Grand Opening : 11th December 2009
They call it "The One". One cannot but feel those who gave it this name is not without hubris. But once you set foot inside the edifice, you will realise this really is the one. In China, there is no other like this that came before it and doubtful if anything will come near in the future. This is the pre-eminent live house complete with a top-notch professional recording studio. This is a landmark and a beacon for musicians in the murky waters of today's music scene. The One is a palazzo, an emporium of over 30,000 square feet : it features a spacious live stage in a salubrious two-tier theatre setting complete with state-of-the-art equipment, bar and restaurant. It was built and designed by people who understand music. Everything from a nut to a bolt was fixed and fitted with music in mind. But the most frightening thing of all, The One is run by people who really understand music and love music. This is not something money can buy. This is the kind of stuff that dreams are made of. This really is it, this is the one.
The story of The One starts of with Mr. Lung Lung. Three years ago, Mr. Lung Lung, the maestro and patriarch of the Beijing music scene, told me he had a dream to set up a live house of some tens of thousands of square feet in Beijing, that this live house would have inside it a professional studio, bar and restaurant. Knowing him, I never doubted that he had every intention of doing just that. But to pull it off is another thing. This is the sort of stuff dreams are made of.
On Friday 27th November 2009, I had my usual Friday night Blues gig at the Melting Pot. Just before the show, Lung Lung turned up. What a surprise. There was an even bigger surprise : the grand opening of his live house in Beijing would take place on Friday 11th December and could I perform as a special guest at the grand opening. I know this would be a historic occasion. I would not miss it for the world. On the opening night, there would be 5 artists performing. Each artist would perform three songs. Four of the artists would come from Beijing and I would be the only one coming from outside China. The backing band would be none other than Lung Lung's own band Union Lake. I wouldn't miss it for the world. To be invited to the grand opening would be an honour, not to mention performing on stage.
I arrived in Beijing on 9th December. Rehearsals were supposed to be on Thursday 10th and a full dress rehearsal on stage in the afternoon of 11th Friday. The grand opening was to take place on same evening. This was the second time I went to Beijing. Not unlike the last time, the sky seemed to have been covered with a thin grey veil. Even in the wintry air, it still seemed stuffy and visibility not that good at the best of times.
Shortly after checking into our hotel The Redisson, Terry Wong, my good friend and CEO of The One whisked my to his flat for dinner and during dinner I was told there would be a rehearsal later that evening. This was not the scheduled plan : rehearsal was suppose to be on the next day. I always try to avoid rehearsing on the day I get off a plane. Traveling is always so tiring and tiresome. So after dinner at Terry's I went back to the hotel and picked up my guitars for rehearsal. I was already feeling the effects of the long day.
Rehearsal was to take place at Lung Lung's old studio. When the studio at The One is ready, everything will be relocated there. Walking into the old studio brought back so many memories. The place as always was filled with cigarette smoke, musicians sitting in the lounge area waiting for their turn whilst music was literally non-stop inside the studio. Nothing seems to have changed in four years. When I arrived at around 11:00 p.m., Lung Lung and his band were busy rehearsing with another artist whose show was on the day after the grand opening. By time time they finished their set, it was nearly 1:00 a.m. by which time I was dog tired from the long day. And I was not the only one, everyone in the studio had been working for long hours and all rather frayed at the edges. I had to muster all my concentration to go through the songs with the band. I think we spent about half or so to run through the songs. We could spend more time on the songs at the dress rehearsal, I thought. Unbeknown to me, that was the one and only rehearsal I would have before the show. I was informed the next day there would be no rehearsal due to technical difficulties. We were to have a rehearsal the actual venue on the day of the show.
With a free day we went walking around the musical instrument shops in Beijing. Compared to three years ago, there are now many more music shops. You can get most of the major brand guitars and effects here. The stock here is every bit as good as that in Hong Kong. You just cannot help but feel Hong Kong has been surpassed in yet another area. Hong Kong has not only fallen on the wayside economically, it has also become a veritable music wasteland. Every time I think of the music scene in Hong Kong, it conjures up the barren hinterland in the film Mad Max 2. Sad is not even the word.
On the day of the grand opening, we arrived at The One at around 1:30 in the afternoon for a rehearsal. Geographically The One is somewhere in the Forth Ring in Beijing. The place is a massive building some three-story high. But we struck us when we arrived was the place resembled a construction site. Hundreds of workers were toiling away non stop in an attempt to beat the clock. There was mass pandemonium. Outside workers were working on the facede and exterior walls of the building. Inside workers were working on the interior walls and ceiling, plumbers were busy connecting water pipes in toilets, installing water taps, plasterers doing last minute touch-ups. Workers of every description and trade were just everywhere working away frantically. It was simply a beehive.
On the stage, there were myriads of everything on it, music equipment, workman's tools, lights, spot lights and all the rest. I just could not even begin to envisage how they will get the stage ready on time. It looks like days of work.
In terms of construction, the One is built like a theatre : it has a ground floor and an upper floor (what is usally known as the Dress Circle). A massive marble staircase takes you up from ground level to upper level.
All mixing desk and stage control equipment are situated in an alcove on the upper level right at centre opposite of the stage. From there you get a bird's eye view of the whole stage and you can hear music coming out of the house speakers nice and clear.
Looking up from the stage to the control desks is a heart-stopping view. This is just crazy, I tell you. As to the stage, it is a big as the one in AC Hall in Hong Kong. Given all the equipment on stage you still have room to play table tennis if you like.
Amid all the hubub and activities, however, you could feel there was a sense of purpose and a logic in it somehow, that everyone knew what they were doing. But we were racing against time. The grand opening was supposed to take place at 5 p.m. And I just could not for the life of me imagine how the place would be ready by 5 p.m. To my eye, it would take weeks to be ready for a show. It just did not bear watching, I cannot see how things would work. At around 3:00 p.m. I just went out to a corner shop and sat there and hoped the best. It just does not bear watching. I went back in at around 4:00 p.m. Just like a miracle, things were taking shape, I could now see the stage, music equipment were being placed in their position and workers were finally clearing out. At 6:30 p.m. they let the guests in. Then the show began. It started off with a video archiving the history and construction stages in the building process of The One. Lung Lung, Terry Wong and Percy Laws (the architect of the project) all made a speech. Then the music started with just Terry Wong on drums, Percy Laws and Lung Lung on guitar. After a 5 minute intro, the curtain was drawn and the full stage was in view. Lung Lung's band started banging away and everything just took off.
There were 5 guests appearing at the grand opening. Of the performers that night, the most memorable were Christine and Hung Ling. Christine is Lung Lung's wife and a Jazz singer. She was stunning on the night, simply fantastic. Just sensational.
Equally sensational was Zheng Ling. After two Chinese songs , Zheng Ling did Georgia On My Mind. In the middle of the song, he took up the bass and did a soulful bass solo. He is Mr. Rhythm & Blues. Listening to Zheng Ling,I felt a kindred spirit and I hope one day we can get together and play some music. Then Lung Lung called me up.
I was the last of the guest. I did You Gotta Move, Homework and an instrumental version of Little Wing. The audience was so nice, the gave me a riotous reception. I enjoyed it so much playing on the big stage again, with a fantastic band and in an electric atmosphere. The sound was fantastic. It was a night to remember. I revelled in the music, the energy on stage and frienship.
In the end, what does it all come down to? For me, music is the best thing that ever happened to me. It took me to places where I would otherwise never reach, it made me so many friends and gave me experiences I never dreamt of. That to me is what makes life worth living. It has nothing to do with money. If I had continued with my legal practice, I would have certainly made a lot more money. But I would have been as unhappy as ever. I don't know about you, but music is what makes life worth living to me.
Anyway, the night belongs to Lung Lung, his his pipe dream has come true. This dream is a dream, a real dream that most of us dare not even dream of becoming true. I know music will remain the keystone of The One, I know under the guidance of Lung Lung, The One will be the music in China. Congratulations again, Lung Lung.
When I left Beijing, I left with a heavy heart. From the new mecca of music I was going back to the music wasteland of Hong Kong. Picking up my guitars once again, I left for the airport. I still remember the first time I played in Beijing at the Nine Gates Festival. It was a few years ago already. When I left Beijing then, my heart was also heavy. I am leaving behind all the good times, going back to place where playing music for most of the time is like singing to a horse. I had this deja vu : will I ever come back again, I feel lost and sad and have no words to describe the prospect of going back to Hong Kong again.