The story of Lem the singer

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Lawrence of China is going slow on the Baijiu and is the first to notice that the bar has live music. Kind of; the singer has karaoke backing. Next to her a piano is covered in red velvet. A few of us keep aside the shots of sorghum liquor and listen. She has a good voice. It inspires several people in the party to do a Karaoke. During this I realize that she’s not Chinese.

China is a new magnet: even with its economic swings, even as skilled Chinese learn English and dream of settling in the US. The economic growth and the accumulation of money means that there are new opportunities for workers as well as entertainers. Some years ago Tash Aw came close to the Booker Prize with a novel about immigrant workers in China. Some are illegal factory workers, others relatively well-paid entertainers, and then there are the academics and stratospheric bankers. I’ve only met the high-earning Shanghai Pudong expats before. They are different, their backs rest briefly in China, their legs straddle continents. I have no idea what it is to be an immigrant struggling to make it in China.

Her name is Lem. She is from the Philippines. She’s happy to talk about her work and her experience of China. I learn that she always wanted to do music. Lem says that she was part of a band, all members of which have been in China for a while. They could not get a job together initially. She got a contract with this hotel in Wuhan, others in her band found work in Chongqing. Lem looks at me questioningly as she mentions this town. I nod. Although I’ve heard of it, I can’t recall how far away it is.

I ask how it is to live in China. She says, obliquely, that she liked her job in the hotel; it helped her to get experience in a smaller place in China. Wuhan has a population of 10 million; more than New York City holds. But I can see that for her it would be a small place. Bangalore has a similar population, but has more music pubs.

Outside of work? Lem evades this question. She says she has a room in the hotel, so she does not have to try to rent a place on her own. She has visited her band members several times in the year. They now have a contract to play together.

She perks up. Her contract here has ended and she will leave Wuhan after the weekend. She and her band have a contract to play together in Nanjing. She looks a question at me again. Yes, I know about Nanjing. Never been there. Is it better than Wuhan? She nods vigorously. I know that it is closer to Shanghai. She agrees. She eventually wants to go to Shanghai. I know how lively the music scene is in Shanghai. I wish her luck. Lem smiles broadly and thanks me.

I run into her in the lobby the next morning. She’s dressed for a sunny day, her last in Wuhan. She is bubbling and happy, ready for the next year of her life. I wish her luck. China, like India, is a hard and competitive place. She’ll need luck.

Wuhan’s east lake in two moods


I arrived in Wuhan a couple of days after typhoon Mujigae hit southern China. It was raining in Shanghai and Wuhan. I checked in and looked out of the window at Wuhan’s famous East Lake and saw the foggy scene in the photo above. Very dark and brooding, I thought to myself. Misty like a Chinese landscape painting. All I was missing in the photo was a man in the middle distance fishing.


A couple of days later the weather had changed. The days were clearer than I’d ever seen in Wuhan before. The East Lake was a placid mirror reflecting the blue of the sky and the white fluffy clouds. The days were perfect for casual strolls by the lake. I liked these days better, but I liked that darker picture more.

Wuhan Art Deco

wuhanconcessionWuhan is a sprawling town which incorporates the three former towns called Wuchang, Hanyang and Hankou. Wuchang is famous for the revolution of 1911 which overthrew the Qing dynasty and eventually gave rise to Kuomintang China. Across the Yangtze river from Wuchang is the square mile of Hankou which was ceded to foreign powers by the 1885 Treaty of Tientsin. I went to see the Wuhan Bund which was built as a flood-protection measure on the Hankou side of the river in 2005. While exiting the Bund on to Yanjiang Dadao, I noticed that there seemed to be several Art Deco buildings on the other side of the road. In the photo above you can see the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank right in the center. In the photo it appears in front of the tall blue tower called the Jiali Plaza, once the tallest building in Wuhan. Next to the HSBC bank is the old National City Bank of New York, now the ICBC Bank. These two buildings are flying the Chinese flag.

wuhanportI crossed the road and realized that the massive building which was once the Port of Hankou was also an Art Deco structure. You can recognize it in the clean curves you see in this photo. I wish I could read what’s written on the facade; I’m still unable to read calligraphic Chinese writing. Other parts of the port have the straight lines and curving flares typical of this style. The discovery of Wuhan’s Art Deco past was a bit of a jolt. I had very little time to explore it. I continued walking away from the Bund and towards a building that I later realized was the Old Customs House. At the street level, shops had put up their own facades, but if you looked higher you could see several buildings with tell-tale Art Deco lines and trim. I was amazed. This part used to be the old British Concession, and I’d expected the heavy late-Victorian architecture of the late 19th century, not the light and playful Art Deco of several decades later. Afterwards, when I thought about it I realized I should not have been surprised. Even in Mumbai there is a mixing of these two architectural styles.

2015-10-09 11.57.38On my ten minute walk I also saw Art Nouveau in many places. One example was this neglected gate: the superposition of the playful vines on the straight lines of the grilles is a lovely piece of Deco. This was almost my last discovery. My walk ended at the Customs House, and the Social Realist style statue nearby commemorating the city’s protection from floods. I realize now, while browsing the net, that this period of Wuhan’s architecture is well-known but ill-documented. Certainly the neglected gate above, with its mixture of Art Nouveau and Chinese styles is an unique, but unremarked heritage. When I go back I must devote more time to exploring this area.

China again


The yellow crane has long since gone away,
All that here remains is yellow crane tower.
The yellow crane once gone does not return,
White clouds drift slowly for a thousand years.
The river is clear in Hanyang by the trees,
And fragrant grass grows thick on parrot isle.
In this dusk, I don’t know where my homeland lies,
The river’s mist-covered waters bring me sorrow.
— Cui Hao

I’m off to China again for a week, this time to Wuhan near the Three Gorges on the Yangtze river. Wuhan was historically important, and is one of the oldest cities in China. There are a few classic poems about the Yellow Crane tower next to the river. The most famous is the poem by Cui Hao on the right. Hao died in 754, and his poem was inscribed on a wall of the tower. It is said that Li Bai, perhaps the most famous of medieval Chinese poets, tried to write a better poem about the tower, but was unable to. A famous story, often told, is about Li Bai dreaming that the walls of the tower were reconstructed without Cui Hao’s poem, and he being asked to inscribe something on the blank new wall.

The old wooden tower stood next to the river. It was destroyed to build the Yangtze bridge that you can see in the photo above. The new concrete building (photo above) is situated in view of the river, but about a kilometer away. Traffic which comes over the bridge passes by the new pagoda style tower. The photo also shows the incredible pollution which is one of the things this city is famous for. The last time I was at the tower, I saw a tea house which was closed. I hope I can find it open once now. Wuhan is a center of tea trade, and I would like to have a tea here before going on to one of the huge tea markets which were my first introduction to the incredible variety of Chinese teas.

I’m looking forward to being in China again, this time armed with a smattering of Chinese words, and the ability to form simple sentences. I’m sure that my vocabulary will run out in a couple of sentences, since I know very few verbs, but it will be good to try to speak. I’m not there long, so the spotty access to wordpress and google will be an irritant rather than a major problem.