Chasing the Moon

Stories by Akiko Sugimoto

Possed by the Magic of Kanji
Witch in Training
Landscapes of Stone
Going North
Mao at Baiyunguan
My 1997
Guizi and Ahn
Three Chinese Stories

Chasing the Moon (7)

By Sugimoto Akiko

My 1997

A version of this story appeared in
The East, 42(1), May/June 2006, pages 36-39

Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, the year I went to Beijing to study. One of the most popular songs at the time was Ai Jing's "My 1997" [Wo de 1997], which made her instantly famous when it came out in 1992.

The lyrics tell a semi-autobiographical story of a woman who sings her way south from Shenyang to see her man in Hong Kong but can't. "He can come to Shenyang / I can't go to Hong Kong; Come quickly, 1997 / So I can go to Hong Kong".

She can't wait for the day she can get a big red stamp in her passport. She wonders what the fragrant city is really like. She wants to stand in Hung Hom Coliseum, see a midnight show with her man, and shop at Yaohan. "Come quickly, 1997! / What are Yaohan's clothes really like?"

In the early 1990s, Japanese department stores and European furniture emporiums were cropping out in Beijing and Shanghai. Hong was the inspiration for China's new consumerism, but in 1997 the Yaohan group went bankrupt and the Hong Kong store closed.

In the English version of "My 1997" released that year, Ai Jing changed "Yaohan" to "Lan Kwai Fong" -- a thriving entertainment area in Hong Kong Central. The Coliseum near Hung Hom station in Kowloon remains a landmark for huge concerts and other events.

The moons of China

Ai Jing (䈌h), a pop-folk-rock singer, writes her own lyrics and scores and plays the guitar. She was active mostly in Beijing when I was there, and was known for giving impromptu mini-live concerts at clubs in the north of the city. Even the authorities loved her sassy mix of social commentary and romance.

Not long before I went to China, Ai Jing came to Japan to release one of my all-time favorites, "Chasing the Moon", a quest for love in a cleaner world. "Mist strolls through the sky / and wrinkles the flowers in the sun; pollutants mixed in the air / penetrate the lungs and start confusion," she sings. "I chase chase chase fresh air, fresh steps / I catch catch catch tomorrow's garbage, life's burdens".

The song filled my head with images of bright full moons high in China's skies. For me, the moons Ai Jing was chasing symbolized the older China I could barely wait to see.

I also longed to see Ai Jing. And one day after I had been in Beijing awhile, at a Starbucks in a building at the International Trade Center in the heart of Beijing, I spotted a woman who looked exactly like she does on the jackets of her CDs. She was with friends and laughing. Her long black hair, and the simple features of her slender face, were beautiful. To this day I am certain it was her.

The new becomes old

I had come to China because I was enamored by the country where Confucian thought, the origin of characters, and Buddhist fables about the Silk Road had been romantically beautified in historical fiction. But the China waiting for me in 1997 was a China bent on destroying what the Cultural Revolution had left of the old, in its rush to achieve American, European, and Japanese standards of consumption and waste.

Visually, too, China didn't meet my expectations. Cityscapes were changing to accommodate ferroconcrete apartments, automobiles, and fast food outlets. Lines of young people, their hair dyed brown or blonde, at the entrances of discos like Hard Rock Cafe (Yingshi Canting), looked just like the youth scene in Japan.

Even the Chinese characters which I had come to study had undergone radical change. The graphs that evolved over the past four millennia are called "fantizi" (”Ι‘ΜŽš) or "Big-5" in computerese. Half a century ago, under Mao Zedong's language reforms, many of these beautifully balanced older graphs were simplified.

Some of simplified graphs, called "jiantizi" (ŠΘ‘ΜŽš) or "GB" in computerspeak, are older cursive forms of the fuller fantizi, and some are newer abbreviations. They were adopted because communist educators considered them easier and faster to write and remember.

To me, however, many of the simplified characters looked as though someone had taken the older characters and mercilessly torn off their heads, arms, and legs. And now, to the youth of China who were chasing the outside world, Mao Zedong and communism, and even the simplified characters, were old.

You're so ku

Of course, not everything new is bad. Everything changes one way or another. China in 1997 was going through a period of chaotic transition. And in the midst of all the confusion was this young woman from Japan, who had come to pursue the vestiges of "Old China". Some Chinese students saw me as totally behind the times.

My classmates called everything new and fantastic "ku" (“), the Sinification of English "cool". They often asked me, "Why are you studying Chinese?" For them, it was "ku" to study English, do well on the TOEFL, get a scholarship, and leave China for an American university. Interest in things Chinese wasn't "ku".

Yet there I was, listening to Ai Jing's "Chasing the Moon" (’ΗŒŽ Zhui Yue), and resonating with its theme, which poked fun at China in transition, as though to say "Old China, don't change!" As a Japanese, as a living human being, I began to question what was truly "ku" for China. And three years of living in China left me seriously wondering what the country was coming to.

A Piece of Red Cloth

Also in Beijing at the time was an even better known rock vocalist named Cui Jian (›ΑŒ’). A legend from the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, Cui had released one of his old standards, which had long been suppressed, called "A Piece of Red Cloth" (ˆκ‰ςg•z Yi Kuai Hong Bu). Its lyrics tell of the suffering experienced when covering the head with a large, heavy red cloth. During their performance, Cui and his band would put red cloths over their eyes and mouths.

The police who patrolled the streets in the entertainment districts were always on the lookout for musicians who crossed certain lines in their criticism of the Communist Party. After the Tiananmen Incident, Cui and others who had performed for the hunger strikers were banned. Although Cui was allowed to perform again, many of his concerts were stopped.

Why didn't the police stop Ai Jing's concerts? While she lampoons present-day China, she injects pleasure and hope into her stories about how China is changing -- as she did in "My 1997". In other ways, too, she expresses the feelings of young women in China.

What's in a name

Many Japanese and Euroamerican music production companies, which had set up branches in Shanghai and Hong Kong, were turning out "ku" idols. The most globally known example is Faye Wong (‰€δΙ).

Wong was born in Beijing in 1969 as Xia Lin (‰Δ—Τ), Xia being her mother's family name. Her father's name was Wang (Mandarin) or Wong (Cantonese). At the age of 15 she adopted the name Wang Fei, which was morphed into the Anglo-Cantonese name Faye Wong -- which she used on her earliest recordings.

Faye Wong moved to Hong Kong with her family in 1987 and signed a contract with a local producer. She released her first major albums as Shirley Wong. But she wrote her name ‰€–υ雯, which Beijingers pronounced Wang Jingwen.

In 1994, returning to Hong Kong from three-years of vocal studies in New York, Shirley Wong reverted to Faye Wong -- pronounced "Wang Fei" in Beijing speech, not to be confused with a guqin musician of the same name who now lives in the United States.

By 1997, Faye Wong had become one of the biggest names in Canto Pop, as the music which comes out of Hong Kong is known. All the songs she sang, many of them influenced by the world beyond China, were "ku" to her millions of mainland fans.

Psychedelic guitar

Ai Jing, like Faye Wong, had done her share of traveling. Unlike Wong, however, she remained more earthy and folksy -- and more serious -- in Beijing.

Ai Jing, too, was born in 1969, but in Shenyang, far to the north. In her mid teens she joined a Chinese dance ensemble in Beijing as a singer. By her late teens she was in Guangzhou recording her first solos. In 1990 she appeared in a Taiwanese film.

"My 1997" was produced in Hong Kong in 1992, a year before its release on the mainland. Ai Jing is said to have moved back to Beijing because of problems with her producer, not because Hong Kong wasn't the place to be. As she sings in "My 1997", British Hong Kong was a big market for mainland stars like "Old Cui", her affectionate name for Cui Jian.

Ai Jing, in her own way, has also been seeking "ku". She became popular in Japan in 1994 and recorded "Chasing the Moon" in Tokyo in 1996. Two years later she made "Made in China" in the USA, and in 2002 she released a tribute to 9/11 called "New York New York". She has since performed in Russia and many other countries.

In 2003, in Hong Kong, working with the same producer that handles Faye Wong, Ai Jing put out a new album called "Shi bu shi meng" (₯•s₯šλ, Is this a dream?). Singers who work out of Hong Kong are able to incorporate the latest technology and styles from the Republic of Korea and the United States. The jackets of the albums reflect a polish of design, and an awareness of fashion, not yet seen in mainland productions.

Ai Jing always accompanies herself with a guitar, which for her is more than a stage prop. The cover of "Dream" shows her embracing a very flashy, almost psychedelic guitar. Her hair is still long but is shaggy and has a wet look as it cascades down her cheeks.

Chasing the truly "ku"

Ai Jing, too, has changed a lot since 1997. But the facial expressions of the moon chaser I saw that day in Beijing, who had penned the lyrics of "My 1997" in a notebook, and written the score with Beijing-based Madagascan singer/songwriter guitarist Eddie "Aidi (δˆηŒ)" Randriampionana, have become very nostalgic for me.

This story is not just about a country and its artists, but about the various ways human life changes. What is really most "ku" may be nothing more than when one tries to adapt to all the changes in the world, but cannot, and simply admits to feeling nostalgic about the past.

What has particularly drawn me to Ai Jing and other artists of her generation in China, is their relentless pursuit of what they find truly "ku" amidst the chaos of rampant social and economic change, not all of it for the better.

(Translated by William Wetherall)

Sugimoto Akiko has had an interest in literature since childhood. She studied philosophy at Beijing University in China, and graduated from Temple University in Tokyo, where she studied comparative religion, psychology, and Asian studies. She hopes to continue writing, with a sense of humor and romance, about the lights and shadows of human experience. The writer Inoue Yasushi (ˆδγ–υ 1907-1991) was her grandmother's older brother.