Cowboy Junkies in China

I was fascinated to read recently that Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies spent three months in late 2008 in the small town of Jingjiang in China – the result of which is reflected in the Cowboy Junkies album that came out in June, “Renmin Park”. Apparently two of his three adopted children are Chinese, I am just getting this from their record label’s site, I really didn’t know much about the band before, except that they’ve been around forever. I’m also bit slow on this one as I only got round to listening to the album last week!

Of course anyone who has been to China, or even a basic grasp of Chinese, would be familiar with “Renmin” 人民meaning People – as in 中华人民共和国 People’s Republic of China or 人民日报 People’s Daily… Most towns have a People’s Park and it’s the place for all kinds of wholesome communal activities. I was curious to see, or hear, what this and the whole China experience meant for the album.

Clearly three months is not enough time for anyone to get their head round a country like China. And I have to say, the blurb on their site about the town welcoming them with open arms and China being such a friendly place blah blah was grating, yes Chinese people love foreigners and cute little kids but let’s not get into that here…

The album is good! There are all kinds of everyday sounds from the park and also Chinese instruments all throughout the 14 tracks. On their label’s site Timmins writes:

I’d spend hours in the park walking around and recording music and conversations, exercise classes and badminton games; in the streets I’d record the intense sound of the traffic; at the school I’d wander the halls and sit in on some classes and record the students chanting their lessons, or capture them at their morning exercise where the entire school of three thousand students would do their calisthenics. Even drifting by our apartment window were the calls of various hawkers, selling everything from vegetables to propane. I recorded it all.

The highlight for me has been discovering their cover of and collaborations with Chinese rock guru Zuoxiao Zuzhou. Zuoxiao Zuzhou has been around making music since 1993 and is an unconventional character in Chinese contemporary culture, he is also an artist and very good friends with Ai Weiwei! His most recent album was titled “OST For Ai Weiwei Works No.1”. In this interview with the ChinaBeat blog he talks about meeting Ai Weiwei and Han Han together:

Han Han and I have admired each other for a long time now but we never actually met until last summer. I introduced him to Ai Weiwei that day, and they admire each other’s work too. I thought I should let them do most of the talking. Han Han and Weiwei spoke mostly of social problems. I spoke with Han Han largely about domestic life and interests. We could have gone on forever.

I don’t have the Cowboy Junkies cover of his song “I Cannot Sleep Sadly By Your Side” to upload here (and I’d probably be breaking all kinds of copyright laws) but “Renmin Park” is available to listen to on Spotify. However I just found the Cowboy Junkies cover on YouTube so I’ll embed it at the bottom of this post.

Here is the original song 《我不能悲伤地坐在你身旁》 by Zuoxiao Zuzhou, for some reason I am finding it quite festive even though it’s not festive at all! Enjoy and happy holidays!


Tips from “So Rock!” on How To Drink That Cup of Tea

After a break of far too long, I’ve recently started studying Chinese again with a friend. At first I couldn’t remember how to write ANY characters (literally) but it really is just a case of keeping up with it regularly. For Chinese practice, we decided to read an article taken from Vol 101 of a magazine published in China called 《我爱摇滚乐》in Chinese (literally translated as “I Love Rock Music”) and the English name of the magazine is “So Rock!”.

It’s a cool magazine, I first read about it last year when they published a bold cover for the anniversary of Tiananmen:

As the Danwei article tells us:

Under the silhouette of a tank on the t-shirt is the line “So you’ve got a tank?” (你不就有辆坦克吗), although the characters for “tank” have been blurred out. On the tank, covered up by the So Rock logo (but visible on another photo inside the magazine), is the word “POWER.”

Stories inside this issue include:

  • A profile of Pete Seeger, the American folk singer known for protest songs;
  • The conclusion to The Story of the American Civil Rights Movement;
  • A reprint of Lu Xun’s essay, “In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen,” which is often used as a veiled reference to government-sanctioned killing


The front and back covers of  Vol 101 were also quite provocative, here they are scanned:

So I already knew that So Rock! had an “irreverent attitude” but I wasn’t quite expecting the article we’d chosen to read to be so smart and hilarious. The title of the article 《如何喝好那杯茶》translates as “How to Drink That Cup of Tea” and refers to the common practice of Public Security officials in China of inviting dissidents or activists to “drink tea” when they want to question them about political activities or give them a warning. The whole tone of the article is very dry and sarcastic, much like my favourite blogposts we’ve translated and put up on High Peaks Pure Earth.

The article starts by saying:

“If, one day, you’ve published something un-harmonious on the internet and the Cops invite you to drink tea, what are you supposed to do? Here are some tips based on experience on the way to act, hope it comes in handy for you.”

Instead of writing the Chinese word for harmonious, the author has used the well-known homonym, the river crab. It’s also really fun how they write “Cops” every time in English! Amongst the straight-faced joking around, there is actually some really sound legal advice in the text, tip #1 says:

First express your refusal. If: A, no public security legal case has been registered; B, no criminal case has been registered; C, no other type of case has been registered; D, what you are doing at that moment is not a criminal offence, then they cannot issue summons to ordinary citizens, either on paper or verbally. If they do so, they are illegally using their authority to harass people with their indecent behaviour.

The next few tips continue in the same vein…saying how the Cops will try to get you in trouble with your work, get your boss involved, your family, the boss of your boss… Anyway, it’s clear that eventually you’ll be drinking tea with them irrespective of the legal proceedings.

Tip #6 starts to get fun:

If they don’t give you anything in writing, and don’t let your colleagues also listen in to your tea-drinking session, and don’t inform your family, tell them that they are being illegal, let them know that you are someone who understands the law and, by not refusing to go with them, you were making sure that they “saved face”. Also, calmly tell them that that their illegal way of doing things doesn’t surprise you at all, there are Cops who are doing way more illegal things.

The key seems to be to keep calm at all times and, if anything, be over-polite and completely obliging and deny any wrong-doing…deny that you are “under Ai Weiwei’s influence”! By tip #15, full irony is kicking in:

They may be very familiar with your various private activities and want to use that to intimidate you. Tell them, “You know things that you should not know”, this in itself is a shameless act, since it’s private, people who know other people’s private activities should keep it secret, this is ethical. Tell them you had a one-night stand and want to tell them about it, ask if they agree to hearing about it.

The author is keen to point out that nothing should be divulged and certainly not any key information, this is how to get round it, tip #19:

On another note, they might ask you questions that stray very far off-topic, such as your QQ number or the names of your parents, when they asked me these kinds of questions, I asked them back, “Do you also want to know when exactly I get my period every month?”, they politely stopped asking me random questions then.

I can just imagine a Chinese rock chick giving the PSB a hard time! The final tip, tip #20, is quite philosophical:

From now on, it seems that dealing with the Cops is perhaps going to become the normal state of things, everybody needs to slowly adapt and get along with them, we need to become people who can take good care of ourselves.

So there we have it, sound advice! Might be useful for bloggers, rockers, dissidents alike… Oh and the magazine came with a free CD made up of 9 tracks from Chinese bands, so rock on!

VOA Kunleng Discussion on Banned Tibetan Literature

On Wednesday I battled the elements and trekked over to the Voice of America studio in central London to talk about banned Tibetan literature.

Fortunately there was also another guest from Dharamsala who knew the authors and writings that were under discussion well whilst I could give a general overview and talk about the importance of such writings and also how important it is to translate these writings into other languages.

Apart from the information on High Peaks Pure Earth, my main sources of preparation for this interview were the two ICT reports, “Like Gold That Fears No Fire” and “A Raging Storm”.

Although I don’t hear that many people talk about it, I really think that Woeser’s essay, “US-Post 2008” that she wrote for “Like Gold That Fears No Fire” is quite brilliant and full of insights. She writes:

Tibet is not mute. Even though many people have been arrested or harmed in the general silence, the Internet will wrest a new space for the existence of those whose voices have been lost. The Internet has already built a bridge of communication and exchange for a Tibet that has long been divided. In sum, the Internet is the most important field of activity in this era. The Internet will change China and it will also change Tibet.


To this day, records and critiques written in Tibetan, Chinese and many other languages keep flooding out, and in particular books, magazines, essays and lyrics written in the mother language are emerging. Tibetans living under the Chinese political system are breaking through the silence, and there are more and more instances of these voices being bravely raised, and this is encouraging ever more Tibetans.

I am embedding the whole programme in 4 videos from YouTube below!