Saturday, December 29, 2007

Courtside at Pistons Game

I don't have a working camera at the moment, but I used PhotoBooth to snap this shot of me at the scorer's table and the action in front of me. I should have been bolder in turning around the computer and snapping. I missed some great shots.

There are not too many things I miss living in china (people are a different story). Near the top of my former routines that some times long for are Allman Brothers at the Beacon Theater every March and courtside seats, pen or laptop in hand, at NBA Games. I’m not crazy enough to fly back for the Beacon but I do get to squeeze in a few NBA games every year on my winter visits. Last night I made it to the Palace of Auburn Hills for the pacers/Pistons game, my only opportunity this year.

I was living in Ann Arbor in 1996 when I started writing for Slam and so the vast majority of the first NBA games I attended as a member of the press were at the Palace and it feels a bit like going home. I was there plenty early and chatted with a bunch of people, including Clark Kellogg, who broadcasts the Pacers games. I did a feature on him as a player last year and he gave me bi thanks for helping him with his kids.

“My son saw that from a friend at school before I even had it at home,” he said. “He was really impressed to see the old man in Slam.” The guy is on TV talking hoops nationwide most nights of the week, but his son only perked up when he saw him in Slam. Word!

For an upcoming story I am doing on Dr. J I also chatted with Pistons assistant coaches (and former NBA All Stars) Dave Cowens and Terry Porter. But the highlight may have been meeting Rasheed Wallace’s mother. I spoke to her on the phone for a story I did on him years ago. Sheed is a bit of a headcase and was much more of one at the time. He was hard to talk to but I somehow tracked down Mrs. Wallace at her home in Philly. She is an RN who worked ina Philly hospital for years and was as straight shooting as her son was not. I need to find the story, but she said something like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with that boy” and was really a pleasure.

I reminded her of that last night and she remembered the whole thing. She looks a hell of a lot like him and stands at least 6-1 (Sheed is 6-11). When I mentioned that, she said, “I look a lot better than him, though, right?”

“Of course, Mrs. Wallace.”

Huckabee Fever!

Apropos to nothing, except I found this hilarious. From the NY Times:

On Thursday night [Huckabee] told reporters in Orlando, Fla.: “We ought to have an immediate, very clear monitoring of our borders and particularly to make sure if there’s any unusual activity of Pakistanis coming into the country.”

On Friday, in Pella, Iowa, he expanded on those remarks.

“When I say single them out I am making the observation that we have more Pakistani illegals coming across our border than all other nationalities except those immediately south of the border,” he told reporters in Pella. “And in light of what is happening in Pakistan it ought to give us pause as to why are so many illegals coming across these borders.”

In fact, far more illegal immigrants come from the Philippines, Korea, China and Vietnam, according to recent estimates from the Department of Homeland Security.

Asked how a border fence would help keep out Pakistani immigrants, Mr. Huckabee argued that airplane security was already strong, but that security at the southern United States border was dangerously weak.

“The fact is that the immigration issue is not so much about people coming to pick lettuce or make beds, it’s about someone coming with a shoulder-fired missile,” he said.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Trip going well, new column up

The trip is going well. We have zipped through time zones like time travelers and we're all now more or less adjusted. we had a great week skiing in Colorado and are now banging around beautiful Bay City, Michigan Becky is speaking to the Pinconning Rotary Club today about her China experiences. I will eagerly grab a front rwow seat.

My new column is up here. Let me know what you think,

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Radio Silence likely

We are leaving this afternoon, in about three hours, for our annual whirlwind, pray-our-flights-all-leave three week tour of North America. I'll make a few updates when I have a chance to breathe, but expect lots of silence in coming days.

Drop me a line with your number when you can and I'll hope to speak to as many of oyu as possible in coming weeks. Happy Holidays to one and all.

Pittsburgh feedback

My column about moving out of the Pittsburgh house brought a lot of old friends out of the woodwork and I had some really nice exchanges with several people in the last week. I wanted to share some of them here. Since I didn’t ask folks how they felt about it, I’ll leave names off. All of these are people I haven’t been in touch with for anywhere from 10-20 years.

I really can’t express how much these mean to me. Honestly, I wouldn’t trade having had these three people read that article for having 20,000 strangers read it, or being on the cover of Esquire or whatever.

One high school friend writes:
I know what you mean when you say that the move out of Pittsburgh was in some ways a bigger deal than the move to Asia. Even though D.C. feels a lot more like the Old Country than San Francisco did, there is a feeling of displacement that I will never shake.

Having grown up thinking that everyone always comes back to Pgh., I am still in a sort of shock that so few of us did. And worse, when I go there now (my mom having sold our house about 5 years ago), it doesn't even feel like my Pgh. anymore. Mostly when we're there I'm seeing older people, and it feels ... old. I especially think about this with my kids, like, what kind of life are they going to have not being in Pgh., not being surrounded by family, etc. It is a perpetual weirdness.

Another old bud, a fellow member of the Rodelf Shalom fighting Orange hoops team weighs in:
I hope this message find you well. What a great reflection of what family means and the values that were instilled in you by your parents as a kid but even more specific what it means to be a true Pittsburgher expat. We are an amazing group of people that seem to be everywhere for a city that was never really that big.

I have been living outside of DC, for almost 20 years now, and when my parents sold our house 15 years ago to move down to DC to be closer to all of their kids, it was very strange no longer making that Thanksgiving trip (mind you I don’t miss the traffic) on Wednesday to drink in Shady Side or play in the turkey bowl Thursday morning (limping home is so spot on as it is no fun getting old). You realize though that the memories never fade and with all tales only grow stronger over time.

On one of my trips back to the Burgh recently I got a chance to go back into my old house with my kids and do a true memory lane moment (ok 45 minutes and had to be dragged out). It was surreal to say the least but as I left the house I realized that it was the family in the house that made it special not the house.

Sorry for the rambling but wanted to drop a note and say hello and hope everything is going well for you and your family. And more importantly that while some of the sites and places back home change the city is still the same – intimate and friendly.

And then this one from a longtime neighbor:

Hi. This is __, you know the guy that grew up around the corner. I got your article emailed to me from --. I am not an expat, but I did leave home a while ago. My parents sold our house last year. Your article hit home with me. So did the photo. I am a bit chocked up. There was something universally true in your article, and of course there was something that was deeply personal in it considering it many ways it was my exact experience.

I cannot get myself to look in that direction often. It is acknowledging that sense of leaving those good comfortable things behind as we grow. It was a great place to grow up. We become our parents. And they are getting older. All that stuff...

Thanks for the article! It was good.

Friday, December 14, 2007

"Can you dunk?"

Those of you who have been reading this blog from the beginning, meaning since we moved to China in August, 205, approximately 775 posts ago, may remember a little incident when we went to the giant police station get our long term Visas for the first time.

I didn’t speak a word of Chinese and was blown away by the massive building, manned by serious looking officers in crisp blue uniforms and filled with thousands of Chinese and quite a few foreigners waiting in long lines to get their papers straightened out.

I was awed and humbled and decided not to speak unless spoken to. We were with the mighty Mr. Dou, WSJ driver and government affairs minister, and he cut to the front of the line and dropped our huge stack of papers onto the desk in front of a serious looking police officer. The guy starts going through all the papers, stamping them, looking intently. Suddenly, he stops, reads closely, looks up at me, smiles and says, "I very like Slam."

I couldn’t have been m ore surprised if he started singing a Muddy Waters song.

He asked me a few basketball questions -- "what do you think of Yao Ming?" "Who do you think is the best basketball player in China?" Then we went and got in another line and he came over and talked to me some more. He was clearly a hoops fanatic. I thought that Mr. Dou's view of me changed right then and there, though I'll never know if I was just imagining it.

Anyhow, I've seen officer Hoops every time I’ve gone in since and we've continued to talk ball. He is a nice guy. I gave him a Slam or two along the way and he asked me last year if I would ever play ball with him and his officer friends. I said sure, then I never heard form him again.

A couple of weeks ago we went in to get our get our 2008 visas and he wasn’t there. I was kind of sad. I asked the officer helping us where "the basketball officer" was and he laughed. He knew who I meant and said he was off that day.

A few days later officer Hoop contacted Lily, WSJ office manager and again said he’d like to play ball with me, gave her his number and asked me to call. Then he called me on Sunday morning and invited me to join him that afternoon. Well, I couldn’t say no. I had to check this out.

So last Sunday I grabbed a cab and headed down, having no idea where I was going. It wasn’t all that far away, a large park on the side of the bustling 4th Ring Road. It has been damn cool and I assumed we were going to an inside gym, but this was a large complex of outdoor courts. I paid 10 rmb (about $1.50) admission and entered. There were about 7 or 8 full courts – all of them running 4-4 half court games. Around the edges there three or four soccer pitches as well. All of them were packed, with several hundred people out there huffing and puffing. I saw one Caucasian guy on one of the pitches.

I have never been a great basketball player and I am way rusty. I have not played a game in years and not at all since I came to China. Also, these guys had been playing for a while and I was fresh out of a cab and thrown into the game for my first run in three or four years.

It didn’t help when I walked on the court and he asked me, “Can you dunk?"

I laughed but didn’t say, “These days I’m not even sure I can touch the net but 23 years ago under the guidance of my man Ice, I almost dunked a tennis ball at Davis Park. I did get it through the rim.” Instead, I just said, “Uh, no.”

“Oh,” he replied. “You just work for Dunk magazine.” Then he repeated that in Chinese to his buddies and they all laughed.

My first two shots were airballs.

The other guys were pretty good. I have watched enough Chinese pickup games to have a decent sense of what it would be like. These guys play all the time and they are good, savvy, solid players. The oldest guy was 40 and he was pretty good and strong as a bull – he took great delight in battling under the boards with me and using his broad back to block me out. Most of the other guys were early 30s.

Their style of play, however, reminded me of old guys at the JCC or Y – savvy, understanding angles, tough, ability to hit bank shots and put in ugly looking jumpers and little runners. There was one big guy, on my team, probably about 6-5. He was wearing a Jordan warmup suit and had a ponytail. In between games, he sat down and smoked cigarettes. He was pretty good but kind of lazy and prone to calling weak fouls. I didn’t know how to say “foul” in chinese and don’t believe in anything but the most vicious hacks being called ion the playground anyhow, but they called them for me a few times.

Anyhow, it was fun. I got my contact knocked out with in the first few minutes, saved it, wrapped it in a taxi receipt and played on with one eyed vision, which didn’t seem to hinder me much. I gained steam as we played on and did fine. Got a lot of offensive rebounds and scored on putbacks, hit a couple of foul line extended jumpers – always my one and only sweet spot beyond two feet -- and passed and defended well enough to not humiliate myself.

The honor of Dunk magazine was defended and as I was limping away on a gimpy hamstring my new friend told me when to call him any time I need anything. Which is worth way more than an unstrained hammy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Always Time for A Wall pic

An acquaintance just found and sent me these photos of me and Dixie on a broken down section of the Wall from their visit in October 06. I took my folks on a school-sponsored trip to the Commune at the Great wWll.. very cool place. This section of the Wall is an easy 15 minute hike from there. Dixie and I ventured further than all the ladies and she snapped these.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

More Pittsburgh

Here are a couple paragraphs I cut from my last column, all stuff about Pittsburgh... it just seemed like I was going a little overboard with that angle and needed to trim it back, but it's all true...

Whole column again can be read here

By the way, now that I finally realized they are free, I am not going to post entire columns up here anymore. Please go to WSJ site to read them instead. Thanks.

Displaced Pittsburghers are a unique lot. Many of us truly love the city we have left behind. There are websites dedicated to the Pittsburgh diaspora and the editor of one of them recently wrote me to discuss my different feelings about being an American expat living abroad and Pittsburgh expat, living in New Jersey.

That seemed insane at first, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I lie awake the night before closing on my first house, in New Jersey, because I felt like I was being unfaithful, abandoning the hometown to which I always thought I would return when it was time to settle down. I never had the same conflicted feelings about moving to China, because I knew it was temporary.


Thanksgiving is always a veritable diaspora reunion, with people returning to Pittsburgh from all over. I have long looked forward to making the November pilgrimage across the Pennsylvania Turnpike from New Jersey to Pittsburgh, routinely stopping at a McDonalds filled with people decked out in Steelers gear making the same trek.

Super Moverz

Our friend Wyatt Cameron runs a great program here called Super Moverz. They are moving back tot he U.s. this summer and he is gearing up to launch it as a business. Check out some of his promo literature and his models- Anna and Eli both featured. I really can't even describe how much all three of our kids love Wyatt and this class.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Cabrera/Bream Oh My

I told the writer form the P-G that I still follow the Steelers AND the Pirates online at every day, admitting that at this point following the Bucs form China was downright depraved. "Would you describe it as being more like the attraction to watching a train wreck, or like a drug addiction?" he asked.

After brief contemplation, I told him it was closer to the addiction. The team, after all, is on the verge of its 15th consecutive losing season, which would be an all time record FOR ANY SPORT. And it all began one fateful night in October, 1992, as I sat perched on the edge of my couch on 27th Street and watched a nightmare unfold. It was my darkest moment as a sports fan, by a large, large margin. I was thinking about it again after that conversation and then saw this, from Bill Simmons, on

The most agonizing baseball moment since Bill Buckner's gaffe was Francisco Cabrera's series-winning single for Atlanta that killed Pittsburgh in the 1992 playoffs. Not only did the Pirates blow a ninth-inning lead, not only did Cabrera, a no-name, deliver the final blow, not only did comically slow Sid Bream somehow beat a Barry Bonds throw home, not only was it the Pirates' third straight October defeat ... but Bonds signed with the Giants a couple of months later, banishing the Pirates to small-market hell. They haven't been heard from since. The franchise was effectively murdered by one play.

It's a perfect summation.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story

There's a story on me in today's Pittsburgh Post Gazette. It is really strange to be on the other side of this process, but I enjoyed speaking with reporter Bill Toland and I think he did a good job.

I should have told the reporter that I am former delivery boy. Considering that and that the PG was the newspaper of my youth -- and that I still read it online every day, this is an honor.

The story is here.

If you are a P-G reader who came here because of the story, hello. The only error in the piece was that you actually can read my WSJ columns at the site for free. Just click here.

New column Up

And I just found that I can get a free link. Click here to read and pass along.

This random Pittsburgh image seemed appropriate accompaniment.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Maplewood's latest and greatest

Welcome to the world Jackson Lange, son of George and Stephanie. I'm proud to have helped lure them out to Maplewood. They were great additions to the town and he is even better, I'm sure. Also happy that the world has a new Jack Lange. The original was George's father and my next door neighbor growing up. He knew where many of my bodies were buried back in high school because I think he was up half the night. And he never ratted me out. Belated thanks Jack.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

More Funny Music Tales

I set up a blog over on the Woodie Alan website, so I won't be throwing every detail of our gigs up here – unless people are enjoying them. I'm not really sure about that, so let me know. I will share one more really good one.

I also put a new photos page up there. Woodie has a bunch of photographer friends and so we've gotten some really cool shots recently, including a bunch from that Yugong Yishan gig, sampled here.

We played another gig at the Jianghu Jiuba hutong bar last Saturday. It was their first anniversary party and the little place and its courtyard (now enclosed and heated) were packed. We played a great set. It really felt good. We were supposed to play from 6-8 and then Dave and I were supposed to join our wives at a dinner/birthday party for our friend and neighbor John Scales.

We played about 7-8:15, and our bassist Zhong Yang took off for his money gig and we were about to say good bye but the owners loved our music and begged us to stay and play one more set after the jazz band played "just 20 minutes." Of course we couldn’t say no. He said the bass player from the jazz band would play with us.

They played close to an hour and were actually really good. While they were playing, I finally became fully immersed in China by gambling with a bunch of Chinese people (probably rather rudely while the band played behind us).

You see Chinese people playing cards and gambling all the time all over the place, usually with small crowds gathered around. I've stopped and watched many times and never can quite figure out the games. Woodie and his pals and cousin were getting a game going and I joined in and it was a lot of fun. It was a simple game and the starting pot was just 1 rmb (about 15 cents) but it could build pretty fast and there were some decent sized pots.. I won a couple, too.

Then the band finished and Woodie talked to the bassist who was a jazz snob and said he wouldn't play with us. Word got around we were absent a bassist and some guy walked up and said to me, in English, "I am dong. I can play bass." Well, welcome to the band Mr,. Dong.

We played an off the cuff thirty minute or so and were rocking pretty hard and then Woodie brought up a friend guitarist and we played a big singalong "Knockin on Heaven's door." And then I launched into "Sweet Home Alabama" and it was really fun. We don’t play the song but I had seen the guitarist play it and I knew he knew all the riffs and I just thought it would be a kick to sing “Sweet Home” to a room full of young Chinese and it was.

We were going to call it a night, but I started playing "Not Fade Away" and everyone grabbed it and ran. The guitarist had a slide on from "Sweet Home": and he started wailing and we just caught a groove and took that jam to the moon and back. I couldn't believe it. People were rushing in from the courtyard and the back room to hear better and see what was going on. I felt for that moment like we were the hot band playing in the hole in the wall little bar you’re always searching for and I frankly couldn’t believe it. It was an out-of-body experience.

I hated to see it come to an end. But it did. Woodie stayed to play harmonica with the next band, but Dave and I packed up as fast as we could – and arrived at the dinner after 11 pm. Everyone thought we were real cool guys, except our wives, but they were fine, too. Very supportive women, they are.

I unrelated music news, some of you find it even funnier that I am leading a Chanukah sing-along at Friday night services this week.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Last column


Long-Distance Democracy
Takes Missionary Zeal

November 23, 2007

Last week, about 50 American citizens gathered in the lobby of an upscale Beijing apartment building. Munching chili dogs and brownies and sipping Diet Coke, beer and wine, the group, which included investment bankers, lawyers and analysts, crowded around a speakerphone to listen to a speech by Michelle Obama, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Another 150 or 200 people were listening in from Shanghai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Singapore, Hong Kong and Jakarta.

The call was the work of Americans in China for Obama, a group started last year to raise money for and awareness about the candidate. The organizers also hope to advise the candidate about China issues. Last June, at a similar event, Sen. Obama addressed groups in Beijing and Shanghai over the phone, accenting his own experience growing up abroad and answering questions. No other major campaign seems to boast a similarly well-organized grassroots group in China. However, candidates including Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Guiliani have made significant fundraising and outreach overtures to Americans living in London, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad each have chapters around the world, dedicated to helping American expats remain politically engaged. Both groups have active chapters in Hong Kong but not in mainland China, where they fear antagonizing the Chinese government -- though there doesn't seem to be any law prohibiting their presence and my own sense is that it wouldn't cause a ripple. Interested American citizens here can and do join the Hong Kong chapters.

I have always been a bit of a political junkie, and I still track the ups and downs of Washington through online news resources. I have voted in every election since I turned 18, including off years and off-off years, where only things like school boards and town councils were on the ballot. Because I moved a lot and always wanted to have a local vote, in my first 12 years of eligibility I registered and cast ballots in Pennsylvania, Michigan (twice), California, Florida, New York and New Jersey. When I moved to China it never occurred to me that it would be more than a blip in my voting record.

But when I finally tried to swing into action before last year's midterm Congressional elections, I realized that my New Jersey registration had been canceled because I had had my mail forwarded to my parents' house in Pittsburgh. For the first time in over 20 years, I was no longer a registered voter. Rectifying that proved more difficult than I anticipated.

Americans living abroad have had the right to vote by casting an absentee ballot in the congressional district where they last resided since 1975, when Congress passed the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act. I had the vague idea that I could now vote electronically, but in fact no expat can do so.

China can present some unique problems; for the last two weeks I have not been able to log onto the government site,, because it is banned behind the Great Firewall of China. I don't know why, nor will I ever find out. It is equally likely to reappear at any moment or remain locked down indefinitely.

Luckily, voters can also register at the Web sites for Democrats or Republicans Abroad, or the non-partisan, an essential resource. But even though I registered and downloaded a New Jersey registration at the latter the other day, I still have to mail it back to Essex County, N.J., and wait hopefully for an absentee ballot to arrive the same way -- so I can again use snail mail to cast my ballot. I urge any American living outside the country to get an early start checking his/her registration and receiving an absentee ballot, because it can take a while. It's no surprise that some expats have taken a missionary zeal to helping others cast a ballot.

"I see helping Americans living abroad register and vote as a part of the long tradition of fighting for the process and right to vote," says Carolyn Sauvage-Mar, Chair of Democrats Abroad-India. "Your chances of meeting all the rules and deadlines as John Q. Public are 50/50 at best, so we're trying to improve the odds."

Democrats who don't manage to update their registration, or simply prefer to vote as an international community member, can also cast a ballot in the Democrats Abroad Global Primary, to be held on their site from Feb. 5 to Feb. 12. The victorious candidate will receive the votes from the Democrats Abroad delegates who will be at the party convention next August. Republicans Abroad are not running a similar election, nor will they have delegates at the convention.

Recent elections have emphasized the value of each vote. Ms. Sauvage-Mar says there is anecdotal evidence that overseas ballots helped turn the 2006 Virginia Senate race between George Allen and Jim Webb, where less than 10,000 votes helped shift the body to Democratic from Republican control. The 2000 Gore/Bush election was also a reminder of the power of a single vote, a fact often sited by politically active expats.

A feeling that the Bush administration has damaged America's international standing has prompted many Democrats living abroad to look for ways to assist their party. "I never did that much here politically until after President Bush was elected and I became very concerned about the state of our country," says Anne Stevenson-Yang, who has lived in Beijing for 17 years and is active with the Obama group. "It felt like my country changed while I was away, almost as if your parents moved house while you were away at college and didn't tell you."

Similarly, animosity towards Bill Clinton spurred some expat Republicans to get involved, including Christopher Fussner, an American in Singapore who has lived outside the U.S. for 25 years and is now Global Chairman of Republicans Abroad. "I never even voted the first 12 or 13 years I was abroad," says Mr. Fussner. "Then I became really disgusted with President Clinton's policies and said, 'Whoa, I better figure out a way to do something.'"

Some people who live abroad feel that the experience actually fuels their desire to be involved and changes their perspective on politics. "People getting politically involved overseas seem a bit more genuine and dedicated to what they're doing than many back in the States," says Alan Seigrist, Vice Chair for Republican Abroad's Hong Kong chapter. "I find the same thing in Democrats Abroad, and the mere fact that we are all friends and colleagues shows that it can be a friendlier political environment here -- until Election Day that is."

Living abroad offers a different perspective on America and its place in the world. Many feel that by living and working with people from many nationalities, they have gained a keener appreciation of the challenges and opportunities presented by an increasingly globalized society.

"I actually think we see the future coming a little bit more than most Americans are able to," says Mike Dardzinski, an American who has lived in Beijing for four and a half years and was one of the founders of Americans in China for Obama. "Living in most places in America, you just don't deal with people from all over the world every day like we do here, and that's the future."
* * *

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are some edited responses to my previous column about my band Woodie Alan and how it represents the opportunities that the expat life provides to try new things.

Your column captured the ability to reshape life as an expat. I worked in a big ad agency in New York, pulling some long hours and complaining about it. I'm now a corporate refugee -- and happy to be doing something different -- marketing for a school in Beijing, where I moved last year.

I also lived here in Beijing for a year back in 02/03 and used to tell people back home that it was like the Wild West. If you can think of it, you can do/be it. In my youthful vanity (I'm sure I've matured in the last few years), I had always wanted to be on TV. So when I was here that year, I actually got a gig as a CCTV English teacher on the air.

-- Vicky Yip
* * *

I loved your article on your band, and I applaud your drive and hard work to make your dream happen expat style. As an American living in Bangalore, India, I agree that you get a chance to reboot when living abroad -- friends who you might not choose at home, clothes you wouldn't wear, food you wouldn't eat, things you wouldn't try.

-- Lisa Semmes
* * *

I often daydream of picking up and moving to another part of the country for that "reboot" you wrote about. Meet new people, experience a new adventure, let my new surroundings influence me in ways I never thought I could; opening up a whole new world that I new existed beyond the life boundaries that we surround ourselves with. Your column definitely gave me that hope.

-- John Yocca
* * *

My family and I spent almost five years, arguably the best five, in Tokyo. I really enjoy your columns, which all ring true and it is interesting how you uncover all the gems of the expat life. You still have more to uncover so don't come back to the States yet. Enjoy yourself. I tell friends that what my family and I experienced cannot be purchased!

-- Jay Loftus
* * *

I'm an expat in the U.S. and your column (especially the first year) captures the essence of the experience. I admire the fact that you and your family have tried so hard to learn about China and have made an effort to really see the country. Good luck with the band.

-- Roshni Sacks

Thank you all.

Friday, November 30, 2007

From the archives: Making of Layla

Tom Dowd was one of the greatest producers of popular, 20th century American music --working with everyone from Charles Mingus, the Drifters , Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Cream. He was also a great guy and a brilliant raconteur, who loved to entertain with tales from his long and storied career.

I interviewed him many times for many stories. I wrote the following for Guitar World over a decade ago, for the Producers column. One of my favorite memories of my career was sneaking into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria the year the Allman Brothers were admitted -- a major coup that required grapefruit cajones, by the way, but that's another story. After making the break from the press room into the hall, I drifted around and ended up at one of the Allmans tables, with Kirk West, my buddy and an ABB manager. He was tickled to see me, couldn't believe i had breached the security, and gave me an invisible ink hand stamp under the table which made me legit.

The night was coming to a close and I found myself next to Tom Dowd. He filled up our wine glasses with a bottle of red on the table. As Neil Young and others took the stage for a jam, Tom regaled me with the story of how Otis Redding wrote "sitting on the Dock of the Bay" as his first song after Steve cropper had given him an open tuned guitar. He told me all about the song and the recording process of it -- he produced that, too. R.I.P. Tom, you were a gentleman.


Tom Dowd began his career as a house engineer and producer for Atlantic Records, recording classic sides by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, John Coltrane and others. But for all his contributions to the worlds of jazz and r&b, Dowd was to make his biggest mark in rock, most notably working with Cream and, later, Eric Clapton, and the Allman Brothers Band, a relationship which began with the group’s second album, Idlewild South (Capricorn, 1970), and continues to this day. So he was uniquely qualified to bring together Clapton and Duane Allman, a casual introduction which led to the creation of one of rock’s undisputed masterpieces, Layla and And Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor, 1970).

“I was working with the Allman Brothers on Idlewild South when I got a call from Robert Stigwood saying that Eric would like to record and asking if I could fit him in my schedule,” recalls Dowd. “Of course I said I’d be delighted. It became a lengthy conversation and as I usually didn’t take calls while in session the Allmans had all wandered in wondering what the hell was going on. I put the phone down and said to Duane, ‘You have to excuse me, that was Eric Clapton’s manager. They want to come here and record,’ and he said, ‘You mean this guy?’ and plays me an Eric solo note for note. I said, ‘That’s the one’ and he goes, ‘I got to meet that guy. You got to let me know when he’s gonna be here. I’d love to come by and just watch him. Do you think that would be possible?’ And I told him I was sure it would be fine, and he should call me and we’d work it out.

“Sure enough, two or three weeks later, Derek and the Dominos are in the second day of recording and Duane calls and goes, ‘Is he there? We’re gonna be in Miami tomorrow for a concert. Can I come by and meet him?’” I said, ‘I’m sure you can. Hold on.’ I grabbed Eric and said, ‘I have Duane Allman on the phone. His band is playing in the area tomorrow and he’d like to come by and meet you.’ And he goes, ‘You mean this guy?’ and he plays me Duane’s solo off of Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’ note for note. I said, ‘That’s the guy.’ And he goes, ‘I’ve got to see him perform. We’re going to that concert.’”

“Now I knew the two of them personally and they were both low-key, beautiful human beings and wonderful musicians, so I thought, ‘This is gonna be fun.’ Sure enough, Saturday afternoon, we record for a few hours, then head out to the limos Eric had waiting and go down to the Convention Center, where the Allman Brothers are playing. They snuck us in behind the photographer’s barricade, sitting on the floor with our backs to the audience, right in front of the stage. Duane’s in the middle of a solo, when he opens his eyes, looks down, sees Eric and stops playing cold, in shock. Dickey starts playing to cover until Duane regains his equilibrium, and then he sees Eric and he freezes too. That’s how big Eric was to them.

“After the show they met and hung out and all of a sudden I had half the Allman Brothers and all of Derek and the Dominos crammed into a limousine going back to Criteria, where they jammed until two or three the next afternoon. I kept the tape running the whole time. [Some of these jams appeared on The Layla Sessions (Polydor, 1990)] There’s Duane playing Eric’s guitar and Gregg playing Bobby Whitlock’s organ and they were all in piggy heaven. When it was over, they were all such good friends and Eric said to Duane, ‘When are you coming back? We should record some.’”

The Brothers had some tour obligations to meet but, Dowd recalls, Duane vowed to return as soon as possible. “Sure enough, two or three days later he called up and said, ‘I’ll be back tomorrow.’ By the time he returned, the Dominos had recorded several songs and had arrangements set for others, but right away he started fitting in parts and the more he did that, the more their reaction was, ‘If he’s gonna do that, I’m gonna do this.’ Songs started to radically change because Duane had unleashed this dynamic entity that was just ridiculous. They were feeding off each other like crazy and running on pure emotion.”

Clapton and Allman were set up in the studio facing each other, looking one another in the eyes and playing live through small Fender amps--a Princeton and a Deluxe. “These guys weren’t wearing earphones,” Dowd recalls. “They were just playing softly through those little Fenders. If they talked while they were recording, you would have heard it over the amplifier. It’s funny, too because when I did Cream, Eric was playing through double stacks of Marshalls and it literally hurt to be in the room with those guys. When Eric showed up for Layla, he had a Champ under one arm and a Princeton under the other and that was it. He and Duane used those amps, switching back and forth.”

The two also often swapped guitars, with Clapton primarily playing a Strat, Allman a Les Paul. “They did whatever seemed best at the moment for a given part,” Dowd recalls. “It was never gonna happen again. It just happened and if you didn’t catch it, you blew it. The spontaneity of that whole session was absolutely frightening. A lot of it flew and then when they heard it, they’d say, ‘Oh man, here’s a part I gotta put in there.’ But it was not because it was misplaced the first time, but because they would have another flight of inspiration when they could step back and hear it. They had all this positive feedback to add. There was no jealousy or ego-type thing at all among them.”

Also, Dowd adds, contrary to ever-growing legend, there was no excessive drug use during the album’s actual recording: “We started sessions every day at 2:00 and everyone arrived clear eyed and ready to work. As I dismissed people, they may have floated away, but it did not interfere with the album. Even in his wildest moments, Eric arrived at the studio on time with his instrument in tune, ready to play -- and he would give absolute hell to anyone who didn’t. Eric and Duane shared that. They didn’t know each other from Adam before the sessions began, but they were both taskmasters. They didn’t give a damn what anyone did on their own time, but when they were in the studio, it was their time, and you better be ready to go.”

After approximately two weeks of recording, the band went out on the road and Duane returned to the Brothers, leaving Dowd to mix the album on his own. “I sent them cassettes and then Eric called and said they wanted to come back to alter a part on one or two songs and remix one song. When they returned--with Duane--among the things they had in mind was adding a piano part to ‘Layla’ and I thought, ‘Oh my god, where does it go? The song is tight as a drum’ I played them the cut, mixed, and they said, ‘Okay it’s going to go here and we’re going to do this and that.’

“I thought, ‘You’re all absolutely stark-raving mad. How are we going to get everyone to match the brilliance of what they did the first time and make it fit?’ But I had no choice, so we gave it a go.”

Drummer Jim Gordon, who played the coda’s piano part is credited with writing it as well, a fact which has been disputed over the years. Dowd says that no one ever explicitly told him who wrote the music, but Gordon played it beautifully, in one take.

“When I set up, I expected Bobby Whitlock to play the piano, but [drummer] Jim Gordon played it. I can’t say whether or not he wrote it, but he had it mastered; that part was in the end of his fingers. Duane’s guitar part on that coda is just absolutely intense and, of course, I was absolutely wrong about not being able to make the new part fit. We spliced it right in and it made the song. I knew immediately that we had something really, really special –as anyone would have.

“The whole session was just so damn impromptu and fly-by-the-seat-of-your- pants brilliant. It was just a wonderful experience to witness such meshing of musical minds, such telepathic sympathies. When we walked out, I told the band, ‘This is the best damn album I have done since The Genius of Ray Charles.’ And then the damn album didn’t sell for a year. We all knew how great it was --including everyone at Atlantic --but we couldn’t get arrested with it. That was very hard to understand, and very disappointing. Then a year later ‘Layla’ was like the national anthem. And that seemed appropriate.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Video from Yugong gig

As usual, what we actually got is pretty random. This is not our most exciting song, but a pretty good performance of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."

The Play

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pulled off the gig

So Woodie Alan stepped it up and lived to tell about it. We played Friday night at Yugong Yishan, a pretty big club downtown. The picture of Beck as she was leaving, taken by friend Jill Dutt. We played until close to 2 and they were there until almost the bitter end, which is appreciated.

It was a pretty significant step up -- big stage, big lights, big sound system. We had a decent crowd, about 80 people, which was enough to not seem empty, though it would definitely be nice to get some more people in there next time because it's a big place -- and there will be a next time. They asked us back in January.

Woodie says he has some video that sounds great and he is much more critical so I'm anxious to see it. It felt good. We had a bunch of friends get up and jam, mostly guys Woodie knows and they were good. Really good. That included two great harmonica players, including Royce, who plays with Black Cat Bone, a really good, popular blues ban din town, and Powell Young, the Chinese shred king, who has played with us a couple of times before and ripped it up on the last three songs. I really can't believe I've pulled this thing off. The column only scratches the surface.

The last photo is another the photographer sent from our previous week's gig. He has a bunch more cool ones of us and that funky little bar on his blog.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Final HK Disney photos

Hong Kong photos -- Disney

Photos of two weeks ago trip to HK still coming... Disney was fun. One morning I took the boys to Space Mountain, which they rode about 5 times in a row while Anna and Becky went in search of princesses and found all these characters. I think J & E rode Space Mountain 20 times in one and half days. as you can see, they also enjoyed the characters.

I have, admittedly softened on Disney. Steve Galpern is horrified that I have sold out to both Disney and the Olympics. He's got a point, but HK Disney is pretty low key compared to those in the U.s. The food is also a lot better. Each area has a Chinese or other Asian option as well as some American fried junk. I ate some damn good noodles there. Chinese people don't play with food and they will not give up a good hot lunch to go anywhere. I love that about this culture, actually.

we stayed at the Hollywood Hotel there and it was filled with people from all over Asia.. China, Indonesia, India, Phillipines, Malaysia, Korea, Taiwan...very interesting.

Last column

New one already out today.. I can't keep up. Lots of this will be familiar to regular blogstigators, but I think I cast in a different light.


The Freedom Abroad
To Try a New Tune

November 9, 2007

I have a band in Beijing, Woodie Alan. The moniker is a joke, reflecting my name and that of my Chinese partner, Woodie Wu, but the group is not. In fact, much to my surprise, I am fronting a pretty happening little band.

I never could have pulled this off back home. I owe my success as a gigging musician, however far it goes, to being an expat. Moving here and re-establishing my identity has allowed me to redefine myself, casting off old insecurities and pursuing a reality I always envisioned but didn't quite know how to achieve. In this, I am not alone.

Many people find that expat life allows them to liberate themselves from the accumulated reputation and history that can come to define you. Everyone plays an established role with his or her families and old friends, and moving somewhere new gives you an opportunity to reboot. Expats may also be more willing to give something new a try; after all if you've traded Milwaukee for Beijing, why not try your hand at fronting a band, or running a bar, or riding a motorcycle?

Woodie Alan plays regularly at The Stone Boat, inside Ritan Park, within one of the city's Embassy districts. The little bar is actually a stone boat and sits on a lake with a small stage extending over the water and tables spread along the banks, a surprisingly serene, pastoral setting right in the middle of downtown Beijing.

American expat Jonathan Ansfield and his wife run the Stone Boat. Jonathan is a journalist and blogger, contributing to Newsweek and other publications and Web sites. Now he is also a bar proprietor and a small-scale Beijing music impresario, booking performers for free shows three nights a week during the warmer months.

"It's an out of body experience -- certainly nothing I ever did or would have done had I stayed in America," he says. "I've always loved music and spent a lot of time going to clubs and seeing bands in college, but I can't see how I ever would have ended up booking bands had I stayed in the U.S. But I've been into the Beijing music scene since I got here [over 10 years ago] so it's something I really enjoy."

It's manifestly easier to realize some goals here than it would be in the U.S. American Jonathan Anderson, now an analyst for the investment bank UBS, fronted blues bands in Moscow in the early '90s and in Beijing at the end of that decade. In this city he co-founded the Rhythm Dogs with some of the city's finest musicians, including key members of the Cui Jian Band, China's first significant rockers.

"I'm a mediocre harmonica player and a worse guitarist but I had my pick of incredible musicians," says Mr. Anderson. "With some vision, drive and hard work, anything was possible. It was like living out a fantasy. The quality of the guys I played with was head and shoulders above what I could have rated at home. It was like walking in and gigging with Led Zeppelin and that just doesn't happen in a more developed market."

Kaiser Kuo has a similar story. He moved to Beijing in 1988, formed the hard rock band Tang Dynasty in 1989, put out an album in 1990 and was touring all over the country by 1991. After returning to the University of Arizona to pursue a doctorate in East Asian Studies, Mr. Kuo found himself daydreaming about Chinese rock stardom and eventually quit school to return to Beijing. He rejoined Tang Dynasty and was soon performing in 35,000-seat stadiums. Now overseeing digital strategy for Ogilvy and Mather's Beijing office, Mr. Kuo still performs regularly with his band Chunqiu.

"I can sit in a guitar store in the U.S. and hear 10 guys who smoke me in just an hour but here I am," says Mr. Kuo. "For me, this could only have happened in China."

My story fits the same pattern. I met Woodie when he repaired a guitar for me. He heard I was a longtime editor for Guitar World magazine and became very interested in chatting, which quickly led to jamming together; the same news would have induced a shrug from a good guitar repairman back in the states. Saxophonist Dave Loevinger, who is the U.S. Treasury Department representative in Beijing, played for years with the great Washington, D.C., party band Jimi Smooth and Hittime. Had we met at home, it's unlikely he would have been interested in forming a band, but newly relocated to Beijing, he was excited to find a musical outlet.

When a nearby restaurant asked me to host an open mic, the three of us got together, with an initial repertoire consisting of whatever I could sing without cringing. We've come a long way since then, thanks largely to my growing confidence -- the other guys were already good. We have a unique sound, with most of the solos coming from Dave's soulful sax and Woodie's mournful lap steel guitar, an unusual instrument which figures prominently in American country and blues music. I have always loved slide guitar, but it never occurred to me that my first chance to play with a great lap steel player would come in Beijing, with an amiable Chinese guy bearing a tattoo of Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of my favorite blues guitarists.

We played with a couple of different bassists and drummers before settling on the young, easygoing Chinese pros who play with Woodie in another band as well. Since adding them, we've become more and more of a real band. In two weeks we are headlining one of Beijing's top rock clubs, and we're talking to an agent about booking some out-of-town festivals.

Pretty soon, we may even live up to the bragging motto I made up for our posters and Web site: "Beijing's premier blues and jam band."

Though it feels like the most natural thing in the world, our mix of Chinese and expat musicians is unusual; most bands around here feature one or the other. In fact, Woodie used to play regularly with most of the current members of a popular band, but when they formed this group they made it clear that they felt they could get better gigs if they had no Chinese members.

It's their loss; not only are they missing out on a great guitarist but also on moments of unforced cultural exchange that can be hard to come by. I have gained a new understanding of the lyrics of songs I've sung for years by explaining their meaning to my band mates, two of whom speak no English. And one of the unanticipated benefits of the band has been an opportunity to get a little deeper into local life, sharing meals, beers and downtime with my new Chinese friends and their wives, girlfriends, cousins and buddies.

Dave wants us to change our name and it's true that the humor doesn't really translate to a Chinese audience, but they view it as a straight-forward description: the Woodie and Alan band. It is also a reminder of our humble beginnings. Something can be funny without being a joke, and this band will never reach the point where I don't see the humor in it.
* * *

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are some edited responses to my previous Expat Life column.

Congratulations on your 50th expat column. As a second-generation Chinese American, I always enjoy your Chinglish references. I find myself using Chinglish more often with my own parents as I grow older and find it harder to remember all the Chinese words & phrases (much to their disappoint & disapproval).

Your comment about how the merchants have an "odd mix of fatalism and optimism" is spot on. In a country where the government has yet to provide consistent, reliable regulatory agencies and practices, it's easy to see how some people can view their lives with either a fatalistic view (as we would say in Chinese "eat bitterness") or with sheer optimism.

-- Helen Liu San Francisco, Calif.
* * *

Continued efforts as you write about the life of ordinary people in China bit by bit. This is very meaningful to us.

-- Land

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Woodie Alan photos/video

We had a great gig Friday night at Jianghu Jiuba, the little hutong bar I have written about before. Saxy Dave was out of town so we played as a quartet and had a whole bunch of friends jam. Joe Bisell, the 17-year-old guitarist who plays with us regularly, sat in for three songs in the first set. After he and his mom left, I think I was almost the only non Chinese guy in the room.

My friend Shen from Chinese Slam came with his wife, which was nice. A reader from my Chinese language column came after reading my column about the band, which was nice. Everyone else in the room seemed to be a musician, most of them friends of Woodie. After a song or two, he asked me if I wanted to start having guests. I said sure and Woodie started calling friends up. First, Claudio, a great Italian harmonica player, then the owner of the bar, a really good jazz tenor sax player, then one guitarist after another, including Powell Young, the famous Chinese shred king.

Then a guy who Woodie was very excited about -- he told me he was the most famous blues singer in China. He called out a song and they told me "shuffle blues in E" and he started singing a cool jump blues in Chinese. Zhang Yong, the bass player, knew all the words and sang harmony. I asked him later if he used to be in his band and he said, "No, I know all his song from his CDs, which I love." Woodie sort of twisted his arm to sing "Stormy Monday," which I guess they used to play together back in the day. He forgot the words and turned the mic to me and I did my best. If nothing else, I know the words to "Stormy Monday." On and on it went. We jammed until after one a.m. with one guy after another getting up and playing. It was really fun.

There was a guy sitting in the front taking pictures and it was obvious that he knew what he was doing. He is a friend of Woodie's. Monday I got a Google alert that I had popped up online and found these photos on his blog. I think they are great. Note that we never posed for him. These were live shots. The crowd pics were taken at the gig.

I looked through his blog his blog and think that these are some of the nicest shots of China I have seen. If George Lange or anyone else who really knows photography is reading this, have a look and tell me what you think.

This video came from the first time we played Jianghu a few weeks back. I love this place.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hong Kong photos -- Lama Island

We spent an afternoon/evening on Lama Island when we were in Hong Kong. It is a 30-40 minute boat ride out into the South China Sea and really a very cool place. You arrive in a pretty densely packed little commercial center, walk about 15 minutes up and down some hills, past little farm plots, bannaa trees, papaya trees, stray dogs and cats roaming around, and land on a really nice beach.

We played there for a couple of hours and you can see it looks like you’re in the tropics (as long as you can’t get to a spot where you can see the giant cement plant around the bend.)

Then we pushed on, walking about 45 minutes to the other end of the island,. In between ,it is hilly and really beautiful. We were with Ken Brown, WSJ friend in from NYC.

The population of the island is about 10,000 and apparently there about 3,000 expats there. That’s sort of amazing Hong Kong overall seems like such a cushier, less exotic expat experience than Beijing, but this seemed so much wilder than our lives.

I spoke with an Irish guy on the beach and he said rent is about a third of what it is in Hong Kong and people not making huge bucks usually end up pushed to the fringes of HK, with long commutes anyhow, so many opt to go out there after a few years. I asked what happens if you want to go out on the town and he said there are ferries until 12:30 and then for $150 HK (about $20), you can hire tuktuk. I asked what that was and he said, “A 90-year-old woman with a little fishing skiff.”

It was a fairly significant ride in which we passed some massive freighters and fishing boats. A 1 am tuktuk sounds pretty scary scary to me, but it was a cool spot. I’d like to write a column about livng there was an expat one of these weeks.

At the other end of the island there is another little village. Fish farms fill the bay and fish restaurants fill the dock. I didn’t expect much but we had an excellent dinner. All of it was fresh seafood, we picked live incuding a big old squid that came to the table about three minutes later as probably the best fried calamari I’ve ever had. It was tender—you never get fresh squid --, not too greasy or breaded and breaded with salt and pepper so it didn’t need any sauce. We also had excellent black bean clams, fresh, non stringy steamed shrimp, delicious fried rice and a few other dishes.

Sadly, we had to pull ut before uur steamed red snapper arrived. Ken stayed since the 45 minutes wait for the next ferry didn’t matter to his kidless self and admitted the fish was spectacular, but I knew it would be. It was a truly memorable meal, extra amazing since we had superb dim sum for lunch.


Someone wrote:
My family are moving to Beijing from NYC. How bad is the air in Beijing lately? Do people with little kids (we have to toddlers) live in CBD area at all? thanks! can't find your contact information. would like to email you if you don't mind.

I have to respond this way because blogspot is banned again.

Who are you? you should ID yourself and how you found me if you're gonna pop up out of nowhere and ask for help. My email is easy to find.. via my WSJ column or by clicking on the profile above.

Anyhow, the air quality is all over the place. It's been mostly pretty good all fall, with the exception of a few really bad days. Actually, I took some pictures of our street on one of those days. which I've been meaning to post for a while now.

People with kids certainly live downtown. Contact a relocation person and look at some apartments. As kids get older, it is harder because unless you put them in Chinese school, they end up having to commute.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Eli won an art contest

The winter show for second and third grade is the Snow Queen and every kid in both grades drew a poster in art class. One was selected in a contest to be reproduced and put all over the school and that was Eli's. he is really proud. I took this image form the school website, where it is featured, much to his delight. Click on it to have a better look.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Hong Kong photos

Kids asleep, so I can throw a few pics up before crashing.. the surprising thing about Hong Kong is how beautiful it is in parts.. such a dense urban environment on a tropical, mountainous island.. These pics are from the Peak and the Star Ferry and the Kowloon landing, across the harbor from Hong Kong.