Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Back in the USSR
What follows is part of a piece I just wrote on Shenzhen theme parks for the weekend arts section (the "missing" part was a reheated account from the blog on a visit to another theme park, Splendid China.).
Theme parks, emergency rooms, prisons and Kenny G concerts are pretty much equals in my priorities when it comes to amusement, but other than parks, shopping and bar-hopping, Shenzhen really doesn't have a lot to offer tourists. And as the director of the Shenzhen tourism bureau, once said: "When we lack tourist attractions, we either build or buy them.''
Hence, Minsk World. When the Soviet Union closed up shop and held its going out of business sale, the 1970s-era aircraft carrier-cruiser Minsk - named after capital of Belarus - was among the bargain basement specials. It was snapped up by a Chinese company that turned it into a theme park that combines faded Soviet communist military might with an occasionally slightly saucy, but family friendly atmosphere.
Where else can mom, pop and the kids bond by firing mock AK-47s, tossing fake hand grenades, relax with a Pepsi while sitting on a 250 or 500 defused kilogram bomb and then catch a floor show on the flight deck featuring sinuous bandolier-wrapped, pistol-packing female contortionists dressed in skin-tight imitation Spetznaz (Russian special forces) uniforms.
"The sea park firstly open more than ten thousand square meters sightsee area to the public let the tourist feel the newness and stimulate of the carrier life,'' declared the Chinglish text in a promotional brochure. "It perfectly combines the Southland beach life and the military atmosphere. It suits to be a fallow or a casino. Minsk Aircraft Carrier Park specializes from other Parks for its brilliance military theme.''
The "fallow or casino'' part remained a mystery but the part about the "newness and stimulate of the carrier life'' intrigued me and on the 100th anniversary of Deng Xiaopeng's birthday, I decided to celebrate by weighing anchor for Minsk World accompanied by a first mate, a translator I'll call C. She was not a happy sailor.
"I came there two years ago with my mother and promised myself I would never return,'' she groused as the cab dropped us off in the rain in Yantien district where the former ``Peril of the Seas'' now looms as a 120 yuan a pop tourist trap.A poster at the entrance displayed a cleavage-baring blonde in an approximate Soviet naval uniform and cap.
``What does it say?'' I asked C.``It promises `beautiful military flowers' inside,'' she said, smirking a little.
We passed the ``Happy Family'' military shooting and hand grenade tossing gallery next to a large square with several MIG-21s, surface-to-air missiles and an enormous Socialist Realism statue of a bare-chested man beating a sword into a plowshare. The messages were definitely mixed, and remained so inside the dark, gloomy carrier where one of the first sights was more families sprawling on racks of large bombs next to one of many gift stands that featured a plethora of military-related offerings such as replica pistols next to a ``financial family of man'' style, multi-country coin and paper money collections. Guns and money. All that was needed was lawyers.
I looked in vain for any American currency, but only found a lone, tarnished Canadian quarter between a Belarus ruble and a North Korean won.But the USA was represented on a bank of shaking and humming space flight simulators that seat 12. A long queue had formed to ride the simulators that were oddly - and creepily - enough, stenciled with "Challenger'' on their sides, not "Shenzhou-5'' or even "Soyuz''.
Wandering through the carriers' various decks and ducking to avoid cutting my forehead open while passing through the short hatchways, we saw a video of the glorious People's Liberation Army fighting Vietnamese ``bandit invaders'' circa 1979 and a lot of photos of the ship's glory days - happy Soviet naval personnel and displays of their medals as well as the captain's cabin. Inside was a wax skipper in a white uniform, holding a wine glass and surrounded by Russian nesting dolls and portraits of Stalin and Lenin.
Less a formidable Soviet sea wolf and more a guy drinking alone surrounded by cliches.
On the flight deck the show was about to begin. Several of the 12 blue and black camouflage clad contortionists were warming up by standing on one leg while stretching the other behind their necks until the recorded martial music began blaring."Oh!'' C exclaimed. "I know this song! It is called I'm a Happy Soldier. Very popular for my parents' generation.''
It wasn't exactly Vegas-quality, but the happy soldiers certainly had unique approach to gun safety. The show's climax had them pointing their large pistols at the crowd and pretending to shoot the audience before they mock fired simultaneously over their heads in smiling celebration. No one applauded, but to be fair they also watched stone-faced and chatted loudly among themselves as 12 male "soldiers" in mock US Marine dress blue uniforms topped with Soviet-style, high visor hats tossed rifles back and forth and performed close-order drill to the strains of Colonel Bogey's March (theme to The Bridge on the River Kwai).
"No one's clapping,'' I said to C. "What are they saying? Do they like the show?''
"I don't know. They are mostly saying, `Where is my wife?' `Where are the children?' `Did you turn off the flash?' `Did you take the lens cover off?', `I'm hungry' and `Where is the toilet?' ''

Friday, August 20, 2004

Military Madness
I just discovered that the People's Liberation Army has an English language website and it exceeded my wildest expectations. It's certainly comprehensive - covering everything from "Mao Zedeng -- Great Forever" and "Taiwan Question" to a guide to PLA songs, uniforms, shoes, weapons, barracks life, history and - the best part - bilingual military phrase lessons called Military English Learning.
I went to that wondering if it would have the equivalent of the military English I learned while enduring 3 years in the US Army. That vocabulary was a combination of acronyms - both official (AWOL, KIA, etc. and more obscure ones like KATUSA - Korean Augmentation to the US Army), unofficial (FTA - fuck the army) and a plethora of colorful obscenities and quaint expressions ("Hornier than a three-peckered billy goat") to which a sheltered young man from Boulder, Colorado had not been previously exposed.
No, there is none of that, but there are a range of sections including one on "Ordering Enemy to Surrender" that includes the following phrases in English and Chinese:- You are defeated!, You have been surrounded!, We don't kill our captives., We treat POWs well, Put your hands up! Higher!, Stop resistance!, Security of your life is guaranteed!, and Don't die for nothing!.
But after you've captured the aggressor, you still have to interrogate him -- a helpful detail that the PLA website doesn't overlook under "Interrogation of POWs".
Questions run from basics like name, rank and hometown, to stuff no self-respecting soldier is expected to divulge ( What's the total strength of your unit?, What is the morale of your unit?) to pithy queries and statements such as: Do you know our lenient policy towards POWs?, Be lenient towards those who confess their crimes!, The chief criminals shall be punished without fail! and Those who are accomplice under duress shall go unpunished!.
Here's the home link for anyone who wants to learn more. http://english.pladaily.com.cn/
In the meantime, remember to Please have a look at the sand table of our unit ("Visiting Barracks") and that The shooting range is large enough to carry out all the shooting practice ("Visiting Barracks").

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Crime in the City
Since arriving in Hong Kong I've had cautionary comments/warnings from several folks who've never been here about this being a "very dangerous city." Though the extent of my exposure to any crime has been quite minimal and entirely due to my own stupidity ("Does the phrase 'Rolled by a Wan Chai hooker?' mean anything to you, Mr. Mitchell?") I've really felt very safe. But this week alone our paper has reported three crime stories that have had me wondering if perhaps I've been a little too glib. Here's an excerpt from the most recent:
Twelve illegal hawkers who claimed to be from three different triad gangs were arrested yesterday for allegedly selling lunch boxes to construction workers at the Disney theme park construction site on Lantau Island...Authorities seized two metal bars, a hammer and two false vehicle licences. No one was injured during the operation.
This, of course, brings to mind the old school days cliche of the bully shaking down kids down for their lunch money, but in this case it's the opposite. "Lunch boxes" in Hong Kong-speak aren't the plastic or metal ones decorated with cartoon characters that we used to tote to school. They are "box lunches" and these nefarious characters were forcing Disney laborers to eat them...or else!
Public toilets are well-known breeding grounds for crime and Hong Kong is no exception. To whit, this story which featured a color photo of vigilant Hong Kong Chief Inspector Sandra Chui showing a toilet door gate that would-be thieves were thwarted in their efforts to steal:
Police have stepped up patrols of West Kowlooon public toilets follwing a rise in the theft of water taps,, metal gates and drain and manhole covers.
Chief Inspector Sandra Chui said ... there has been a dreamtic increase in such incidents since the start of the year. ...An electric fan worth HK$500 (US$64.10) also went missing at the Ho Man Tin Service Reservoir. There were four thefts in April that resulted in the loss of several water taps and an electric fan. In May, thieves again struck at the Ho Man Tin Service Reservoir toilet, making off with a HK$50 (US$6.40) tissue holder.

Another reason why it's wise to carry a spare packet of tissues with you at all times here. You never know when someone might bust into the loo while you're at your business and demand the toilet paper holder or your life!
And here's the other story that had me questioning my sanity for heedlessly risking my personal safety in a foreign clime:
A cricket tournament in Mong Kok was abandoned yesterday, but no bats, balls or wickets were involved.
Police seized more than 150 insects -- all of them crickets -- and arrested 115 men for forcing the insects to fight to the death and profiting on the results.
In a bizarre twist, the tournament took place in a building that also contains a cricket lovers' association. In the first arrests of their kind in at least a decade, police seized around HK$8,000 in cash, a wooden bucket -- the venue for the fights -- and small baskets housing the crickets.

Animal cruelty for sport? It's not exactly bear baiting or even pit bull or cock fighting, but I can see the concern. But a "cricket lovers' assocation"? Well, maybe. Just as long as it's a safe, consensual relationship based on mutual trust.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Future Games
Just as lasagna tastes better after sitting overnight in the fridge, here's a reheated piece I've written for this weekend's Standard. Apologies for the fact that much of it was posted here only a couple weeks ago, but there's some fresh material, too.

For better or worse, we all know the past; it’s the future that consumes us – whether knowing if you’ll meet Mr. or Ms. Right or simply divining whether the dry cleaner will be able to remove the red wine and curry sauce that you so artfully spewed on your white linen pants at last night’s soiree.
And soothsaying takes many forms, whether it’s tea leaves, a palm, the I-ching, rune stones, tarot cards, a crystal ball, or gutting a fowl and scrutinizing the innards. But at the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin temple (which honors, according to an extract from his "autobiography", Wong Tai Sin aka "The Red Pine Fairy", a fellow who seemed to specialize in turning rocks into sheep and "refining cinnebar nine times into an immortal drug’’) there is a plethora of fortune tellers – 161 to be exact – from which to choose. It’s a two-storey Soothsayer Superstore of sorts overseen by the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.
I first stumbled on ‘’The Fortune-Telling and Oblation Arcade’’ while visiting the temple with a friend who calls himself ‘’the Temple Guy’’ and is in the throes of writing a history of Hong Kong temples.
As temples go, I'd already seen several on the mainland and they'd all pretty much left me a trifle underwhelmed. In fact, while setting up our excursion I'd carped a bit about seeing "another temple" and my pal had replied that "when you're friends with ‘the Temple Guy’ temples is what you get’’.
‘’Why can't I be friends with "The Breakfast in Bed with Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu Guy?’’, I thought.
But the fortune teller mall proved to be a refreshing and entertaining alternative to the usual sickly sweet, lung clogging clouds of joss stick smoke being offered up to garish, demonic and stern looking gods and goddesses.
We were there on a Monday morning when many of the seers seemed to be taking day off. Those that were on duty, mostly elderly and middle-aged men and women, sat looking bored, some dozing or perhaps contemplating futures where they weren't confined to small booths adorned with large palm and face charts and photos of them with ecstatic looking clients.
We were the only potential customers and one old woman who could barely move saw a future in us. "Speak English?" she asked astutely. Amazed at her insight we agreed that we spoke it and she motioned us to follow her up some stairs and down another row of seers til we came to a younger woman who spoke English very quickly, if not exactly fluently. "Probably her daughter," Temple Guy said. She showed us a chart in Chinese with price quotes - everything from $HK100 Kong to answer "one question" to $HK3,000 for a "very, very good fortune’’. I pointed to the $HK300 and asked what I got for that. Turned out it was a palm reading that I bargained down to $HK200.
In a nutshell I found that I'm in good health until age 73.(I have high blood pressure). My ailing father is in great health - but I could have purchased a paper with an inscription in Chinese to put under my pillow to ensure it. My marriage line is "very good" (I'm twice divorced). I'm going to have a ‘’big argument’’ with a woman this month. (Still waiting). Temple Guy and I would make great business partners and I shouldn't lend anyone - "even good friends" - any money. "Hear that?" I asked Temple Guy, to whom I'd just loaned some money.
Intrigued, and wanting to know more about the place I returned recently with a Chinese co-worker as a translator so I could find out a little more.
Business was a little better and most booths were filled this time with folks eager to reveal all for a fee but I was eager to find out exactly what it takes to be a fortune teller. Trusting in fate and a sign that said he also spoke English we wound up at booth 134 where Tonny Cai was holding court. It turned out though he’s a former mechanical engineer, fortune telling also runs in his family.
"My grandmother and auntie were fortune tellers,’’ Cai said. "Very famous and I studied with them.’’
His aunt, in fact, is still in the business and also works at the prognosticating palace in booth 82. "She’s been on TV twice,’’ Cai said proudly and a later quick check of her booth revealed that there was a queue to see her, some probably drawn by the large colour photos of her television appearances posted outside her booth.
Cai does palms, reads faces, practices feng shui, casts the I-ching but said his specialty was a Chinese horoscope system called Pillars of Destiny or Four Pillars, Eight Characters (a precursor to Deng Xiaopeng’s "one country, two systems", perhaps?).
So what are most clients yearning to know?
Cai said most women are concerned about love, marriage and relationships and that his male customers are usually fretting about business/wealth and their health and virility.
Then he subtly predicted that his business wasn’t going to do so well if he kept answering our questions instead of talking; to paying customers.We moved on to booth 116 where Lau Tuen Lam gave us a similar forecast. In other words, if we had the money, he had the time.
"I have no time for a newspaper unless you pay me,’’ he said, pointing to a clipping from a Chinese paper with a story about him and fortune telling for which he said he had been paid to play. Though checkbook journalism is abhorrent to me, I quickly saw a way around this. My 23-year-old coworker had never had her fortune told and it would be interesting to see if Lau’s abilities were any better than the woman who had assured me of my strong, unblemished marriage line.
Lau – a former mainland high school chemistry teacher who learned palmistry and visage reading from a friend – went to work on her hand and then her face. The upshot was that she can look forward to a long, fairly routine life if she can keep her hot temper in check
"You will not live a glamorous life. Your life will not be like Princess Diana,’’ he told her a little regretfully.
"Thank god,’’ I thought. Who wants to live in media-driven fish bowl, be married to a jug-eared guy who once told his mistress that he wants to be "her tampon’ and then die at 37 in a wretched car crash? My coworker, though, looked a little disappointed.
Though I hadn’t paid anything for my fortune, Lau next generously turned his attention to me, studied the bridge of my nose intently and said something solemnly to my coworker in Chinese.
‘’What did he say?’’ I asked.
"He said you will have a bad year when you are 41,’’ she said.
I’ll be 52 in October. But he gets points for flattery.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Juicy Lucy
Beauty, as we all know, is in the eye of the beholder and - as far as Chinese and Western standards are concerned - actress Lucy Liu is a good case in point. What brought her to mind was a profanity-laced noodle lunch I was slurping with a 23-year-old coworker, a young Hong Kong/Chinese "cadet reporter" whom I'll call J. J had been assisting me as a translator for a story I was working on. We were sitting in a crowded Chinese fast food chain eatery when she had asked me if I thought it was "rude" for a woman to swear.
"What the hell do you mean?" I retorted. "No damn woman I respect has a fucking foul mouth!"
She laughed and then pressed me further about various English swear words and their degrees of wickedness. We discussed the flexible "f" word (good as a phrasal, transitive and intransitive verb, a noun, an adjective and as simple exclaimation), the "s" word, "damn", "hell", "a-hole", the "mofo" word, etc. and she finally concluded, giggling a little that: "This damn ramen tastes like shit."
"That was the best language lesson I've had," she said as we left.
"No problem, always happy to corrupt impressionable young minds in the name of mutual cultural understanding," I replied. "Maybe I can ask you some questions sometime."
"I have another question I want to ask," J said.
"Sure, anything."
"Why is it that every western guy my friends and I see with a Chinese woman - why is it that all the women are ugly? Don't westerners have any good taste? Or can't they get any good looking women? My friends say that if we want to date a western guy we should just uglify ourselves."
Aha. This was familiar territory. I'd been down this road before with coworkers at the Shenzhen Daily and it invariably led to the Lucy Liu Debate and just what constitutes beauty. Completely unscientific research on my part has found that all 1.3 billion Chinese think Lucy Liu is a complete skank. A malformed drooling toad. Even worse, a freckled malformed drooling toad and in China the ubiquitous beauty ads that promise flawless, vampire white skin make it clear that freckles and tans are akin to leprosy. Tanned Lucy also sports freckles. And she's also slightly cross-eyed - another bummer on the Chinese beauty scale.
"Wait a minute," I said. "Basically you're talking about Lucy Liu types, right?"
"Yes! Yes! She's sooo ugly! I hate her. I cannot believe how famous she's become."
"I kind of like her freckles," I said. "Most Americans think freckles are cute."
J was aghast and then mentioned the crossed eyes.
"Also cute. Endearing almost!" I rhapsodized.
By this time we were on the subway heading back to the office as the debate raged on - Liu's bitch on wheels Ally McBealLing Woo character, Charlie's Angels, etc. etc.
"I CANNOT believe why she is famous," J repeated. "Westerners are fools when it comes to beauty." Then she noticed something. We'd been so wrapped up in the Great Lucy Brouhaha that we'd boarded the wrong train.
"Goddamn ugly Lucy Liu!" J fumed as we got off at the next stop to double back. "It's all that bitch's fault." She paused a minute and then laughed a little. "Did I sound rude? Did I use those words right?"
"You're a natural," I assured her.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

I was waiting for a bus at a border crossing between Shenzhen and Hong Kong recently when I spotted another foreign barbarian who reminded me of myself about three months ago when I'd been waiting at the same crossing wondering when, and if, I'd ever see the right bus on which to transfer.
The logistics of these crossings/transfers aren't always smooth and as many buses don't have English signs identifying their origin and destination, it's sometimes a long guessing and waiting game. He was sweating heavily, obviously a little confused and pacing frantically, heavy backpack weighing him down as he scanned bus after bus trying to make sense of it all.
"It's a long wait sometimes if you're going to Shenzhen," I said. "Not always easy to figure it out. Just be patient. If all else fails, wave your ticket and look lost long enough and eventually someone will take pity and put us on it."
We began talking in stops and starts as we kept scanning buses ("There! No! Not that one.Maybe...nope. That one?") and what he told me about his year so far in China made me realize how damn little I know and how lucky I'd been to be insulated in the Shenzhen bubble. When we met, he was returning from R&R in Macau and Hong Kong, his first trip outside of his teaching gig in a remote area of northwest China in almost a year.
His said his name was Robert, a 30something year old Australian horse trainer who'd signed on over the Internet to come to China to teach English with an eye to working his way eventually to Macau where there's a thriving casino and horse racing scene. After arriving in Bejing for "training" by what sounded like a joint Chinese-Australian scam outfit, he'd been assigned not to his original school in the south Pearl River Delta (and closer to Macau) but to the hell hole he began to describe where he was one of only 10 foreigners.
His contract stated he had to take housing in the college where he taught and as such he was also forbidden to bring women into his apartment. "I've was celebate for 11 months, but I just made up for that in Macau," he said, chuckling grimly. "I couldn't even meet a woman for a cup of tea or coffee, much less walk down the street with one because men would shout at her and call her a 'slut' because she was with a foreigner. It made dating a little difficult."
That wasn't the least of it. He said he believed his phone was tapped ("I would call family in Melbourne and then a day later an administrator would say something like 'I hope your brother is doing well' after I'd just spoken to him") and he knew he was being followed for several months after his arrival.
"Then I think they realized that my life there is so bloody boring and routine and meaningless that they got bored tailing me. But I'd get invited to 'lunch' a lot by local police and some city officials and they'd want to know over and over what I thought of Bush and Iraq and (Australian prime minister) Howard."
While the police were apparently interested in their Aussie suspect, Robert said they turned a blind eye to goings-on at the Chinese pubs he'd hit.
"People there snort rails of ketamine (a horse muscle relaxant) right off the bar. Chinese blokes will buy one beer and then eight glasses of water cuz they're higher than kites snorting powder off the tables and bar. Meanwhile, I was drinking eight beers a night. The pubs make more money selling water than beer. It's the wild west, gone mad."
He said he was going to finish out his contract and then hoped to find something else closer to Macau or Hong Kong. I offered to try and get him some English teaching contacts in Shenzhen and he gave me his e-mail address.
We found our bus and finally cleared the Shenzhen border where we parted - me to see some SZ friends and him to the airport and a long flight back to the abyss.
We exchanged goodbyes and as I started toward a cab stand when I heard him shout. I turned and he spread his arms in mock desperation.
"Help me!" he shouted as the various bus station/border crossing passengers and hustlers stopped for a moment to stare at the weird foreigner. "Help me, please!"
"I will!" I shouted."E-mail. I promise. First thing Monday!"

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Whammer Jammer
The Standard has been running occasional pieces I've recycled from Shenzhen Zen and they've had a mostly positive impact. Recently, I was asked to turn my latent reportorial skills to something fresher and the result was an assignment to have my way with the Fifth Annual Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival. I just filed the story for our weekend edition, but here's a sneak peek for anyone who can't be bothered to wait til Saturday or otherwise doesn't have easy access to a newspaper in Hong Kong.

The security guards at the Fifth Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre didn't look like anything I couldn't handle.At the moment I lacked hard credentials, harmonica, press or otherwise, but I'd also spent 12 years as a rock 'n' roll journalist and had bluffed my way backstage for the likes of Metallica and occasionally been booted out by the best.
If I could handle ``Roadzilla'' - an infamous, burly rent-a-goon for a slew of bands ranging from Van Halen to Slayer - the fresh-faced high school and college volunteers guarding access to the 1,500 attendees and harmonica superstars like South Korea's Lee Hea-bong, Singapore's Shen Chin-sik and Hong Kong's own Rocky Lok Ying-kei would be no problem.
And indeed, the magic phrase ``I'm with the press'' worked wonders. As you might imagine, the humble harmonica gets very little press. To most uninitiated minds it's vaguely associated with Bob Dylan, the intro to the Beatles' Love Me Do, lonesome cowpokes moping around flickering black and white Warner Brothers campfires and perhaps names like The Harmonicats - whose recording of Peg O' My Heart shot to number one in 1947 and would go on to sell 20 million copies.
Harmonica fact #1: In 1965 a tiny Hohner ``Little Lady'' model blown by astronaut Wally Schirra in the Gemini VI spacecraft became the first instrument played in space.
Certainly few realize that it's also a classical instrument, particularly in Asia where performers and groups such as Yasuo Watani of Japan, the King's Harmonica Quintet and Beijing's China YanHuang Harmonica Chamber Music Group tackle the likes of Rachmaninov and Mozart as well as contemporary compositions such as The Last Time We Met Larry Adler in Hong Kong.
Larry who? you might well ask. I know I did because virtually every Chinese harp player I queried mentioned him as an inspiration and looked at me askance when I pleaded ignorance. Turns out that Adler, who at age 12 won the Baltimore Sun's harmonica contest in 1927 by playing Beethoven's Minuet in G and went on to lucrative and creative career as a performer and film composer, was also was blacklisted in the early 1950's due to his opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He went into self-imposed exile in England where he died in 2001 at age 85.
A leftist politically martyred legend. No wonder he's a harmonica god in China.
``Larry Adler is the best,'' 23-year-old Zhang Wei told me through a translator. Zhang came to the festival from Beijing with his newly-formed quartet to compete and had saved his yuan for two years for the opportunity. ``By way of fact, he says it is a pity you do not know him,'' I was told.
``How about Charlie Musselwhite? Little Walter? Or Magic Dick from the J. Geils Band,'' I asked, mentioning three American blues harp legends. ``Ask him if he's heard of them''
He hadn't, but it took a British-by-way-of-New Zealand blues/jazz/Irish music harp legend, Brendan Power, who has recorded with Sting, Paul Young and Van Morrison, among many others, to explain why. I had collared Power as he was on his way to a rehearsal for his Friday night festival concert mainly because he looked vaguely familiar and, judging from his appearance I astutely surmised that he probably spoke fluent English. My friendly translator - who also spoke Korean - had been reassigned to deal with a South Korean group who was apparently carping about their lodging arrangements. Sort of like the members of Van Halen throwing a fit over finding brown M&Ms in their backstage catering, I thought. Maybe this was closer to rock 'n' roll than I had imagined.
``Blues and western rock music is not a big part of Chinese culture,'' Powers told me patiently. ``They prefer a sweeter sound which is why classical and folk harmonica music is more popular. Personally, I'm also interested in what they play and their traditional music - particularly the erhu (the two string Chinese violin).''
Harmonica fact #2: The harmonica has its roots in China where the first free-reed instruments were developed around 3,000 BC. Some say Marco Polo brought an early version back to Italy from China. Others credit a French Jesuit missionary who shipped a free-reed wind instrument called the sheng to Paris in 1776.
Perhaps Hong Kong's biggest harmonica champion is the festival organizer, Rocky Lok Ying-kei who, when he isn't playing with his King's Harmonica Quintet also works for the China branch of the Campbell Soup company. He formed the quintet 30 years ago with schoolmates from King's College and - unlike most pop and rock music bands that self-destruct or splinter after a three or four year run - they're still together.``The harmonica is an extension of your personality, of your soul,'' Lok told me passionately. ``If you can draw a breath, you can make a sound. It's the most natural musical sound there is, apart from the human voice. Not like a trumpet or a saxophone.''
Lok also noted that ``the barrier of entry'' to playing a harp makes it an attractive option for any musically inclined soul who can't afford a guitar, trumpet or sax. ``I was 11 or 12 when I began playing,'' Lok said. ``At my school, King's College, everyone had to take part in a cultural thing, like music, and a sports thing as well as our normal studies. My family was quite poor in Hong Kong and a harmonica was cheap - 20 or 30 dollars. For the price of box lunch I could enter the musical arena. It's funny though. After a few years of playing I also found it is also not so cheap. Now I have a couple of $50,000 harmonicas.''
Lok also had his hands full during the festival's opening day, particularly dealing with a medical emergency when one attendee fell on some stairs and cut his head.The last time I had personally experienced blood being drawn at a musical event was when I'd seen an enthusiastic young man crack his nose and forehead open while stage-diving during a performance by an justifiably obscure American punk band called Kentucky Fried Children.
``It's all right. He's conscious,'' Lok told me after being briefed by the festival staff.
A floor below I could see and hear Zhang Wei's quartet on the open stage giving a harmonica twist to something by Mozart. A more soothing sonic background than Kentucky Fried Children, I thought, particularly if you've split your head.

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