Hong Kong, China and South Korea – 2010

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BBB in China/Korea 2010

Thursday, September 30
Around noon, the band gets together at Schiphol Airport for a two week trip to Hong Kong, China, and South Korea: Berthil and Marnix Busstra (the Buzz Bros), drummer Chris Strik, substitute bassist Jurre Hoogervorst, and Berthils wife, Monika Haas.

Checking in with the band is always kind of scary, as we do want to take our instruments as hand luggage – but they’re way too big, officially. The Cathay Pacific people appear to be very kind and cooperative, and they don’t see the problem. It’s a long flight, but we’re doing fine, and we have plenty of room for our long Dutch legs. A good beginning…

Friday, October 1
Around 08:00 am local time we arrive at Hong Kong Airport. A ferry takes us to China mainland, where we purchase a Chinese/Hong Kong SIM card to keep phone costs to a minimum. A smart move, because touring China takes a lot of calling and texting, as we will discover.

On the ferry to Zhuhai, our first destination, we meet the members of a French band – and we soon find out that there are four international bands that are sort of dubbing our tour, coming from France, Australia, Malaysia, and Canada. In Zhuhai, we are received by a volunteer of Zhuhai International Jazz Festival, carrying a large ‘Buzz Bros Band’ sign. Her name is Janet, which – to us – sounds kind of weird for a genuine Chinese woman. Apparently, however, most traditional Chinese names are very hard to pronounce in or translate to English, so people who get in touch with Westerners usually try to come up with an English name that sounds more or less like their original name. That explains.

First thing in Zhuhai is to get a bit of rest after our tiresome journey. Later, we’re having dinner in a traditional Chinese restaurant where you can hand pick the fish that you want to eat. Janet tells us all about her country, and all the changes it is going through. Still, students get to learn all the traditional lessons of Confucius and Taoism, and she kindly delivers one of Confucius’ quotations: “The heart of a fool is in his mouth, but the mouth of a wise man is in his heart.” Enough said. We’re Dutch, and we love a cup of coffee after dinner, so we’re happy that Starbucks is well represented.

Saturday, October 2
After breakfast, we head to the venue for a soundcheck. It’s an interesting looking place, in what appears to be about the only historical building left in this city. Most Chinese people that we get to meet don’t seem to like this side of the fast developments their country is going through. It’s hard to find any buildings that are older than some thirty years. One of the many people that we met, said: ‘The Chinese culture goes back some five thousand years, but it’s hard to see any of it, nowadays.’

The equipment that we get to play on is sort of acceptable, but there’s only one guitar amp instead of the two amps we had asked for. The sound engineer goes out to find another one, upon our request – but we doesn’t come back in time for our sound check… No worries: we use the time that we get to finally rehearse the sets with our substitute bassist, Jurre.

After our impromptu rehearsal we’re having lunch with Peter Lee, the guy who organized our tour. Peter is the number one jazz promoter in this southern part of the country. He’s both kind and very much involved, explaining us all on the differences between the Western oriented Hong Kong citizens and the more traditionally minded Chinese mainland population. After lunch, we’re interviewed by a local TV station, and we get some time to just hang.

We are the closing act of the festival, and we’re a hit! The audience really loves our music, and people can’t stop telling us how we truly ‘touched’ them. It’s kind of bizarre, to us. We know that Asian audiences tend to like what we do, but this is beyond all expectations. Already, we feel that we haven’t brought enough CDs: we’re selling them like crazy, and people want us to sign booklets, clothing, and a wide variety of bodily parts. When the session is over, we get to sit with the people involved with the festival organization, and they keep telling us ‘This is a happy moment, this is a happy moment’. We couldn’t agree more…

Sunday, October 3
We have to get up early for our ferry back to Hong Kong, where our second show will take place. On our way over there, we discuss the rest of the tour with Peter Lee, whose English is not as clear as we would have wanted all the time. As a result, some of the details remain unclear, which makes things even more adventurous than we would have hoped for.

The ferry stops close to where we’re about to play, on the water front, with a view on the spectacular Hong Kong skyline. The sound check, at some 30 degrees Celsius, makes clear we’re dealing with professionals here. We’re scheduled in the early evening, around sunset. There’s no admission fee, and the audience – again – loves our music, more than we could have hoped for: people in Hong King tend to be kind of spoiled, musically speaking. Again, we sell a lot of CD’s. Later that night, we have dinner out in the streets, amidst the locals. It’s warm and humid.

Monday, October 4
A traveling day. We take the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou (Kanton), a three hour ride. All we get to see is a never ending amount of concrete apartment buildings, and finally, we get to understand the concept of a country with some 1.3 billion inhabitants. In Guangzhou, David Wong is waiting for us, a nice and young Chinese guy with long – very long – hair.

The hotel has large amounts of condoms and lubes on all rooms, so it’s not a place to just spend the night, at least for some people. We’re having dinner with the five of us, in a restaurant where nobody speaks English, and we don’t speak any Chinese – so we’re extremely happy with our ‘Point it’, a booklet with nothing but pictures. If you want to have chicken, you simply point at the picture of chicken, and so on. We couldn’t have done without it, not in this joint.

After dinner, we head down to C Union, a jazz club, related to the somewhat posher T Union club that we’re going to play tomorrow. The C Union is an old-fashioned, smoky type of 70s basement club featuring live bands every night of the week. The mostly young, Chinese audience clearly enjoys their newly acquired liberties. Today’s pianist is said to be one of the best Chinese jazz piano players – but to us, he’s mostly copying other piano players, including their intensity. Can you copy improvised music? Apparently. But it’s good to know that jazz is alive in China!

Tuesday, October 5
There’s no breakfast provided in the hotel, so we go look for a nearby Starbucks – a great life line if you’re out in China. The club that we’re about to play, the T Union, is located in an arty kind of park that features lots of modern sculptures.

The venue itself is just as arty, and that doesn’t do the acoustics much good. The soundcheck, with a weirdish engineer from New Zealand, is kind of troublesome and takes a lot of time. After a while, however, the sound seems to be okay, so we tell the engineer to just leave it at that. Our performance, later that night, is okay musically, and the audience – again – loves the band, but soundwise, it’s a nightmare. The engineer doesn’t stick to what we have agreed upon, making things worse and worse by the minute, and by the end of the show, every note simply sounds horrible. The discussion that follows is disagreeable, to say the least, and the band agrees: We all have played all over the planet, and it doesn’t get any worse than this. The man truly deserves a Guinness Book of Records nomination for the world’s most terrible sound engineer. Back at the hotel, it takes no more than a bottle of Scotch to calm all of us down.

Wednesday, October 6
We have to get up really early, at 05:00 am, for our flight to Haikou, a city on the tropical Chinese island of Hainan. The ride to the airport is characteristic for the Chinese way of driving. From what we were told, a Western drivers license doesn’t give you the right to drive a car in China. It’s not hard to imagine why: I you’d drive here the way they do there, you’d spend most of your time in prison.

The flight is fine, luckily – but the weather in Haikou is truly awful: it’s raining cats and dogs, and the roads are partially submerged. Richard, the guy who picks us up from the airport, is really sweet. He talks a lot, in a kind of American-style movie language that he has adapted, with lots of ‘f*ck’s and ‘sh*t’s. Funny.

At the hotel we get to meet Vincent, the owner of the club where we are going to play. Hainan is a touristy island. China’s Ibiza, you might say. The hotel is a great match, with lots of luxury, even a swimming pool. The key cards for our rooms come with a voucher for a massage, which sounds attractive, but we soon find out that it entitles you to somewhat more than a decent massage: It’s your entrance ticket to a brothel, that looks like the hotel salon from the outside.

We’re invited to have dinner at the club where we will play tomorrow. It’s a new place, very stylish, on a great spot on the seashore. The food is great too, and we don’t let the piano/saxophone duo spoil our dinner – but they do come close.

Thursday, October 7
After sleeping in – wonderful! – we get ourselves to the club for a sound check. The sound is great, and we’re very happy, especially after our previous experience. We spend the afternoon relaxing at the pool, and we don’t bother about the massage…

In spite of the continuing rain, we have a great show, that night. It’s not sold out, but the audience really digs our music. Again, we sell a lot of albums and we’re asked to sign the weirdest objects. We’re told that its has been raining for weeks now, and that some 140,000 people have been evacuated already. We look forward to going back to the mainland!

Friday, October 8
We have to get up early, and we board the van that’s going to take us to the airport around 06:30 am. It’s a terrible ride. The driver takes plenty of risks, even for Chinese standards, and he doesn’t adapt his driving to the rain and the resulting condition of the roads at all – the only exception being that he simply takes the opposite lane if he can’t use his own, using his horn to safe us from hitting oncoming traffic. At one point, the traffic just stops, and most people leave their cars to walk the remaining distance to the airport. Our driver doesn’t let that stop him, and somehow finds his way through the chaos.

We’re happy to arrive at the airport in one piece – but we’re completely stressed out. The airport is as chaotic. Lots of flights have been canceled or delayed. We’re lucky: our flight leaves no more than half an hour later than planned. None of us really likes flying, but today we’re relieved as the plane takes off. The flight takes us to an inland city, Changsha.

The weather is great, and the blue sky soon makes us forget Hainan. We’re picked up by Lisa, a kind woman who tells Monika about all the pretty women of Changsha. At the hotel we meet Funky, a Chinese musician who traveled the world before deciding to promote jazz in his birthtown Changsha for a living. His newly acquired name, like Janets, vaguely sounds like his Chinese name. He takes us out to lunch in a Subway – a great change – and then shows us an older area of this charming town, with lots of nice shops, teahouses, and bars. It’s the first time that we get to see some of the traditional, authentic China. Not for long, however: we really need to get some sleep if we want to be able to play tonight.

Later that afternoon, we walk to the club for our soundcheck. It’s an underground club that truly deserves that name. The basement smells of stale beer, just like it’s supposed to do. The equipment is of minimal quality, and the guitar amp is hardly in working condition – but we don’t let that spoil the fun. We have dinner with Funky, in a restaurant that brings us the local kitchen, which is a lot spicier than what we’ve had so far. Half of the band likes it; the other half is not as happy.

The show – again – is great. The club is loaded and the audience almost takes down the joint! Afterwards, Funky invites us to celebrate life in a nearby alley, with lots of beer and whisky and cute women and a barbecue a la Changsha. We’re taught to get up and raise our glasses all of the time, shouting ‘cheers’ – or something that sounds much like it. A long day, from the flooding in the morning to the swaying walk back to the hotel…

Saturday, October 9
Today is a traveling day. We’re taking the train to Shenzhen, 900 kilometers down south. Two taxis take us to a brand new station, where the only place you can get something to eat is a McDonalds. Bizarre – but it works fine to get rid of our hangovers. The train is new too, and at some 340 kilometers per hour it appears to be one of the fastest trains around. It’s a great trip that takes us through a fascinating, Chinese scenery – just the way we had imagined the country to look like.

The Ghangzhou train station is as large and modern as the one in Shenzhen. We have to change trains here, or we think we do – but we’re wrong. Using sign language is basically the only way to find out that we have to take a subway to another train station, where it’s incredibly busy: today is the last day of the Golden Week, a week off for almost all Chinese. Luckily, our train tickets come with seat reservations, and the two hour trip turns out to be quite comfortable.

When we arrive in Shenzhen, we discover that our contact, Teng Fei, is under the impression that we won’t get here until tomorrow. He’s still in Shanghai. That means that we have to try to find our hotel ourselves, and that’s not as easy as you may think. The name of the hotel turns out to be the name of a hotel chain, and there are four ‘City Inn’ hotels in town. At the train station, we find a taxi that’s large enough for all of us and our luggage. The driver takes us to the first City Inn, where we soon find out that it’s not the right one. We call the driver, he returns to the hotel, we get in, and on we go – the only problem being that he thinks that we just don’t like the hotel, so he takes us to the most expensive hotel in town. ‘It’s fantastic’, he keeps telling us – but we don’t want to go there, so he brings us back to the first City Inn, where we invest a lot of time and energy to get him to take us someplace else. Finally, much later, we get to right place, where we all take a well-deserved shower.

Later, we’re having diner with Wiha, a young and very sensitive Chinese lady who tells us that she’s both a pianist and a composer, associated to the club where we’re going to play. ‘I Du Tang’ is a beautiful, trendy venue in a Western looking area with various really hip and artistic shops and restaurants. Shenzhen turns out to be one of the best developed and richest Chinese cities, with no less than 16 million inhabitants.

Sunday, October 10
We’re happy to find a Starbucks in the same area, and we’re regulars for the three day’s we’re here. Peter Lee drops by at sound check, and we have dinner with him. We tell Peter that we have loved the musical part of the tour so far, and that we are very happy with the great response of our audiences. He’s as positive as we are (‘They love you here..’) and he will follow up on the tour, for one by seriously marketing our most recent album.

He also shows us a full page article on our tour and our music, featuring a large photo of the band, published in China’s number one news paper. We’re pleasantly surprised – and we try to imagine the amount of the readers of the largest news paper in a country this size. Peter has more fun news: in China, stamps are made to celebrate special occasions – and our first performance of the tour, at the Zhuhai Festival, has been considered such an occasion! We’re truly honored.

Our performance, later that night, matches our previous shows. To us, musically speaking, it’s the best night. We’re all really inspired, and the way we’re treated by almost everyone we meet makes us want to give our audiences a 100% or more every night.

Monday, October 11 Today is our first day off – and it’s welcome. Some of us go out to an open-air museum that displays the various cultures of the country. It’s impressive, though a bit Disney-ish. Luckily, most Chinese are back to work, so it’s nice and quiet. Dinner is outside, tonight, and we take our time, for a change.

Tuesday, October 12
We’re heading to Guangzhou, where we will play for the Dutch embassy tomorrow. As the Asia Games in Guangzhou are about to start, people tell us to expect heavy traffic, but things are quite okay and the drive doesn’t take much longer than planned.

We check in at Motel 168, and Marnix goes to the embassy to sign some documents for our show. When he’s there, he finds out that things have not been arranged the way they should: amps for the keyboards, the double bass and his guitar have not been provided, for example. So he and our local contact, Michael He, go to the store where the rest of the stuff had been rented. Completing the list isn’t as easy as he has hoped for, and the store suddenly lists extremely high rental prices: They’re obviously trying to cash in on the situation. The Hyatt Hotel, where our show will take place, claims to have the stuff that we’re missing – but that’s not the case either. Twenty-some phone calls and a five taxi rides later, everything has been taken care of.

Due to all of this, Marnix has skipped lunch, which makes him order so much food at dinner, that the rest of the band is slightly embarrassed. Marnix seems to overjustify the image of the rich, well fed Western tourist. On the other hand, it is kind of hard not to feel (too) rich if a meal like this costs no more than some ten dollars.

Wednesday, October 13
The show for the Dutch embassy – to be correct, the performance at the Dutch press conference for the Trade Fair, that starts tomorrow – is scheduled for the afternoon. We sound check at 11:00 am at the Hyatt, and we’re happy to find out that everything we need is there, and in working order too.

As we had expected, this is a completely different show. It’s no more than a standard commercial gig, actually. We’re playing background music in-between the speeches, so we do adapt the repertoire and show our modest faces. Later, we’re having dinner in the same restaurant as the night before, be it in regular quantities.

Thursday, October 14
Our trip for today takes us to South Korea. Seoul, to be exact. Taking our instruments as hand luggage is no problem, again, and we’re having a great flight. Alan, who is waiting for us at the airport, is a nice guy who composes contemporary classical music, but actually loves jazz more. The drive to the hotel takes two hours, and we arrive kind of late in the evening.

Tomorrow we will be playing the Jarasum Jazz Festival, the largest Asian jazz festival, with some 130,000 visitors. It takes place outside of Seoul, in the mountains, where our hotel is located as well. The fresh mountain air feels good, after the overdose of smog in the Chinese cities that we’ve seen so far. The hotel is kind of weird. Every room has a surround audio system, but none of them seem to work. We’re having diner with Alan. The Korean food is possible even better than the Chinese cuisine. We end the night watching a Dutch comedian at work on DVD.

Friday, October 15
The area we’re in can best be described as a Korean type of Sauerland, with rolling mountains, scenic streams, and wild red pepper bushes. The hotel features a sauna and jacuzzi, with separated areas for men and women. It works wonders for our tired muscles.

We head to the festival area early evening, where it’s quite cold again – some eights degrees max, which is not too much for an outdoor (!) festival. People in the audience are wearing winter coats, using additional blankets to keep themselves warm. We wonder why the festival takes place this time of year. When we look around for a bit, we meet another Dutch band that’s playing here: Yuri Honing’s Wired Paradise band.

We soundcheck after the fireworks display that embellishes the opening of the festival. The equipment is perfect, and the sound is great – so we just hang around and wait for our show at midnight. We had expected the audience to be less enthusiastic than in China: South Korea is ahead of China in many ways, and music lovers have much better access to foreign artists (this festival really helps, too!), but we were completely wrong.

The crowd – and it’s really a crowd – goes crazy, and they’re even more excited than the other Asian audiences that we’ve played for so far. At the end of the show we even get to see Beatle-like scenes, with people who can hardly control themselves anymore, bubbling with emotions. It is one great party, for the audience as well as for us. A terrific closing concert after a memorable tour! When the concert is over, we’re lining up to sell and sign CDs – or what’s left of them. It probably looks kind of pathetic: a long line of people, and a table with a miserable pile of no more than ten albums: We have sold the rest! We’re lucky that no-one starts a fight…

Back in the hotel, we have our last Chinese beers and some whisky, contemplating this bizarre night and a great tour.

Saturday/Sunday, October 16/17
The trip home takes us close to 30 hours. Two hours from the hotel to the airport, where we have to wait for three hours. Then a five-hour flight to Hong Kong, followed by a six hour stopover and a final twelve-hour flight to Amsterdam, where we say goodbye, feeling tired but splendid, and all move back to our daily routines – except for Chris, who will leave for New Orleans in a couple of days: he’s getting married out there!