Saturday, March 25, 2006

Metallica karaoke in Tianjin

Tianjin is a 50-something Korean businessman in a hotel bar singing Metallica karaoke with a Filipino cover band backing him up and rocking it HARD. Now I've seen everything. And I thought Beijing was fun, but nothing prepared me for Tianjin.

I was there on assigment for the European trade journal I've secretly been working for for the past 8 years. Just before leaving for China I emailed my editor,asking if he wanted me to cover any trade fairs, and there was something lame in Shanghai which conflicted with the Swedish punk rock tour, so the North China International Bicycle Exhibition was the one. From Beijing a week before I called the Industry Association that was putting it on, and as expected got a voice saying, "Who? What? No, you don't need to do anything. The opening ceremony is at 9:30am on the 24th. Is that all? Zai jian!"

Good, the formalities were out of the way, so I just waited till the Thursday afternoon before and hopped on a commuter train to Tianjin, "Shanghai of the North," the city of 12 million that is sort of like the factory for Beijing. To be brief, it consists of a train station, a small old town built by Europeans 100+ years ago, and a new town consisting of roads interspersed with rubble, space-age buildings, and concrete-bunker housing blocks. I stayed on a strip of hotels near the International Exhibition Center overlooking a vast empty plaza beyond which a looping rollercoaster sat possibly a mile away. And along this strip in a building with a sign that read "TIANJIN TECHNOLOGY HOTEL" was the warm glow of a neon sign reading "HARRY'S BAR."

I got to my hotel, the Tianjing Grand Hotel, and as expected there were no rooms available. I had called earlier in the day to make a reservation, and was informed by some clerk with a thick, barely intelligible Beijing accent that: "There are only a couple rooms left."

"Ok, I want to reserve one."

"Just call us when you get to Tianjin and see if they're still available."


"Zai jian!"

In China, these elaborate go-betweens are actually a kind of code. The real meaning is: "Ah, you idiot foreigner, if you really understand Chinese culture you will know to just show up and bitch until you get what you want, and in the process you better have lots of hard cash or the right credentials or we will toss you out on your ass." I appreciated this, in part because there is something to be said for a tough culture like that of North China, and alse because I did have the right credentials. Getting a room took only 20 minutes of bickering, and concluded with a grunt slave from the Industry Association usuring me to my room with profuse apologies. I felt justified, asked her some questions about exports and why any white person not writing a doctoral thesis on neo-industrial wastelands would bother coming to this particular trade show - Europe is not a particularly hot export market for 80kg-load rickshaws - then flipped channels until it was time to go to Harry's.

There is an astounding truth evident in Filipino cover bands, and I do not know if it some innate aptitude only Filipinos have for mastering the entire western pop-rock cannon, or proof that rock music is so simple that any five Filipinos can learn all of it within a few years of learning to play instruments. My parteners at the bar were Jerry the Austrian, a man in his late 40s who knew that the real way to party is to crank through two bottles of Jack Daniels with friends and drag random girls onto an empty dance floor, Mr. Lee, who was paying for the Jack and drinking most of it, and Mr. Lee's "companion," a much younger Korean woman with big knockers and an uncovered navel who seemed to be resigned to this as her lot in life.

God it was a dead night. Only a few people in the place. So we requested Deep Purple, Bon Jovi - after Chengdu, Dirtstar might agree with me that cover bands in China do something mysterious for Bon Jovi songs that not even Bon Jovi can do anymore - and when they didn't know "Touch Myself" by the Divynils, it was the old R&B soul classic "Knock on Wood." At the end the guitarist thanked me for requesting this one. He said he knew it was the greatest song in the world when he first heard it when he was five years old. I agreed with him, and thanked him. Then I walked back to my hotel. I have partied deep into the night in an empty bar before and would highly recommend it on certain occasions, but this was not one of them. After Mr. Lee drunkenly emo-ed his way through "Never Never Land," the night was a dead-end alleyway. Even the band was getting ready to leave. And I figured that with only one honest full day of work to do during these six weeks, I might as well do it.


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