Rock Soldier: a Chinese Rock and Roll Story.

On July 6, 1957, John Lennon was introduced to Paul McCartney in between shows by Lennon’s band. McCartney, it is said, could tune a guitar and sing Twenty Flight Rock, and that was that – musical history was changed. It’s a nice story, but not nearly as rock and roll as the night in 1964 when a 17-year-old Keith Moon showed up at a show by the Who, claimed he could play better than that night’s drummer (Mitch Mitchell), and proceeded to destroy that drummer’s kit – and get the job. And that doesn’t hold a candle to the night in 1971 when Clarence Clemmons met Bruce Springsteen and the E-street Band in a New Jersey bar. In Clarence’s words: “[W]hen I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band were on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway.”

I like these stories, just as I like the recent wave of rock and roll biographies hitting bookstores. But as much as I like reading about how Keith met Mick, say, I don’t think any rock and roll anecdote has given me so much pleasure as the rather scatological tale of how young punk (and my friend) Liu Jian met his rock and roll partner Shi Di back in the 1990s – and later went on to form their band, Cocoon. That story was recounted in Liu’s 2004 semi-autobiographical work of fiction, Rock Soldier, which describes a youthful career as a Chinese rocker, and how – bit by bit – that led to a voluntary stint in the People’s Liberation Army. It’s a marvelous yarn, and interesting – if you like music biographies – for how much it shares with the rock and roll stories (and spirit) that are now topping US bestseller lists. Only, it doesn’t.

Rock Soldier was published in Chinese, and hasn’t been available in English until – quite recently – Joshua Dyer translated it. Alas, the translation has yet to be published, so – with permission – I’m going to post an excerpt. One note: early on, Liu mentions ‘cracked kids,’ a reference to young men (mostly) in the 1990s who purchased and listened to cassettes of foreign pop music that had been cracked in vises after being seized by the authorities. Liu was a self-professed “cracked kid” whose love of American rock and roll was informed by such cassettes. So, without further introduction, the meeting of Liu Jian and Shi Di, and the origins of Cocoon. Enjoy … Continue reading

The Diligent Young Men Cleaning Up Shanghai

Here’s a form of gainful employment that never occurred to me before Friday afternoon: cleaner of the world’s largest urban scale model. I came across him – them – during a visit to the in-need-of-a-better-name Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, and epic model of Shanghai in 2020.

I’ve been taking out-of-town visitors to the model for years, and inevitably two questions arise during those visits: 1) how do they put new buildings onto the map;, and 2) how do they clean it? I’d long assumed that the modular panels which constitute the hockey-rink sized model were removed, from below, for those purposes. It never would’ve occurred to me that twice per year a small team wanders the map, barefooted, repairing, replacing, and cleaning.

According to the diligent  young men assigned the tedious work of cleaning the map, dusting only occurs on the edges – that is, areas visible to visitors. They work with paint brushes (above), sweeping the dust into the rivers and highways, where it awaits the clean-up man and his War of the Worlds-like vacuum cleaner (below) … Continue reading

The Rising Cost of Everything: Perspectives from the Back of a Shanghai Taxi (Fare)

Back in 2002, when I first started riding in Shanghai taxis on a regular basis, the flag-down rate was RMB 10, if I recall correctly. Back then, the dollar was pegged at $1 = RMB 8.2. So, back then, and today, too, that struck me as a hell of bargain: US$1.21 was less than a rush hour bus fare back in Minneapolis. Of course, to the majority of Shanghainese (per capita income at that time was well below US$10,000 per head), of course, it was still a luxury. But the beauty of sprawling Shanghai is scale: back then, as now, there were approximately 45,000 licensed taxis working the city (and a sizable fleet of pirate ones, too), and it couldn’t have been just the dollar-denominated riders, like me, employing them.

In 2006, the city fathers, under pressure from the taxi companies, taxi drivers, and – most important – oil prices, raised the flag-down rate to RMB 11, or US$1.35. The per kilometer charge also rose, by RMB .1, or roughly US$.01/km. As I recall, most of the Shanghai taxi riders I knew were more annoyed at the coins they’d receive in exchange for handing over RMB 20 notes to taxi drivers, than they were by the actual bite of the fare increase.

Two years later, in October 2009, fares were jacked again, to RMB 12 for flag-down. In other words, the price of just sitting down inside of a Shanghai  taxi went up just 20% in two years. Not insignificantly, the RMB appreciated significantly against the dollar during that same peior, lifting the dollar-adjusted fare to $1.76 (up 30% in four years).

Which brings us to Friday, and a new rate hike: RMB 1 was added to the flag-down fee, along with an RMB 1 fuel surcharge, adding up to a 17% total hike on the flag drop. Compared to five years ago, that’s a 40% hike – if you go by the local currency. And if, like me, you measure your income in dollars, it’s up roughly 80% since 2006. Continue reading