Taking the Beijing Blues to America – Alan Paul talks about his book ‘Big in China’

Not many laowai can claim to have become ‘Big in China’, the only person I can think of would be DaShan maybe? Well, Alan Paul can also claim that title, or at least he does in making that the name of his book about life in Beijing as a trailing spouse and ‘rock star’. I’ve only been in Beijing a little over 2 years myself, so I missed the phenomena that was the Woodie Alan band and have only heard stories about the good old days of the Beijing music scene, back in the times of the old Yugong Yishan and The River Bar. So a little bit of curiosity about City Weekend’s Beijing Band of the Year 2008, and a love of the band Alan refers to as starting his Beijing music career Sand, brought me to The Bookworm on a stormy Beijing night to see what all the fuss is about!

Now, I haven’t read the book or even heard Woodie Alan’s music before, so I was coming into the talk completely without doing my homework! Normally before a show I little to do a little research, listen to douban, check out Rock in China wiki, get a feel for what I’m going to see. But in this case I wanted to appreciate this from fresh eyes and ears, the way someone from outside China would when reading the book, although living here and understanding the music scene does give me a little head start!

Alan started off by telling the small crowd a little about why he came to China and how he meet Woodie Wu, his bandmate and good friend. He spoke about realising the differences in musical backgrounds between himself and the Chinese members of the band, and how he struggled to explain to them how to play together tightly, but still free to jam – a phrase I often use when describing my favourite Beijing band AIS’s performances. It’s an idea that’s often familiar to those with a Western musical background, but something some Chinese musicians don’t find so easy to grasp. He read a little from his book, an excerpt about how he finally got this idea across to bass player Zhang Yong by introducing him to the Allman Brothers. And then he called up to the front the members of Woodie Alan who were there, Zhang Yong, normally on bass, but for tonight on lead guitar, and Lu Wei on drums, and they played a couple of songs.

The intimate setting of The Bookworm was the perfect venue for the stripped back acoustic three-piece. They started with ‘Beijing Blues‘ the title track from their album. I love lyrics and was immediately grabbed by the opening:

    Say the sun is shining, don’t see it anywhere … Got the Beijing Blues, just need some cold clean air

Who hasn’t felt that living here?! While we may love Beijing, living here as a laowai is not always easy, we all have ‘bad China days’! They then slipped into ‘Wode Baobei‘ with Zhang Yong taking up the vocals. It’s just as beautiful as the LiDong song with the same name, although both are completely different. Alan spoke more about the band, how Woodie Wu, who wasn’t able to make it tonight, plays lap steel, an instrument I love listening to, and how ‘Beijing Blues’ usually opens with Zhang Yong playing guqin, an instrument I have become a huge fan on over the last year. The combination of Western and Eastern influences makes me wish I’d been around to see the original Woodie Alan line up playing back at the height of their success in 2008.

I left The Bookworm with a copy of the book, a CD, which I’m listening to as I write this, and definite plans to be at Jianghu on Friday for the reunion show. As a three-piece they were amazingly tight for a band who hasn’t played together in a year, I’m looking forward to hearing more.

Alan Paul’s book ‘Made in China’ and Woodie Alan’s CD ‘Beijing Blues’ are available from The Bookworm.

BeijingDaze interviewed Alan one of his trips back to Beijing last year, see the 10 questions here.

You can find out more about Woodie Alan here:
Website: http://www.woodiealan.com/
Douban: http://site.douban.com/woodiealan/

Woodie Alan reunion show this Friday @ Jianghu Jiuba


a kiwi, a music lover, a traveller & an IT geek hanging around in the 'jing planning her next adventure.

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19 Responses

  1. El Santo says:

    Total horse shit. Since there’s nobody in the western media to hold this guy accountable to the veracity of his claims, it will be taken as true. Alan Paul was a blip on the radar in a very small circle of Beijing, if that at all. Irrelevant. A shameless laowai cash-in.

    Good blog, by the way. I don’t want to end the message on a totally negative rant.

  2. Ruby says:

    No worries El Santo, not a negative rant at all – everyone’s entitled to their opinion!

    I wasn’t here at the time, so have only heard stories from people like yourself. But I can say from hearing Alan speak he was very humble about his ‘fame’ and how little people outside China know about life here at all, let alone the music scene. He mentioned an interview he did with NPR where the opening question was ‘So, there are bars in China?!” I like the fact he’s trying to give people outside China an idea of what life is like for expats here – and it’s his book, so of course he’s going to be biased in his view.

    From the first listening of the CD, Woodie Alan aren’t the best band in the world, but I’ve heard a lot worse in this city!

  3. Froog says:

    I too experience a mild irritation at the title of his book, El Santo, but I cut Alan a little slack on that; I persuade myself that it is not an earnest boast, but simply chosen as a catchy title (quite possibly at the publisher’s prompting), and can be read with a certain amount of irony and self-deprecation. In America, he was nothing; at least here he got to be in a band! However, there’s a danger the promotion of the book overseas may be overplaying the extent of their celebrity and success, their “impact” on the scene here.

    Woodie Alan were scarcely even “big” in Beijing. They developed an enthusiastic following amongst the large American expat community here, who were surprised and grateful to find a familiar form of music from back home (cf. The Redbucks in 2009-2010 – I loved that band, but how many Chinese did you ever see at one of their gigs?). They played a bunch of shows out at The Orchard, for god’s sake.

    I wonder why CW even has a band award stuck in the middle of its reader poll on bars. It doesn’t show us the ‘best’ or ‘most influential’ or ‘most popular’ band in Beijing; it shows us the band ‘most laowai (who perhaps don’t go to gigs all that often) have heard of‘.

    Woodie Wu, in particular, is a great musician, and I enjoyed hearing the band play several times (although they encountered the same problem as The ‘Bucks, becoming too popular to play the smaller venues. Jianghu on Friday?? Yikes – go EARLY!!!). But “big in China” is a joke – and I think (hope) it is meant as such. I think The Redbucks had probably become much bigger – in this restricted community – by the time they split; but they weren’t “big” either.

    But then, none of the bands we like are truly “big in China”; most of them – even if they have a record deal – make more money from t-shirt sales and a busy round of small gigs than they do from their CDs; most of them still rely on day jobs. Despite the considerable underground popularity of punk and metal, Canto/Mando-pop dominates the music market.

  4. Alan Paul says:

    Guys, “Big in china” is a joke, a very tongue in cheek reference to Tom Waits’ Big in Japan.

    I’m not going to defend myself or the book line by line, but what happened happened.

    More to come soon.

  5. Froog says:

    Alan, I had always suspected as much – but hesitated to mention the reminiscence of the Waits song, since I am regularly in the finals of the World’s Biggest Tom Waits Bore competition.

    Wasn’t having a go at you myself, just trying to mellow Mr Santo out a bit. I think a lot of people who just look at the book cover without clocking the allusion to Tom Waits’ joke about limited fame and appreciating the possible self-mockery in it, bridle slightly and go, “What? Are they kidding? How famous were they, really?” Famous in The Stone Boat on a steamy pre-Olympic evening is good enough for me.

    Hope you’re having a great trip back.

    I hope to catch the reunion at JH tomorrow (although I think I may have to come in Ninja-style over the roofs…).

  6. Alan Paul says:

    Thanks. More coming soon in a separate interview. If you come to Jianghu, say hello.

    We did a lot more than play the Stone Boat, though that was enough for me. I loved that place. One of the things we always did was stuck to the places we liked, which were run by friends and felt like jamming at a party. That’s how we lied it and what we did.

  7. El Santo says:

    I’m aware of the Tom Waits song, but that’s where the title fails. Tom IS big in Japan. You are not big in China. It’s almost conceited to even “go there” with the reference. The cover copy further blurs the ruse by perpetuating a myth that you meant something in China’s music scene and that you were some kind of great white hope bringing rock’n’roll to the savages. Not a godfather, granted, but the hyperbole exaggerates (with no hint of irony, nor tongue-in-cheek) the truth.

    I speculate a finger of blame will go to some functionary at your publisher for the hype, or perhaps you’ll chalk it all up to having to “hype” up the book, but that would only confirm the bogus claims.

    Had the copy read, “the story of a Wall Street Journal hack’s adventures in an expat-catering bar band in Beijing” then the, “Big in China” title’s irony would be more apparent. That doesn’t remove the arrogance of even putting yourself in the shadow of Tom Waits, who is iconic in Japan.

    My argument stands, your cover makes you out to be some kind of Michael Pettis of the Chinese stage, and you’re weren’t and you’re not.

    Michael Pettis: not a performer, but a laowai who can legitimately claim to having made considerable, significant, historic contributions to rock’n’roll in China. A fairly humble guy, too. While no saint, he wouldn’t sell his accomplishments and contributions for greater than their actual worth.

    That’s bad juju, Mr. Paul

  8. Alan, I am wondering if those who critique you have even read the book? No need to defend yourself or the book. As you said, “What happened, happened” (and I feel lucky to have been there for a small part of). You’re right, your shows were very often at places run by friends and these gigs always felt like a jamming party. That was part of the magic.”Big in China” though goes well beyond the music and is (this is for those who have not read the book) more a memoir of a life changing experience and the rediscovery of roots and family. Glad to see you back in the Big Dumpling.

  9. Alan Paul says:

    Thanks Peter. You’re right. There is no point in defending myself or the book, but it’s kind of hard not to.

    I’ll just say this to Mr. Santo, your interpretation of the cover says a lot more about your own perspective and biases. There is absolutely no claim by me to bringing music to the savages or being a great white hope. That is ludicrous. I give all and full credit to my Chinese bandmates. We had a mutually beneficial relationship based on friendship, trust and a mutual love of the music.

    • El Santo says:

      I think it says more about how you’re deflecting poorly, than it does about disproving my remarks. I hold no ill will against you personally. More power to you. I do hold ill will on the bogus bill of goods the book’s cover copy is selling me: someone who was also there (and remains here) to know the full context of where the Woodie Alan band falls in Chinese music (then and now). I have friends in the states who read about your book and they asked me if the copy was true. If they buy the hype, then it’s perpetrating a fraud. Woodie Alan Band were no Cui Jian, Tang Dynasty, Black Panther, Xiao He, Joyside, etc. You know, folks who really are/were/remain “Big in China.”

      In response to others:

      This is more about how the book is being presented than what’s in the book. I am someone that this book is marketed towards. I’m in a bookstore or I’m online and I have the cover copy to sell me. What it sells me is a load of crap. Why not “‘Big’ in China,” rather than the dubious “Big in China?” I’m in China. I was here when your bar band was around. I know the truth. No jealousy here. I didn’t attack Alan’s writing; if anyone confuses “hack” as an insult then it’s clear they have no knowledge of journalism. I critique the bill of goods I’m being sold as a potential reader. I was there (I am here) and what people are being sold is bullshit. Why couldn’t it be more honest?

      “Jersey boy grew up aspiring to be a rock star like most American kids, ended up a journalist, and while posted in Beijing he managed to live out a sliver of that dream playing in one of Beijing’s bar bands.” Spice it up honestly and emphasize the truth.

      The cover’s copy spins things and exaggerates the truth the point of outright lie. It tells me that I can’t trust what’s inside so why should I buy it? THAT is the point. It FAILS to get me to buy the book and give it a read. It reads like some sad fodder for ANTi-CNN to rip apart.

      Let’s review this point one more time for the ignorant: the copy on the book fails on every level to sell me and it betrays what others are claiming the book itself contains. So, it FAILS. As for using a play on the title of a Tom Waits “Mule Variations” track: the song was a figurative and literal play on the fact that Tom Waits really is BIG in Japan. So, how is it parody when it’s presented in the same context: a foreign musician in an Asian country that has some kind of popularity. The truth of the matter is that he didn’t. Nowhere on the copy is the “joke” revealed, and if the copy doesn’t get me to buy the book to “get” the joke, then we’re going in circles here – it fails to sell the book. The title exudes a smug sense of hubris that the Woodie Alan Band were in the same league as Mr. Waits (hardly).

      So, to the pals who only paid to see the band because their laowai pal was in it, and ignored 100% of the myriad of other rock’n’roll bands in Beijing then (and now) claiming, “well you should read the book,” how about truth in advertising? That’s the issue all of you are dodging.

      Honestly, if the copy totally sold the book based on what it is, than what it wants you to think it is, then this would be a non-issue, wouldn’t it? Get with the program.

  10. Jaime says:

    I thought this misuse of journalism joke was over…. WTF??
    Alan is a nice guy but enough already… you are embarrassing Beijing as a music scene.

  11. Emmet says:

    Alan, as someone who has read the book I don’t think you should get caught up in trying to defend yourself to people who clearly have some jealousy issues.

    I suggest before anyone criticize you actually READ what you are criticizing. It is an extremely honest portrayal of Alan’s time in China. The music and the band is actually a small part of the story and as for the title (other than being an obvious Tom Waits reference) it seemed to refer to a lot more than the band being “big”. Again, put aside your jealousy and actually read it before being making snarky comments.

  12. Jaime says:

    Whatever Emmet… All these comments are coming from musicians (the ones that read this blog…in fact if more read this, the comments would be at 100) so of course we are feeding on the music part. I am sure the book is good and not all about the music but this whole thing was blown out of proportion by advantages of being a journalist… we were blown away at the award when it happened but to go abroad and sell it in a book, well, it gives those abroad a bad idea about the music scene here.. I will read the book and I’m sure it’s a good read about one expat’s experience coming here for a bit…. but the music thing is an old issue. We are trying to build a scene here… the ones that live here, not just visiting for a bit… Yes, we care.

    The comments aren’t snarky and it aint out of jealousy..It’s out of fixing some holes in the system. That award started it all, festival appearances and all…. all very advertised as “Beijing’s Best Band” and it was an email campaign and undeserved. Please understand where these are coming from. We are actively trying to fix this problem of people inundating polls here for their own benefit.. at least on the music side…. it’s downright damaging… Yes, people are annoyed at this “Big In China” book…if you don’t get it, then stick a sock in it! We don’t care as well as Alan obviously doesn’t care

  13. Lulu says:

    There is nothing to read about his book for me as I don’t give a flying fuck about his expat personal life in China.

    We are talking about his interviews here. The bullshit words coming from his mouth here about music scene.How shameless and how dared he is. Like Jean Sebastian said:”I wish it was jealous”. At least a good band makes me jealous will do something good for Beijing music scene.

    P.S. I love The Redbucks. Too bad lots original members left. I am Chinese and I did go to check The Redbucks constantly.

  14. El Santo says:

    How is calling Paul’s grotesque – nay, obscene – lies of the Woodie Alan band’s (non) significance in Chinese rock’n’roll, and how Mr. Alan throws around “accomplishments” in a rigged competition where nary a Chinese person voted for “best band,” and bragging about playing shows with 5-6000 people (never mind that it was a free show in China, where most Chinese bands that tour the nation have played to larger, PAYING audiences but don’t go around bragging about it) or being on provincial TV (what long-term expat hasn’t????) as though these accomplishments are unheard of. Pride in one’s work is understandable, but so is humility.

    I suspect that the defenders of Mr. Paul are personal friends, and/or know fuck all about China’s rock music history and Beijing’s plethora of talented bands who’ve accomplished more with less.

    I agree with Jamie: this is another expat journalist who lived in the Beijing bubble, deliberately cooking facts and removing context to tell the full story. If Paul does this in interviews I think it can be argued that it stands as a good possibility that the portions of his book devoted to rock’n’roll in China are to be scrutinized. It’s the “sizzle” to a steak that was minced meat rather than sirloin.

    You know an expat who contributed A LOT to Beijing’s independent music scene and actually played with a band Chinese rock fans have heard of: Texas Dave O’Dell, formerly of BRAIN FAILURE.

    He’s writing a book too. Self-publishing, and I bet it will be an infinitely more honest, sincere, humble, historically accurate and ethical read than Mr. Paul’s book.

    • El Santo says:

      R. E. my previous post: “How is calling Paul’s grotesque – nay, obscene – lies of the Woodie Alan band’s (non) significance in Chinese rock’n’roll, and how Mr. Alan throws around “accomplishments” in a rigged competition where nary a Chinese person voted for “best band,” and bragging about playing shows with 5-6000 people (never mind that it was a free show in China, where most Chinese bands that tour the nation have played to larger, PAYING audiences but don’t go around bragging about it) or being on provincial TV (what long-term expat hasn’t????) as though these accomplishments are unheard of. Pride in one’s work is understandable, but so is humility – JEALOUSY?”

  15. Jez says:

    If Texas Dave is writing a book I’ll buy one of the first copies.

  16. jtdj says:

    I agree, Texas Dave is awesome, and would write an excellent book. He did so much for Beijing scene and was totally humble about it. Also, I think he was around at a time when the music scene was just beginning, and that’s so goddamn interesting. I;m glad you brought him up Jez.

  1. June 17, 2011

    […] Ruby sat down to write a review and comments on Alan Paul’s appearance at the bookworm on Tuesday, I don’t think she realized what can of worms she would be opening. I didn’t either! […]