Friday, March 03, 2006

New column, up today

THE EXPAT LIFE
By ALAN PAUL


The Backstreet Boys Lure
An Unlikely Fan in Beijing



Though I wouldn't cross the street to see the Backstreet Boys back home, I recently trekked from one end of Beijing to the other to see the past-their-prime boy band perform at the Capital Gymnasium.

After nearly two decades of attending concerts for Guitar World, I was curious to see a show in China and appearances by multi-platinum acts are few and far between. What I found was something both utterly familiar and completely foreign, a bit like looking at a concert through a funhouse mirror.

Worried about properly communicating my destination to a cabbie, I hired our favorite black-car driver, Mr. Lu, who picked me up at 6:15 p.m. and promptly set off for a nearby housing compound called Capital Paradise instead of the far-away Capital Gymnasium. I was trying to explain the problem when I got a call from my friend Colin Pine, ringing to say he couldn't make the show. He speaks perfect Mandarin, so I handed the phone to Mr. Lu, who talked a bit, then handed it back, saying, "Sorry, sorry, sorry."

"What time music?"

"7:30."

"Oh. Maybe. Maybe." His English needs work, but it's a lot better than my Mandarin.

It was 6:40. Mr. Lu started cutting into the bike lane, passing on the right and dodging between the two lanes of traffic on Jing Shun Lu, the busy road that leads to the expressway. I told him to slow down, it was okay to be late. An accident clearly would be much worse than missing the Boys' entrance.

Just as Mr. Lu said, "We here," I looked up to see a hulking street-tough-looking dude approaching the car, waving fanned tickets. You could have dropped him into Chicago or New York and immediately recognized him as a scalper. He was the first of many, who ran up waving tickets as I stepped out into the stalled traffic. I learned later that they are called "ticket bulls" and they sell for below face value, rather than the inflated prices you would expect to pay in the U.S. For promoters, one of the costs of doing business here is providing 5%-10% of the tickets to government officials, many of which make their way to the bulls.

It was about 7:40, but I couldn't tell from the scene on the street whether or not the concert had begun. Pushing my way through the crowd of onlookers and vendors hawking posters, T-shirts, binoculars, glow sticks and more, I showed my ticket to a guard and passed through a gate into a largely empty, police-patrolled cement plaza surrounding the Gym. Several other stragglers walked up the steps around me, all of them clean-cut, well-dressed twentysomethings.

Going inside, I passed through a metal detector and more security guards and ushers than you would find back home. Stepping into the inner hallway, I felt as if I were attending a high-school play, standing in an aging institutional room with worn linoleum and tired paint, and bored-looking vendors selling popcorn, hot dogs and Coke. I walked into the arena and was surprised to see uniformed soldiers checking tickets. I flashed my ticket and hung a right on the cement floor, peering down at the stage. It took me a moment to realize the Boys were actually on stage because the buzz factor in the hall was rather low. I walked across the top of the lower section to the edge of occupied seats (the seats behind the stage were empty). I had a great view of both the band and the rather odd scene laid out in front of me.

The crowd was perfectly well behaved. Everyone was seated, many waving glow sticks as they swayed to the music. A large percentage sang along in English to hits like "I Want It That Way." The floor held a fraction of the seats you would find in a similar-sized American venue. The back half was empty and huge aisles surrounded each section. There was 40-50 feet of empty gym floor between the stage and the first seats. About halfway down that distance, a red rope ran all the way across and around the sides of the stage. Ushers and soldiers were at each corner of each section.

Seeing no passage to the floor, I returned to the outer hall and headed toward the back of the arena, which seemed to be the entry point. Walking through the empty passageway, I took a good look around at the tired, peeling walls, trying to imagine what they had seen since the Gym opened in '68. The place is due to be rahabbed in order to host volleyball and other sports in the 2008 Olympics.

Re-entering through a farther-back, lower entrance, I was just a few feet off the floor, but still separated from it. Seeing no opening, I hopped the railing. An usher approached. I jabbered meaninglessly, and he lost interest. For all the show of security, it seems that a Western guy moving with purpose was presumed to be okay. I circled around the back, cut through the center aisle and headed to the little VIP area, where I was to meet the promoter, an acquaintance who had invited me to the show. After a quick hello, I took in the show from my improved perch.

The Boys actually are very good at what they do, but their harmony-drenched, smooth pop R&B is pretty putrid to my rock and blues-oriented ears. Even when their popularity peaked nearly a decade ago, I was puzzled that such relatively old and grizzled guys towered as teeny-bop idols. Now, these are clearly the Backstreet Men. I kept thinking of The Simpsons' Krusty the Clown puffing a cigarette and unhooking his girdle in his dressing room.

The Boys walked off stage with waves to polite applause. A few minutes later they came back out for an encore and launched into some painful faux rapping that nicely illustrated why their career is DOA at home and they are appearing in Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Bangkok and Manila. More interestingly, as soon as the final song began, a huge group of people in the second floor section got up in unison and ran to the red rope. The authorities didn't flinch and no one attempted to breach the barrier, and I wondered just how spontaneous this was.

When the concert ended, the crowd applauded with a restrained enthusiasm that was hard for me to read. Perhaps they shared my opinion of the Boys. I joined the throngs calmly and politely filing out into the cold night. Inside the arena, no merchandise was for sale, but T-shirts and posters were widely available on the street outside the gate, where pandemonium reigned again.

On April 8, the Rolling Stones are making their first-ever China appearance, in Shanghai. I hope to make the 660-mile trip to wish Mick and Keef well. I just hope I can find the People's Grand Stage without Mr. Lu.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@wsj.com