Friday, May 1, 2009

BIG CHARACTER POSTERS AT BEIDA



An excerpt from "Tiananmen Moon"


The night is young, but a crowded campus is full of curious eyes. I suggest to Bright we go out, somewhere, mentioning that Cui Jian, a mutual friend, had invited me to see his new place near the Lama Temple. She agrees and the two of us go out to Xinwai Road in search of a taxi. The wait for a car could be anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour or more, but we didn’t mind. The spring weather was pleasant enough and we had a lot of catching up to do.
Bright asks me about my trip to London. Cui Jian had also been there, where he had performed in an Asian music festival. For his debut in the Royal Albert Hall, Cui Jian had walked on stage, guitar slung over shoulder, to face a polite British audience wearing a red headband over his eyes. He sang with rough-voiced passion and angst, while his musical partner Liu Yuan provided soaring, jazzy counterpoint on flute and suona. The two of them were experimenting with rock, but both had been classically-trained on the trumpet and saxophone respectively. Bright and I first met the amiable troubadours when they played the Beijing college circuit in the mid-1980’s, providing entertainment for impromptu parties in foreign student dorms. After the grassroots success of their hit ballad Nothing to My Name, they became fixtures on the Beijing party circuit and we had seen them play at diplomatic enclaves such as the International Club, an outdoor restaurant in Ritan Park, and at various embassy parties.
Cui Jian and Liu Yuan had quit their iron-rice bowl jobs as musicians on the state payroll, only to go freelance before anyone knew what freelance was. For years, the best they could aspire to was the dorm, bar and hotel party circuit. It’s not that Chinese youth didn’t like the new music, --a concert in Beijing’s Workers Stadium in 1986 had been a success— but the anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign put the lid on rock music after that; it was clear that certain party elders were not amused.
Disarmingly subdued but ever alert; Cui Jian had a natural instinct for restraint and caution that helped the band navigate the changing times. The constant cat-and-mouse game of evading communist party cultural crackdowns and spurious business controls had so far prevented them from getting the big bucks and big heads associated with rock stars in the West, but there was no shortage of talent and creativity between them and they had good backup in the band from two young diplomats, with Kassai, a Hungarian on base, and Eddie, a guitarist from Madagascar.
State media coverage was a non-starter, so their band, which was called “Ado,” played where the playing was good, mainly the foreign circuit. International students, diplomats, and expatriate businessmen were an important fan base for nascent Chinese artists in the 1980’s. Like their counterparts in film and art, the sheer originality of their hybrid art transcended easy boundaries. But the foreign influences and disproportionate media recognition overseas made nascent rock musicians easy targets for party hacks and envious contemporaries who liked to belittle people by citing foreign connections.
And so it went. Cui Jian could play the Royal Albert Hall in London, but had trouble finding a bar to play in Beijing.
Still not a taxi in sight. Bright and I start wondering if we should have gone by bike when at last a southbound taxi pulls over. Our conversation about London continues in the car.
“What about Da-wei?”
“You mean Hinton, Dave?”
“He is funny.”
Pi-jiu is still the only word he knows in Chinese. He likes his beer. But I introduced him to a nice woman from the Central Conservatory of Music, so maybe that will change.”
In London I had stayed with David Hinton, a British wit and film director who I had first met in Beijing in 1986 working on the behind-the-scenes documentary Bertolucci: The Last Emperor. He and I became fast friends after a bout of adventurous, unauthorized travel in south China that led to us being arrested, interrogated and threatened with deportation for entering an area “not open to foreigners.”  Our travel objective was innocent enough, we had ventured to a rural film set near the Lao border at the invitation of film director Chen Kaige who was there with cameraman Gu Changwei, working on the film, King of Children.
Hinton and I attended the London debut of Cui Jian and Liu Yuan and afterwards hosted a party for them. In the days that followed, we took the musicians to see the sights of London, from bustling Brixton Market and the riverfront of the South Bank to Soho and Chinatown. We wined and dined with Zhang Yimou, Zhang Tielin and other budding Chinese artists who were beginning to travel abroad and get a taste of Western-style celebrity.
While thus engaged in fun, cross-cultural outreach with Chinese musicians, actors and artists in London, the first stirrings of Beijing Spring had started to manifest themselves. Fang Lizhi, an outspoken scientist who had been kicked out of the party for his involvement in a brief bout of student activism in the winter of 1986-87, was again in the news after calling for the release of political prisoner Wei Jingsheng. The Fang Lizhi case, and the associated unrest in 1987, effectively ended the career of Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang. In March, a diplomatic contretemps erupted when Chinese authorities physically barred astrophysicist Fang, who had reinvented himself as a convener of “democracy salons” at Beijing University, from attending a banquet with visiting President George Bush. And then, on April 15, Hu Yaobang died unexpectedly and within days, students ventured to Tiananmen Square to pay their respects to the only leader who had ever shown any sign of really caring about them.
Bright tells the driver to let us off at the Lama Temple and we go on foot from there. State taxi drivers were big talkers and liked to pry into your private life, so it wasn’t always prudent to specify one’s exact destination. We dart across the nearly vacant automobile and bicycle lanes of Second Ring Road and come upon a nondescript housing project. Cui Jian’s apartment would have been impossible to find had I not been through the maze of identical buildings before to visit him when he lived with his parents upstairs. His new flat, close to the entrance, was more than just another room on the bottom of an anonymous socialist high-rise. It was more like the lair of an American suburban kid who had decked out a music cave as an asylum from the world.
The walls are draped with bolts of decorative cloth and posters of Stevie Wonder and Sting. Two guitars lay against a boxy stereo speaker, while the soul table is occupied with cassette players, tape reels, and a sound mixing board.
We all sit down on a bed draped in Indian-patterned cloth while our host pops a tape in the cassette recorder. The first song is Fake Monk, from his brand-new album that he playfully dubs the “Long March” of rock. With the dim lights, colorful decor and drone-like music playing, it was easy to forget the deficiencies of being in a bleak Beijing housing block.
As we drink tea, Cui Jian and Bright fall into speaking in the rapid-fire Beijing dialect that I could admire but not master. He seems more stressed and serious than he had been in London, so I ask him if the student unrest and recent political tensions were having any effect on his ability to record and perform.
“Not really,” he answers, measuring his words. “But I’ve got to be careful. I am being watched very closely.”
“Yeah, what a drag. But you’re making progress; look, you’ve got your own pad now. At least you got some privacy.”
It didn’t seem like the time to ask him if his room was bugged, but it had to be considered a remote possibility. My first room in the Insider Guest House had been bugged, but I later “graduated” to an unwired room, in order that the bright corner room with the good acoustics could be made available for a new honorable guest.
“Hey, this is a pretty nice place. Only last year you were still with your parents.”
“It’s okay,” he mutters. After a pause, as if weighing whether or not to confide, he launches into a quiet tirade about taxes. “You know the government is on my back about taxes. I’m gonna have to spend mother-effing May Fourth at the tax bureau.”
Ah, the taxman. Cui Jian was already suffering the financial woes of rock and roll’s rich and famous, though he was only half famous and not at all rich.
As we listen to It’s Not that I Don’t Understand, a bouncy song that Bright liked, the conversation turns back to music. He had recently finished recording some new material and asks if we would like to listen to it. He puts on a demo tape.
“Jin,” he says, using my Chinese name in a natural way, “Tell me what you think of this…it’s something new.”
“Kind of cool,” I say, as the song fades out.  “I like more melody, though. I mean, that’s what I really like about Nothing to my Name. But this one has a good repetitive guitar riff.”
We listen to more music from his debut album and sip more tea while he takes a long phone call from his band manager. When he puts down the phone he explains he has just been invited to meet some people at the Jianguo Hotel, something about a music executive visiting from Taiwan, and asks us if we would like to come along. That could be interesting; it was only very recently that people from Taiwan were even permitted to visit the mainland.
Better yet, Cui Jian’s band manager is on his way over in a private car, so we wouldn’t have to endure an interminable wait for a taxi.
A short time later, the manager pulls up to the back door of the housing block in a beat-up jalopy. We all squeeze in, and with a puff of smoke, a shiver of adventure and just a bit of foreboding we are off. The car reeks of gas fumes and vibrates violently, as if ready to explode or fall apart, but it is such a novelty to be on wheels not under government control that we pretend not to notice. The jalopy ride reflects an old conundrum; one often had to choose between seamless convenience under state watch or rough it in anonymous discomfort.
After a hair-raising ride across town, the car pulls into a small, circular driveway. It sure feels good to be on solid ground again. We enter the Jianguo Hotel through revolving doors, stepping into an intimate, modern lobby where foreign businessmen and reporters liked to congregate. Low-rise and modest in scale, it was one of the nicer overpriced hotels designated for foreigners, but it was said to be “slipping” since it had recently been turned over to Chinese management. It was built on the model of a California roadside Holiday Inn, and even boasted lounge music, but instead of an over-the-hill crooner there was a gowned pianist from the Central Conservatory of Music tickling the keys, playing Chopin and other classical works.
A focal point for expatriate life since the early 80’s, the Jianguo was the first Beijing hotel that allowed Chinese visitors to enter the premises without signing in, but the freedom came at the price. Due to the unique registration-free policy, hotel management agreed to accept the presence of plainclothes agents, some of them quite obvious, like those jokers who sat around all day chain-smoking in the corner, whose job it was to monitor Chinese-foreign interactions.
Whether or not we are being watched with suspicion as we shuffle into the lobby is hard to say, because we don’t linger. Cui Jian’s manager gives the guard a name and a room number and we are all waved upstairs without further question. After a knock on the guest room door, we are greeted by a handsome, avuncular man, the record producer from Taiwan. Cui Jian explains that Lao Ni is the manager of the 29-year old Taiwanese rocker named Chyi Chin, whose rousing ballad “Wolf,” with its vivid imagery of loneliness and desperation in north China, had been a sort of underground hit on mainland campuses. 
The manager from Taiwan ushers us into a plain hotel room that had been transformed into something of a smoky cultural salon. Our arrival goes almost unnoticed as a passionate alcohol-enhanced discussion is in progress under a thick fog of cigarette smoke. Bright, Cui Jian, and I are invited to sit on a bed whose previous occupant is roused to make room for the guests. Several overlapping conversations, intense and intelligent, are going on at once, but there are also some guys, for some reason they reminded me of drivers, just lazing and lounging about, comfortably slouched in chairs and on the carpet with an almost comical lack of concern for appearances.
Lao Ni strikes me as a charming character. He speaks Chinese the way I learned in the classroom, his crystal-clear Mandarin softened by just a touch of Taiwan’s southerly accent. He could speak some Japanese as well, and his English was excellent. When he learns that I spent some time in Tokyo, he gets asking me about the Japan pop music scene, something I knew very little about. He has a distinguished bearing, but is soft-spoken and free of pretension. He starts telling me about how he wanted to arrange a swap by which Chyi Chin would tour the mainland while Cui Jian would tour Taiwan. That such a thing could even be considered was a testament to how much China had liberalized since 1983, when Taiwan pop music and rock music had been banned and denounced as spiritual pollution.
The TV, which had been left on in the background, suddenly becomes the focus of attention when a news bulletin is announced. Someone near the set jacks up the sound and all eyes turn to a long-faced Beijing government spokesman spouting the party line on the flickering screen. The speaker is Yuan Mu and his gnarled statement is received with a long string of boos and hisses.
The TV then shows Yuan Mu talking to a small group of students and journalists in what was being billed as “dialogue,” presumably a public relations gesture by the government to show that the Communist Party of China was both reasonable and responsive, willing to meet disgruntled young people halfway. Those around me, however, seem less than convinced.
“Dialogue? Dialogue my ass,” cries one of the guests with a thick Beijing accent.
“Those wimpy students, just look at ’em! What a joke! Definitely hand-picked by the government,” adds a fast-tongued man nicknamed Black Horse. “Just look at those goody two-shoes!”
“And if you ask me, Yuan Mu looks like a fox. Look at that face, what a liar!”
“He’s so condescending, the words just drool out of his mouth. . .”
When the news bulletin is over, Black Horse finds new targets for his loquacious wit, getting up to do some impersonations. First off, he does a comical rendition of former party chief Hu Yaobang, whose death sparked the first tentative student demonstrations in late April. But Black Horse shows none of the reverence, real or manufactured, that student activists exhibited for the dear dead leader, even though Hu had famously clashed with reactionary party leaders in the name of reform. Rather, he brings the humble Hu to life, repeating his malapropisms, making playful jokes about the man’s tendency to go off script and ignore party line, such as the absurd statement that all Chinese should eat with forks or his open invitation for everyone in Japan to come study in China. Hu was liked more than feared, which makes the playful pantomime easy to take. “And did you hear the one about Hu Yaobang and Li Peng?”
“More, more!” we cry. To hear political taboos being popped like balloons was such a thrill that the comic is egged on for an encore. With the seeming impunity of a court jester, he dared to say things weren’t supposed to be said.
Black Horse then boldly launches into a caustic imitation of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. He skillfully mimics Deng’s speech patterns down to the regional accent, but it was his defiant irreverence for the most powerful man in China that really put the room on edge.
A few minutes later, just at the point when Black Horse has everybody buckled over with nervous laughter, he pauses to take a drink and then suddenly his face turns serious. He scans the ceiling, as if looking for hidden microphones, and then says, “I hope none of you work for Public Security or I’m finished.”
The room is stunned into silence. Then he flashes a wicked smile and continues, “And this man, why this old man Deng, he is supposed to be the leader of a country of one billion, and look at him, he is so short! Why, he looked like a little kid standing next to Reagan!”
Black Horse had a wit so irrepressible, he could hardly help himself, and we are grateful for his indiscretions. His political humor set the mood and pretty soon everyone is talking politics. There is much conjecture about the sudden spate of unrest and doubts about the feasibility of a mass student rally scheduled for the next morning. Keeping students off the streets was the point of Yuan Mu’s announcement.
“What do you think will happen?’ someone asks.
“Only one way to find out,” says Black Horse. “Anyone want to take a ride to Beida?”
The Beijing University campus was clear across town, a long way out of the way, even by car. At first it seemed like this was another one of his jokes, but pretty soon he’s counting hands for a wild ride into the deep of the night.
Bright looks at her watch. Almost twelve. Campus dorms long since locked, she elects to go home to her parents’ compound in central Beijing, promising to meet me on campus in the morning. I see her off in front of the hotel where she climbs into a waiting taxi, ignoring several not-so-subtle invitations from some  inebriated men near the door.
It’s midnight by the time I join Cui Jian, Lao Ni, Black Horse and two others in the beat-up sedan for a speedy ride. We bounce and bump our way north and then west in near-total darkness, traversing empty boulevards and deserted ring roads until we get to the outlying district of Haidian where many of China’s top universities are located. The ride is cramped, exhilarating and scary, given that the stink of alcohol emanating from the driver is as at least as potent as the stink of gas fumes from the exhaust.
“During the Cultural Revolution, if you wanted to know what was happening in the country, you had to read the wall posters,” starts Black Horse, who just can’t seem to stop talking. “So when we get to campus, let’s go read the big character posters; that way we can figure out what’s really going on.”
“Yeah, you mean like with, ah, Wang Guangmei? She went to the Tsinghua campus at midnight to read posters, to find out the fate of her husband Liu Shaoqi,” I venture, laboring to edge my way into a fascinating but fast-paced conversation. I was drawing on book knowledge, but at least I could at least say that I had met Wang Guangmei’s daughters, Pingping and Tinging, in New York, which made the remote but haunting incident seem a little more personal and real.
“That’s right, Jin. Well, we’ll also be arriving about midnight, so whose fate do we want to know about?” asks Black Horse, almost maliciously, as if he thrived on tension.
“I don’t know if this is such a good idea,” says Cui Jian, in a low, gruff voice. The faster we race towards our destination, the queasier we all start to feel about it.
“Yeah, I have to go back to Taiwan tomorrow night,” adds Lao Ni, in a melodious baritone. “I don’t want to be accused as a Taiwan spy and end up in some Beijing slammer.” He looks and sounds genuinely worried.
“What are you, anyway? Are you some kind of specially-trained agent?” Black Horse asks, needling Lao Ni mercilessly. “How else do you explain your perfect Beijing accent?”
“My parents were originally from Beijing,” Lao Ni explains defensively. “You know what? My father even went to college in Beijing. He went to Shida.”
“Beijing Normal?” The revelation surprises me.
“Yes. Before the revolution.”
“Really? Wow. Like way back in the 1940’s?”
“Yeah. Hey, you are living there now, right?” he asks, turning to me. “Would you be willing to show me around before I leave tomorrow?”
I thought it took a certain amount of cultural humility for a Chinese from Taiwan to ask a laowai to be his tour guide in China, so I appreciated the request. In a way Lao Ni and I shared a need to firm up unstable identities. Hanging out with me served to bring out his non-Chinese side, while playing tour guide helped me to shore up my tenuous link to China, a place that had long since branded me an outsider. The mutually complimentary pairing reminded me of the time I interpreted for Chinese-American television personality Connie Chung while filming the “Changing China” special with NBC television news. Everyone assumed she was my interpreter and guide, even though it was the other way around.
Black Horse hits the brake hard when we reach the university gate. After a cursory inspection, a uniformed guard waves us in, although none of us had Beida ID, or a legitimate reason to be on campus. Once inside, we are free to explore the rambling grounds of the leafy, landscaped compound as we wish. After several wrong turns down poorly-lit roads and narrow dirt paths, we finally arrive at the campus crossroads known as Sanjiaodi. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was the community corner, the place to congregate, not unlike the busy walkway at Shida wedged between the women’s dorm and the Insider Guest House.
As late as it is, and it is now well past midnight, there are still many students milling about, strolling in small groups, pausing to read freshly painted big character posters. We park stealthily in the shadows not far from the “democracy wall” signboards. I open the door and bust out of the car, as much for fresh air as anything else, but no one follows. I wait, but no one gets out. That’s weird. I thought that the whole point of coming was to look around. I ask who’s coming, but there are no takers. Why were they so unwilling to budge from the car? Did they know something I didn’t? What was it, police? I scan the Sanjiaodi triangle, but can’t see anything out of the ordinary, other than the fact that it’s much, much too busy for this time of night. On the notice boards hang a plethora of big character posters and hand-scribbled circulars. Since that’s what we have ostensibly come for, I decide to give the signboards a quick look-see, even if I have to do it alone. Fortunately, most of the big notices are easy to read.
A STUDENT STRIKE HAS BEEN DECLARED.
MEET AT NOON FOR THE UPCOMING RALLY
MAY FOURTH MARCH TO THE SQUARE.
I scan various posters, big character and small, while the rest of the gang lingers in the car. Of all of them, I figured Cui Jian had his reasons; in the eyes of authorities he was already something of a rebel and word of his presence would get around quickly. And to be fair, Lao Ni had every right to worry about being mistaken for a spy. The one whose reticence surprises me most is Black Horse, whose ability to talk seemed to exceed his willingness to walk.
When I return to the car, Lao Ni pumps me for information, but I can only tell him so much, and at last his curiosity gets the better of him. He exits the rickety vehicle as gingerly as an astronaut first stepping foot on an alien planet, as if checking to see if the radical environment had a breathable atmosphere.
“Xiao Jin—Phil? If anyone comes up, talk to me in Japanese, okay?” Lao Ni entreats in a sober whisper, “Say anything, whatever, even ohaiyo gozaimasu or any other words you know. If someone talks to us, you do the talking. Just whatever happens, I don’t want anyone to know I am from Taiwan. They might accuse me, suspect me, and I’ll end up in big trouble.”
A group of Chinese men, teachers perhaps, approach, shooting curious glances our way. Were they watching us? As soon as the men come into earshot, I play along with Ni’s ploy, testing the limits of my Japanese.
Ah so nan desuka, genki? Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo ichiban . . .”
Hai, hai.” Lao Ni nods attentively, as if listening.
It was a clumsy ruse, but it had its desired effect, if indeed anyone had been paying attention at all. The suspicious strangers, or should I say the strangers we were suspicious of, moved on without scrutinizing us further.
For Lao Ni to pretend he was Japanese seemed a humiliating pretense, but communist-style surveillance had that effect on people. After all, look at rock rebel Cui Jian—he wouldn’t even get out of the car!
Given the caution of the others, was I perhaps naïve in not seeing the obvious peril of the situation? Living in a world of surveillance meant one had to perpetually consider the possibility that one was being watched, that much was a given, but it did not necessarily mean one was actually being watched, or always being watched. Then again, those more in the know seemed more paranoid than those less in the know, so there might be a lot more going on than met the eye.
Lao Ni stays close to my side as we examine the signboards. Though we fear being listened in on, we don’t hesitate to eavesdrop on others, especially when an argument breaks out; apparently not everyone in earshot thinks the students should go on strike.
We linger till about two in the morning, straining to read the ink-brushed posters and pen-scribbled messages under the erratic light of random streetlamps. It occurs to me that some students might be out for the night, locked out of a padlocked dorm, just like I was. If Beida was the vanguard campus, Shida was probably a close second. Though the tableau of skinny, unkempt, bespectacled young men standing around in the middle of the night reading posters was at once odd and endearing, it was not without a sinister side. Who knows who might be watching from the shadows? We pack it up.
Cui Jian was a musical rebel, but he chose his battles carefully. The situation at Sanjiaodi was a reminder that celebrity came at a price. He sang songs exactly the way he liked to, which ruffled officials the wrong way and made life difficult in little ways, but he had no desire to push things to the point that he would be banned or forced into silence or exile. If he wanted to sing the blues he also had to pay the dues of living in the People’s Republic, which meant more than paying taxes, but also knowing when to hold and when to fold in the face of shifting political winds.
On the way back to the Jianguo Hotel, wind whistling through the rolled down window that I insisted on keeping open, Cui Jian is slumped in a meditative silence, while Lao Ni talks to me about how much he would like to visit Shida. The Taiwan producer had two reasons to visit the historic campus—it was his father’s alma mater, after all—but he also wanted to get a glimpse of the planned antigovernment rally. Neither of us had failed to take note of the hand-painted notice at Sanjiaodi announcing that Shida would be the staging ground for students from other colleges planning to join the long march to Tiananmen.
Wow. Think of it. Tiananmen. What were the chances they could pull it off? Hadn’t Deng thrown down the gauntlet with last week’s editorial about “fomenting chaos?”
As the car careens down stark empty roads, Lao Ni and I quietly work out a plan to visit campus at the crack of dawn. He and I share the secure curiosity of outsiders; we want to see what’s going on, but from a distance. We don’t really feel enough a part of things to worry about whether the demonstration will be a success or not, we just want to see what happens.
I end up spending the night, what little was left of it, across the street from the Jianguo Hotel at a modest inn called the Railway Hostel, thanks to an introduction from Black Horse. The hostel was the sort of Chinese-only no-frills facility that few foreigners were “lucky” enough to get a look inside of.
When I enter the room that Black Horse had so kindly booked for me, I discover that not a single light worked except for one low-watt bulb in the bathroom. The hot water thermos had no water, hot or cold; the tile flooring was chipped and badly stained and the shower was broken. The minute I settle into the musty bed, however, I fall right asleep; so the substandard amenities hardly mattered.