Rockin' Snow Mountain: A Lijiang travel diary part 3

Culture | by Stephan Larose
Posted: November 11th, 2010 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Stephan Honig and crew play at Choice to Choose's Happiness for the Children event In search of a story filled with interesting characters and good times, music, drinking and mayhem, Stephan Larose recently spent three days partying at the Snow Mountain Music Festival. He interviewed a few bands, got all his nasty clothes stinking like campfire smoke and spent long periods in a near-hypothermic state. Here is that story. >>> Go back to Rockin' Snow Mountain: A Lijiang travel diary part 2 or Rockin' Snow Mountain: A Lijiang travel diary part 1 Day 3 saw me wake up bright and early, by 1:00 p.m., giving me time to walk around lovely Shuhe and enjoy a pizza and a cappuccino at Le Petit Paris (No.111, Xinhua Jie, also known as the "bar street"). With outdoor seating right on the main drag's picturesque canal and Chinese guitarists playing lovely tunes, it was a nice, relaxed way to start the day. Shuhe's 800-year old lanes now form part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses the nearby townships of Dayan and Baisha—known collectively as Lijiang Old Town. With World Heritage recognition has come much needed restoration work and increased prestige. Unfortunately, that prestige has come at a price. Increased tourism has meant a reorientation of the local economy to serve tourists. As I walked down Shuhe's main strip, I saw not a single authentic residence. Most of the real locals were forced to move away years ago by rising prices. Nowadays, residences behind the main lanes are inhabited by business people from wealthier parts of China come to cash in on the tourism bonanza. Still.... [pullquote]...this is what I was looking for all along! It'd taken a near plane crash, hypothermia, machete-wielding antagonists, a shove in the mud by concert security, sleep deprivation, plentiful inebriation and tons of great music to get here, but finally, there I was...[/pullquote]Still, the restorations have proved highly photogenic and the tourists don't seem to mind. They don't see old Naxi women weaving and dying traditional clothes in their shops anymore, but they do get lots of live music, a ton of restaurants to choose from, millions of souvenirs and doodads, and plenty of stylish guesthouses that, despite egregious inflation, are still quite a bargain compared to, say, a Beijing hotel. Yet one sometimes wonders what an international cultural organization like UNESCO would have to say about a cultural site supposedly under its protection losing nearly all authentic vestiges of its actual culture. After snapping a few photos, I went and caught up with Maciej Koterba, founder of Polish charity Choice to Choose. He'd organized a "Happiness for the Children" charity event behind the main stage for Lijiang's orphans and whoever else wanted to join in the fun (click the link for an interview and slideshow with Maciej). There were plenty of activities and everyone seemed to be having a great time. Josh and Hana were volunteering at the event, selling coffee and devil sticks with some proceeds going to charity. As we drank Hana's miracle brew we noticed a tiny, incredibly adorable little girl who'd been drawn by the sight of older boys enjoying the devil sticks challenge. She approached shyly, not saying a word. Wrapping her tiny hands around a set of sticks, she held them in a hug, but was soon at an impasse trying to separate the baton from the control sticks while holding them at the same time. It was a little difficult given her diminutive stature, but Josh quickly ran over and taught her how to manipulate them. It was sweet, and I felt moved by the fact that this is exactly what Maciej had in mind when he'd put this event together. Happiness for the Children @ SMMF On the surface, the obvious benefits, the orphans get to have fun, but underlying that was a subtext of people connecting on a very human, sympathetic level. There seemed something pure and essentially good in what I was seeing around me, something that leaves you incomplete if you don't experience it: the surprisingly rewarding pleasure one gets from putting a smile on the face of someone less fortunate than you. Seems like too few of us are getting that these days… Having soaked up enough caffeine and youthful enthusiasm to keep me perky for the rest of the day, it was time to interview Stephan Honig and two band mates, Francis Norman and Martin Hannaford. They'd been touring with Iowa Super Soccer until the tearful farewells of the night before (ISS was moving to other parts of China), but before arriving they'd had no idea what to expect. "Some people were telling us the environment was so toxic in China you could only eat canned food," said Stephan laughing, "but when we got here our handler Mango was bringing us to little Chinese restaurants all the time and it was great." Added Martin, "I don't get why they eat pig's feet though, there's no meat on them at all!" Honig's China adventure had proven quite the roller coaster right from day one, and they were loving it. Tragedy almost struck at the very beginning, narrowly averted thanks to a kind-hearted cabbie whose singular good nature saved the day. "We forgot a bag of Iowa Super Soccer's guitar gear in a cab it was an absolute disaster–we all had a gig that night!" recounted Francis. "But then the cabbie called and basically said 'dear foreigners, you left your bag in my cab, please call me.' We caught a cab and asked where these things go, but he told us that office was closed for national week. Thank God for Mango, she called them up and described our emergency and we ended up driving out to find the stuff in a little cramped room. We couldn't believe we'd gotten the gear back! We were so lucky! Thanks to all the Chinese people, they were all so kind!" [pullquote]"We played in front of 10,000 people in Simao, we felt like we were the Ramones!"    —Eddy, lead agitator, Italian punk band Smegma Riot[/pullquote]The first show Honig played took place in a massive industrial hall in Xi'an. Stephan painted the trio as nervous about their reception by the crowd; all the other bands were punk, as was, it seemed, the audience. And here they'd shown up with two acoustic guitars and a violin. "Then the power went out and the bands couldn't play, so they asked us to play acoustic. We did the show from the middle of the dance floor with a huge crowd all around us. It was so cool, we played a whole bunch of requests, "Knocking on Heaven's Door" and the likes, and everyone was singing along. Then the power came back and we did our own music. It was pretty much the opposite of punk, but the whole crowd was very appreciative." The boys were a-glow with the instant fame they seemed to be gaining. Mango had put a page up for them on Douban.com. Instantly comments were being put up. Just a little while later, they'd actually met someone who was planning to cover their songs—he sang them their own melodies as proof. Like Iowa Super Soccer, Honig and crew were finding China extremely receptive, much more "open" than some of their counterparts back in Germany had led them to believe. Being a foreign band in China can be great. There isn't anywhere near as much competition for stages as there is back home, and getting gigs can be really easy. But that's not to say that the playing field is completely level or that crowds are always accommodating. When I met Italian punk rockers Smegma Riot at Mama Mia (also on Xinhua Jie bar street Tel. (0888) 5445 777), lead guitarist Lucio looked like he'd tried to plant a kiss on an oncoming train. From a distance, the bruising on his face looked like a map of the lunar surface, a mess of overlapping crater shadows evidencing punishment by an entire squad of belligerent asteroids. A closer examination revealed a five-stitch split in his lip, and a good two-second lag in mental processing. "We do a lot to increase our bad relations with our audience, we have a lot of bad taste on stage, we dress strangely, and our band name in Chinese means "Italian stallion" which has a very negative connotation here. We like to use our whole bodies to express our disagreement with the audience" explained Eddy. Beijing's DJ Sulumi, experimental stage @ Snow Mountain Music Festival Using Lucio's head wounds to measure the success of Smegma Riot's antagonistic, anti-audience ethic, I judged them to have a rage-provoking efficacy approaching 85%-just short of an A grade. Still, Lucio wasn't dead, so obviously they could do better. Nevertheless, even crowd-provoking punks like Smegma Riot find epic experiences hard to avoid in a country whose raging adolescent growth hormones create unheard of enthusiasm and opportunity, as well as some pretty ugly stretch marks. "We played in front of 10,000 people in Simao, we felt like we were the Ramones!" piped Eddy. "We saw once a crazy accident with a donkey, a scooter and a car" drawled Lucio, wincing from the effort of speaking. But since their arrival in 2004, Smegma Riot have seen a lot of promise. China is a pubescent dragon, one that's got a lot more money now than the days when punk music itself was adolescent. Besides using that cash to bully neighbors and purchase the world's resources and technology, a generation of little emperors are using that money to produce and consume music on a scale China's never seen before. "Things are changing in a very positive way for music here, there are much more people going to live performances, and more people can have careers in music. The people want to see, they want to know, they want to experience a concert." Lucio communicated his agreement with a bunch of indeterminate vowels, the unusually smooth Italian grunt sounding like that of a Neanderthal female accepting a boar carcass for her hand in marriage. Leaving Lucio to the difficult task of wrapping his mangled lips around enough beers to render him insensate, I quickly made my way on to the experimental stage. Josh and Hana were already waiting for me and I didn't want to miss Beijing's DJ Sulumi. As I arrived, monstrous waves of rippling bass and hysteric Nintendo bleeps announced Sulumi's arrival on the turntables. My interview work done, I plunged into the crowd, joining the epileptic fray in its surrender to Sulumi's febrile, digital hardcore-induced hypnogogia. I danced hard, letting the music's cosmic knockout punches and powerful rhythms shred my higher cognitive functions, leaving me blank as a phytoplankton wandering in space off the shoulder of Orion. Somehow, the sonic overload hushed my mind. Creeping in from the edges of the quiet plain of my consciousness: thimblefuls of nirvana. Suddenly it dawned on me—this is what I was looking for all along! It'd taken a near plane crash, hypothermia, machete-wielding antagonists, a shove in the mud by concert security, sleep deprivation, plentiful inebriation and tons of great music to get here, but finally, there I was, and I was going to milk it for all it was worth. We danced and danced, and laughed 'til dawn, only this time, we found our way home. Go back to Rockin' Snow Mountain: A Lijiang travel diary part 2 or Rockin' Snow Mountain: A Lijiang travel diary part 1 All photos by Stephan Larose
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