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Paul Collins’ China Diary

01:01 PM Saturday 3/29/14 | |

When you plan your very first trip to China you imagine all kinds of things. People who have visited the country tell you even more things.  Plus, if you go online to do a little research you’ll get even more information. But none of it prepared me for my tour of the country.

Most of what I heard before arrival wasn’t true.  China is one of the more fantastic places I have ever been to. The people are among the friendliest I have ever met anywhere.  The country that I saw was very clean, modern and well organised.

I flew to Shanghai from New York on China Eastern Air.  Contrary to anything you might have read online, China Eastern Air is a very good airline.  The best thing about flying China Eastern is that you are in China the minute you board the plane.  The service is wonderful, food is good and the seats are comfy.

As the plane touched down my senses started to get ready for what I was thinking would be an avalanche of new sights and sounds.

Shanghai International Airport is a big modern airport.  Of course, most of the signs are in Chinese, but curiously enough many of the signs also had English versions.

My man in Shanghai – Chachy – met me with his Canadian assistant Dave and they whisked me off in a taxi to Shanghai and a late-night restaurant where I was to meet the rest of my party – my rock ’n’ roll band from Madrid, Spain.

Chachy is an American musician living in Shanghai, I had heard about a tour he had organised for a buddy of mine, Paul Moto, and I tracked him down through Facebook and said I wanted to tour the country. 

Cool,” he replied.  “We can make that happen.”

So here I am.  The new millennium of DIY touring knows no boundaries.

Chachy & co. organised a ten-city tour of China.  Starting in Shanghai and finishing in Beijing, the tour took us deep into China to see cities that are off the beaten path – small working class towns and student centres based around Chinese colleges. Here are my day-by-day journal of my impressions of my visit to China.

March 5th –  Arrive at Shanghai Airport 7:30 PM

Our first meal was sumptuous pressed chicken.  It looks like it sounds – an entire chicken flattened and cooked with tofu, broccoli, string beans, eggplant and more – all washed down with bottles and bottles of Chinese beer, Tsing Tao, a nice light refreshing beverage. I have yet to have dessert in China – that just doesn’t seem to be part of the plan.

For the first five days we stayed at John’s lovely high-rise two-bedroom apartment in a swanky part of Shanghai.  I had the master room with a private bath (John had skipped off to Bali for a week). Once again we were in the lap of DIY luxury.  I showered and tumbled into my king-size bed and drifted off to sleep. 

So far so good. My senses had not been bombarded with anything too out of the ordinary.  The ride from the airport was like most any other.  The highway signs were all green with white Chinese letters, and then again smaller in English. I called home on Dave’s iPhone and the connection was clear. The shower worked like most showers do, the hot water was where it always is (on the left). The bed was soft and the pillows where nice, the only thing different was I knew I was in China.

March 6th Songjiang Doing Club w/The Other & Round Eye

  • Paul Collins

    Serenading the cleaning lady in Shanghai.
    March 6, 2014

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As is my custom  woke up very early the next morning and waited for the sunrise. Having heard there was a Starbucks on the corner  I went out to see what I could find and get my bearings a bit. I found another high-end coffee joint across the street.  The coffee was good, the attendant spoke perfect English and I paid the equivalent of five bucks for a cup of joe.  Hmmm … not what I was expecting as Chachy had told me everything in China was extremely cheap.

I wandered around making sure not to get lost as I would never be able to ask anyone for directions. I slipped into a side alley and there was the real China teaming with people in little stalls selling everything under the sun. 

  • Paul Collins

    With the people who make the scallion pancakes.
    March 6, 2014

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I found one stall where a couple were making those delicious scallion pancakes and sesame seed buns and ordered a few.  It was point and gesture with fingers for the amount you wanted, then I just held out my hand full of change and let them pick out what I owed. I know they weren’t cheating me, there is an honesty to the people here that is wonderful. They all smiled and greeted me, showing they were genuinely happy I was here with them.

Chachy picked us up at one o’clock and we cabbed it to someplace for lunch (another sumptuous meal) and then it was off to Songjiang for soundcheck at the Doing Club in the heart of the Student Central of Shanghai. 

The Doing Club is your typical cool rock ’n’ roll dive bar, all wood, all dirty and ready to rock. All the clubs in China have their own backline so every night it’s a crap shoot.  As I have been touring the U.S. without backline for the last five years, this was a piece of cake for me – just plug in and rock.

We were playing with an experimental rock duo called The Other and Chachy’s band Round Eye. Adam of The Other looks out of this world with his big moulded plastic glasses, his thrift store sweater, his Melody Maker and a bank of pedals that he manages to make wail and scream and phase into a cacophony of sounds that makes you think you’re listening to a movie soundtrack.

Round Eye is a grab bag of high energy rock ’n’ roll with jazz and experimental sax thrown in for good measure. Chachy fronts the band and he is a dynamo that never stands still for a second.  They all wind up shirtless as they pour themselves into the music.  Chachy’s big head of furry hair became all but a blur. You can hear all kinds of influences in their music, from classic rock to new wave, all pounded out at top volume. Chachy is a shredder on the guitar and the rest of the band follows suit, making for a very rocking show.

We hit the stage and the place went nuts, kids jumping up and down, girls screaming and dancing.  It was rock ’n’ roll mayhem and we were at the centre of it. The sound on stage was great.  We were rocking China and were rocking it hard! ‘

After the show we hung out with the fans, drinking beers and taking pictures with all the kids who surprised us with how well they spoke English. Rock ’n’ roll was the common denominator that we all shared and it held us together just fine. It was late when we got back to the crib.  There was an all night street restaurant just opening up for midnight dinning.  Shanghai never sleeps.

I was happy as I fell into my new bed, our first show in China was a success we were off to a good start. I should mention that one of the great things about moving around in Shanghai is you take taxi’s everywhere and they are never more than ten bucks, as a native New Yorker, it’s my kind of town.

March 7th Shanghai Experimental School daytime show, Suzhou Tunnel Bar w/Round Eye & Surging Waves

  • Paul Collins

    (2nd from left) with Chris, Juancho and Manolo of The Beat in front of the Shanghai Experimental School.
    March 7, 2014

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Day two started like the first one for me – up at the crack of dawn.  I had made a trip to the supermarket and loaded up on instant coffees, milk. peanut butter, jelly, bread and my trusty oatmeal and honey so I was all set to start the day with my customary coffee and cigarettes followed by breakfast. I was working on a 13-hour time difference, but I didn’t feel it as much as I had thought I would.  I was getting enough sleep.  In fact the only thing I noticed was my beard was growing in during the day instead of the night.

We were scheduled for two shows.  The first gig was an afternoon performance at the school were Chachy teaches guitar to Chinese kids, followed by tonight’s show at Suzhou at the Tunnel Bar.

When Chachy told me upon our arrival that he taught guitar to kids at a school I suggested that we come in and give the kids a show. He mentioned it to the director and it went from us coming in to play for Chachy’s class to doing a show for the entire school of three hundred and fifty kids.

When we arrived at the school they had a fairly large digital screen out front with my picture along with the red background of the Chinese flag with three yellow stars and in huge letters “Welcome Paul Collins Beat to Shanghai Experimental School.”

The performance was nothing short of amazing. The Chinese children were so beautiful and so very excited to see us. They were herded in by their teachers and lined up in rows before being seated on the floor.

  • Paul Collins

    Visiting the Shanghai Experimental School
    March 7, 2014

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I never plan what I am going to do at these kinds of shows.  Instead, I let the inspiration of the moment take me. I had the band set up – Juancho on acoustic bass, Chris on a cardboard box for the drums, and Manolo with his electric guitar and a very small amplifier.  I was on an acoustic guitar that the school had procured for the occasion. 

I told through my translator that it was an honor for us to come and play for them.  I also told the kids that in school you had to listen to your teachers but I was not their teacher and that at the count of three I wanted them to scream at the top of their lungs.

You never heard such a racket! They screamed and screamed until we finally got them to stop.  It was so wonderful and a great way to start the show. I played songs by myself before I brought Manolo in to sing as well as play guitar with me, followed by a few full band performances.  The kids loved it and they were the best of audiences.

Then we opened it up to a Q & A session. I was very surprised at how many kids spoke English. The questions were wonderful. I think the funniest was when one young boy asked me, “Why do you have that haircut?” We all laughed and I told him how I had had a full head of hair just like him when I was a young boy.

After the Q & A we signed autographs for what seemed like forever.  Every kid wanted our signatures.  It was one of the best moments of my career as a musician.

Eventually it was time for lunch and once again we were not disappointed.  Most of the meals during our China adventure had the same basics but the presentation would vary depending on the restaurant. Lots of delicious dishes with eggplant, mushrooms, asparagus and all kinds of beef and chicken.  Everything is on the spicy side with almost every dish prepared with hot red peppers included in the ingredients.   

  • Rockin’ The Tots

    Paul Collins plays for the students at Shanghai Experimental School.
    March 7, 2014

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After lunch we cabbed it over to meet up with the rest of the Round Eye crew and climb aboard the fifteen-passenger bus that would take us to Suzhou and the Tunnel Bar. The ride was about two hours long – perfect for me to take a very much-needed nap. We had dinner before the show and it was the only time I passed on eating. 

Tunnel Bar was more like an Irish Pub and it sported a good mix of ex-pats and Chinese. Openers Surging Waves were fronted by a Chinese girl while the rest of the band looked like ex-pats.  Their music was kind of jazzy pop stylings, not very rock ’n’ roll but they had their own thing going on.

Next was Round Eye which exploded on stage as Chachy whipped the crowd into shape for us. By the time we hit the stage the crowd was into it and I was even able to get the girls on stage to dance with us for “Look But Don’t Touch.” I think that kind of blew their minds. A good time was had by all and the owner was really into it.  Afterwards the boys went down by the river to have some street food while I had my old PBJ standby to get a break from all the spicy food. It was very late when we finally made it back to the house and into bed.

March 8th Shanghai Yuyntang w/Day Dreamer, Siders & Round Eye

By Saturday we were pretty well adapted to China. Shanghai is enormous, some twenty-two million people.  It’s twice the size of New York, but just as modern in every way. Skyscrapers abound in all directions.  It all seemed the same except everything is written in Chinese. You could get anything you wanted, more than likely at any time of the day or night. Juancho wanted a fake Rolex and Chachy had told me I could get shirts custom made on the cheap so we all headed over to the big market place.

One of Chachy’s friends, Gil, came along to translate.  It blows your mind when you see these guys speak fluent Chinese, it’s so cool.  We have Chachy, Pete from Coventrey in the United Kingdom, and Gil from Philly with us to make sure we get exactly what we want for the right price. Gill is the master and used to do it for a living.  They don’t like him in the market because he haggles them down as low as they can go.  Juancho got a Mont Blanc for forty bucks and I got two beautiful custom-made shirts, one black and one white for twenty bucks each.

Then we had a Hot Pot lunch.  Gil is a foodie and he ordered us up a banquet of delicious edibles. Hot Pot is where each person gets an urn filled with broth over a small flame and then they bring out tray after tray of all kinds of delicious tid bits such as  beef finely shaved and rolled, lamb, mushrooms, all kinds of dumplings, cabbage, noodles and spinach for you to cook in your hot pot. There is a whole wall of sauces and you make up your own dipping sauce, from chili pastes, peanut sauce, sesame oil, beef paste, and other items.  China is about really great food!

Tonight was part of the big Jue Fest, an annual event in Shanghai and Beijing that goes on for about 2 weeks in some 17 different venues.  Yuyintang Club is considered to be one of the best in Shanghai and is kind of like their CBGB’s in that it’s old and run down but reeking of rock ’n’ roll. I was beat after soundcheck so I went upstairs and took a nice long nap.  That’s my routine these days.  As a grandpa rock ’n’ roller I need to eat right and sleep right so as when I hit the stage I can show these young bucks how it’s done.  By golly I can still do that!

The joint was packed with approximately 350 screaming kids, I know what you might be thinking, but in the world where I live 350 kids is packed we are not a stadium act…yet. The sound was good and loud so we laid it on them and the crowd went nuts.  So far I can say with conviction that the Chinese people really dig our music.  It was so rewarding to feel their energy and love – Chinese bopping up and down, the ex-pats grooving along, it really seemed right out of a movie set. After the show people gave us such wonderful and sincere comments about how much our music means to them. The boys wanted to go celebrate and party at the Inferno Bar, one of Chachy’s haunts, a heavy metal bar, I went home to bed, tired but once again very happy.  We were rocking China and it was going great.

March 9th Shanghai @ Up Town Records afternoon show, Kunshan @ Whale Bar w/Goshen, Pink Stuff & Round Eye

Sunday, no rest for the weary, we were to do an instore at Uptown Records, run by Sacco from Bakersfield of all places, and then off to Kunshan and the Whales Bar –  about a 2 hour drive in our private bus.

Up Town Records is in a basement and is a bit of a maze to get to. It was supposed to be an intimate affair so I was a bit surprised to see a full-on drum kit and two Marshall amps.  We played for about forty minutes to a mixed crowd of ex-pats and Chinese.  Once again we were connecting and the music was the conduit.  What a fabulous profession this is when everything is working!

That night we were a full load in the bus as there were 3 bands traveling together, In addition to our group there was Round Eye, Gil’s band Goshen and Dave’s band Pink Stuff.

After soundcheck we went next door for the third hot pot in a row.  They were about to wring the neck of the chicken we would eat as we walked in the door. The Whale Bar looks kind of like a reggae bar and is a hangout for Chinese kids to drink beers, smoke hookahs and play dice, which is exactly what they did while we played.

I didn’t mind. I have been ignored before but at least I was being ignored in China! At one point this very cute little Chinese girl wearing one of those dark blue big T-shirts with “BAD” printed on it jumped on stage and started to do the bump-and-grind with the band, the highlight of the night.

Once again it was very late when we got back, but not too late for a midnight snack at our personal all-night street restaurant. They knew us by now and were all smiles when we arrived. You only need to go to a place twice for them to know you, and they always greet you like an old friend whenever you come back.

The people are what really make a place what it is and the Chinese people are so warm and friendly you can’t help but feel at home with them.  I can see myself spending a lot of time here with them. It seems like we have slipped into a nice routine – hang around in the morning, go and have an amazing lunch and then off to soundcheck dinner the gig and a late night snack.  As you might guess, I’m gonna put on some extra pounds on this trip!

March 10th Shanghai Off

By now we had done five or six shows and Monday was to be our very much-needed day off. Our plan was to sleep in then go to the Shanghai Museum and take it from there.

The museum is exquisite, four floors of Chinese artwork, ceramics, sculpture, clothing and furniture, all beautifully displayed. You start to get the idea of the high level of civilization the Chinese have. We stopped in at the museum shop and bought a lot of really beautiful gifts for the folks back at home.  It was so inexpensive it was hard to resist.

We left the museum and the boys had to have McDonalds.  We topped it off with a coffee from Starbucks completing our American meal. I went home to relax and then we all met up for dinner for another episode of eating and drinking our way through China.

March 11th Nanjing @ Zebra Bar w/Car, Car, Cars & Outdoor Cooperation Society

The adventure continues.  On Tuesday we left Shanghai for the remainder of the tour and traveled up country towards Beijing by high-speed train.

Our first stop is Nanjing, a beautiful town about 2 hours north of Shanghai. Nanjing seemed like the China I had been expecting, what with many old Chinese buildings built in the traditional style. Nanjing is also on the Yangtze River, one of China’s most emblematic waterways. Now it seemed like we were really in China. We were staying at a hostel, which was very cool.  We were on our own now accompanied only by Pete who came with us to road manage.  Chachy, Dave & Jimmy had to stay behind and work, but we would meet up with them again on Friday in Qingdao.  There were the five of us in the room plus 3 Chinese young men.

Indeed we were seeing the real China.  There were all these young people at the hostel who were traveling around, much like any other hostel you might walk into. The young Chinese people seem very cool.  Dressed smartly, they were not loud and boisterous, but were having a good time.

The Zebra Bar was new but it looked like it had been closed for many years and dust could be found on all the amps and drums. The layout was cool with multi-level seating areas but the crowd pretty much ignored us in favour of their cell phones.  It is a worldwide epidemic with the phones.

I didn’t catch much of Outdoor Cooperation Society.  They seemed like your average indy type band.  Car, Car, Cars were a duo with a girl drummer, more along the lines of Suicide.  I could definitely see them playing in New York. I broke something like 3 strings and we called it a night two thirds of the way through the set, but no one minded.  After the show I got to meet Yang Haisong of PK14, one of the big bands in China.  Yang had helped Chachy get a lot of our shows together, he is totally cool and I am happy he got to check us out!

We then went to a Japanese Ramen House and had a late dinner.  There is no such thing as a day without good food here in China. 

March 12th Vox Club Wuhan w/Nut Shell

  • Paul Collins

    With his new friends at Club Vox in Wuhan
    March 12, 2014

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It was another quick train ride to Wuhan.  The trains are great here, the stations are huge and very clean and very easy to negotiate.  On the second floor, atrium style, there all the food shops where you can get a good meal while waiting for your train.

From the station we went right to the Vox Club.  The hotel was right next door – I love a gig like this. The Vox Club is one of the best clubs I have ever played anywhere. They did something I had never seen before. After checking the drums and bass they had us each check our guitars with the snare drum. Pete said it was the best sound so far. The establishment looks and feels like a real down and dirty rock club, all wood with a great looking bar.

Opening band Nut Shell was the most rock ’n’ roll of all the groups we had played with.  A trio with a very nice and cute girl on bass, their set was split between their own originals and punky covers of songs by Green Day and the like which they played with abandon. They were huge fans and very excited to be sharing the stage with us. We put on a rocking good show and the 80 or more kids in the place had a blast with us. It was a very good turnout for a Wednesday night, so the club was happy.

  • Where’s Paul?

    Can you pick out Paul Collins in this photo of him surrounded by fans at Club Vox in Wuhan, China?
    March 12, 2014

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After the show we hung out with the fans for a lot of picture taking with really cute Chinese girls who all seemed to speak excellent English. Three girls came up to me with the poster wanting to know if the picture was really me. It was an old pic from 1980 when I was on tour in London, a shot that I am using for the next record. I told them yes it was me from a very long time ago. One of the girls told me that they thought I was much more handsome now and that they loved my smile and my eyebrows.  Then she said something very nice, that she loved my music and that it made her very happy and gave her the strength to go on.  Who wouldn’t want to hear something like that from a very attractive young woman?

After the gig we went out for one more great meal, this time at Old Wo’s Chinese BBQ where we had delicious barbecued meats on a skewer, eggplant dishes and a sumptuous plate of small clams in a spicy garlic sauce all washed down with Tsingtao beer. 

March 13th Hefei @ On The Way Bar, w/Color Lines

  • Paul Collins

    Talks a passerby into smiling for the camera in Hefei, China.

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It was a much longer ride to Hefei, about six hours.  When we arrived we had to wait for our driver to pick us up. People where stopping and staring at us as we stood there and one girl even came up and asked if she could take a picture with us. We were deep in China now. Hefie is a working class town and like a lot of working class communities it’s a great rock ’n’ roll town.  For me, this was the best show.  The joint was jammed, mostly with students and they were going nuts with us, dancing and singing along with abandon. 

We were connecting to the Chinese in a big way and every night it seemed to get better.  With the exception of Kuhsan and Nanjing every night was a success in terms of playing to an appreciative crowd. They even called out songs.  A girl yelled out for “All Over The World.” I couldn’t believe it! Once again after the show we hung out with all the fans who wanted pictures, then it was downstairs to the all-night food stands for noodles and beef.

  • Paul Collins

    Performing in Hefei @ On The Way Bar w/Thief Bad & Round Eye.
    March 13, 2014

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March 14th Qingdao @ Downtown Bar w/Thief Bad & Round Eye

Traveling by train is the best way to get around China.  The country side is beautiful and you get to see it in comfort and style. Qingdao is a small town of about 4 or 5 million people and is kind of like San Francisco in that it sits on a bay. We were staying in a very cool hostel on top of a hill – an old observatory run by a young man who spoke perfect English due to his time spent in Boston as an exchange student. The hostel was lovely and had the Sunrise Café on the top floor.

Thanks to Chachy and Pete I had my room while the rest of Round Eye and my band shared a big room with bunk beds. I took a hot shower, napped and still made it to the club in time for soundcheck. 

The club was packed to the max when we got back.  It was Thief Bad’s first show and one of the members was also one of the bar’s owners.  All the cool people were there including many attractive Chinese women. Thief Bad was a mix of rap scratching and rock.  I am sure they would be a big hit in a lot of places today.  Maybe not my cup of tea but so what?  We were there to do our thing and they were there to do theirs and in the end we all had a blast.  The guys from Thief Bad bought records and wanted us to sign them. Round Eye put on an intense show driven by all their pent-up frustration of having to be in Shanghai working while we out doing the shows they had set up.

The crowd was pumped when we hit the stage.  The band was itching to let loose and we gave everyone a good time! It was a blast what with many people singing along, dancing and smiling.  It was just like a dream – we were really doing this in China and everyone was really digging on our music. We brought the girls up to dance on “Look But Don’t Touch” and they were awesome.

After the show it was the usual photos and signatures for the fans, then back to the hostel and bed.  Tomorrow was another early train, this one heads towards Beijing, China’s capital city and our last show on this once in a life time tour.

March 15th Beijing Yugong Yishan w/Round Eye, Residence A & Bedstar

  • Then & Now

    In Beijing, China, Paul Collins stands in front of a not-very-recent photo of himself.

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We took the high speed train to Beijing, it was about six hours and delays took all the relax time out of the day.  It was straight to the very cool hostel, drop off the bags and hot-foot it over to the club for a long soundcheck followed by dinner of Peking duck, a quick shower and some rest before the show.

I dislike last gigs of tours, there is all the anticipation of a great night and the big farewell.  Beijing has a bit of the New York/LA vibe to it – very hip and cosmopolitan.  The show was good.  There were a lot of kids but since the club was so big it didn’t have that condensed rock ’n’ roll energy to it. We put on a good show and the kids dug it but it didn’t have the immediacy of some of the previous shows.  Big cities are like that.

  • A Big Thank You!

    to Chachy, Pete, Dave & Jimmy of Round Eye for all their help and Juancho, Chris & Manolo of The Beat for rocking hard with me – Paul Collins.

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Round Eye turned in a blistering set. Chachy was determined to get the crowd riled up. Round Eye is a really good band and they dig deep into the rock ’n’ roll bag of tricks.  You can hear all kinds of influences in their music from the doo wop of the 50’s to the hardcore of ten years ago. The sax just takes it to a whole other level and it is completely unexpected.

Bedstars pay heavy homage to The Dead Boys and Johnny Thunders – in China that’s a cool thing, Residence A is a big band and like Thief Bad of Qingdao they incorporate sampling rap stylings into their music.

We were done, I felt fried but happy.  This had been one amazing tour from start to finish and it will remain imbedded in the memories of all who were on it. We capped our trip with an early visit to The Wall, a nice way to say goodbye to this wonderful country.

(Editor’s note: There's more Paul Collins Beat!  Click here for Pollstar’s January interview with the DIY master.)


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