Home :: Chinese Reggae

Chinese Reggae

                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                        2008

Rule #1: When you are traveling, and somebody local invites you out, take advantage of the opportunity whenever you can.

This rule clashes completely with Rule #2, which is: NEVER let Australians put themselves in charge of your social life, because you will undoubtedly regret it in the morning.

Let me rephrase that. Always let Australians run your social life despite the fact that you will regret it in the morning. After all, there is no such thing as a good vacation without a little adventurous self abuse, is there?

We met Peter at Sam’'s Guest House in Chengdu. Chengdu is in Sichuan, China. Peter was an English teacher who had been working in a small town in China for several years. His Chinese was pretty proficient. When he invited us to hear him play guitar at a local watering hole, we readily agreed. He was going to meet a few friends there. These people were all expats (expatriots living far from their native country). Most of them were the only English speakers in their area, so this evening would be a rare chance for them to get together and hobnob in their own language.

We all bundled into a cab, and Peter did a great job of directing the driver in Chinese. We wound up at the Shamrock Pub. The Shamrock was a fairly authentic looking Irish pub, located on a well-to-do Chinese boulevard. It was so out of place! It looked like it had dropped out of the sky, having been carried all the way from Ireland on a twister straight out of an Oz movie. The Shamrock had the reputation of being the biggest expat hangout in all of Chengdu.

Inside, it was pure Ireland, but with a very international crowd, and an even more international menu. I ordered Mexican food, Peter ordered New Zealand steak, and we all drank Chinese beer. We ate dinner with two Aussies, one Brazilian with his Chinese girlfriend, one French speaker, and three Dutch from the Hague. The conversation was all over the map, and very lively. It was a great party.

Peter tuned up his guitar and took the stage, entertaining an increasingly drunken audience. The dinner patrons finished up, and the bar crowd began to pour in. Peter’'s audience gradually shifted and became more and more Chinese. Peter entertained them with a series of Australian and Irish folk songs.

The Chinese patrons were the young, affluent children of the Chinese upper classes. They were the ambitious new socialite success stories of Chengdu. They had really good jobs, great wardrobes, and the ambition to quest outside of their own rather monolithic cultural dictates. They had come to the Shamrock for an “"exotic" experience”. We were the ones who were on display here. I soon decided that the highpoint of the Shamrock experience was watching the Chinese trying to become a wee bit Irish.

After the last set, Peter decided to move on. We bundled into another taxi, in search of a near mythical watering hole that someone had told him about. Apparently, there was a genuine reggae hangout in the city, and Peter was determined to find it. We tumbled into another taxi and drove back across town. We wound up at a very fancy new shopping mall that had turned into a “shopping mall” of theme bars and restaurants. Everything was very new, very trendy, and it was a fairly busy scene.

We peeked inside a ultramodern chrome and glass bar, with blacklights everywhere and hypnotic little laser lights roving all over the floor. The bar was crowded with shadowy dancers, silhouetted against the dim lights. The music was pumping hip-hop.

We skipped by a Euro bar, with Italian decor and an expensive menu.

We even found a rock climbing bar, with a fake rock wall off to one side. The combination of rock climbing and alcohol seemed rather dicey to me, notwithstanding the safety lines. They still are a bit backwards in China when it comes to liability insurance.

At last, we found the “Hemp Bar”. This place was remarkable, for a country that had required everyone to wear blue “Mao Suits” only a generation before. We walked in to a room that was covered in freaky reggae-inspired pshychedelic murals from walls to ceilings. The bartender wore tie dye, and Bob Marley was blasting from every speaker. Funky old overstuffed furniture gave the place a San Francisco in 1968 feel.

Two of the guys playing pool were especially notable. They both had punky haircuts. One had a blonde dye job, and the other had purple hair. One of them even sported a piece of body jewelry.

You may wonder why this is such a big deal. It’'s important because China has never tolerated a counterculture before. A generation ago, people were put in reeducation camps for non conformity. Now, all of a sudden, the outside world is flooding in, and the young elite of China are experimenting with everything. The Chinese government may try to keep a lid on what comes in, but in the end, they really won’'t be able to. The Internet, and Facebook and the music websites are popping the cork off the bottle and letting the genie out. It’'s not just about haircuts and tie dye. Who knows what will happen when a fifth of the world’'s population learns to experiment with cultural freedom and freedom of expression? Change is coming in China, and it is coming incredibly fast. Let us hope that change can come gently, because, if it doesn't, the world is in for a bumpy ride..

Rule #3 - (and this one is strictly for my own benefit) When you are out, hoisting a few drinks with good friends, try not to get too philosophical. Just enjoy the party.

Thanks for reading! Diana

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