To say Alan Paul made the most out of his time in China would still be a bit of an understatement. During his three years in Beijing, Paul went from being a wide-eyed expat to something of a local celebrity. In 2005, Paul, a New Jersey native and long-time journalist, followed his wife across the world to start a new life in the capital of China when she was offered to head Wall Street Journal’s China Bureau in Beijing.
In addition to writing about his new adventures in “The Expat Column” for Wall Street Journal, he formed and fronted Woody Alan, a blues band that was named 2008’s Beijing Band of the Year. His latest accomplishment comes in the form of his new memoir, titled Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing. And if that’s not enough, Paul will soon see his own life being played out on the Big Screen.
Be sure to catch him for a reading and signing this Saturday or Sunday in Shanghai as he wraps up his weeklong China tour.
Below, Paul talks to Shanghaiist about his China experiences, the music scene in Beijing, his new memoir, and more.
Shanghaiist: What was your initial reaction when you found out about your wife (and naturally, you and your children)’s relocation to Beijing?
AP: I was whole hog into it from the start. I actually pushed her to pursue the job and pushed her to take it, especially after the two of us made a look-see visit to Beijing. I just felt energized and fascinated by the place from the moment I stepped off the plane.
Shanghaiist: Did you have any prejudices against China or Beijing before moving, as most people often do? Did your time there dispel or reinforce any of them?
AP: I was pretty open-minded. It felt like a grand adventure, which was a key to the success I had. So many people in the U.S. seem scared of China now and it trickles down to how they feel about the people, and I hope that my book helps break that down a little bit. The people of China were incredibly warm and welcoming to my family and me and I really believe there are a lot more similarities between the countries and the people than most understand or grasp.
Shanghaiist: How did you come to find your niche as an expat blogger?
AP: I just started blogging.
When we landed in Beijing, I had a lot of free time, thanks to the economic freedom offered by an expat package, which provided subsidized housing in a place where everything else cost radically less. I was also incredibly energized by my new home. I was riding my bike everywhere and taking cabs downtown and just getting lost in hutongs, eating street food, taking pictures. I was bursting with energy and enthusiasm and began writing every day in my new blog, which I had really just set up to keep people at home informed.
People responded to my writing, which encouraged me to take some of my favorite posts, edit them and submit them as potential columns to the editor of the Wall Street Journal Online. This is what became “The Expat Life.” I hatched the idea of doing a column about living in China when we were on our look-se visit but I’m not sure I would have ever actually done it if I had not been keeping the blog, which started out as a purely personal thing. I wrote as If I had no readers. The whole experience was liberating and reignited my passion for writing. After 15 years working on deadlines and assignments, I loved just writing whatever
I wanted, whatever interested me.
Shanghaiist: How did your musical gig kick off in Beijing? Did you perform back in the States?
AP: I really did not perform regularly in the States though I jammed around a lot with friends and sometimes joined their bands onstage. I had been on stages before but never with a regular band, and not as the frontman rather than just a guitarist.
My musical gig in Beijing kicked off with a heady combination of pure fluke, happy coincidence and moxie. I didn’t play much music during my first year and really wanted to, so on a summer visit home to the USA, I bought a new guitar after some great jam sessions. I was really fired up about it but when I got to Beijing and flipped open the case, the headstock was dangling off. I was devastated but when I asked some friends if they knew a good repairman, several suggested Woodie Wu, a young Chinese guy just back from three years in Australia. He fixed my instrument but I got
back much more than a broken guitar.
We clicked right away and started talking about playing together. I had already jammed with an American sax player Dave Loevinger and I proposed we get together to see if the unorthodox trio lineup of lap steel, acoustic guitar and tenor sax would work. It went better than expected and we started looking for other musicians. After a rotating crew for a few months, Woodie brought in bassist Zhang Yong and drummer Lu Wei and we knew right away we had the potential to really go somewhere. It was fully collaborative from the start – never a case of me just hiring musicians to back me.
Shanghaiist: What are some key differences between the music scene in Beijing and the one back home? Which do you prefer?
AP: A simple false impression that exists is that Chinese people there don’t like to just go out and have fun – go to bars, restaurants, parks, etc. I can’t tell you how many people hear about my band and experiences and can’t believe that there are music clubs and festivals in China.
The basics are all the same in both places: Musicians want to make music, have great gigs and hopefully go home with something in their pocket. The audience wants
to feel comfortable, have fun listening and hopefully be transported by the experience. The differences right now all favor China. Performances still have more of an edge of excitement and freshness – especially outside of Beijing. Some of the most memorable moments of my life involve playing gigs in Changsha, Hangzhou, Xiamen, Nanjing and other places. There are also seem to be more clubs with live music around China right now, and they all have PA systems and often a backline – drums, amps, etc. This makes touring a lot easier. You generally have to lug all that stuff around in the USA, so you can’t just zip down to some other city and have a gig.
Shanghaiist: Why did you decide to write the memoir, and what did you hope to accomplish with it?
AP: It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on all my experiences in China, synthesize them and try to understand just what had happened
But, as interesting as a lot of my experiences were, I wanted the book to be bigger than that, not just a recitation of “I did this then I did this…” I wanted to synthesize it all and make it something bigger than me – make it about what it takes to have a healthy, happy long-term marriage, where both partners support one another and don’t stifle their individual ambitions. About how having children can be an enhancer of excitement rather than just the inhibitor so many take it to be, And about how great things can happen to anyone anywhere in the world if they have their eyes and ears open and are willing to take some chances.
There is a lot of humor in Big in China. I think China can be a really funny place but when people write about it, they get so serious. My book is a little more light-hearted, even while tackling a lot of serious issues. That’s how life should be in my estimation and I wanted the book to be honest and true to my experiences and viewpoints.
Shanghaiist: And lastly, what’s the wisest piece of knowledge you’d like to drop on a fresh expat here in China?
AP: Don’t spend our time focusing on what is wrong or different from your home – take advantage of where you are and keep a sense of humor and adventure about everything. Seek out like-minded friends. Avoid people who are too negative; they will drag you down. Enjoy the benefits of Expat Land, but remember it is a bubble and make efforts to get out and get into the real China.
By Esther Kang