- by Jody Stecher 

Q: Hey Paul, want to go to China? 
A: Will they have coffee there?

In June 2000 I traveled to Beijing to play fiddle at a nine day barbecue gig on the patio of a luxury hotel. I brought two old friends, Paul Hostetter and Heath Curdts, to play guitar and banjo. We were the Blue Mountain Ramblers and we had an amazingly good time. 

My friend Bill Evans was going to perform at the 1999 Fourth of July celebration at the American Embassy in Beijing. Playing five-string banjo. Solo. As the opening act for The Supremes. This bizarre double bill proved to be more than unlikely. It was canceled when NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. 

A year later Bill, who is not the famous but deceased jazz pianist some at the embassy thought they had booked, was invited to Beijing again, this time for an event called The Great American Barbecue. Bill had prior commitments and passed the gig to me along with an ongoing series of strange email messages forwarded from China that began to impart to events in my life a surrealistic quality that resembled the shifting sands of Chinese politics. 

The event was first described as an agricultural fair. I pictured myself in a green valley fiddling amongst huge piles of vegetables, rambunctious pigs and several million people. Details poured in. The US Department of Agriculture was throwing a party for 800 Chinese guests to be followed by 8 days dedicated to the promotion of American food products. My band would provide the live soundtrack. Yikes! The entire event would take place at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel and we would be accommodated there.  So much for the pigs and longbeans. Sounded comfy though.

Over the next few weeks I learned that a bluegrass band comprised entirely of banjos was to play two 45 minute daytime 30 minute sets of old time music on fiddle guitar and mandolin each night 3 times daily in the lounge in the atrium outdoors in the indoor patio. This was to take place June 20-28 and was happening June 18-25. After that it got confusing. 

One never sensed that the writer (who was not Chinese) knew or minded that he had reversed course. It was very perplexing, especially the shifts in urgency which accompanied contradictory certainties about what kind of visas we would need. There were government "formalities to fulfill that would make Kafka envious" and we could enter China with tourist visas which we couldn't do. Eventually we connected with Peter Moustakersky from the American Embassy in Shanghai and everything became simple. Peter answered all questions, cleared the path before we came, upgraded our seats to business class, and gave us an American welcome to China in a way that only a Bulgarian could. 

The telephone booth in the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco would not accept dimes even though the cost of a call was 35 cents. I arrived there with 3 signed visa applications and a pocket full of money. Paul and Heath gave me cash but mischievously urged me to ask "Do you take Visa?" As if I needed more chaos. Heath's job description, media consultant, set off a silent alarm. The polite and friendly official made it clear that they simply couldn't have the M word on a visa application. 

Q: Media!!!! What kind of a writer is he? 
A: He's not a writer. He helps people produce videos.
Q: Will he write political magazine articles criticizing China?
A: No, this is a vacation. He never writes.
Q: What will he write about then?
A: Nothing.
Q: Nothing?
A: Correct.
Q: OK, no problem.
United Airlines actually lets us into business class! After twelve of the most comfortable airborne hours any of us has experienced we begin our descent. Spectacular green rugged mountains with startling sheer drops give way to cornfields and wheat and then we're in Beijing.

We are required to fill out a quarantine declaration that we're free from "fever, cough, mental psychosis (is there any other kind, like physical psychosis??), animals, soil or waste clothing." Waste clothing? The Chinese government doesn't want us to bring dirty laundry into their country or what? This is PRC, not Chinese laundry. Psychotics go home.

The American Embassy sent three helpful people to meet us but we didn't see them, possibly because we were perpetually looking down at the shiniest floors I've ever seen anywhere. We are discovered and guided through customs without incident. This deft operation consisted of pushing several carts full of luggage forward and not looking at any officials.

Soon we were speeding toward central Beijing in the Embassy van. Everywhere I looked was familiar vegetation. Our rooms at the Great Wall Sheraton were very comfortable but we couldn't rest in them long, the hotel wanted us for a soundcheck immediately. Heath does manage to find a moment to sit on and - ha! I'm not the only one who does this – destroy his reading glasses (made in China). This will lead to adventures. 

We trudge out to the Barbecue site. Jetlagged and (some of us) unwashed, we are led to a spot between two hollow five-foot stage prop volcanoes which belched steam twenty-four hours a day. Eventually a soundman materializes. Heath tries to convey to him that in the interests of minimizing feedback we want the mandolin mic off when not in use. It is an insurmountable problem. Would he relocate his board from behind a volcano to a place where we can see him and communicate? He throws a tantrum. We play our first set; all the mics but three are dead and the soundman has vanished.  On the following evening our sound man is Johnson, a pleasure to work with, a pro. (Many Chinese have adopted English names for use with foreigners.) They worked alternate nights so every other evening we get the tantrum vendor. He never once brought the right number of cables, could not see why the speakers ought to be connected to something, could not mix, hear, count or remember to show up during the times we were actually playing. He eventually worked out a mixing system: all channels up equally. Democracy! 

The hotel had good mics but a wind screen was a novel idea. We described what we wanted and an hour later a man arrived with a foam mattress and a knife. Paul had a better idea. United had given us booties to wear. Business Class, you know. I had worn mine to the airplane toilet several times and did not relish singing into them. A quick trip to Paul's room turned up fresh unused booties and some rubber bands. Voilà: Blue Mountain wind screens.

Between sets we were subjected to a fashion show. A passing waiter stopped to approve of my fiddle and to disparage the antics taking place on the runway as "disgusting." The show was strange, to say the least. Tall, bald Chinese girls drenched in attitude and dressed in animal skins slinked and cavorted and reinforced my belief that fashion designers hate women.  At one point they were modeling mink bikinis to the strains of what I thought was a Chinese band but, according to Paul, who has teenaged daughters and Knows About These Things, was the Norwegian group Abba, singing 'Yo yo, yo yo, yo yo yay, Tarzan big, Tarzan strong' or similar words of equal depth.  "This is what Chinese businessmen like," we were told. Oh.

The Great American Barbecue turned out to be part of an effort on the part of the US  Embassy to sell convenience foods and other American edibles to an emerging Chinese middle class. The sponsors included The US Potato Board, The California Prune Council and something called  "American Pernut Council" which was always spelled like that.  The Cult of the Individually Wrapped had been introduced to China. In our bathrooms we find little round courtesy soaps so very securely (and individually) wrapped we can hardly get them open. They do not easily dissolve in water either. We have been given California prunes. Individually wrapped. After a struggle I get few open and soak 'em overnight in an individually wrapped cup of bottled water. They prove to be delicious. I can't vouch for the taste of the soap. And I don't see how an individually wrapped prune is "convenient."

Wednesday - I'm up at dawn and eager to explore. The Sheraton is a Sheraton but walk through the revolving door and it's China out there. It is phenomenally exciting to be here. Lots of students on bicycles, lots of street vendors, lots of people, lots of buses, lots of noise, it's great. And it's five AM! Throughout our stay we found the people of Beijing to be neither shy nor aggressive but frankly curious and sweetly responsive in a down to earth way when approached with friendliness. They remind me of my grandparents.

After a breakfast of congee (rice porridge) spiked with peanuts and pickles, scrambled eggs, excellent toast, and strong Lavazza(!) coffee we all decide to visit an old part of Beijing south of Tiananmen Square. We discover that small cabs (usually red Xialis) are cheaper and skillfully driven.  There are no stop signs in Beijing. Everybody yields! It's remarkable. I had read that Beijing motorists are rude. We found them to be polite and patient. No anger, no hurry. I found a similar object lesson in the widespread but quiet use of cell phones. People step away and shield their mouth when using them. 

We alight from the Xiali and quickly attract a tenacious young couple who ask us an awful lot of questions. Paul thinks they only want to practice their English. I decide they are government spies. They walk with us for hours and translate as we try to replace Heath's glasses. They are art students, would we visit the gallery where they work?  We enter a shop on a very noisy street and walk up three flights. The small art gallery is serene. A middle aged woman presides. Her presence, poise and dignity are an aesthetic experience equal to the best paintings there.  Paul buys several including a four foot scroll mounted on silk portraying a pretty teenaged girl painted in a way that beautifully combines old and new. Traditional strokes and paints show her sitting comfortably on the floor holding an apple in her cupped hands. Short hair frames her enigmatic face and she is wearing running shoes. It is stunning. Today Heath begins to acquire Mao Zedong alarm clocks.  The better ones have a jet plane second hand or a female worker perpetually waving a Little Red Book.  Ideal Christmas presents!  Heath's bargaining style is fierce and the street vendors enjoy the sport. 

Thursday - The Forbidden City was designed to impress and intimidate, the Emperors of China ruled from here.  Heath gets the willies from certain walls and rooms, senses ghosts and intuits executions. Heath disappears and Paul and I get a chop made, a hand carved personal seal that we hope says ‘Blue Mountain Ramblers’ in ancient Chinese.

We've been asked to do an early set indoors in the atrium. Unlike the outdoor audience who seem to like us, this bunch really don't get our music but Channa, the hotel manager, was delighted with the results.  "You were brilliant. I had every Tom Dick and Harry looking over the railing!"

Our repertoire was replete with references to potentially Barbecueable Animals and I exploited this coincidence in my stage banter at the Great American Barbecue which elicited no response whatsoever from the audience. Every set now contained some of the following:

Pig In A Pen, Groundhog, Boll Weevil (2 versions-yum), Mole In The Ground, Whoa Mule Whoa (yum yum yum), Ducks On the Millpond, Cluck Old Hen, I Got A Bulldog, Grey Eagle, The Cuckoo, Buffalo Gals(!), Forked Deer, Saddle Up The Grey, and Big-eyed Rabbit. 

Now you might be thinking that these Blue Mountain Barbecue Boys are shockingly inclusive in what they consider edible, but this was China. Long ago I met a Cantonese violin maker at a fiddle shop in California. His art had been introduced to China by Germans in Shanghai. He proudly told me the motto of his southeast province: A Cantonese will eat anything with legs except a table, anything that flies except an airplane, and anything that swims except a submarine. We observed that although Beijing preferred northern vegetables, the meaning of meat was as in southern China. Dogmeat with black bean sauce was ordinary restaurant fare. Bear paw and camel hump, lizard, owl, armadillo, snake, fried scorpion and yak were easily available if not ubiquitous. We did not sample these delicacies though I did eat a bowl of Hot and Sour Soup that contained a dozen more varieties of meat than I can name. We were reasonably adventuresome in our diet. One of the most remarkable dishes we had was described on the menu as "braised chicken with hot chilies."  This turned out to be more of an event than a meal. A platter of 150 or more dried red chili peppers stir fried with a cup of small chicken bone fragments were brought to the table. When we'd nibble on a bone to taste the little bit of meat clinging there the whole morsel melted in the mouth. 

Another day we had french fried potatoes which had been tossed with a preserved dark brown mystery vegetable from Sichuan province.  We all liked this pickle so much we bought a kilo from the restaurant kitchen at an insane markup.  The waitress tells us that a handful of this spongy brown mass is really good with noodles. How true.

One of the biggest culinary surprises was the high quality Italian food at our hotel. There was even a genuine wood fire pizza oven and a dedicated pizza chef. I have not tasted pizza in California this good. 

Friday - Every morning at about half past six an English language newspaper is brought to the door of each of our rooms.... except for mine, which is the site of a hotel staff game of Let's Hide Stuff From Jody. Days on which the paper is delivered alternate with ones on which my socks migrate, any postcards I have written are taken away to be returned 48 hours later, or my bedspread vanishes. Today's big news story concerns a poor rural fisherman who had been speared to death, pierced through the liver by a malignant swordfish that jumped out of the water unprovoked. The village is terrorized. Who will be next?

At the Great Bell Temple about 100 large bells from all over China are on display. We find an ancient instrument of hanging jade bells that are arranged in two rows like a piano or marimba. The Great Bell itself, covered inside and out with Buddhist verses, is, for a small fee, bongable. Heath does the honors. 

At a nearby outdoor market Heath bargains for reading glasses as we attract attention just for being there. At a hat stall where most of the merchandise says "Nike" he acquires a woven plastic cap with a three-row message:

Tomorrow Is Best Today
The Retun of H.K. Back to China

Who is this message for? Why is it in English? And what does it mean? 

Friday is Dragon Night at the Great Wall Sheraton. There are jugglers and acrobats and a brilliant clown/conjurer who throughout her whole fifteen minute performance dances to a tape loop of two trumpets harmonizing a demented melody accompanied by electric guitar and bass playing Johnny Rivers’ "Memphis" hook. I look at Paul – don't we know this tune? Wait, it's The Clarinet Polka!  A B-flat fiddle tune!  Only Petronella is more universally feared! But it sounds great when Bill Evans plays it on the banjo. A wave of wonder ripples through me. The summer night was balmy, the conjurer completely embodied her archetypal character, and I'm in China, because of Bill, listening to music that has gone through infinite transformations. Now that's conjuring. 

Saturday - Peter has arranged an expedition to the Great Wall at Simatai, an unrestored site two hours north of Beijing. At 6:30 AM the rain is coming down steady. It is a relief from the heat but we wonder what we'll see. By the time we reach the villages near the wall Looking west from a guard tower: Mongolia on the right, China on the left. Blue Mountains.the weather has cleared and we discover we are in beautiful countryside. We take a cable tram up to the wall. Every time a hanging car passes a power pole loud speakers are activated and one is bombarded by insipid pop music. Several times the cars just stop and swing. I contemplate my death.  Heath fantasizes the cars being stuck and people flinging themselves from the cars to escape the music. We spend several hours on the Wall. China on one side, Mongolia on the other. The view is awesome, there is no other word. Ridge after rocky green ridge as far as the eye can see. The wall is built on a mountain so steep the wall itself seems rather redundant as a barbarian deterrent. It is more a statement of power than a functional defense. We asked about the crumbling mortar between the stones of the wall. "White powder" (gypsum?) and rice water. The Great Wall Of China is held together with rice! 

Wang Gung Cai tuning up his really big sanxian
We had driven the first 100 yards back to Beijing when we spy a blind man being led up the road. On his back is the biggest fretless banjo we've ever seen.  The head was snakeskin, the neck was fretless and the string length not much short of four feet. We tumble out of the van and have a conversation followed by a concert. He was a young man of great spirit and dignity. After a preliminary medley of Yankee Doodle, O Susanna and Doe a Deer set to belly dance rhythm, he settled down to a half hour of beautiful soulful vocal and instrumental music. His instrument is called sanxian (pronounced sahn-shyen) which means three strings, and this large version is the traditional instrument of blind minstrels. The villagers have been harvesting wheat. There is a swimming hole nearby. People of all ages gather to hear the music and look at us listening. There is a blue sky and as time stops I have intimations of Heaven accompanied by an aching memory and longing. This reminds me of my childhood summers in a vanished America. There is an innocence here that my country has lost.

Jody holding forth, Wang Gung Cai applauding and our Wall guide happily listening.

Our trip back to the city is also a journey through time. We encounter incredible vistas, a herd of goats stopping traffic, small donkeys and ducks crossing the road and terraced fields that evoke an older China.

An epiphany at the hotel: the toilet paper has a rough side and a smooth side. It has taken me only five days to discover this. I am going to be happier.

Sunday– We have an early morning appointment with Suzanne Hale, the American Embassy's Minister-Counselor for Agricultural Affairs. She is a Sacred Harp singer, a big bluegrass fan and she has volunteered to show us her favorite spots in Beijing. I oversleep and fling myself into my clothes without shower or shave and fly downstairs to keep my appointment. I couldn't have picked a better day to be unwashed. We're going to The Dirt Market!

The Dirt Market is a huge overwhelming weekend flea market some of which is under the bright roof of a hangar-like pavilion and some of which is, well, in the dirt. Heath buys a dragon-headed old erhu (ahr-hoo), a popular two-string Chinese fiddle with a snakeskin-covered hexagonal sound chamber. The light bow slips between the two metal strings which are tuned in fifths. Paul and I buy brass locks shaped like violins. Suzanne bargains for an antique sanxian, a gift for Bill Evans. I'll transport it. The owner is mute so the bargaining is particularly interesting.  Heath obtains the man's address.  He has three more sanxians at home and has invited us there to view them, perchance to purchase. Heath disappears and Paul and I wander and try to focus through the chaos of unfamiliar stuff. "Call me Andy" says a nineteen year old boy who has suddenly attached himself to us and helps us sort it out.

Thanks to Suzanne and her love of Beijing we experience what would have taken us months to uncover for ourselves, the urban counterpart of the scenic splendor of Simatai.  Lunch includes four enormous bamboo baskets of incredibly soft and delicate steamed dumplings in the style of Kaifeng, an ancient city that was home to Chinese Jews for thousands of years. Dipped in vinegar, soy sauce and pulverized red chilis, they are unreasonably delicious and the four of us easily devoured 70-80.

Drunken man howling (the name of the instrument, not the player!)

Fortified and purring we walk an ancient street in search of a special music shop where I can obtain strings and a bridge for Bill's sanxian. Concert quality string instruments hang on the walls.  Some of the erhus have geared tuners whose mechanisms are harmoniously blended with the traditional long peg design. On a wall dedicated to western instruments like electric bass, electric guitar, saxophone and many Chinese made violins is a red lacquered Qin, the ancient seven-string contemplative philosopher's instrument. Behind the counter are pi’pa, ruan, lovely new sanxians in several sizes and a large two-stringed bowed instrument made of a snakeskin covered cylindrical pot and a long wooden neck like a sanxian.  It's name translated as "a drunken man howling" and when the proprietor bowed this monster I saw why. He played a tune in the pentatonic mode you get on the black keys of the piano starting at A flat, a great favorite of mine. We buy packaged steel strings and coils of silk, wooden bridges and strange fingerpicks.

Suzanne leads us down another alley to her favorite pickle shop, "a 300 year old made-pickles-for-the-emperor sort of place." Huge white and blue porcelain vats of pickled everything line the walls of this sensory surprise emporium. The colors and smells are amazing.

Heath, Suzanne and Jody admiring; Suzanne bought pickled peanuts for a cab-ride snack.

 In the cab to our next stop Suzanne hands out delicious pickle samples and tries to prepare us. Now try to imagine a department store about the size of Macy's. Four levels. Escalators. Level two is sneakers, T-shirts, that sort of thing. Sound familiar? Let's look at the lower level. Let's see, we got seven or eight aisles of tanks and tubs containing 100 varieties of live fish as well as turtles, frogs, several dozen thrashing eels, and a few evil looking aquatic snakes. None of them are docile. This is a food market. Suzanne calls it "more like a fish zoo". I note she hasn't said "aquarium" and passing through the smells and somehow noises I see why. We keep a vigilant watch for swordfish.

Two flights up the escalators is a jewelry market. Necklaces and bracelets of pearls and precious stones are displayed in what appear to be individually owned and operated stalls. I spy a pearl and lapis lazuli necklace that I know Kate is gonna love and casually ask the price. I nod and walk away intending to purchase it later. Wait come back calls the pearl lady I'll give it to you for less. Hmn, I'm acquiring a skill here. I do come back later and bring the price down even further by adding a stunning string of blue jade and pearl to my purchase.

We go up another flight and the entire floor is empty except for some glass doors in the corner behind which is a modern air conditioned jewelry shop specializing in pearls. Bargaining is pointless, Suzanne is a regular.

Down an alley from an alley is a carpet shop where all the merchandise is sold at the same per square foot price. We walk through charming scenes of old Beijing to get here. There are still horse drawn vegetable carts in neighborhoods with real character. These are fast disappearing to be replaced by shoddy high rises that will never withstand an earthquake and are already giving way after three years or less. I'm struck by a red carpet from Xinjiang province which is a little different than its Samarkand and Bukharan cousins from a bit further west. Just like the music from these places.

We return to the hotel tired and happy from one of the richest experiences one afternoon has ever yielded. The soundman from hell is waiting.

Monday - Andy shows up at Paul's room wanting to practice his English and offers his skills as a translator. Soon we're in another red Xiali headed for the home of the sanxian man in the back streets beyond the beyond. The address baffles the local residents and we continue on foot and soon spy our man's mother sitting outside their place, a five floor walk-up. I can tell that Heath likes a heavy well made banjer fitted with tight new snakeskin but he focuses on another, lighter and worn, adorned with bone carving, turquoise and coral, and he slowly knocks down the elevated price, as is expected. Paul and I watch the clock - we have an appointment at the embassy. The deal is closed at $50, several months’ wages for many Chinese.

We don't get into the embassy all that easily. We don't look like we have an appointment. An expedition has been organized to a special carpet shop located in an area of Beijing that used to be called "garbage town" until foreign corporate bigwigs started building villas there. We see some stunning carpets from Samarkand, Bukhara, Mongolia, and China including Xinjiang. Heath comes very close to buying an extraterrestrially luminescent red antique Samarkand carpet at a very reasonable price but how will it fit in his living room? I find it extraordinary that these busy officials have taken the time from their busy schedules to show an oldtime fiddle band around Beijing and take them shopping. I am delighted and grateful and enjoy their company too. 

Heath and I set out on foot to explore the neighborhood around the hotel. Watermelon is in season and we pass many fragrant fruit stalls, some creepy looking bars and restaurants, a sex shop, a "Beauty Saloon" (not a bar, a hairdresser) and then we spy a sign that stops us in our tracks. Big gold letters on a bright pink wooden plank say IMPORTATION WAR PAINT MONOPOLIZATION SHOP. They sell European make up. We find an inviting looking tea shop and as we pass through a door hung with beaded streamers a palpable calm descends. Seated on a nicely covered bench the fine boned and dignified proprietress is talking to a bright young girl in a white blouse and cap. A tea nurse in training? We are offered smells of high grade Oolong and Jasmine. I settle on the latter, tightly rolled flower-scented pearls of green tea of a quality I did not know existed. After a pleasant five or ten minutes looking at teapots we walk through the open door out of a dream and into the jarring reality of jackhammers tearing up the street. The door to the shop was open, the jackhammers must have been audible inside yet we had heard and felt nothing but our quiet conversation and the pervasive serenity of these two lovely women and their surroundings.

The next day I return with Paul. I had seen the two tea angels a few minutes earlier but now they are gone. The bench is uncovered and dirty and occupied by a sullen and pimply teenaged boy smoking a cigarette and having a harsh conversation with a fat slovenly girl behind the counter. They glare as Paul looks at teapots. I quickly exit and look up and down the street. Maybe I've got the wrong place. Nope. I go back in and the jackhammers are deafening. The place has turned into a pumpkin. 

Tuesday – Heath wants me to have the bejeweled banjo. So do I! Now I have two sanxians in my room. Maybe the chambermaids will hide one in the closet. We visit the Summer Palace, an enclosed and hilly lakeside enclave of wooded parks, pavilions and mansions. Arched foot bridges connect small islands to the shore where families picnic under willows. We see a man writing Chinese characters on the pavement with what you might call a calligraphic mop. His medium is water. Old women stand beneath trees and practice slow moving energy arts. Anything made of wood is painted with animals and plants. Two surprising combos are watermelon/penguin and banana/panda. 

We are treated to a lavish seven course meal with Channa and Simon at the hotel's fanciest restaurant. Channa asks the pretty young waitress "Can you sing please?" Her eyes get wide as saucers as she withdraws half a meter without moving her feet." In that case would you please put on some music." She sighs with relief and scampers off to push some buttons. The music is Chinese and lovely.

Andy is in the elevator. He and Heath set off in pursuit of the heavy sanxian while Paul and I walk to a lively covered market in search of a cast iron wok shovel. Sweet smelling peaches have joined the watermelons that line the street. Atop a small stool on the sidewalk in a white enamel basin painted with flowers, three small goldfish swim in clear water. This small, inexpensive and transcendentally beautiful gesture causes me to slip for a golden instant, yet again, into an altered state. In retrospect, I think, "This is what art is supposed to do," and later, "and maybe only does when there is a suitable context."

A corner of the market was dedicated to dough operators. One group was rolling out and cutting fresh noodles. Another operated a circular press similar to an enormous waffle iron. A layered circular bread the size of a pizza was eased onto the oiled device and a lid closed on it.  When done it was sliced in wedges and sold. It smelled fabulous but I saw no one buying or eating it. Further down, sesame seeds were being crushed to make fresh fragrant oil. There was a wall of specialty meat stalls including a Moslem lamb butcher. In the middle were rows and rows of spiny cucumbers, green onions that were close to a yard long, cauliflowers, melons, peaches, mangoes, and stem lettuce.  We caused a bit of a sensation - a Western visitor was a bit of an event here. The vendors wasted no time trying to sell us what they correctly assessed we would probably like. With broad smiles they waved potatoes at us.

Wednesday - The Temple of Heaven is peaceful and harmonious. This feeling extends to a park on the periphery to which we are attracted by the sounds of fiddling. It seems to be coming from many locations and sure enough we discover several jam sessions in full swing. I’d be lying if I said I completely understood all the music I heard but to witness the delight the singers, fiddlers and listeners took in each other was worth the trip to China. 
A group of fiddlers, the woman singing had the most lovely gestures as she sang.
Each group consisted of a pair of erhus. One of these was always made of bamboo, had a cylindrical bamboo sound chamber, and played an octave higher than its wooden hexagonal cousin. Both fiddlers played expanded versions of what the vocalist sang as well as short phrases linking the vocal lines. Each song – I think this was Peking Opera – was perhaps 8 minutes long. After a song was finished and the singer had thanked the band someone else would step forward and "hum a few bars" to the seated musicians. After a few seconds of animated argument over some particular musical point they'd launch the tune and the singer would step back 5 feet or so, face the band, and vocalize. Both women and men sang higher and louder than bluegrass.

Now we have three sanxians and an erhu, silks, kites, paintings, pots, and preserved vegetables. Heath has been steadily accumulating Chairman Mao alarm clocks. There's only one way we're gonna get all this stuff home. We need MORE SUITCASES. 

We Xiali to Qianmen for dumplings, suitcases, more strings and bridges, and especially to raid the Pickle Shop. Heath wheels in his big new suitcase, points to it and says "fill her up". The pickles are sold by the jin (about 1.1 pounds).  I think when tea is weighed, a jin is called a catty and that "tea caddy" comes from this. I buy five jin of pickled white radish, chili peppers, small cucumbers and one of four types of preserved bamboo whose smell approximates equal measures of vinegar, vanilla, and dirty socks. The taste is heavenly, really. 

It is raining and we need to do our sets indoors, sharing the atrium stage with the lounge act: Ramon, a midi operator from Manila who is a closet bluegrass banjoist and three cute Filipino girls who dance and sing Jambalaya without ever finding a rhyme. As the hour approaches our mics have not showed up. "Don't worry," says Channa of China (who is Indian), "I have already done it. The F in my middle name stands for ‘follow up.’" Later I look at his business card. It says:

© 2001 by Jody Stecher
This article appeared originally in the Winter 2000/2001 issue of
Fiddler Magazine
PO Box 101
North Sydney, Nova Scotia
Canada B2A 3M1

Click here to go to the article Paul wrote for the Old Time Herald.
Lots more photos.