beyond_the_wall

Yan Jun with Wu Na & David Coulter/ White/ FM3/ Xiao He

Barbican St Luke’s London. 26-04-2009

‘Beyond the wall’ is a rare chance to glimpse the musical innovation that is taking place in China right now. Modern Chinese music is usually ‘state approved’, uncontroversial and sanitised i.e. the ubiquitous Mando/Canto Pop which almost exclusively dominates the airwaves and record stores. Despite and maybe because of this commercialism an experimental counter-culture has developed over the last decade under the radar of official or unofficial state control. Characterised by a noisy and experimental approach and championed by a loose pan-Chinese coalition of oddballs, new middle class youth and eccentric musicians; this music is the direct polar opposite of the banalities of Chinese Pop:

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“Plinky plunk, A Chinese Elopmement” sheet music from 1930s USA

The “Oriental Theme”

Sun Ra the black liberationist, spaceman and jazz musician in “Overtones Of China”(1957)  unconsciously perhaps, repeats the old tradition of exotic stereotyping in defining musical Chineseness as wood blocks, gongs and pentatonic piano stabs. In essence the piece is an evolved jazz version of the ‘Oriental Theme’ that serves to evoke Orientalism in the western imagination. The tune, a nine note phrase, is found throughout modern popular music most famously in the introduction to Carl Douglas’s ‘Kung fu fighting‘ , The Vapour’s ‘Turning Japanese’, and David Bowie’s “China Girl”:

Oriental Theme MIDI File

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An article i’ve written for DimSum:

“Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour”

by Hsiao-Hung Pai

Fig Tree Paperback

Right now as you sit comfortably reading this article an army of invisible workers is toiling day and night to provide you with fresh inexpensive supermarket produce, clean homes, cheap restaurant meals and pirated DVDs, they provide supermarkets with booming profits and contribute billions to the British economy. Though invisible, you know these people; they are the harassed waiters in London’s Chinatown, DVD sellers in supermarket car-parks and the bodies being unloaded from the back of trucks in Dover or washed up on the beaches of Morecambe bay…

This army of workers numbers somewhere between 310,000 and 570,000 people (UK Home Office 2007). They come from all over the world, different races and different languages united only in their poverty, overwork and underpay. These members of the British ‘Sub-Economy’ are not protected by any employment law or support group; they have no access to legal services, education, housing or healthcare and are made ripe for exploitation due to their ‘illegal migrant’ status. The work they perform is refused by established British workers. It’s done in atrocious, hazardous conditions with illegally long hours and rewarded with pitiful wages.

Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Book ‘Chinese Whispers’ examines one sector of this labour army; probably the most vulnerable and most exploited group, the Chinese migrant worker. To get a firsthand account of the plight of these people, Hsia-Hung Pai went undercover posing as a newly arrived migrant shortly after the Morecambe Bay Tragedy in 2004 (elements of the book form the basis of Nick Broomfield’s film ‘Ghosts’); ‘Chinese Whispers’ documents her experiences in the British black economy. Hsiao-hung begins by describing the reality of the effects of globalisation and the boom of the new Chinese economy.
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