The other night I went for one of those countless lunar-new-year dinners with our extremely Modern upper management, to Bei in the Opposite House, not such a bad place. The subject was an artist, Cantonese like our beloved Chairman, who has a very good exhibition opportunity in front of him in New York which needs a funder. His gallerist and I think it would be fun to have that funder be an enlightened Chinese collector, that the p.r. value of such an intervention would actually do a bit of cultural work, in that 2011, subvert-the-dominant-yellow-peril-narrative sort of way. So we all had dinner, and then the Modern Media cadre left, and the three of us–the artist, the gallerist, and I–went upstairs to Mesh. The gallerist (a lapsed Hong Kong M&A attorney), and the artist (a veteran of the Guangzhou avant-garde of the early nineties) get to talking about when they first met. And what do they talk about? Paul Simon.
Yes, that’s right. Apparently the Born at the Right Time tour stopped at the Tianhe Coliseum in Guangzhou back one night in that key reform-era interregnum between the trauma of Tiananmen and Deng’s Tour South. Amateur online research reveals very little, but oral history suggests that after an appearance in Hong Kong, the tour, with its revolutionary entourage of Brazilians and South Africans, followed the only living boy from New York up the (Pearl River) Delta, shining like a national guitar, to what was still the coolest city in China. The Simon fansites can’t pinpoint the date (they make reference to only one China concert, in “Peking,” in October 1991), but the timing suggests that it happened sometime between an appearance on September 27, 1991 at the Hollywood Bowl and another on October 7 in Nagoya. Air China already flew the PEK-LAX route at this point, but I prefer to assume they arrived in Asia by way of the old Kai Tak, and then went CAN-PEK before hopping over to the land of the rising sun.
Graceland has always loomed for me as a canonical text of “globalization,” the album we listened to after our first-year seminars with Michael Hardt and Walter Mignolo, even if it was already ten years old by the time we got to it. The mature Simon articulated the sort of beneficent American cosmopolitanism that we could aspire to mainly by doing our nightly readings on transnational logics of capital–even if we didn’t yet realize how those logics structured the “Chinese reading room” where we did most of those readings, kitted out with the spoils of BAT’s man in China. “Aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?” we hoped to one day be able to ask each other. And of course we ultimately were. What we didn’t realize in the fall of 1997 was that we lived at the height of the American Empire, which would reach its cultural zenith with the release of Titanic over our first winter break.
The Tianhe Coliseum sits right off of Linhe Road, the street which this artist’s longtime collaborator Lin Yilin would “safely cross” a few years later, moving cinderblock after cinderblock in a wall formation from one side to the other, as the skyscraper you see through the stadium rose behind to his right. The Guangzhou concert ostensibly happened just a few months after the legendary “Concert in the Park,” August 15, 1991, in turn just four days before the Avgustovsky Putch. Twelve at the time, I vividly remember one of the lifeguards from our summer swim club leaving work early that day and making the trek from the Philly suburbs up to New York City for the show–a mass gathering weirdly mirroring the energies that loomed elsewhere in those few fraught world-systemic years. If asked, we couldn’t have found Guangzhou on a map. Now I work for a company that got its start there, a few years after that concert. Twenty years later, the fact that these same songs, then, appeared both over here and back there, heard by folks on this side and that, seems to count for something.