and 55 minutes away. Unfortunately Jim didn't quite remember where it was and we didn't find it. It was hard to be without phone, translated map, or anyone to ask directions. I took a deep breath and just looked around as we finally decided to give up and head back after shopping for toothpaste, shampoo and the very necessary small packets of toilet tissue. I saw the lives people lead. Men sleeping on their now empty bike wagons in any shade they can find. Babies in open bottomed pants followed by hungry pet dogs... A middle aged man on a tiny balcony tending his one plant. Everyone seems able to sit in a squat, and since their bathrooms usually have squat toilets, I am the creaky kneed outsider. All guards are soldiers. All stores have way more staff than I am used to in the US. And, I was happy to see that the widely reported story of Beijingers  never giving up their seats to the old was not true. We saw it happen twice on our fruitless quest for the bookworm. For dinner we took Kemin and Mark out to a hot pot place across the street from the hotel. What a thing! A huge yin yang bowl of both spice and tame broth boiled like mad as we dumped in progressive trays of raw food. The fish we started with was shown to us live and swimming in agitation, whiskers whirling, in a bucket before we ate it.

Jim is going to be too busy to go exploring and I am sad our few hours yesterday didn't get us anywhere. And yet...I will start to plan trips. I want to see the art district and go to all the usual sights--forbidden palace, gardens, temples--but also the paint and brush street, and look into taking some painting lessons in traditional style.

I also need to find a good wifi connection, the hotel has ethernet but it only seems to work OK. No big files. Well it is about 6 am... day begins. Hopefully, I stop waking up at 3 am soon!
One staff member to hold stool on mattress...
So, how many Chinese does it take
to screw in a lightbulb?

Bye for now.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

In the swing of Beijing

Well, not yet. But just got the internet guy at the hotel to fix my access so I can do more internet than only checking my email. Yay! Now, except for some sites that are unavailable, I can do web searches for maps, weather, what bongo drums looked like in the 60s, spelling and etymologies, not to mention things to do!

This city is modern and timeless side by side but the modern seems to be winning. My first two days have been rather jet lagged...I watched rehearsals of Jim's musical (and I could easily spend the entire month enjoying their creative process) but at some point I need to pull away and define my relationship to this extraordinary city and myself as a creative at whim. Jim is busy, I am now going to explore on my own...the temple of heaven and hall of abstinence are only 2 subway stops away.

What do I want to write? So much freedom. Yikes. And yet I am without language in this city. Odd.

I have some freelance work, thanks to Flash Rosenberg, and have done more thinking about the novel I want to write, thanks to a lovely lunch with Delia... maybe this city will infuse me, shift what I want to write about. I am open to the muse, please do feel free to visit me here on the other side of the world.

The Song Lie Hotel is behind the blue and purple strips. Our view is in thin inches.
Along the ring roads, many skyscrapers...CCTV tower on right.
Cabs are green and orange.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cartoonists and a scotch with two speech balloons

Last night Flash Rosenberg invited me, and two other female friends, to attend the (largely male) monthly happy hour gathering of The National Cartoonist Society at O'Casey's bar near Grand Central Station.

I arrived early and was directed upstairs. There were two long tables. One was nearly full, with a crowd of jolly folks and the other had only two guys sitting there quietly. Assuming cartoonists were noisy, I sat at the full table. I shook hands, introduced myself, made small talk, and then someone asked me what firm I ran or worked for. Firm? Cartoonists have firms? They started to laugh deep laughs.
"We are accountants, the cartoonists must be on the other side of the room."
"Well," I said, "I am enjoying you all anyway, so I'll have a few more sips of my scotch before I join the other side. Besides, my brother is an actuary, that makes me almost related."

I made my way over to the slowly filling table of cartoonists and had the luck to sit right next to a short, sweet, funny, old man. Our patter was delightfully snappy and silly. At one point I told him I was taken and held out my ring finger, he pulled out an imaginary loop and inspected the diamond. I told him it didn't melt in the shower so the love had to be real... then I asked him what he draws.

"You mean, drew, what I drew."
"I guess I do," I replied.
"I drew Dondi, The Green Hornet, Wonder Woman, to name a few. I'm Irwin Hasen."
"WOW!" I made bowing motions. I was clearly sitting next to a flirtatious legend.
"My father loves Dondi, we always read it!" He smiled happily.
Irwin Hasen with me at the Cartoonists happy hour. Photo by Flash Rosenberg.

I also sat next to Ellen Abramowitz one of the other women Flash invited. She is the skilled, smart, and sophisticated (best dressed at any table in the joint) chairman of the board of trustees at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. She was brimming with good ideas, professionalism, and enthusiasm for the museum. She also tells great stories about the cartoon world, movies from cartoons, cartoonists... Cool. She knew who I was because she responded to a previous blog about my visit to their current (go see it!) show "NeoIntegrity" and had heartily agreed that the museum needs to grow in size. If comic con can fill the ENTIRE Javit's conference center, then surely, MoCCA deserves to fill a building too. One suite is just too little space for a museum. (So anybody with cash to spare, do donate.)
Ellen Abramowitz and Karen Green, photo by Flash Rosenberg

The other Flash invitee was Karen Green, both a Graphic Novels and Ancient and Medieval History and Religion Librarian at Columbia University. She, too, was fascinating to talk to. Think about how medieval manuscripts relate to graphic novel layouts. I got to ride home on the subway with her and the time flew by as she and I talked about what cartoons we devoured as we grew up, our ages being close, we went through similar stages of discovery. From daily newspaper strips to New Yorker cartoons to Edward Gorey to Crazy Cat to Archy and Mehitabel...We took a moment of silence around 86th street for the untoppable genius of Winsor McCay! Karen said (something she heard from Feiffer) "Imagine being there at the start of the golden age of cartooning and having his talent and creating Little Nemo without having to know that you would be the pinnacle that all others had to follow and could never top." Karen is great. I think all colleges should immediately contact her to come and speak to their students.

I also got to take home a truly funny new (free) newspaper full of cartoons "Coffee Talk" put together by Tony Murphy. The third strip on the front page was done by Marc Bilgrey who sat opposite me. It turns out he is also a fantasy novelist and we had both attended Lunacon a few months back and somehow I'd never heard of him or met him there. He was on the panels as a featured author and I was one of the listeners. So nice to meet someone who draws and writes fantasy. See! I'm not the only one.

I talked to so many...it was great to meet all of you...even the accountants. Thanks Flash Rosenberg for the invitation!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Going to China for a month

It is official. I even have a plane ticket and visa. A house/dog/cat/3-plants sitter has arrived fortuitously and I am clearing space in my creative (tottery piles), project filled (clutter in progress), apartment to make room for our pet caring guest.

Every night I do some Rosetta Stone for Mandarin and this reassures me that I can say "hello man" or "hello girl child" as well as the useful "yellow car" and "black cat" I am sure with this amount of language I can meet impresarios and very important persons connected with Jim's musical writing career and make my silence golden. Chances are, many of the people I meet will have at least 100 useful phrases in English and I am ashamed to say I have, as yet, none to offer back in Mandarin. But I am working on "where is the bathroom?" and "I write and draw" so they know I'm not just Jim's middle-aged arm candy on this trip.

Some friends sent me dire warnings about:

1. air pollution
Hey, I survived Los Angeles in the 60s in a neighborhood that was perfumed by a plastic doll factory. The fact that I came out of the miasma of smog without asthma proves I can survive Beijing.

2. the great firewall of China
I lived decades without Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. A month without, think of it as an analogue artistic retreat. I will draw on...paper. I will write with a...fountain pen.

3. squishing in subways
Really? And the NYC rush hour is so roomy, so spacious, I have never had body parts pressed into my flesh in anonymous sweaty cleaving. Hint, I won't take trains during rush hour.

4. cultural gaffs
You bet, I will record my every shameful mistake for humor future forward.

5. cultural recoil
I am sure the differences in how people do things will occasionally make me uncomfortable. Like spitting. Like taking cell phone calls no matter where or what you are doing. The trick is to stop thinking like an American and realize they have their own house rules. Takes practice, I'm sure. Note to self, do not pat children on their heads...

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Remains of the day

I just watched The Watchmen. Didn't catch it at the movies. Wow, dark dark dark dystopia. With a glowing blue god-like man and deeply ruthless disenfranchised super heroes.

The blue guy, John, gets zen about things while he hangs out on Mars making big glass timepices, and mentions that at an atomic level, a dead body and a living body are equally complex. He has a point.

This got me thinking about all the many ways people weigh the significance of both living and dead bodies.  Religions and governments make efforts to shape the choices people make about their bodies when alive. And in death, the government has its set of rules about how the corpse must be disposed and religions enact their rituals. Both offer comfort, or at least hygiene, to the living and religion offers hopes for an afterlife. Religions embrace the soul, something that has no atomic weight but is earnestly believed in.

When my grandmother Florence died, all these choices about atoms, about souls and bodies, came into play in the pleasant, flower and photo filled parlor of the midwestern funeral home. A cousin looked around and saw no coffin. He was perplexed. He wanted to know where grandma was. My Unitarian parents brought him over to an urn sitting next to candles and framed photos of what Florence had looked like a few years ago, before cremation. A look of horror tightened his jaw and he turned pale with rage. I realized he was of the belief that the body was still needed, that at some future date Grandma, or rather Jesus, would reanimate her corpse with her soul. Converting some of her atoms to energy and removing the H2O from the rest was not his idea of appropriate. I inevitably think of zombies with this scenario but I said nothing, he said nothing. Because even when beliefs clash, good manners still rule, if you are lucky.

I, too, am used to the convention of a coffin. Something approximately the size of a single bed. It is big. It says I am full of someone you loved. An urn, it is so tiny, it is hard to think of someone fitting into something smaller than a shoebox. But over time, the long long time of eons, our remains disappear. Or rather, the atoms go back into general use. Cremation just speeds it up.

We buried the urn. And even then, there was plenty of space in that small plot. We wrote our memories on pieces of paper and buried them with her too. Memories and love can be said to have weight, as much as a brain or heart has weight, but feelings are like ghosts in the clockwork, even the blue man on Mars decided that messy life held more value than pristine mechanical lifelessness. As for the cousin, only the second coming will prove him right. But his is only one belief system.