Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I just finished a new play and sent off an application for an awesome residency for Spring semester 2010.  I feel as serene and happy as this pic of Juju in Hawaii.

Work hard.
Rest hard.
Play well!

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Godfather Leads

This is my Godfather, Paul Chow.  He's a super cool dude at 81, all spritely and youthful and quite the world traveler.  He's been an edifying influence in the toughest moments of my life--like when I was a disaffected UCLA undergrad and he he sent me to Guangzhou to teach.  Half-roots, half-peace corp., it opened my my suburban eyes to a bubbling world, and set me on a course of ESL, which was my performance training ground, that has since been my bread and butter when the playwriting was just getting started, or as now, it is reconnoitering.  Paul Chow has the energy of herds, and is the type of person who would love to meet every person on the planet and learn their essance and help them in any way he can.
Here's Paul Chow at the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, when we met there in December.  His grandson Ethan is there, and so he gets to China more often these days.  He came to Shanghai, in February and was staying at the old Jing Jiang hotel, which was just up the street from the movie theater he first took his wife Vera on their first date 60 years ago...Farewell to Arms starring Ingrid Bergman was playing.  He mentioned to me how Vera looked like Ingrid Bergman at that time, when they sat in the front row of a packed movie theater, so beautiful she was, so in awe he couldn't even reach for her hand.  Did I mention that Paul Chow is a romantic?

He has also led me to Lucy Zhou Chuang Qing, who was the lovable and inspiring artista recyclista for SWAN Day Shanghai, and also the magical Dr. Ding, his brother-in-law (Lucy's old chap). They are the of the most soulful people I know and I can only hope to carry through wisdom, as they have, into their 9th decade.
So of course, when the Godfather was in Shanghai, he meets an artist named Kevin Berlin who was getting a jacket tailored and didn't have enough Chinese words to enact an exact discount.  Enter Paul Chow, who not only got him the discount, but also got a better quality alteration.  Godfather e-mails me immediately, saying he met a New York artist from Italy who invited him to his gallery showing, and that he couldn't make it but he would send his goddaughter instead.
So I get a hold of Kevin Berlin and make an appointment to go to the Moganshan art district where his exhibition called Double Happiness is showing.  I call to get subway directions and the owner of the gallery, seems not want to give me the directions but would rather fabulously give me a ride, meet her in front of the Portman Ritz-Carlton at Jin'an Temple and she can drive me.  It is very strange, I guess because she thinks I am a buyer, and also because I am to meet Kevin Berlin on this day in a coupla hours and the chanel-voiced gallery owner claims that she is closed today, she's at the bank, she'll be flying off to Florence in a couple of days.
I call Kevin Berlin and he didn't realize that the gallery was closed on Mondays, and we reschedule for Tuesday, same time.  On Tuesday I get a text message from Kevin Berlin that there is a problem.  I soon call and it turns out that a whole drama is being played out, where Berlin wanted to get his paintings a day before the show closed (he could because it said so in the 'contract') but owner had not shown up to unlock the doors, so technically was holding the paintings hostage. The owner wishes to hold on to them to make sales, which have not happened in the 3 weeks it has been showing.
Berlin, although American, has lived and painted in Florence Italy for the past 7 years and showed his Italian colors by operatically involving the American Consulate, having them declare the paintings stolen if the doors were not opened by so and so time, but also, in the course of waiting for 6 hours for the release of his paintings, having glasses of red wine with his friends and enjoying the day nevertheless.
No wonder his spirit had attracted Paul Chow and vice versa.  The moxy to fight lives harmoniously with the enjoyment of life.
It takes me 2 hours to get to Moganshan from my school, and the artist is happy to be reunited with his paintings, as he takes them off the walls and while a pretty young Polish girl is pulling the canvas from the frames.  '20 million unemployed Chinese people and I can't find anyone to help take down the show.'  He is calling and calling everyone he knows in Shanghai, trying not to defame the gallery owner's name, but well, having to explain the situation, each time with the gusto and outrage of an artist who has been shown all over the world and has work in the collections of Jimmy Carter, the Clintons, Pavoratti, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and David Letterman, having to, like every other foreigner in China, understand that words on paper do not have any more weight than its ink on a scale.
In the spirit of Paul Chow, I help move huge canvases of photorealistic cigarette boxes and fake designer bags, downstairs to where the Polish gal is deframing the canvas.  I ask Kevin Berlin what the cigarette boxes and the bags and the money and the dumplings all symbolize.  He answers that they are all things that are ferociously wanted in Shanghai, that would cause the Double Happiness, which was inspired by 1920's advertisements of this particular brand of cigarette.
The artist must take down his own show, though he is in a hurry to roll them up and get on a plane back to Florence. There's a trick to pulling staples and pulling. I start to get the knack, but handle mostly the small paintings of mao-money yuan.
After the phone rings and rings with condolences and regrets of not being able to come out to Moganshan to help take down the show, Kevin Berlin's friend Nico comes through.  It turns out that Nico is the manager for the Martini Bar on the Bund, a bar that was every inch designed and decided upon by Dolce & Gabbana.  Nico can send helpers much to Kevin Berlin's relief.  
So as I am on my knees pulling, the helpers arrive.  At my eye level are a pair of camel-colored half-boots with a zipper in the front that is chicly opens like cleavage.  I look up and a super-elegant shiny-haired blond kisses me on both cheeks and says 'Ciao, I am Carol.'  Her friend, a shiny-haired brunette says 'hi'--it doesn't seem that she speaks a lot of English. What is apparent is that she is 120% Italian, as when she is talking to Nico on Carol's mobile phone, she becomes highly gestured and ecstatic, as she later tells us that Nico has access to some of the Dolce & Gabbana accessories that have 'the small defects,' the 'imperfections,' bags and belts and shoes and boots, and they have the pick of the booty gratis. She is thrilled and flushed as she continues to pull staples out of the wood frames.Kevin berlin now explains the whole fiasco in Italian, as spirited as all of the other versions.   A third super chic gal comes in, and immediately gets to work.  She is Shanghainese but speaks great Italian.  Kevin Berlin is making espressos and cappuccinos for all.  I had to pass cuz I had to get my bumpkin ass back to the ruburbs and I couldn't afford to be awake all night. I just love how artists can mobilize a party under any circumstance. My godfather has led me once again to a lively unexpected place.  I hope I can drink up the world like he can when I'm 81.  And to meet Kevin Berlin and sees how he coolly endures such a Chinese-type suckery, one that bullies its Chinese artists and, in Shanghai at least, has more interest in product sale.  I had been thinking that my artist friend Rafael might do well in China because of the baby-fever that is showing up in a lot of the art.  But then I would not want to subject him to these strange business practices of slippery trust, hifaluting promise and angsty art-hostaging. I know Kevin Berlin was a special case, but knowing now what I know of China, it is not surprising.  Many of Kevin Berlin's friends that he called were not surprised either. This is Rafael's 'Pool Party,' of which I was lucky enough to bring 5 pieces to Shanghai with me. There are usually like 300 of these sapphiresque 'cells' displayed on an illuminated table.  Each infant is in its own private pool party but seen together it becomes one big splash of joyous and luminescent color.  It is private and public at the same time.  

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Ding: You Tell Me

'I am blind,' says Dr. Ding.

And yet, when Rod of Paris (France) and Mike of Venice (California) and I visit his office on a crisp Sunday morning, he is with cheer and diligence, especially the part where he welcomes his visitors by having them spell out their name, which he then carefully writes out and then permanently has in his mind.  
Even when I spoke with him on the phone a couple of days ago, long after Rod and Mike have left Shanghai, Dr. Ding asks, 'How is Rod Ackermann?  And how is...Fairbanks?'
We sit and chat and sip tea.  Dr. Ding just loves it when visitors come to his office.   His English is superb, slow yet even, with pronunciation as fresh as the morning.  He asks questions about his guests, his 89-year-old mind curious like a child, but sly with wry remarks.  He will talk about the past, at one point referring to the 'so-called Cultural Revolution.'  Wait a sec Dr, Ding...why do you say 'so-called'?  His jolly disposition turns emphatic:  'Because it was a cultural disaster!'

After a good hour of chat, he asks us to sit in a row opposite him.  Mike and I squeeze in next to Rod--no matter what our education, we are three obedient students eager to have class begin. Dr. Ding opens his top drawer and takes out a deck of cards.  Aha, a card trick.  He shuffles with them a bit; in hindsight, there is some under-the-desk legerdemain happening--it could just be that one card that was face up half way through the deck.  

He mentions 'Le Rouge et Le Noir.'  He asks Rod of Paris for the correct pronunciation in French and practices it a couple of times.  Then, because his French is not as crisp as his English (I guess that would be appropriate for l'accent francaise) he says something muttery, and upon franco-deciphering, it is 'Proust,' who, of course, wrote Le Rouge et Le Noir, which Ding read a long time ago.

With the deck of cards firmly in his left hand, he flips over the top card and asks:  What color is this?  It is red.  He puts it to one side.  He flips over a second card:  What color is this?  It is black.  He puts it to the other side.  Dr. Ding then asks the magic question:  'What are the chances for a card to be black or red?'  I beat out the boys and reply:  50-50.  The answer hangs in the air.

Dr. Ding then systematically asks us to guess if a card is red or black.  Ding calls his first student. 'Rod'; he guesses black, Ding keeps the card face down and places it with the black card.  'Mike'; he guesses red, it's placed face down with the red card.  'Alice'; I guess red, it's placed with red.  'Rod,' guess, place; 'Mike.' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place; 'Rod,' guess, place; 'Mike,' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place; 'Rod,' guess, place; 'Mike,' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place...and so on. I always say red.  

We continue, starting to feel the pace of an 89-year-old man's card trick.  Perhaps this is a way to cultivate those good Chinese virtues of patience and obedience.  He dutifully and correctly places each guess with its assigned pile, red with red, black with black, slowly, assuredly, nothing up his sleeves. This repeated task is hypnotic, but we can see with our own eyes that it is nothing more than this. And so halfway through the deck, a card is face up.  Mike tells: Dr. Ding, there's a card face up. 'O, what color is it?' Ding asks.  It's black.
With this new upturned card, he makes a new black pile.  He flips over the next card: 'What color is this?'  It's red, and that is a new pile too.  'Rod,' guess, place; 'Mike,' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place; 'Rod,' guess, place' 'Mike,' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place...Rod, though he lives in France, shows his good Swiss colors and sees that the red pile is getting unruly, and counters with some guesses of black...'Rod,' black, place; 'Mike,' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place; 'Rod,' black, place; 'Mike,' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place; 'Rod'...until the deck has been completely distributed.

'Now,' Ding says, 'you say that the chance is 50-50.  Let's see.'

Ding flips over all of the cards in the first red pile: they are all red.  He flips over all of the cards in the second red pile:  they are all red.  He flips over all of the cards in the first black pile:  they are all black.  He flips over all of the cards in the second black pile: they are all black.

We are silent.

'What color are they?' he asks.  'I am blind, I cannot see.'

'Wait a second...' I'm all vocal.  'How did you do that?'

'You tell me.  How did you do it?  You told me the red or black.  I am blind, I cannot see.'

I can feel not only the top of my head missing, but Rod and Mike are feeling equally breezy around the cranium.
Journalist Rod, who has a pretty good answer for mostly everything, is checking to see if maybe Ding can see.
He checks out the cards: yup, regular deck.
'Marco?'                           'POLO!'
Dr. Ding calls over to the restaurant to let them know we are coming over.
Um, how did you do that Dr. Ding?  'You tell me.'
But seriously, how did you do that?  'You tell me.  I am blind.'
No, but really, how did you do that?  'You tell me.  You all three did it.'

At one point, just to get some bearings I ask Dr. Ding: if you are blind why do you wear glasses?'O that is just for decoration.'
It might be because after a full meal of gorgeous steamed fish, light and crisply battered steak slices, garlic greens and a delicious tofu situation that we all look disturbed because we then each got our own honking bowl of dumplings with the freshest broth tinged with white pepper. But no seriously, we were all left a lil' disturbed, in that amazed way, in that I-can't-quite-wrap-my-head-around-that way...by a blind guy.

I wonder what card master Ricky Jay will do when he's blind and 89.  It's so great how Dr. Ding can make 'seeing' such a literal act.  That is what was in the room--the essence of seeing beyond, at least crafting a performance that causes the sighted not to be able to see.
After lunch, we return to Dr. Ding's office, back to the scene of the chime. We ask him for a recommendation for a hotel in the French Concession cuz the Einstein Room at the Astor House Hotel was booked that last night that Rod was in town.  Dr. Ding of course had a couple of recommendations--he knows all of Shanghai like the back of his deck of cards.  And so he insisted on getting the number for the hotels and calling to find out availability and price.  And so he takes out his address book...
...which is just a big ol' stack of these handwritten numbers.  'O I can't read Chinese too well, Dr. Ding,' I tell him.  'Maybe we should just call information.'

Speaking of information, Dr. Ding...

'You tell me.'

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Monday, April 13, 2009

All the Rage with the Lida Gals

So when warming up the Nursing English classes, I always have them practice simple past tense.  'How was your weekend?'  It was ___________. (Practice past tense of 'be' with adjectives).  'What did you do?'  I __________ed. (and the myriad of irregular verbs that are not just simply teached or buyed.)

Last week, the usual replies of I slept, I played computer, I stayed at home, I watched TV was matched by I went shopping, I went shopping, I sent shopping.  With each 'What did you buy' on many occasions it was 'shoes.'  What color shoes?  'Yellow.'  Five gals over 3 classes purchase yellow shoes.  Spring!
This is an action shot, as Brandy performed her dialogue concerning a fever and what to do.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Einstein Room at the Astor House Hotel

Room 304.
When you first enter the room that Albert Einstein stayed in, there is an immediate feeling of modest grandness, that it is old yet cozy and somehow familiar.  The Astor House Hotel was Shanghai's first, built in 1846, and the high ceilings and roomy width mix with the marble window sills and tassled drapes.  I was in awe and at home at the same time.

It all started when my friend Mike in Los Angeles e-mailed me outta nowhere asking where I was.  Last time I had seen Mike, we were driving around Venice Beach in his truck when I got a call from Victor Hsiung of Shanghai Lida Polytechnic Institute and discussed the English teaching job at his school.  Mike e-mails me that he wants to visit Shanghai; I tell him to get my dear friend Rod interested--we all used to hangout in Los Angeles.  Next thing you know, they're both flying into town on the first day of spring, Mike from LA and Rod from Paris.
Here Rod and I are enjoying tea upon arrival in the Einstein room.  I share Rod's glee at the unexpected coolness of the room (I thought it was gonna be dank and depressing) and of course, am so glad to see dear friends in Shanghai, a kind of reminder of myself.  It was Rod's idea to stay at the Astor House Hotel, being a seasoned European and in imagining Shanghai. 

When I looked in my Lonely Planet guide, the AHH also advertised the rooms where Charlie Chaplin and Bertrand Russell stayed.  When I called to inquire about the Einstein room, it turns out that the lady who spoke pretty good English had a special half-price rate for me--800 yuan (about US$120).  Turns out, it's not tourist season; also there is mad construction happening around the AHH (as everything in Shanghai is under mass construction to pretty the place up for next year's World Expo), so it's dusty and a bit inconvenient to get to.  But once inside, it is splendid.Here is the lobby from where we take the elevators.  Mike didn't want to stay anywhere with fat-ass Americans--I assured him the Astor House wouldn't have anyone like that, but maybe a coupla old dusty colonials.
If you don't wish to take the elevators, the stairs are such.
This is what the elevators open up to on the third floor.  Very 'Shining.'
Here are Mike and Rod in the gallery on the way to Room 304.  Yup Ulysses S. Grand had stayed here too.
The odd yet endearing thing about the gallery is that it is made to look like an old English street, complete with street lamp and benches.  There are some old artifacts displayed, like an underwood typewriter an old walking cane.  When I told my friend Priya I was staying at the AHH, she mentioned that this was one of the British hotels that had the sign 'No Chinese and Dogs allowed.'  My mother, who had grown up in Shanghai, told me of such signs hanging at the park gates in this British Concession area, but I hadn't realized that the hotels were such as well.  Anyway, the Chinese staff all wear tux tails now.
So Albert Einstein first came to Shanghai by ship on November 13, 1922.  The Shanghai Daily recently claimed, when a new sculpture of the scientist was revealed, that upon arriving in Shanghai, he was notified that he had won the Nobel Prize. The next day he left for Japan, but then returned a month and a half later to deliver his lecture on the Theory of Relativity.  It wasn't clear which time he stayed here, but I did check in the desk drawer to see if there was an extra copy of his thesis in lieu of a bible.
Opposite of the wall where Einstein looks over the tea table and vanity is this glorious sitting area.  I don't think of myself as a gal who likes baroque decor, but something about this room has huge inspiration for me--perhaps my age is showing through a sudden liking for an old world colonial aesthetic.  Maybe because I immediately felt like I could hole up here for 2 weeks and just write, like Noel Coward did at the Peace Hotel down the street in 1930 when he was down with the influenza during an Asian tour and wrote Private Lives in 4 days (he plotted it for 2 weeks).
Here is the grand ballroom where the buffet breakfast is served.  
It has both Chinese and Continental breakfast items and righteous coffee.  I stocked up on toasted croissants and eggs over easy, since I've been pretty much eating mushroom/vegetable wontons and apples/yogurt/sesame crackers from the Lida cafeteria everyday.  It's weird that my being in China has allowed me to be not repulsed by stiff colonial curlicues.  I guess this is the high-brow part of a world that has become an anachronistic souvenir and has succumbed to a low-brow world (which I associate with global consumerism culture).  

The hotel's fetishization of a colonial moment gives it a simultaneous lived-in historical legitimacy and an amusement park preservation. Somehow this frozen moment of British exceptionalism no longer threatens the simple American who was given a complex by Euro-superiority or the humble  Chinese who were excluded from their own city.  I love the thought that this building existed without media and electronics, that the luminaries who stayed here enjoyed these 'same,' shining surroundings--gosh, maybe I have been isolated in the ruburbs (rural suburbs) for a bit too long, or even more so, away from the West for too long.  
This is what Einstein saw when he napped and/or formulated.
More objects to enhance my experience. The bathroom, by the way, is a room unto itself.  You had enough room to do a small riverdance in it.
When I have the means, I'm booking it for a righteous fortnight.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

Sweating at Shelter

A coupla weeks ago, for St. Patty's day, my colleague Monica and her pal Pete threw an Irish whiskey-ladened meatfest at their pad on Jiangsu Rd.  It's a very cool, renovated pad in a super Chinese neighborhood--not a foreigner but us green-whiskey-drinking revelers in sight. Monica is a bright light in my grueling teaching day....we have lunch a coupla times a week and get to debrief about life in Shanghai. Pete's a cool fella who had recently broken his hand in a barfight, when some trashed Chinese dude started hassling Monica.  They're genuine peeps, that good kind of American that is Usian--they're not egomaniacs to presume that the name of 2 continents should be the name of their one country.  They also, as many ex-pats like my buddy Nic do, find U.S. life boring.

I figured we'd just be grilling and drinking...but like any good Shanghai gathering, 'round 11:30pm, we were going out.  To The Shelter.  For DJ Zinc, a drum and bass turntablest.  It was great fun to be in this former bomb shelter, walls painted black, much more low key than the other clubs I've been to, because folks actually come here for the music, not just to be seen.

Something about a sweaty room of people, jumping up and down and constantly accelerating towards a climaxing beat that opens your pores and glee.  That night, I was in the mood for the organism that is the dance floor.  We were in a group of about 7--4 of us Usians, a coupla French and a Brit--and we danced together in a circle, with folks moving in and out of our 'molecule,' if you will.  It was crowded, but there was still room to move.

If my colleagues were not so young and spirited, I'd never choose to do this.  But I'm glad once I'm there....although I forget, no matter how hardcore folks are about going to see music, there is still some meat marketing going on.  I'm working up my aesthetic cardio, to the beat, and then a dude will be sauntering up and, oh yeah, we're all dancing together.  But I'm not out to hook up or even make new friends in a club--I'm happy with the folks I'm with--and so dudes saunter off in about 5 minutes, my constant back, although wiggling, a somewhat clue.

At one point, I'm dancing with one of the French dudes in our group and I witness the electron phenomenon.  A very lively Chinese girl with a bob and black leggings, steps in front of me and is now dancing with Frenchie, who is tall, handsome, and smells nice.  She is kinetic like an electron, loving l'attention and worked up into a frenzy to the point where she starts screaming like a wild woman, in what she believes those wild western men would love from such a free and sexy-moving Chinese girl.  At another point, another Chinese girl with a more angular bob, a bit more mellow, but interested in Frenchie as well, approaches with the let's-converse-in-English-on-the-dance-floor gig.  She's polite, kind of looking at that first 'electron' girl askance, and wondering what my relation is as well. I've not only forgotten about the meat market of such scenario, but also the Chinese layer of free flow access and possible connection to foreigners, for conversation, for experience, for attraction.  It's really quite endearing how fastidious the dancing of the Chinese girls is, how purposeful their activity, and yes, what their idea of freedom and fun is.

When me and Frenchie were getting our jackets from the coat check, we waited in line and talked about squash vs. tennis (the different wrist functions).  I look to my right and two Chinese girls are agog at Frenchie, you can feel the laser attention beaming his way.  Frenchie tells me he's into karate, that he's got a class in 8 hours, that he loves it.  Some version of a suburban Arab dude in front of us asks what part of the U.S I'm from.  How do you know I'm from the U.S., I ask.  He implies that I've been shouting in his ear.  We're at a club I remind, but also add that shit, those Americans are loud wherever they go.  I ask where in the U.S he's from, he says he's not from the U.S. and so I ask which part he has lived in.  Aha, San Francisco, of course.  They look down on us Los Angelinos, yes.  My jacket appears, see ya later San Francisco.

The chilly night air is welcomed after a 3-hour sweatfest.  Thanks DJ Zinc.  I spend the night at Monica and Pete's, and am happy to have toasted and sweated on St. Pat's.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Check out all of the SWAN Day activities from around the world...so far reports from Nairobi, New York, Shanghai, San Jose, Bakersfield and Miami...