I have to say Alec Ash and Tom Pellman’s recent collection of expat writings on China, While We’re Here (Earnshaw Books, 2015), has a catchy cover. It shows a street in what appears to be the popular Nanluoguxiang neighborhood of Beijing, a favored spot for the bohemian set along with hordes of tourists. A foreigner with a clown’s face looks a bit out of place as he stands in the street holding a bunch of balloons. The clown image conveys the irony that we foreigners cannot but avoid being buffoons in China no matter how cool and hip we think we are. We might as well accept our hapless role as objects of amusement and have a laugh at our own expense. But then I considered it from another angle. Is this merely the proverbial sad clown’s self-mockery? Or is there an implicit taunt or tease lurking in that face? Is the clown’s gaze an appeal, or a challenge? The title too carries a double meaning. Is it: we’ll be out of your way soon, but while we’re here please don’t be too hard on us; you will miss us bumbling foreigners. Or is it: we’ll be out of your way soon, but while we’re here we plan to cause some trouble. Treat us like clowns at your peril.
In 2006, Sting came out with Songs from the Labyrinth, an album devoted to the Elizabethan composer John Dowland. It was an unlikely choice of musical material for a rock star, yet Sting approached Dowland with enthusiasm and respect, refraining from rendering his songs into pop or setting them to a rock beat (as Richard Thompson for example has done with various Renaissance tunes and Italian madrigals). He employed a professional lutenist, Edin Karamazov, and accompanied some of the pieces on the lute himself, a new passion of his acquired for the recording project. And showing restraint and taste, Sting did not attempt to sing the songs in the stylized “classical” manner but used his voice’s natural register to adopt at times a relaxed and conversational, at times a more hushed or emphatic tone to suit each song’s occasion.
The result was oddly compelling and delightful. In the decade since the recording was released, the album’s Amazon page has accumulated over 200 largely favorable customer reviews. The minority of negative reviewers are not, as one might suspect, regular Sting fans baffled by his newfound classical preoccupation, but finicky classical purists upset with his vocal incompetence, his nerve in attempting something out of his league. Yet they missed the point. The rocker’s homespun approach revealed the music’s texture in a fresh way, and moreover reflected the actual conditions in which Dowland’s music was often performed, namely by musician friends in a relaxed and intimate setting.
Dowland appeals to us in that he shares certain affinities with the modern notion of the artist — the artist as alienated, rebellious iconoclast, misunderstood by society, striking out on his own in proud defiance of convention. The English long for a Caravaggio, Beethoven or Van Gogh to call their own (actually they do have one: Shakespeare, but he’s not neurotic enough). Dowland can, partially at any rate, be said to fit the bill. He is indeed an enigmatic and somewhat tragic figure, in the Greek sense, his fate largely self-inflicted. Before we investigate the reasons for this, and what it all has to do with the point of this essay, we need to slip some decades back in time, to the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the extraordinary story of her chief court musician, Alfonso Ferrabosco.
A distinction must be made before I get off on the wrong footing with many readers (which I inevitably will) between the system of domestic sexual slavery in China that lasted up to the mid-20th century known as concubinage, and concubines. I don’t support slavery in any form, sexual or otherwise, but I would, in the right circumstances, support a concubine. For a particular concubine, the right concubine, I would pay. I think you would too. Say you encounter the woman of your dreams — one with your ideal “10” body. I mean the kind of body that would make you cheat on your wife or girlfriend for the very first time. You know what kind of body I’m talking about. There’s not a man around who doesn’t secretly fear this future catastrophe. She also happens to be smart, cultured and talented — poet, belly-dancer, Derrida fan, you name it. And here’s the clincher: she’s into you as well. But there’s a catch. In her country, where you’ve met, you are not allowed to lay a hand on her unless you buy her. No, not a one-shot gig like a prostitute, but really buy her, for good. You can have her all for your very own, provided, of course, you set her up and take care of her, ensure her welfare. On the other hand, she is affordable (credit cards accepted). By purchasing her you will be considerably improving her economic circumstances, and thus her ability to develop her talents and self-actualize to her fullest potential. That’s not such a bad thing, is it? (In fact, this scenario is not all that different from what already exists. It’s called marrying up. The terms are just not so cut and dry.)
Airbnb has of late been getting unfavorable news coverage. Clever property owners have discovered that by turning over their residential units to Airbnb guests, they can take in more cash than renting them out to regular tenants, while at the same time exploiting legal loopholes to avoid paying hotel taxes. In San Francisco, disenfranchised residents have accused the company of exacerbating the affordable housing crisis. Proposition F, which would have curtailed Airbnb’s ability to facilitate such profiteering, has just been defeated. This legal battle is reminiscent of those recently pitting local taxi drivers in various cities around the world against Uber, Airbnb’s equivalent in the private car-for-hire business. But Airbnb and Uber have their finger on the technological pulse of the times, and with some tweaking of their business model I suspect they will ride out the resistance and not only survive but thrive.
I don’t take a position on the above controversy. I do, however, have a negative view of Airbnb, for entirely unrelated reasons.