I Was a Chinese Rock Star
Alan Paul remembers how unreal it felt to be up on stage with his band at a music festival in Xiamen, China. The group had just been introduced as Beijing's Band of the Year to cheers and applause from 5,000 fans on the beach below. Then, as lights flashed and machine-generated bubbles swirled around him, Paul launched into the band's signature tune, "Beijing Blues," a song he wrote himself.
"File this under 'Never thought it would happen,'" a bandmate said to him. Paul had to agree. Three years earlier, when his wife accepted a promotion to run The Wall Street Journal's China Bureau, the couple had moved their family of five from Maplewood, N.J., to Beijing. Paul, a longtime contributing writer for Guitar World and Slam magazines, was up for the adventure.
"I'd never been to Asia, but I had a strong instinct that this was going to be a good thing," he says. "I thought I'd probably learn something. Like college, I'd come out better equipped on the other end."
The story of how Paul went from stay-at-home dad to overseas rock star with a book deal is a case study in expatriate reinvention.
The Hand of Fate
Paul is the first to say that serendipity played a big role. He had always loved music and had covered the industry for years, but he says he never dreamed of becoming a musician. In fact, when he arrived in Beijing in 2005, he spent most of his time getting his children settled, learning his way around and blogging (and later writing a Wall Street Journal column) about his new life.
Fate intervened when Paul ordered a new guitar, and it broke on the flight to China. He landed in a Beijing repair shop owned by Woodie Wu, a Chinese musician who played lap steel guitar, sported a Stevie Ray Vaughan tattoo and spoke excellent English. Wu was thrilled to talk with someone who had interviewed so many of his rock and blues heroes.
After his guitar was fixed, Paul and Wu jammed together and something clicked.
Paul was so inspired, he asked Wu to join him for an open mic night at his favorite local restaurant. He also invited Dave Loevinger, a sax-playing neighbor who worked for the U.S. Treasury Department, to round out the trio. Then, Paul says, he invited 50 guests, panicked and spent the day before the performance practicing in front of his bathroom mirror.
The gig was a success and Paul's band, Woodie Alan, was born. The group later added Zhang Yong, a bass guitar player whose good looks and smooth voice attract groupies, and Lu Wei, a local drummer who had played with several big-name Chinese acts.
Beijing's Rat Pack
In Beijing's still-developing music scene, it's common for musicians to join multiple bands for exposure and experience. Bicultural bands are unusual, however, because the best-paying corporate gigs often go to expat-only groups. In Woodie Alan's case, diversity turned out to be a strength. Jonathan Ansfield, a writer in Beijing who ran the Stone Boat -- a bar where Woodie Alan often played -- notes that all five of its members easily riffed off each other and soon came up with their own songs and interpretations in English and Chinese, despite the language barriers. (Paul's Chinese is limited; the band's two newest members don't speak English.)
"Alan was like the leader of a rat pack of boys from the neighborhood erecting some secret clubhouse in the woods," Ansfield says.
Paul acknowledges his strong promotional abilities -- an inheritance, perhaps, from a physician father who has his own Dixieland band. But Paul says he also knew that as a middle-aged guy playing in a blues band, he ran the risk of becoming just as much of a cliché as the expat who goes out and buys a motorcycle or has an affair. "Where I think I was fortunate was to hook up with more serious people," he says. "They were better musicians than me, basically, and when I saw they were willing to play with me, it was just inspiring and fun."
Being in a foreign country, he adds, liberated him to be a performer. In the U.S., he always felt self-conscious as a white man singing the blues, but in China that feeling went away. "Suddenly, I felt like 'I'm American and this is my cultural heritage, my folk music.' I felt I had a right to sing this."
In the beginning, the group played mostly at expat venues, many of them filled with friends. This support no doubt helped Woodie Alan top a reader's poll ("Beijing's Best Band for 2008" in City Weekend magazine). But as time passed, the band started attracting interest from Chinese bars and night clubs, as well as festival promoters. Matthew Carberry, an entrepreneur from Washington, D.C. who attended many of the group's gigs, says Woodie Alan's secret was building up a loyal following.
"From the Chinese side and the expat side, I think they created the kind of energy where people really wanted them to succeed," Carberry says.
Back to the States
Just as the band was enjoying its biggest success, however, Paul learned he would be leaving China. His wife, Rebecca Blumenstein, had been offered another promotion at the Journal, this time to deputy foreign editor back in New York. Paul and his bandmates were devastated, but he knew it was the right move for his family.
Back in New Jersey for two years now, Paul's adventures seem far from over. He's returned to China three times -- once for a reunion tour. His memoir, Big in China, is being published by HarperCollins in March, and he hopes to bring the band to the United States. Even as he ponders what to do next, the 44-year-old guitarist says he continues to be inspired by what he learned living abroad.
"The whole lesson of the expat experience for me was there is no one reality that anyone is fated to live," Paul says. "I think anybody given the right opportunity can get out and change their reality."
SecondAct contributor Kathleen Murray is a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. She spent three years in China.