Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan
About the Book
Live at the Forbidden City is the unique tale of Dennis Rea, an unconventional American traveler and musician who, after securing a post teaching English to Chinese university students, stumbled into a series of improbable adventures in China and Taiwan, playing in places where few foreign musicians had ever performed and exposing literally millions of people to rock, jazz, and other unfamiliar musical styles.
The book recounts Rea’s experiences living, teaching, traveling, and performing music in China and Taiwan between 1989 and 1996, a time when the “two Chinas” were both in the throes of unprecedented social, cultural, and economic upheaval. Although Rea’s reason for moving to China was to reunite with his fiancée and join her in teaching English at a university, a chain of serendipitous events led to a rollercoaster musical adventure with many preposterous twists and turns.
During the period described in the book, Rea gave more than 100 concerts in venues ranging from nationwide television broadcasts, sports arenas, and concert halls to sleazy underground nightclubs, night markets, a textile factory, and even a venerable Taoist temple. Many of these gigs took place under ludicrously bizarre circumstances and the constant threat of harassment by machine-gun toting cops or Communist Party officials. Along the way Rea organized three of the earliest unofficial concert tours of China by Western bands, recorded an album for the China Record Company that sold tens of thousands of copies, performed for television and radio audiences numbering in the hundreds of millions, and collaborated with some of China’s most important contemporary musicians, including the founding fathers of Chinese rock, Cui Jian and Zhang Xing, and Chinese jazz kingpin Liu Yuan. Rea’s musical experiences encompassed both the renegade rock underground and the world of state-controlled tongsu, or mainstream popular music, and took place not only in the cultural crucible of Beijing, but also deep in China’s provincial hinterlands and on the other side of the political divide in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, where he helped build a grassroots music scene in a sleepy Taiwanese city.
But Live at the Forbidden City is much more than simply an account of Rea’s experiences playing music in the Far East. Spiced with reflections on Chinese history, culture, and geography, the narrative interweaves Rea’s musical exploits with absorbing tales of travels and misadventures in such fascinating places as the Tiger-Leaping Gorge, a Tibetan lamasery, the ancient Silk Road, and a giant panda reserve. The book also includes the only detailed eyewitness account to date of the bloody civil uprising that broke out in the city of Chengdu at the same time as the world-shaking events at Tiananmen Square.
Rea’s experiences playing music in China and Taiwan unlocked doors into Chinese culture that few travelers, diplomats, students, or businesspeople are fortunate enough to enter, giving him a singular perspective on a culture undergoing one of the most sweeping transformations in its long history. At times, as in Rea’s account of the deadly street battles in Chengdu in June 1989, the events related in Live at the Forbidden City are deeply sobering; in other instances, the sometimes-absurd cultural collisions that marked his sojourn in China are downright comical. But always, the experiences related here offer revealing insights into not only the rapidly evolving Chinese popular music scene, but also the greater Chinese nation at the brink of a new millennium in which it will assume an increasingly important role in global affairs.
Highlights of the book include:
- Fascinating and often comical anecdotes from the 100-plus concerts Rea gave throughout China and in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.
- Highlights and lowlights of three of the earliest unofficial concert tours of China undertaken by Western bands, in venues ranging from illicit underground clubs to sports arenas to a nationally televised broadcast.
- The only detailed eyewitness account to date of the massive civil disturbance in the city of Chengdu in June 1989, which some experts now claim rivaled the concurrent events in Tiananmen Square in scope and casualties.
- Vivid depictions of China’s rapid transformation into a globalized market economy, and the attendant clash of old and new.
- An illuminating comparison of the music, culture, and political climate of the divergent “Two Chinas”: the communist People’s Republic of China, and the democratic Republic of China on Taiwan.
- Richly descriptive accounts of travels in the ethnic minority regions of southwest China, Chinese Central Asia, and the Tibetan frontier, including an engrossing misadventure in which Rea trekked 75 kilometers in the Tibetan border region in a single day.
- An informative overview of the music of China and its ethnic minorities, and an examination of the impact of Western music and culture on these traditions.
- An inside look at China’s emergent rock music subculture and its function as a vehicle for political dissent and social criticism, and, conversely, an examination of the state-controlled popular music industry’s crucial role in reinforcing official dogma.
- Profiles of China’s first rock star, Zhang Xing, and its most important contemporary musician, Cui Jian, as well as descriptions of Rea’s experiences performing with both of them.
- An account of the events that led to Rea recording an album for the state-run China Record Company that sold an unexpected 40,000 copies.
- A look at the life of a typical Chinese musician during the post-Cultural Revolution era.
- A firsthand account of Chinese rock legend Cui Jian’s debut concert in the United States.
"The adventures of an accidental musical ambassador...[Rea's] thoroughly engaging chronicle takes readers from his first hour in the country, when a taxi driver backed over his guitar, through his almost five years living and traveling in China and Taiwan...Throughout, Rea employs an agreeably self-deprecating tone and exhibits a musician's ear for euphony and rhythm. Vivid and informative, expressing appreciation grounded in experience."—Kirkus Discoveries Complete Kirkus Discoveries review
"Many a fortune cookie offers the mixed blessing 'May you live in interesting times.' During some of China's more recent 'interesting times' — specifically the student protests culminating in the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989 — Dennis Rea was living in the south-western province of Sichuan, his life as a university English teacher far surpassed by his reputation as a musically omnivorous guitarist, at a time when China's own musicians were starving for nourishment...Rea dramatically chronicles the good old days, when 'underground rock parties' could actually succeed in subverting authority...a vivid account of China's recent musical past."—Songlines magazine
"Not just a travelogue, but a highly informative, detailed, analytic, erudite piece of writing."—Eugene Marlow, Professor, Baruch College, The City University of New York, and author of the forthcoming book Jazz in China
"Long before he made his name in the Northwest music scene, [Rea] undertook an amazing musical odyssey into Communist China during the late 80s and early 90s, which this book chronicles ... He was quickly catapulted into the then underground Chinese rock scene and became somewhat of a local legend and source of inspiration to a multitude of budding guitarists and musicians for whom Western rock music was a vital outlet of expressing their frustration with Communist government policies. This placed Rea in an interesting position, both as mentor and musical celebrity, but also as a thorn in the sides of party officials who looked on rock music as a decadent and corrupting influence on China's youth ... This book leaves the reader with a much better appreciation and understanding of what rock musicians in China have had to endure, but also of the startling changes that have taken place in the past 15 years. Rea can take some pleasure in having had a hand in helping these changes to come about."—Peter Thelen, Expose magazine
Live at the Forbidden City Foreword by Stuart Dempster
When Dennis Rea begins Live at the Forbidden City with “This isn’t your everyday gig,” it is as though a catapult has launched me into somewhere incredible, even mysterious. In short order I become enamored with the duality of gutsy stories and self-effacing humor that Dennis has obviously lived and breathed. Live, dotted with moving and perceptive documentary photos by Spike Mafford and others, is written from the heart with abandon, compassion, depth, integrity, perseverance, and strength. There are many events and situations totally unpredictable, and nearly as many that almost defy description. Dennis excites me due to his presence, his awareness, and commitment to the moment in writing this book, and his apparent savoring of every experiential morsel during his time abroad.
While this was written in the context of topical events during the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s, China has continued to cascade headlong into arresting, copious change. Dennis was there precisely at a time when there were landmark changes not only in China’s sense of itself but also its position in the world economy and political order. Rare it is to have this view on such a watershed moment. Certainly there were few Westerners there in a position to observe let alone write about such a time, but I also wonder how many Chinese were recognizing the significance of what they themselves were living and witnessing. This marvelous little book offers amazing windows into a tremendously important historical moment, and offers an equally amazing window into Dennis Rea himself.
Dennis went to China to teach English, but he also made sure to take his guitar. Of the many wacky stories encountered, some of the earliest have to do with—how shall I put it—instrument care and maintenance. It was not long before a few of his language students were cautiously asking him questions about music in the West. With his guitar, and through his multifaceted gifts and talents, he made important contributions to the opening of new musical experiences. These activities offered opportunities to teach not only musical ideas, but also cultivate memorable relationships through cross-cultural sharing of music with the Chinese people he encountered. Along the way Dennis learned much about Chinese music and, in the process of writing about these various experiences, demonstrates with clarity how political changes impact the evolution of music.
It will surprise me greatly if Live does not find its way into bibliography listings as China scholars set about sorting out what happened at that time. It is fantastic to have this energetic and spirited book come forth precisely at a time when China is discovering its own sense of itself with regard to this modern era, and the West is discovering the powerhouse that China has become, let alone its future. Citing certain chapter headings hints at the journey ahead: “Stranger in a Strange Band,” “Anguish as a Second Language,” “The Great Wall of Sound,” “Pandasonic,” “Ain’t Nothing but a Hongbao,” “The Gang of Formosa,” “The Feelmore East,” and “Taiwannabes,” to name but a few, provide an incredible tease as to what is in store. Just try and guess the source of some of those titles—are they made up? Are they a reference to something more?
While there are many parallels to my own time in Europe during 1959-60 as a musician in the Seventh Army Symphony, there are also many differences. One similarity is that traveling to Europe in the late ’50s was nearly as exotic as going to Asia in the ’90s. However, where my experiences tended toward being amusing, goofy, and downright silly, Dennis’ compelling experiences, while just as surreal, occasionally border on being at the cliff’s edge. Dennis is all too aware of the Chinese military presences that were surrounding him. Considering that in the context of a communist regime with its secret police, it is not surprising that there are stories that document the sometimes bizarre, Byzantine, cumbersome, outrageous, and time-consuming government regulations. Voilá! A near-perfect combination of ingredients emerges.
Of all the styles of music I play, rock has seldom been in my repertoire. Yet I have known Dennis as colleague (Sun Ra retrospective concerts), friend (Seattle Improvised Music Festival contexts), and student (he wrote lovingly in Seattle’s The Tentacle about my teaching Multi Media Music at University of Washington). I have neither been to, nor had musical encounters in, China or Taiwan—although as a child it was suggested that I could dig straight down through the earth and arrive in China. I find myself both thrilled with Live at the Forbidden City and writing a foreword for it. What can I be thinking? I recognize the excellent storytelling, of course, but also my own somewhat parallel experiences. Through the immediacy and intimacy that Dennis imparts in his journey, there comes a moment when I state with absolute delight, “You can’t make this stuff up!” Reading Live, while I make only a short, albeit fantastic, whirlwind tour of Taiwan, I can say with enthusiasm and amazement that I have been to China at last!
Seattle, January 2007
Stuart Dempster is a Sound Gatherer, trombonist, composer, didjeriduist, et al., and Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington. He has recorded for numerous labels including Columbia, Nonesuch, and New Albion. A leading figure in development of trombone technique and performance, Dempster published his landmark book The Modern Trombone: A Definition of Its Idioms in 1979.