Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, June 30, 2023

Street Music in China 

Many years ago I was traveling across Canada with my children. We were in Old Quebec City and there were a lot of people milling around in the evening. There was a street musician there who was playing…a guitar, I think. Anyway, every time someone would drop a coin in his little coffer, he would say, “merci beaucoup.” He had a way of saying it quickly so that it did not interrupt the flow of his singing. It was a clever technique, because after awhile I could see that people were dropping coins in just to see him do it. There are lots of street musicians in China, too. Very often in the evening you can see them playing music in the streets. Sometimes they will do it in the park. I took the video above at Green Lake on Father’s day. Sometimes, musicians will set out a small bowl or something so that passers by can put money in it.

Some of them are not really musicians. Often I have seen a blind beggar sitting in a subway station in Beijing with an erhu He will not really be playing anything—just moving the bow back and forth across the strings and hoping for pity. It’s pretty pathetic to see.

But most of the time the ones doing it for money are not beggars. Some of them may be a little hard up, but most of them are artists wanting a simple way to get paid for what they do without going through the process of finding a job where they can perform professionally. But they are musicians who love their art, not simply beggars moving a bow back and forth across a string.

Years ago, one of my neighbors in Fragrant Hills told me that he had done that at subway stations in New York City. He actually made a living at it for several years. I have only seen one foreigner doing that in China.

And then there are the dancers. They love street music too, but you never see them collecting money. They are getting exercise. Most of the time they are middle aged women, but that is not a requirement by any means. Anyone can join in, although not that many young people do, unless it is a place where there are lots and lots of young people, and then the young people will have their own dancing thing, because the younger folks tend to prefer the shuffle dance that has become so popular with young people in China. It is often referred to as the Chinese shuffle dance, but I don’t think it actually originated in China. I’ve heard that it came from Melbourne, but it is hugely popular among young people here. One elementary principle gained national recognition on social media because he taught his whole school how to shuffle:

I saw a large group of young people doing the shuffle in Shenzhen one time in the evening. That’s not so common—it’s usually ladies. But with the more active shuffle, the dancing groups tend to be younger.

You will often here the term “square dancing,” but this term might be misleading to Americans. In this case, the term “square” does not denote the type of dance, but the place where dancing generally occurs in China—in the town square, and there are lots of them in China—sometimes a regular town square in the center of the city, other times just a big slab of concrete people can use for dancing.

This fad is not without it’s problems. For one thing, the music is amplified, and they always crank the volume way up. This is immensely irritating to people in apartments nearby who are trying to sleep. This, by the way, is also true for other street musicians. When I moved to Kunming in 2020 there was a guy whose wife or girlfriend had left him and he came to Green Lake every night to sing to her (wherever she was). I used to hear him often, because I was staying in a small hotel then—I didn’t have my own place yet, so I often went down to Maan Cafe by the lake in the evening, and he was usually there, with the volume cranked way up as if he wanted to be sure that she could hear him no matter where she was in China.

The other area of conflict is the use of space. The town square is for everyone, and sometimes kids like to use the square for skateboarding or roller blading. They have just as much right to use it as the ladies do, but some of those old biddies don’t see it that way. They can be pretty nasty if their space is taken.

So what is the solution to this problem? Well, in some places irritated neighbors have purchased devices that disable the speakers on the boom boxes. In another situation I heard about, the ladies themselves purchased blue tooth ear phones so as not to bother those around them. But in my opinion, the noise problem could easily be solved if they would just turn the volume down a little. I don’t know why they think they need to have the volume cranked all the way up. If they keep doing that, they are going to lose their privilege, because the local people are getting fed up with it. But if they can moderate the volume a bit, they will probably be around for some time to come, because everybody recognizes that the activity they are so passionate about is very healthy.

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