The ‘beautiful lonely chair’ at Shapowei, Xiamen

March 12th, 2012

“A chair is just a chair…” – Burt Bacharach

This picture typifies a certain mood I’ve felt this week: solitary.


I’ve found that much of the week has been spent in thought – thoughts about music, thoughts about the things I’ve seen so far, thoughts about my life – and sometimes wondering just what on earth I’m doing here. Will these events turn out OK?, do I have the ability to pull them off?, am I musically capable?, is this residency too big for me and am I in way over my head? – all that sort of stuff. It’s not helped by the fact that I don’t have the usual (or same) daily interaction with familiar faces/friends. The language barrier isn’t a massive problem as I’d initially anticipated – most situations can be negotiated with these simple tools: a tongue, a smile (especially in the eyes), hand gestures/body language and a sense of humour (as Paul Bolderson would say, “you’ve got a tongue in your head…!!”). Indeed, this maxim stood us in good stead last year on our European motorcycle trip and these tools are universal – whether one has a knowledge of the language spoken or not. I learned a lot from this man… I digress. Whether people realise it or not, even the casual interactions are vitally important to the (or my) creative process, and it’s often they who are responsible for ‘my’ best ideas.

For example – yesterday we met historian and lecturer at Xiamen University, Xu Lu, who is also the director of the Chinese Sailing Junk Expedition Society (and, with his wife, also runs the Migratory Bird Inn at Mt. Meili Snowy, Shangri La, Yunnan Province), who first regaled us with tales of collecting old Chinese sea Chantys (or sea shanties, as we could call them). Originally we’d gone to meet Xu Lu to look at some old Sea Shanties:


(I was naiive enough to assume that these would be old, dog-eared manuscripts from the 1920’s and 1930’s – like the kind you can find in any charity shop sheet music bin); but instead we were treated to a visit to an old part of the city – a small harbour area known as ‘Shapowei’. I’d actually discovered this place a few days ago on one of my walks around the city but didn’t really get a close-up look. Apparently this area is being preserved as a heritage site, so there’ll be no Starbucks/KFC or other bullshit examples of commercialism creeping in to gentrify this wonderfully atmospheric and charming place, where every tiny nook and cranny of this place breathes history and tells a story.



One such place was the old boat ‘factory’ – basically, a large empty room for building boats. This is where I encountered the chair that seemed to epitomise my feelings so well.

I sent a few of these shots to some friends, one of them being Ray Kane. His response was, “That is lush! You’ll have to film a performance in that space”. And alas, the day which I had considered to be purely recreational in nature had been immediately transformed by that one line.



So simple, so overlooked – and it took someone who was over six thousand miles away to glimpse at only a fraction of what I had seen to suggest it. It had never occurred to me – so much so that I became depressed and excited all at the same time; I just hadn’t joined all of the dots until Ray’s email reply. So, we have an incredible space at the heart of Shapowei – an historian who is passionate about the conservation of this very discreet area of Xiamen – WHY NOT put on a concert in the old boathouse – invite locals, Xu Lu could give a talk/presentation of his work regarding the area (he’s even suggested doing some cooking!) and perhaps even invite the singing of some of these old shanties, too. I could chip in some piano pieces as a contrast to all of this for good measure.

One of the main aims for this residency was to try and operate within discreet situations, curating events that have resonance for and are relevant to people living in Xiamen, rather than aiming for a grand ‘final concert’ or creating anything overly imposing. Sculptor and curator of The Shed, Simon Thackray, is another figure responsible for keeping me on the straight and narrow re my ideas – his phrase “keep it simple” is a constant reminder of where I should be headed when things get too muddled (simpler still would be to get an old upright piano onto one of the boats, sail out to sea, play some music, lend a hand with the fishing, then head back to cook the day’s catch for the locals with a bit of local history, song and piano playing…). Plans are now afoot to see if we can make this happen so stay tuned (and thank you, Ray, Simon).