The Chinese art of noise

China map with sound waves

Turning to the subject of noise, Chinese people’s voices must be the loudest on earth, with the Cantonese taking the gold medal. I heard a joke about this: Two Cantonese men in the United States are having a conversation in the street. An American walks by and thinks they are having a fight, so he calls the police. When the police arrive and ask them what they are fighting about, they say, “We’re just whispering.” — Bo Yang, The Ugly Chinaman

The December pre-dawn Beijing smog is so thick it seems to block out noise, until the one-man band following behind me rends the silence with his hawking, spitting and throat-clearing symphony; he plays all the repeats in the atonal musical score. I find a Starbucks that opens early and sit down with a coffee and George Prochnik’s In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, a book I’ve had on my shelf for some time, waiting for just the right moment of stillness to ease into it such as this early morning.

But the day is not off to a good start. The shop’s music is melodious but unrelenting: the brassy clamor of Ella Fitzgerald singing “Jingle Bells,” followed by “Rudolf, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and every other awful carol you forgot existed. Give me Julie Andrews singing Christmas carols, or give me Ella singing anything but Christmas carols, but please don’t combine the two.

I can thank Starbucks at least for eliminating the more egregious forms of indoor environmental pollution: smoking and Chinese pop. I put on my state-of-the-art noise isolation earphones, which I use just as often without as with music since they are reasonably good at blocking out sound. Today, though, they aren’t up to the task and the shrill music penetrates like a dentist’s drill.

The problem is not so much the music but its loudness. This leaves me in a dilemma, because the Law of Complaining states that one well-prosecuted complaint may be effective while two are merely annoying. I can’t ask them to both change the music and turn it down. Which is less desirable, listening to different loud music or to the same songs at slightly lower volume?

Each request is complicated in its own right. If I ask them to change the music, now on repeat with the same handful of songs already playing a second time, they will claim it’s the only music they have. Or it’s the Christmas season, so the music is appropriate (though you often hear Christmas carols at all times of the year in China). Or the customers seem to like it, since none of them except me has ever complained before. They will moreover find it odd that I’m a Westerner complaining about Western music. Regardless of how they respond, the implication will be that I am imposing my idiosyncratic musical tastes on everyone else, despite being the sole customer at this early hour.

True, Starbucks franchises may be officially required to play only pre-selected music. If this were not the case, I suspect we would be hearing something worse even than Chinese pop: Adele. What we do hear is jazz. Yet it seems the franchises were given only general guidelines, on the assumption that local managers are savvy to musical taste, when what is needed is a great deal more micromanagement.

You see, music serves a wholly different function here than in the rest of the world. Like “elevator music” in the West, all music is Muzak to the Chinese. They don’t listen to it so much as expect it provide an atmosphere on demand. Putting the same few tracks or a single CD on repeat for the entire day is as logical to them as lining a room with wallpaper of the same pattern. Here music could be defined as a transitional phenomenon between white noise and outright noise: adjustable noise pollution. But when music is so attenuated in its function, why one wonders is it needed at all?

Putting the same few tracks or the same CD on repeat mode for the entire day is as logical to them as decorating the four walls of a room with identically patterned wallpaper.

The answer reveals itself when I ask the staff to turn the music down. Terrified at the looming prospect of silence, they simply will not cooperate. I’ve gone through this routine many times before. Initially they politely acquiesce and one of the baristas dashes into the back room to adjust the volume control. The Chinese are masters of the psychological effect, however. They know that if they merely appear to be adjusting the volume, I will perceive an illusory reduction in sound, when none in fact occurs. They can’t play this game on me, and I implore them to go back once more and actually turn the music down.

On the other hand, one positive outcome of the general Chinese indifference to music is that cafés and restaurants often forget to turn it on and the silence passes unnoticed. In any case, although today I succeed in having it dialed it down a notch, the effort expended in trying to restore a proper Starbucks ambience from the McDonald’s-like mania is itself enough to spoil my morning. So much for Prochnik’s book.

It’s off to work. There is no peaceful form of transportation to choose from, but some are relatively less tumultuous than others. The worst is the subway and its braying address system. On the escalator into the station a recording to “Please stand firm and hold the handrail” harasses in a continuous loop, reminding us we’re all clumsy children. On the train, each station is announced both before arriving and upon arrival in Mandarin and English, along with such redundancies as “Please get ready for your arrival.” The American native speaker they hired to record the English has a professional voice but her pronunciation of the Chinese station names is off and this makes for excruciating listening. Then they got rid of her and now have the Chinese announcer speaking the English instead, with equally unfortunate results. The volume, of course, is loud, further amplified to a screech from the damaged speaker cones in some of the cars.

At least it helps to drown out the passengers shouting into their cellphones. It’s not simply self-importance, the Chinese brand of machismo. If they really had reason to brag, they wouldn’t be stuck among the crowds but in the back of a chauffeur-driven Audi with tinted windows or the private room of an exclusive restaurant. When upstart businessmen shamelessly conduct their affairs within earshot of everyone around them, it’s a kind of advertising, a means of pricking up the ears of potential partners or customers nearby and thus expanding their zone of influence in as wide a radius as possible every minute of the day.

When businessmen conduct their affairs loudly within earshot of everyone around them, it’s a kind of advertising.

Shouting into a cellphone is also a way to compensate for noisy surroundings and the unnerving delayed signal from your interlocutor. But the lower down the social scale someone is, the louder the yelling gets, and not just into cellphones. My theory as to why so many Chinese shout at each other even in quiet places is that it’s an ingrained response from centuries of life on the farm, when people communicated by yelling across fields, and they remain forever stuck in yelling mode.

The Japanese make for a pointed contrast, all the more striking coming from a neighboring culture with a shared religio-cultural heritage and similar concepts of social harmony. In Japan, cellphone talking is frowned on in the subway and outlawed on trains except for the closed sections between train cars, while announcements from the PA system come through quietly in softly clipped voices. Riding Japanese trains is like being in a Zen garden on wheels. Not that such regulation is needed; the Japanese naturally converse in hushed voices, often in whispers, as if living out the Tao in daily life. Even Japanese porn actresses don’t yell or orgasm loudly, they whimper (the Japanese do have a soft spot for roaring environments like Pachinko parlors and store-front hawkers with megaphones; they just confine and regulate these spaces as tightly as their red light districts).

My company pays for my taxi rides to and from work, but this isn’t always a quieter option. It’s often an unpleasant experience. Taxi interiors are no longer as smelly as they used to be after the city began fining unhygienic drivers in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. But rudeness is still the norm. The trend these days, if they stop for you at all, is to demand you tell them where you’re going before getting in the cab; if you don’t happen to be heading where they want to go, they just drive off. Once you make it inside a taxi, you are assaulted by the loud radio. They’ll turn it down if you insist, though reluctantly. Then there’s the video screen attached to the back of the front seat inches from your face blaring ads, with the volume set on high. To turn it off, after much fiddling you discover that you need to hit the little button in the corner twice, once to access the volume control and again to stop the video.

The comparatively least unpleasant means of transportation is walking or cycling. Here I have to say that much improvement has been made over the past two decades in curbing this aspect of urban noise pollution. I recall the Shanghai of the early ‘90s as being the worst, when all drivers honked their horn continuously in a deluded attempt to force their way through the lawless traffic, and when that didn’t work jumping out and getting in fist fights with the driver in front. Now they only honk intermittently.

The problem is you are always in the way. Today as I ride my bike to work in a dedicated bike lane, a car is honking at me from behind to move aside. Pedestrians on sidewalks are likewise forced to step aside to make way for honking mopeds going at speeds of 30-40kph in both directions so that their drivers, typically messengers and deliverymen, can get to their destination on time and avoid being fired. The only saving grace of these electric bicycles is that they run quietly—so quietly you don’t hear them coming and may easily get run over. And to avoid responsibility for causing your accident, they will fly away from you faster than they came at you.

My workplace luckily is a quiet refuge. But I can’t focus on work today because I am too tired from lack of sleep. The reason I couldn’t sleep was the new residential complex being built across from my high-rise. The construction has been going on for months. It was previously much worse, the hammering and pounding taking place around the clock. It gave rise to interesting philosophical speculation. Did the fellow residents on my side of the building really not mind? Could they be so inured that the most extreme noise never consciously registered and they didn’t even hear it? Or did they mind but were powerless to do anything about it?

Can people be so inured that the most extreme noise pollution never registers consciously and they don’t even hear it?

Then things started quieting down every night between midnight or so and six or seven in the morning. I had heard there was a city ordinance against construction work during sleeping hours and it appeared to have kicked in. I can imagine how very pissed off all relevant parties—the developers, the corrupt officials profiting off the developers, the construction workers, the home buyers eager to move in to the new building, and the overworked police themselves for having to handle frivolous complaints from old ladies—must have been: the nerve of those little people in forcing our hand and delaying our schedule!

They didn’t really cooperate, however, but merely shifted less noisy activity to the wee hours: a constant stream of diesel trucks entering and exiting, guard dogs barking, and the clanking of steel girders and other heavy materials being unloaded. So although the incessant pounding has stopped and the decibels dip for a few hours, I am still regularly jolted awake by a medley of jagged sounds. Whereas before it was Steve Reich or Philip Glass at full volume, now it is John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen at full volume. And then there is the inevitable crash that occurs at least once every night when they drop something on the ground, probably intentionally, still pissed off at us. The best way to describe this is when T. Coraghessan Boyle in Drop City likened rock music on a bad acid trip to the sound of a marching band crashing down a staircase. I counter the best I can with the combined hum of my air conditioner and fan to create a fog of white noise, together with earplugs and a sleeping pill, but this is only occasionally effective, and it wasn’t last night.

Today after work I have a first date with a Chinese female for dinner and a Peking Opera performance in the evening. She is pretty and that will take some of the edge off my weariness. The restaurant turns out to be a good one, which means it’s crowded and loud, with the hard floors and furniture only magnifying the noise. The notion of dampening interior acoustics with industrial carpeting hasn’t yet taken hold in Chinese restaurants and I doubt it ever will. The reason is clear to anyone who frequents the restaurants here: customers love it. The Serbian novelist Milorad Pavic once compared women without a nice rump to a town without a church; the Chinese would compare the same to a restaurant without noise. The Chinese restaurant fulfills the same function as the British pub (or American college pub)—the noisier, and the longer the evening drags on, the better. Without a bar tradition, Chinese men do their rounds in restaurants. The one-upmanship of competing tables then merges into a general party atmosphere and the whole establishment is swinging like a wedding party.

With repeated exposure, the foreigner learns to go with the flow. I can admit having even grown fond of the boisterous Chinese restaurant to a degree. I guess it’s because its particular sonic congeries has a special flavor that can’t be found anywhere else. It also helps that my female companion has a great ass. Too bad the din prevents me from making out most of what she says.

We head for the Grand Chinese Opera Theater on Chang’an Avenue, a handsome performance space combining features of the traditional Chinese theater with the larger Western-style auditorium. It’s my first visit to this venue, and the experience is horrible. The problem is not the oft-vilified cacophony of Peking Opera. I enjoy the art form in fact and have been going for years. Like the Chinese restaurant, it’s an acquired taste but one that rewards the patient. Unfortunately, all the theaters I’ve been to electronically amplify the singers, which Chinese opera has no more need of than Western opera does. One explanation I’ve heard is that they’re catering to a mostly elderly audience who are hard of hearing. Another is that the older generations, used to the bullhorns and public address systems of decades past screaming revolutionary slogans, are so addicted to constant racket that they gravitate to wherever it can be found.

They are not subtle about it: big loudspeakers adorn the sides of the stage. The sound quality is poor and the volume is jacked up to a painful, ear-splitting degree. I look around to see if I can spot any uncomfortable opera-goers. Nope, I seem to be the only one. I roll up pieces of tissue paper and stuff them in my ears. But it’s too late. The noise has seeped into my brain like poison and I’m rapidly developing a headache. I do the unthinkable but I have no choice, which is to leave a terrible impression on my hot date by abandoning her at a concert she invited me to, with profuse apologies. I exit into the relative and short-lived peace of Beijing’s nighttime air before descending back to the construction pit for the night.

*     *     *


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At the Teahouse Café – Essays from the Middle Kingdom

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3 replies »

  1. From what I know about Chinese—they LOVE noise—a silent world is one of the most terrifying things that could ever happen. Also why Chinese generally do not like to be “alone” anywhere—and also the reason why many Chinese from mainland China hate living/working in the U.S… is TOO quiet! TOO boring—-NO people…No NOISE….They can’t handle it. They equate NOISE with being “exciting” and an ambiance of LIFE HAPPENING….without it it is a dead and meaningless world. It is my belief that they do not have a culture of music—-because music was never a large part of their culture—-not like in Europe wearing powdered wigs and sipping lattes whilst eyeballing a big-breasted patron behind some veil of sorts. Surely Chinese do have music and have always had music but they don’t seem to have a culture of enjoying music—-music appreciation—-everything is about MONEY. Music is a tool—-like a glitzy sign to pull in customers. I once wandered through a mall in WangFuJing where a HipHop song was BLARING out from a shop with some GangSta Rap—-“Baby Baby SUCK MY DI*K!!!!” over and over and over again—-while customers totally unaware of what the song meant strolled by without an issue. I’ve been in restaurants in Beijing that were so LOUD that it was almost impossible to have a conversation at your table——most restaurants in the west a pin could be heard hitting a carpeted floor……

  2. thanks for this piece, Isham.. it helps me feel better about deciding, years ago, not to come teach English in Guangzhou.

  3. Yes – I know how you feel. I went to KFC in China – I didn’t like the pictures hanging on the wall.

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