Monday, June 30, 2008

Great Wall Video

This one combines it all.. a little travelogue, a little visitors' imagery and a little Woodie Alan original music.

catching up

wow. it will be wild if this post works. i am pecking it in on my phone from a train in central China. It is 5.30 am and I'm surrounded by sleeping people, including Becky and Eli.

We've been swept away with folks, aunt Joan and uncle Ben and nephew Jesse, who's here for 5 weeks.

Took them all on overnight train to Pingyao and its rather more raggedy than others we've been on. Three of us had to be in hard sleepers....about 60 people in a car with berths but no privacy. I'm proud of B and E for sawing away while people all around arise.
Coal train next to us. More soon.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hockey column

One Couple's Passion for Hockey
Draws Beijing Expats onto the Ice

June 3, 2008

Remarkably, becoming a half-baked Chinese rock star is not the most absurd thing I've done in Beijing. The most absurd thing I've done is becoming a half-baked hockey player. Dreams of rock stardom have long fluttered around my brain. Hockey, on the other hand, was never a part of my life and I didn't have any reason to think it ever would be. It's not generally a sport someone who can't skate decides to take up at age 41.

Then my friends Vicki Lowes and Shawn Sparling opened the Ice Zone last fall, and I became one of many people around our expat-heavy Beijing neighborhood to get unexpectedly sucked into hockey and ice skating. The rink, which is half-sized and housed on a former tennis court on the second floor of a clubhouse compound, now has 500-600 paying visitors a week, both expats and Chinese. They are taking lessons, free skating, playing hockey and learning to figure skate. Many of them, like me, would probably never have laced up skates if the Ice Zone had not opened.

My hockey playing, and that of most of my fellow players, is an example of how expat living frees people up to try new things. But it also illustrates how in an expat community, a few people can have a huge impact, in this case creating a small army of hockey nuts of all ages and both genders, as well as a growing number of young figure skaters.

The Ice Zone has inspired expats, including Alan Paul (far right) to lace up skates at least once a week. The team's coach, Shan (center, navy track suit) hails from China's northeast, where skating has a long tradition.

Shawn and Vicki weren't looking to launch a business when they started plotting the Ice Zone. They were mostly trying to save themselves countless hours and miles ferrying themselves and their kids around town to skate. The Canadian couple found themselves driving across Beijing to play hockey six days a week -- twice for Shawn and twice each for their sons Connor, now 11, and Matthew, eight.

"We spent a lot of time driving and then standing around rinks with other people from our community saying, 'Wouldn't it be nice if there were something closer to home?'" recalls Vicki.

After partnering with another set of local hockey parents -- Philip Ho, a Chinese Canadian, and his wife Angela, who is local Chinese -- they spent two years searching for a proper site. They finally found it in the clubhouse of their own compound. Having a Chinese partner helped ease the way in having the company registered and the rink built.

"It was never our intent to make a penny off of it," says Vicki. "We thought it would be good for our kids and for the community."

The Ice Zone is now definitely a business, covering its own costs. It was funded by the four partners and they hope to recoup their initial investment in three to five years. A public spirit still infuses the rink; it feels like a clubhouse or community center. I can't imagine having taken up hockey anywhere else, and it's likewise impossible for me to imagine feeling quite so comfortable at another ice rink.

"Nothing about the place says 'business,'" says Chris Keogh, an American banker who is part of our regular weekly hockey crew. "It feels like a giant backyard skating rink."

Shawn laughed when I mentioned this to him -- because he did, in fact, make backyard skating rinks every year before moving two years ago into their current house. It does not have the proper space, but now all of us skate on his private rink.

The Ice Zone launched Monday night beginner's hockey and learn-to-skate shortly after opening in October. We began with about a dozen guys who couldn't really play at all. Many of us, myself included, could barely skate. We quickly began to be joined by others with a bit more experience. Mr. Keogh, who played intramural hockey at the University of Michigan and hadn't hit the ice in the ensuing 15 years, is fairly typical.

These returnees to the game, most of whom were thrilled to be able to play again, helped us improve, as has the persistent but gentle work of our Chinese coach Shan. As more and more people signed up, a Thursday night session was added.

The Ice Zone also launched a women's program, quickly dubbed the Hockey Honeys, in large part because after years of watching her husband and sons play the sport, Vicki wanted her own time on the ice. There are now 16 women, including many friends, but not my wife.

"I have loved this since the moment I stepped the ice," says Kate Kirkwood, an American friend who was one of the first women enrolled. "I watched my son play for four years but I never would have tried it myself if this rink hadn't opened."

My sons both did two sessions of beginning skating. There are also private lessons, several serious young figure skaters training and a weekly three-on-three night for real hockey players, most of them Finnish or Canadian. Last Sunday, 23 kids ranging in age from five to 12 performed Stars on Ice, an hour-long show set to popular music that was the culmination of a 12-week training program.

There are three full-size rinks and four or five other small ones in Beijing. As Chinese incomes have risen, more rinks have been built, and the sport has slowly gained in popularity, but it is only truly mainstream in and around Heilongjiang province in northeast China, near the cities of Harbin and Qiqihar. Most of China's best skaters come from there, including our own coach Shan.

In addition to founding the Ice Zone, Vicki is one of the main forces behind Sports Beijing, which runs a wide range of youth sports programs, including soccer, baseball, track, rugby and cricket. Thousands of expat kids and quite a few Chinese participate. Many friendships are forged around kids' sports. Now the mothers and fathers are bonding over hockey.

By any objective standard, I'm still a pretty poor hockey player, but I have improved by leaps and bounds since those first tentative, shaky-ankle outings last fall. As have all my comrades. And as time went by and our skills improved, a sea change occurred; we actually began to think of ourselves as hockey players.

As Chris Keogh notes, "We all signed up on this thing because it was called 'Learn To Skate' so we weren't intimidated. Then some time in the spring, we saw that on the bulletin board and felt insulted."

Nothing symbolizes the rink's do-it-yourself spirit more than the homemade Zamboni created by Shawn. A Zamboni is a rideable machine that resurfaces the ice on a skating rink, smoothing out the grooves made by skaters. It is an essential piece of equipment, but procuring one for the Ice Zone offered two major challenges: a full-sized machine wouldn't fit in the confined space, and it would be prohibitively expensive – as much as $70,000, according to Shawn.

So he set out to build his own machine. At its core is a three-wheeled mini tractor built to haul bricks around a small factory. He drew up plans and crafted the rest in his garage -- "I'm an engineer by training," he says with a shrug -- had parts fabricated by local welders and put it all together himself. The result is a crafty little machine that never fails to make me smile.

"You'd find stuff easier in Canada, obviously, but we probably never would have opened a rink there," says Vicki. "Building that machine was all part of the China experience for us."

Unfortunately for all of us in our little expat world, Vicki and Shawn's China experience is coming to an end; they are moving to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this month after six years here. The Ice Zone, they assure, will continue, with their partners Philip and Angela running the show and the rink's local Chinese staff now operating smoothly. Still, it's hard for me to imagine it being quite the same because Vicki and Shawn's spirit so infuses the place.

Kuala Lumpur only has one small rink and I'm certain that Shawn is plotting hard and studying the availability of three-wheeled brick haulers.

"It is in the back of my mind," he admits. "But Vicki would probably kill me."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Beijing Blues

I threw together this video to accompany a version of our song "Beijing Blues," which we cut in a studio here a few weeks ago.

I actually want to redo my vocals, but otherwise I'm pretty happy with it. First time in a fairly real studio doing track by track recording. It's hard! I nailed my guitar arts pretty easily but my singing is too mannered compared to what I do on stage, phrasing all wrong, etc. It's all a learning experience.

Woodie Alan backing gospel choir

There is a group of mothers of kids at our school, Dulwich College, who sing in a gospel choir, led by the school's head of the music department. I heard them perform at an art show and auction last month and thought they were really good. I asked them if they'd be interested in joining us on stage for a few songs, and they jumped a the opportunity.

It's always been my dream to perform with a gospel choir though the vision usually involved 150 African American women, purple robes and a big Hammond organ. Well, close enough.

We did four songs together and I have video of most of them. It was hard to get the balance of sound right but overall it worked great and was really fun. When we finished everyone was hooting and hollering and asking for more. Someone yelled out, "do one a cappela." I thought it was a great idea and told them to go for it. They started singing, Woodie joined in to give them some backing. I jumped in with some leads. It was grooving. Lu Wei started giving it a little backbeat then Zhang Yong threw in a bass line and bam, we were cooking with oil.

Happy to have gotten most of it on video. Just as they started really soaring, alas, the memory filled up.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fourth NBC blog post -- on NBA

My fourth blog posting for NBC is up and running. I am going to make you jump through an extra hoop. however. to get the link, you have to first go to Slam Online and see my post there. It has the NBC link. It involves a Chinese guy who named himself after Rasheed Wallace, one of the nuttiest players in the NBA. This guy is now near the top of my favorite people list.

Anna End of Year Party

Anna and her class had an end of the year party and performance. She and her friend Hannah Louise were a two-headed fish. I have some video of this performance. Will try to sort it out. Afterwards, they had a water party. Two more weeks of school.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Our favorite restaurateur

Meet Mr. Kro, proprietor of Kro's Nest pizzeria and many other hotspots around Beijing. Our kids' favorite place to go, and they love ol' Kro, too. As you can see.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody out there?

My writing up here has slowed down a bit as things heat up and I get ever busier, writing column and NBC blog, etc. But also I get the distinct impression that my readership is declining. Hey, I don't blame anyone for being sick of reading about me and my adventures. I'm just wondering who's still out there, as I have never bothered to install counters.

Drop me an email or comment if oyu see this.. don't have to say more than "hello."

Writing with a heavy heart...

June is the cruelest month in expat land, as moving trucks fill the lanes. It happens every year but this is the toughest for us, as we are losing several pillars of our world. I just came back from hugging Kristi and Nathan Belete and their boys Markus and Mathius good bye.

Nathan works for the World Bank and they are all off to New Dehli. He will be back and forth a bit, but Kristi and the boys are gone. Mathius is probably Anna's best buddy. Her other best pal, Lauren Sparling (whose parents I wrote about in my column last week) is also moving on, to Malaysia.

We hosted a great party for Nathan and Kristi last Saturday night. Pictures are from there.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Jacob the runner

Sunday morning our compound hosted a 5k and 10k race and fun walk to raise money for the earthquake. They donated 500 rmb (about $70) for each person who registered -- and there were a lot. They have somehow partnered with the Yale Club, because an American epidemiologist in Beijing is a member. She has found there to be a great need for wheelchairs and they will be purchased with the money.

Jacob and Becky ran the 5k and finished in the middle of the pack. I took up the rear with Anna and Eli, who bailed pretty quickly. we returned home to make waffles.

Even more impressive than Jacob running with that heavy cast was Becky doing it at 8 am the morning after we hosted a barn-burning, late, late going-away party for our dear friends Nathan and Kristi Belete, who are decamping for New Dehli. Woodie Alan played and we rocked this little bar downtown until the wee hours.

The other amazing thing about the race was the Chinese employees of the compound who ran 10K in work pants and shirts and loafers, and the ayis who ran the 5k in these little black slippers they often favor. That was quite moving and made me feel pretty lame.

Anna ballet recital

Nothing speaks to the fact that I have been too busy more than the fact that it has taken me almost two weeks to post these pictures from Anna's ballet recital. "Cute" only begins to describe it. Ditto with "hilarious."

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Woodie Alan in the studio

We have started the process of recording a CD. Last Monday we finished about half of five songs. That probably sounds nonsensical if you don't know how recording goes -- instrument by instrument, track by track. My participation was curtailed by Jaocb's unfortunate accident. We resume today.

Check out the guy sleeping on the couch. No idea who he is.