non-fiction rock from Aotearoa New Zealand

It’s a long way to Chengdu if you want a spicy box of tofu

wp-1477852006492.jpgAwake early, sitting in the window at Kristen’s apartment 14 stories off the ground in Chengdu. It is raining. The city’s grey. Down below the cars, buses, scooters, bikes, three-wheeled scooter-like-utes with incredible haulage capacity, and people with umbrella-heads navigate the random non-contact wrestle match across the slickened roads.

There is an incessant, deepthroated and pervasive roar,  a thrumm, a background constant in the lower register, a tinnitus of bass. Above the drone is the goose call of commuting critters, the arrhythmic non-linear choir calling out in unison, in random, in response, or alone to the audience directly in their personal point of view. From up here we just get the overview, the overtones,  a box-seat to the show below.

Its musical at a distance, quite something else to wrestle with on a daily basis.

We arrived in Chengdu yesterday morning after a 20 hour train ride from Guiyang. We so nearly missed the train on the Monday morning. The cab we took got mired in the morning traffic close to the station, we bailed and ran, ran through security checking tickets and passports, ran through the terminus to the gate, bolted through 2nd level security with bags getting scanned,  ran to the gate,  ran down the escalators to the platform where carriage 2 was in front of us, then ran to our carriage numbered 14 on an empty platform with the guards telling Kristen and us to hurry up! Helpful and encouraging advice! We were the last passengers to board.

We had three hardsleepers booked for the journey. Sleeper carriages are fitted with flatbed bunks three high. They were not as hard as they sounded. In fact we all slept an enormous amount while cradled inside the soporific rocking. Surprisingly our slumber was not even disturbed by the constant high volume pop music, including the occasional unusual interpretation of an American pop songs from the early 80s played on saxophone. Even the regular rattle and roll of the food trolley at 30 minutes intervals was not enough of a distraction to break sleep. Occasionally we convened to eat and chat and revel in the perfectly placed downtime in transit to rest, recover and graze.

There were also wonderful window seats on which to perch. A great opportunity to gaze out at the passing scenery, the cities with their changing architecture,  the resourcefully farmed land, the industrial sites and the ever-present construction sites. Massive towers to hold overhead tracks for bullet trains are being constructed everywhere, arterial connections weave across this expansive geography. The erecting of skyscrapers seems to be happening everywhere as well, towers upon towers upon towers rise up from the landscapes. And almost everywhere is the brown haze that obscures the sky, the horizon, and sometimes things in close proximity.


We arrived in Chengdu at 5am Tuesday morning. We catch a cab and travel through the relatively quiet streets of early morning Chengdu. Out of the blue we get the chance to experience a skilful subversion by the driver. We turn left into a street and the boot of the taxi pops open. We shout out to let the driver know as all our gear is in the back. He continues to drive and Kristen continues to try and convince him to stop so we can close the boot protecting our gear. He doesn’t stop. Moments later though, once around the corner, he pulls over and closes the lid, locking our gear away safely. He then let’s us know that this was an intentional manoeuvre. The left hand turn was illegal. To make the turn and not get caught on the CCTV camera he would need to pop the boot, this made the licence plate unreadable to the cameras. This made our trip shorter, cheaper, and the driver would not get in trouble.

We arrive at Kristen’s apartment all bags intact. Decant from the cab, into the apartment and are introduced to our soft bed where we then sleep for another two to three hours.

It’s cooler here in Chengdu, but not cold. We’re deep inland far from the equator, possibly the furtherest we’ve ever been from the ocean. There’s also a lot of well established trees in this city, alongside the river, down most of the street we have walked as well as some impressive roof top gardens. Havent noticed much in the way of bird life though, only one mini-murmer of homing pigeons. In fact there’s been an overall lack of animal life anywhere.

This absence of beasts reminds us of a fascinating conversation from the previous day. It’s a curious thing pondering the vastness of meat consumption here. It seems everything protein-based is up for consumption. It makes an interesting topic to discuss. One of the most interesting and thought provoking explanations offered suggested that it’s linked back to the Great Leap Forward and the policy of Mao. After the massive famine in the early sixties where millions upon millions died, food became rationed and obtainable only by coupons. These coupons were received on a weekly basis and were never enough. Everyone remained hungry. But it was a shared hunger. The person in our conversation said every household never got enough so there was a collective camaraderie in hunger. As the people who lived through this hardship aged, grew up and went on to have families, their lives have also coincided with China’s astonishing growth in prosperity. In response, to ensure that the next generation of children would not experience the deprivations that their parents endured, high priority is given to food, particularly to food that was in the past scarce, such as meat and protein. So from having next to nothing to having an extreme access to everything, the Chinese diet revolves around meat and it dominates every meal.

We wake for the second time today and then head off for a meal in a local eatery. It’s amazing. Peanut milk, green beans and chill, mapo tofu like we’ve never had before, sweet and sour lotus root, and a green leafy vegetable, that is know as heartless greens, cooked in vast quantities of garlic. Sensational.

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Next we taxi to the venue NU Space as Kristen has some work to do there, and we get to see the venue that are going play in tomorrow. We chill on the cafe with beer and books. We scoff pan-fried dumplings on the way back to the apartment then slip into rest.

Tuesday is all about the show. We wake and eat a marvellous green meal of pancakes and soup and oily chilli peppers and unfamiliar leafy greens before heading back to Nu Space. The afternoon is occupied by sound checks and arranging stages. The Nu Space venue is one aspect of the Min Town facility. This space has a cafe, art gallery and the performance area. One of the key focuses is the creation of a new space to help facilitate the creation of new creative works. Programming the venue is one of Kristen’s key roles. The space is also in a development phase with explorations around creating a more online, live-streamed and interactive experience. It will be interesting to watch how the space develops.

The evening show opens with Don Trash, Kristen’s performance moniker. A solo guitar, looped and effected soundscape, reminiscent of Godspeed you Black Emperor or Grouper, but with more uplifting hooks to hold your ears amid the wash. We’re pleased to see Kristen’s performance and encourage her to keep playing publicly as currently she does so only rarely. It’s not easy to gauge how widespread the free music scene is here, there’s real potential for it to flourish at Nu Space and we are sure Kristen’s role will be pivotal.

When our turn comes comes we crank out a strong and lively set illuminated by PLGRM, a bloke from the US who has lived here for a number of years doing VJing. The photos give you a glimpse playing in the spaying colour was even cooler.

After the show we pack our gear and head for a late meal with Kristen and some folk who came to see the show, including the HiPerson crew, whose album we had been admiring earlier in the day. There we get to experience the amazing local meal that is tofu in a box, a spicy fried/baked dishes that is totally amazing to the tastebuds. Washed down with beer and other local treats it is a fine way to complete our respite in Chengdu.


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