The change is complete. I have become “one of them”.
Seven years in China can do this to a person. If you’re not careful, you can go feral, adopting several or one life-changing customs you never expected.
Some expats here start to wear black slippers – outside in the daytime. They are the ones most likely to take up tai chi. Some become serial pamperees, wondering how they ever used to do their own nails or exist without a massage at least twice a week. Some take up calligraphy. Still others have even dabbled in the so-called “dark arts” – Communism and Peking Opera.
Not for me, those strands of Chineseyness. I like good sturdy hiking boots (I even went hiking once. July, 1993). There’s no way you’ll get me out in public acting like a preying mantis. I’d be crap at it anyway. In my previous stint at confounding gender stereotypes – working as a temp secretary while traveling in Canada – I was once allowed into an aerobics class with the other secretaries. I was banished after 15 minutes and told to find some coordination.
I can’t stand massages. Masseurs have a chronic inability to rub me in the exact square millimetre I want, and I leave more agitated than I arrived. And as my wife will attest, I’m horrible company in a foot massage chamber when people start poking the soles of my feet like it’s a good idea. I’m afraid I find calligraphy like watching little strokes of paint dry. Communism has tried and failed. And if I could arch my back and make my hair stand on end, it would happen whenever I heard Peking Opera.
Instead I’ve gone local in one of the most liberating, wonderful ways possible. I’ve become a loony singer.
It’s one of the things you notice about China: people riding by on their bike, singing at the top of their voices for all the world to hear – other cyclists, pedestrians, motorists, alfresco diners. In a strictly controlled country where people mostly shuffle round in an orderly, reserved manner, it’s refreshingly free-range.
I used to see them and wince, embarrassed for their sake. But then I thought how happy they seemed.
They reminded me of “the laughers”. In India once I heard a group of men guffawing outside my hotel. Minutes later I noticed they were still laughing. I looked, and couldn’t see anything obviously funny. I went and watched up close. They weren’t laughing at anything in particular. Noone was struggling to re-describe a situation, or repeat a punchline. They were just laughing. It turned out this is what they did. Every day at the same time. They’d meet up, start laughing, then more laughing begat more laughing, and before they knew it they were in tears and stitches. And then they went off to work, souls renewed.
Here, people will whiz by singing – sometimes melodiously, sometimes malodorously, sometimes trying and failing to hit some outrageously high notes. They don’t care. In our neighbourhood we also have “Pedestrian Opera Man” – a Chinese gent of about 70 who walks the footpaths in the morning belting out European opera. You can hear him a block away. You wish they all sounded like him, but then again, this is not about pitch perfection.
In the west, people have sung in their cars for decades. Usually this is with the window up. Even then it takes some courage to keep singing and grooving when stopped at lights beside other motorists.
Here, until fairly recently, the rank and file didn’t have cars. If people felt like singing on their way to work, they did so on their bike. In such a tightly controlled society, this was a way to loosen the shackles with impunity. Still they might not have freedom of speech or association. But they are free to get down.
|It's not what it looks like. It's a choir.|
|Here's another one. They're probably singing techno.|
|The bike singing habit has crept into|
China's performing arts, such as with the
Wang Family Singers, the so-called
Partridges on Wheels.
As opposed to a sound-proof car, singing out loud on your bike takes a little courage. But once you start, you feel let loose indeed. It’s more therapeutic than meditation.
You’ll always remember your first time. I bought a bike 18 months ago, and had been riding for a few months with earphones in, humming quietly. Then one day, inspired by a passing tenor, I thought I’d give it a go.
I started sheepishly, singing semi-audibly along to Manfred Mann’s Blinded By The Light. Gradually I became more emboldened. The volume got louder, and, with the thrill of it all, so did my velocity.
Before I knew it I was flying, positively belting it out – a Jonathan Livingston Cyclist. And as I passed within earshot of what soon accumulates as hundreds, if not thousands, of Beijingers, I noticed one thing about them: Noone gave a damn. Noone looked at me strangely, nor disapprovingly – not even at the bit that sounds like “Wrapped up like a douche another runner in the night” (It’s Revved up like a Deuce, by the way, as in a Deuce Coupe car).
Now, there’s no stopping me. And I have a lot of time on my bike to work on things, like harmonies. I’ll go for the high bits – such as in my most guilty pleasure, Sugar Baby Love - and still won’t get looks when I fail. Another great thing is that this being China, noone knows you’re not supposed to like songs like that. Plus, most people can’t speak English, so I can ride along singing Anarchy in the UK without being arrested for subversion.
I’ll hit the lows in some Johnny Cash numbers, including some odd-sounding backing vocals. I’m thinking it must sound strange to be out walking and hear a big foreigner riding by yelling “BA DOOBY DO-WOP WOP”, or it’s near-relative “BA BA BA, BA BARBARA-ANN”. But if I do get looks, they’re usually smiles.
|Of course singing on a bike in China can pose dangers.|
These two sounded like Julie Andrews when they passed
me. They came back a minute later sounding like
|But generally it's great fun, apart from all the traffic. This|
man was presented with this bouquet after a particularly
stirring performance from La Traviata.
|Chinese cyclist Gong Jinjie says singing while riding was|
a key to her success at the London Olympics. Here, she
powers to victory in the individual pursuit during a
rendition of one of her favourite 70s hits, YMCA.
|The air drums. Seriously, anything goes.|
There is even a bike singers' brotherhood. One young loony was riding along beside me last week giving a quite decent performance of local pop. I felt I had to show him I understood, and gave him the thumbs up.
“You sing very well!” I said in Chinese.
“Oh thank you,” he replied. Alas, duly encouraged, he launched into some Peking Opera, the kind that sounds like a man has his thumb caught in a vice, and rode away with an “Eee eeeee EEEEE!”. At least he looked a lot better than he sounded.
I’ll try opera, country, rock and pop. If it helps the rhythm of your cycling, all the better, such as Kraftwerk’s Tour De France. For an extra boost, riding no hands and singing adds on average 25 per cent more joy.
But I haven’t gone completely mad. There are some things I won’t attempt, like scat jazz. Mind you, that shouldn’t be attempted by anyone anywhere. (Another good thing about China is they can just ban stuff like scat jazz).
And you should never attempt spoken bits of songs, like when Elvis says “I wonder if … you’re lonesome tonight?” Singing out loud is one thing. If you’re riding along talking to yourself then indeed you will be looked upon as a bit mental. And in the Elvis example, you might get slapped.
So now I sing along the streets of Beijing with all the elan of a zealous convert. I heartily recommend all other cyclists to join the singers-on-wheels club, in China or wherever you are. It beats a massage hands down.