Two weeks in, and it’s high time I did the whole tourist thing. So off we troll on the trusty old Number 81, back towards the West Lake, for some serious tomb-and-temple action.
The tomb of General Yue Fei is one of the city’s top attractions, but I can’t say I’m bowled over. Like so many historical sites, it was badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, and so is more than a tad too Repro for my tastes.
Onto the Number 7 bus – packed with schoolkids, all gawping at the charmingly bonkers cartoon on the overhead telly – and all the way out of town, to the Feilai Peak and the Lingyin Temple. The former is a steep, wooded hill, with many images of Buddhas and other deities carved into the rocks around its base. The latter lies on the other side of the stream, and is a vast, colourful and elaborate complex of Buddhist halls, which rise up above each other on the facing slope.
Now, this is more like it. I’ve done more than my fair share of Buddhist temples over the years, but this is up there with the very best of them. J and I are particularly taken with the hall containing long, winding corridors packed with hundreds of gold-painted sculptures of assorted holy men; life-sized, but placed above head height in facing rows, where they almost seem to be interacting with each other. Every single sculpture has its own unique character, running the gamut from devout to leery, inscrutably beatific to slyly conspiratorial, quietly contemplative to exuberantly hedonistic (and not a little camp). Soon, I’m inventing little stories and doing little voices for each one. Freestyle anthropomorphisation. Great fun.
The 31 Bar lies up a dirt track, off a deserted main road, way out of town, on the unfashionable west side of the West Lake. It’s Hangzhou’s only venue for live alternative rock music, and tonight – New Year’s Eve – it is closing its doors for good. From tomorrow, there will be nowhere – in this city of over six million inhabitants – for local bands to play.
To mark the bar’s closing night, seven acts will be playing – including one of the city’s longest established bands, the 5 Second Boys, whose lead singer/guitarist works in our Human Resources department. J and I have been playing their home-made debut album (Learn To Juggle) for the past few days, and have been won over by its semi-acoustic latter-day grunge sound. (Its nearest reference point: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged, but with an additional violinist.)
The 5 Second Boys were meant to be second on the bill, but various circumstances have dictated that they perform the opening set instead; this is good for us, as we’ve only just arrived and we won’t be able to stay the whole night.
Their set goes down great, with the album’s closing track Pussycat gathering a big whoop of recognition, as it was also featured on a recent sampler CD of local bands. Our colleague S makes a convincing front man, with a performance which – like all the other acts on the bill – eschews any form of flashy rock-star posturing. No-one’s in this for the career path, as quite simply there isn’t one. These are bedroom bands, rehearsing in each other’s flats, recording onto home PC equipment, and occasionally playing live for a small, dedicated community of enthusiasts. It’s the very essence of “indie”. John Peel would have approved.
As for me, I feel privileged to be here, just in the nick of time, in this roomy, dingy, appropriately scuzzy backwater bar with newspaper plastering on the ceiling and (oh joy!) strong draught Tiger on tap, instead of the ubiquitous piss-weak Tsingtao.
After his band’s set, S sells around thirty copies of the CD, signing the booklets in the makeshift backstage area for a throng of fans. While he’s doing this, the next act slinks onstage, almost unnoticed. He’s a quirky looking long-haired dude in a scarlet anorak, big specs and a woolly hat, who starts up a simple drum pattern from his laptop, sits himself down on a little wooden chair, and starts strumming basic chords on his guitar, feeding them through his effects pedal as mood dictates.
Behind him, an exceedingly primitive Winamp visualisation program does its rather limited thing on the projection screen. Occasionally – very occasionally – someone at the mixing desk chooses a new pattern, by closing Winamp, going into the Windows Start Menu, picking another file, maximising the Winamp window again… all of which does rather kill any potential psychedelic mystique. (They’d have been better off with iTunes.)
This is clearly the “experimental” section of the evening. The dude’s first number is over in a few minutes. His second number – featuring puny drum machine pattern #2, in the same tempo as the first, and an equally random selection of chord patterns and indistinct mumblings – lasts well over thirty minutes, and incorporates snatches of I Wanna Be Your Dog by Iggy & The Stooges, and If You’re Happy And You Know It Clap Your Hands, re-worked in Mandarin to read If You’re Not Happy And You Know It, All Jerk Off.
I’m making this sound a damn sight more interesting than it was; actually, it was intolerable. Unable to summon up the courage to register my misery in the appointed fashion, I retreat to the yard outside – along with a sizeable section of the clientele, who burst into wild applause when the drum machine finally shuts up. This is my first encounter with Chinese sarcasm, and I cherish it.
We stick around for the next three bands, who all play short sets in quick succession, sharing the same drumkit to speed up the process. It becomes increasingly clear that the ghost of Kurt Cobain still looms large over Hangzhou’s underground rock scene. Nothing wrong with that, but I make a mental note to mail S with some recent releases. (The Arcade Fire album, for instance; they’ve got to hear that one.)
S orders us a cab, and we whizz across town in time to arrive at the All! New! Shamrock before midnight. (As one venue closes, so another one opens. Darlings, we only do opening nights and closing nights, and only if we’re With The Band or friendly with the owners. I tell you, I’ve got this city cracked.)
The All! New! Shamrock is a very different proposition from its predecessor, which closed its doors for good on Christmas Day. The old venue was tall, narrow and historic; the new venue is in the ground floor of a modern building, with a wide, open-plan layout and a small stage area in the middle of the back wall. R greets us effusively and shows us to her table, where yet another mad dice game is in progress. Someone tries to explain the rules, but it’s loud, and everybody’s sloshed, and it’s nearly midnight anyway, and Woo! Happy New Year, Hangzhou!
The benefit of being at R’s table is that we get the Moet, rather than a glass of the more regular bubbly that everyone else in the bar is offered. Upgrade! Upgrade for Mister Diva! I’m soon out in the corridor near the loos, bellowing New Years’ greetings down my mobile to K in Derbyshire, and to my mother in Cambridge.
Tomorrow, we hit Shanghai city for a Big Adventure.
Or in real time: tomorrow, I hit Shanghai airport, followed by Heathrow and Nottingham. My Hangzhou experience is almost over; I’ll be leaving the office in a matter of minutes, heading back to the apartment for some preliminary packing, then out for a meal and a late drink at yes-you’ve-guessed-it.
See you on the other side of the world.