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From Chicago to China and Back Again: Susan Blumberg-Kason

GCW CoverNot long ago I had the pleasure to meet Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of the recently-published memoir Good Chinese Wife. The book is a very honest and brave look at Susan’s difficult marriage to a charismatic mainland scholar and musician, Cai. They met in Hong Kong, spent time in China and settled in San Francisco, where their baby boy was born. After the marriage fell apart, Susan returned with her son to her hometown, Chicago. She eventually remarried and had two more children before writing Good Chinese Wife. I found Susan’s writing completely compelling but also very, very personal. It takes guts (!!) to write so candidly. After I heard her speak about the book’s journey, which is an interesting story in itself, I asked if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions for therockmom, about writing, family and of course music!

Q: Let’s start with the memoir, which is a great read! Full of drama and emotion but not in a woe-is-me kind of way. When you were writing was it difficult to sort of re-experience your history or were you able to write in a more detached way? I imagine you’d almost have to look at yourself as a character, that you’d need that distance, to make the narrative work.

A: Thank you for the kind words about the book! If I had written it right after my divorce, it would have been an angry, finger-pointing story full of rage. But since I started writing it eight years after that marriage ended, I had enough distance between those events and the new life I had created for myself. I was able to distance myself from the person I was during the years of Good Chinese Wife. And once I started working with independent editors, and later my agent and editor at my publishing house, the book became a collaborative effort and I certainly looked at myself as a character. We would talk about me in the third person as if I was a character!

Q: I’m always curious as to how writers’ families react to their work. You spoke about it a bit at your book talk, but I’m wondering: did you get your current husband to read any early drafts? What did your children think when they saw the actual book, I mean it’s such a fun thing, right? Seeing your name on a book!

A: My husband Tom hasn’t read the book yet! I was worried about family members reading early drafts because I was worried they would try to influence what I wrote (ie, keep me from revealing so much). I guess I didn’t need to worry about that with Tom! He has been so supportive and pushes my book at work like it’s a drug, then proudly reports back to me when a colleague has read and liked it. Now he’s trying to muster up Amazon reviews. Tom at first said he would read it, but I have the feeling he doesn’t care to go back to that part of my life. He knows about the events in the book, and I think that’s good enough for him! As for my kids, my son Jake is sixteen and hasn’t read it, but I’ve placed it on a bookshelf and told him he’s welcome to it anytime. Some of his friends have read it, though. My two younger kids are too young to read it, but they were so excited when my review copies arrived in the mail. We all held a copy like it was a new baby. I also brought my little ones to a bookstore to see it on the shelves for the first time, and that was super thrilling, too.

Q: Going back to the story of you and Cai, you met him in the world of academia, but you know after I’d finished the book I found myself thinking that being married to him sounded a lot like being married to a rock musician! The hours, the lifestyle, the – dare I say – ego. Has anyone ever suggested that before? What are your thoughts?

A: No one ever compared it to being married to a rock star, but Cai himself warned me—after we married. The first time he stayed out until the early hours of the morning, he was recording a CD for a businessman in Singapore with a group of musicians at the Wuhan Conservatory of Music. When he returned home the next morning, he shrugged and said it’s difficult being married to an ethnomusicologist. As it turns out, he wasn’t kidding! His late nights out in California were all music-related outings with friends he had met in the Chinese music community there. I don’t think that lifestyle is impossible for a spouse, but the person who keeps those late hours needs to make sure he (or she) makes up for it when he’s home!

Headshot from Hong Kong 3

Susan stopped in Hong Kong recently for the release of both Good Chinese Wife & the How Does One Dress To Buy Dragonfruit anthology.

Q: You mentioned that while you and Cai were together, you spent a lot of time around Chinese music and musicians. What’s your take on classical Chinese music? It seems to be an acquired taste!

A: I like Chinese classical music! I’m certainly not an expert in it, but I like the different instruments and the sad melodies. Often when we went out with his friends in China to karaoke, they would sing revolutionary songs, which I thought was funny in a kitschy way. I even learned some of them. I know that’s not classical music, but that’s what Cai’s generation grew up on and what they were most familiar with at that time.

Q: You’ve also said that you actually started to learn to play the erhu with Cai – how difficult was that? Are you a musical person? Do you play any other instruments?

A: I am not a musical person, although I took piano lessons for eight years when I was young and can still read music. The erhu was kind of a fluke. I had signed up for a Japanese language class in graduate school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, but the class was taught in Cantonese. So I had to drop it because I only speak a smattering of Cantonese. A friend from Japan was taking erhu lessons at the University, which I thought sounded very cool. So I signed up, too. It was a lot of fun, and Cai tutored me in erhu after we first met. After we got engaged, he stopped. My class was only a semester-long and I didn’t continue. At the end of the course, I could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star! I still have the erhu I bought in Hong Kong twenty years ago.

Q: What kind of music did you listen to as a teenager? What artists/bands had the most impact on you growing up?

A: I grew up in the seventies and eighties, so the first music I listened to on the radio was disco. This was the time of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, so the Bee Gees were my favorite when I was eight and nine. I also liked classic rock like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, which are my favorite bands to this day. But the ones that had the most impact on me growing up were The Cure, The Clash, Violent Femmes, and anything that would fit in a John Hughes movie. I not only watched his films religiously, but also grew up in the area where they were filmed. Also, my uncle was in a ska band in the ’80s, so I grew up on that. My parents would take us to all-ages concerts at venues that usually didn’t allow kids under 18. My uncle’s band played with Peter Tosh and The English Beat, so it was pretty cool to have a successful musician in the family.

Q: The English Beat! That is so cool. Are you sharing any music with your kids these days? You have a teenager plus younger children, right? Are there any artists that everyone can agree on – or is everyone’s tastes different?

A: We listen to music mainly when we’re in the car. I’m a chronic station-flipper, so I turn the dial until I find a song I like. My little ones are familiar with Top 40 songs, whereas Jake, my teenager, has eclectic taste. My husband Tom and I have taken Jake to see Bon Jovi, the Rolling Stones, and Lady Gaga! That’s kind of a good representation of what we listen to in the car, and all three kids are fine with that. Jake plays trumpet in his school’s marching band, jazz band, and orchestra. I’m sure he gets his musical abilities from his father!

Q: So, since you’re from Chicago, I’ve got to ask about Windy City music, which is so varied and unique: blues, house, indie rock, etc. Is there one band or singer that you would say is the quintessential sound of Chicago?

A: I would have to say that Buddy Guy is the quintessential sound of Chicago. He has a blues club not too far from where I used to live in the city, before I moved to the suburbs. Buddy Guy’s Legends attracts both locals and tourists. Back before we had a smoking ban, he used to perform several smoke-free concerts every January. Those were always popular. Now Legends has a new venue, with great food, and it’s all smoke-free now. When I meet people new to Chicago or visiting for the first time, I always recommend a concert at Buddy Guy’s, especially if he’s performing.

Thank you Susan for taking the time to chat with therockmom!

For more information, please check out:

Susan’s website

Susan on Twitter

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Sunday in the Plaza with… Das Fluff

This is the kind of thing you dream about – discovering you have hidden talents. Like finding buried treasure in your backyard, or perhaps a cache of secret weapons or super powers hitherto unknown. What would that feel like? What would you do with your gifts?

If you’re Dawn Lintern of the band Das Fluff, you start singing. Or I should say, you keep singing, only louder, stronger, tougher than you’ve ever sung before. And then what happens is you record, you travel, you perform and you sound just fricking awesome. Even if you don’t get a chance to blow out the windows.

See that was the scenario at Das Fluff’s last Hong Kong gig, which was an afternoon tea session at Saffron Bakery in Stanley. It was such a surreal experience, I’m not sure what I should write about first: the fact that YO could rip-stick in the plaza while I enjoyed some live music (a first for therockmom – I like!); my double shot drink order – a chocolate shake followed by a craft beer – or watching the reaction of the crowd as they wandered in for skim milk lattes and realized there was a dark, edgy pop duo performing in front of the DJ booth. Over by the One Direction posters and just across from the Captain Fantastic pinball machine. On a pop culture scale of weird meeting quaint, Das Fluff amongst the Southside crowd placed them on the same color pallet as David Bowie popping over to Bing Crosby’s place to sing ‘Little Drummer Boy’. (It’s on YouTube and worth a look.)

Lintern singing for the pinball wizard, in which the word 'tilt' takes on a whole new meaning (photo by therockmom).

Lintern singing for the pinball wizard, in which the word ’tilt’ takes on a whole new meaning (photo by therockmom).

Lintern’s last FB post from HK called her visit ‘the most challenging gigs of my life’, so all credit to her and Christian Ruland (keyboards & visuals) for taking us on. There might be pockets of coolness down around Sai Ying Pun or out in To Kwa Wan, but collectively, as a city, we are seriously uncool – Josh Groban kind of uncool – and to be honest, we’re pretty uptight. You know, Das Fluff got harassed about the noise, during the soundcheck. And this is after they turned the amps right down, in case the sound waves blew out the bakery’s picture windows. Apparently, that can happen if you’re not careful.

But still, I was damn glad to be there. With my shake and my beer, with the family in tow, and with EO asking: why do you need to go out and see music when you’ve got the internet? Blasphemous child! As God is my witness, I vowed, I will change her mind – one gig at a time.

Even better, I got to chat with Lintern after the last set about her music (it comes from a dark, angry place), her influences (Bowie, The Cure) and her path to Hong Kong (enter Sean Hocking from Saffron). Our conversation brought me round to my opening thought and the really cool part of the afternoon: finding out how she discovered her voice.

Lintern had been in a number of bands in her late teens and twenties, but she said she’d always been quite shy, had never really explored the boundaries of her voice. It took a visit to a voice coach to convince her that she had serious pipes. Add in her training in yoga, which helped with her breathing, as well as finding the right musical partners (Ruland + Steve May on guitar), and Lintern arrived at a place where she felt confident enough to push the envelope.

For someone like myself, who can’t sing a note, I find that fascinating – this idea of finding your voice, literally and figuratively. Lintern said it was a complete surprise to discover. And, even now, she’s still working on her sound, still figuring out what she’s capable of, while also trying to strip things down and find the essence of the song. She’s overcoming her shyness by challenging the audience and getting in their faces. She said she likens it to inhabiting a role – of a character I’d describe as an electro-damaged chanteuse. Marlene Dietrich meets Lene Lovich meets Siouxsie Sioux. “Brace yourself,” she told the audience, with a very British comic edge. Yes, not exactly a Sunday afternoon acoustic vibe. So unfortunately for us in the bakery audience, Lintern had to tone down her set to accommodate the place and the crowd. Got to watch out for those picture windows after all.

But we’ll take what we can get. And we’ll look forward to louder, stronger, tougher things to come.

———————–

Find Das Fluff at: 

http://www.dasfluff.com/

Then watch and learn:

If you want to find out what Saffron has in store for the live music scene in Hong Kong, get on their mailing list via: http://saffronbakery.com/ 

UPDATED: Can it really be SUMMER without ’80s music?

It started with Haircut 100.

My search, that is, for summer songs to play in the car with the kids – on the way to the pool, beach, movies. I was looking for clean, happy songs. I thought first of The Go-Go’s, of course. Playful songs with a girl power streak – just what my seven and nine year old daughters need! But then I couldn’t believe it when I realized: I do not own a Go-Go’s CD. How can that be?

All I Ever Wanted…

So I pulled out Haircut 100 (Pelican West – see even the album name sounds fun!) along with The English Beat (Special Beat Service) and put them on heavy rotation in the car. Well, when I could get a break from Disney’s Girlz Rock 2 and Abba Gold – damn you Mamma Mia!

The next night, with my husband on a business trip, I went online to rectify that Go-Go’s omission…

See here’s the problem with iTunes and your husband being away.

FORTY-SIX song purchases later, it’s one a.m. and like a mad musicologist, I’m sitting before the glow of the computer screen creating for my children MY DEFINITIVE ’80s PLAYLISTS!

I’m putting that in all caps because when you’ve grown up in the ’80s it really deserves emphasis. And even though you might call it lame nostalgia I’m labeling it an Important Learning Experience, like the time my mom made us watch Easy Rider on Christmas Eve by explaining, “Kids, this is your history.”

So, now that you are intrigued, what is on these precious playlists?

Talented & oh so stylish

Talented & Oh So Stylish

I’ve created five playlists, each with 20 to 22 songs, each playlist with a different theme (okay wiseguys, go ahead and joke). If you listen to all five lists, you’re introduced to a glorious 100+ of pure ’80s pop and you basically become a diehard OMD, Yaz (aka Yazoo) and/or Talk Talk fan forever.

I consider these tunes quality ’80s music – some were big hits, some more obscure. I like to think of my taste as a bit left of field, so instead of Huey Lewis and The News, you get Colourfield. No Wang Chung or Cyndi Lauper but plenty of The Smithereens and Scritti Politti. And when I do pick the mega stars I like the lesser known tunes like Spandau Ballet’s “Only When You Leave” or “Hazy Shade of Winter,” which is an absolute underrated gem from The Bangles (on the Less Than Zero soundtrack, written by Paul Simon btw).

Theme One – Favs

These are my top picks. Here I’ve got a cross-section of favorite tunes from around the globe, heavy on the British contingent however: Bananarama, ABC, Haircut 100, Human League, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Wham, Spandau Ballet, Talk Talk, The Smiths and rounding out with the classic “Blue Monday” from New Order. To represent the Yanks, I’ve included Madonna and Michael Jackson (“P.Y.T.” not “Beat It!”) as well as Prince and The Revolution and Nenah Cherry (remember her? She’s half-American, I think). And last but not least a couple of Australian bands (no, no, not Men At Work, get serious), namely INXS and The Divinyls. Listen to it again and again – “Pleasure and Pain” is divine.

Theme Two – Brits & a Kiwi

Let’s go deeper in to Brit pop, which had such a strong influence on me. Heck, I was a Texas kid in the suburbs – crazy hair bands from the UK were the exotic and sexy lead characters in my Eurorail-pass escapist dreams.

Here we have more contributions from the bands I listed above as well as Echo and the Bunnymen x 2 (“Rescue” and “The Cutter” kill me), Love and Rockets, Elvis Costello, A Flock of Seagulls, The Cure, Yaz, Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark (“Women III” – check it out!), The Psychedelic Furs, The Style Council and The Colourfield. I sneak in a quirky contribution from Kiwi band Split Enz – “Dirty Creatures” and top off the list with two definitive New Wave tracks: The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” and The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?” Now we can all do that head-down, asymmetrical hair, mope-y dance.

Unfortunately I couldn’t include the sitar-bop of Blancmange’s “Living on the Ceiling” because it’s unavailable on iTunes! Any thoughts/suggestions on that would be most appreciated.

*UPDATE: since I wrote this, Blancmange has appeared on Spotify – yeah! So we can all now enjoy their exotic cool.

And can I just make a career suggestion here – one of you Mileys-Britneys-Demi’s-Selena’s-Ashley’s could kick so much pop ass if you did a Pharrell Williams-produced remake of “Situation” or “Don’t Go”. Think about it. (Katy P and Ke$ha, please don’t bother because we’re just counting the days til you go away.)

So at the risk of this turning in to my senior thesis (we don’t need that much nostalgia), I’ll wrap things up and run through the rest of the lists.

Theme Three – Dance

Think more Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna, Sheila E, George Michael, Rob Base and Eazy E and again with the techno-booty-shaking Yaz.

*UPDATE: I would have preferred to include Scritti Politti’s “Lover to Fall” but alas not on Spotify so we’ll have to enjoy “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin”. Hope you’re all okay with that.

Theme Four – Rock & Pop

This list is reserved for all those pop-rock artists who weren’t necessarily groundbreaking but made some great music in the ’80s: The Police, The Pretenders, The Cars, Midnight Oil, Talking Heads, U2, Lone Justice, The Reivers (Texas band alert!), Paul Kelly (covering Crowded House), etc. plus my beloved R.E.M. and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

*UPDATE: Very limited selection of Lone Justice, Paul Kelly and The Reivers on Spotify, so I’ve had to improvise. But I added some Marshall Crenshaw for good measure.

Theme Five – A Little Edge

These songs close out the education with a slightly edgier look at ’80s rock plus a peek at rap beginnings: early Jane’s Addiction and Guns N’ Roses, Living Colour, Fishbone, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, The Plimsouls, The Sugarcubes (Bjork’s original band), Run DMC and LL Cool J (“Going Back to Cali” makes me think I’m cool), more R.E.M., a little Bowie and one of the GREAT college bands of all time: Guadalcanal Diary.

Oh, and a little Concrete Blonde.

Whew.

Once when I was with my mom, “California Dreaming” by The Mamas and the Papas came on the radio and I sang along. My mom was surprised I knew the words and said, “You must have heard that in the womb!”

Now do I expect my girls to jump up and say, “Mommy this ’80s music is just so awesome, what IS it?”

No.

But the hours I spent buying and organizing, rearranging and previewing were immensely enjoyable. Yes, I am the musical equivalent of a policy wonk. Yes, I indulge in a bit of nostalgia. Who doesn’t?

And maybe one day, I’ll catch my daughter singing, “We are young despite the years, we are concerned, we are hope despite the times.”

Long live the ’80s.