Beijing was changing under his feet, and expatriate Alan Paul was changing, too.
A transplanted suburban dad, he was a “trailing spouse” who followed his wife on her promotion and relocation from New Jersey to Beijing. A writer used to watching the kids while working for Guitar Magazine and Slam, the leisure of overseas domestic help gave him time to begin a personal blog, and later, the online column “Expat Life” for the Wall Street Journal.
But when he took his guitar in to be repaired at a Beijing shop, he met up with guitarist Woodie Wu, with whom Paul discovered a common enthusiasm for the work of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
They formed the blues band Woodie Alan with two other Chinese members and another American, and the group was later voted Beijing’s best band of 2008 and toured cities across that country. Now Alan Paul tells of his adventures in the memoir Big in China.
Dane Golden: You found your way to China and decided “I’m going to do a blog,” and it was on the Wall Street Journal website?
Alan Paul: When I first got there I was not writing for the Wall Street Journal, my blog was a personal blog, a Blogspot blog. I moved to China in 2005 and the idea of being a blogger was still sort of new. A lot of friends and certainly my parents and their friends and generations had no idea what it was. And I probably at that point wouldn’t have started a blog except that I was going to China and it seemed easier than being responsible for sending emails all the time to people, “I did this, I did that,” and showing pictures. So it really was just, originally, a very practical thing.
Dane: You got there in 2005?
Dane: So Beijing is going through not only going through an enormous amount of economic and social change but they [were] also preparing for the Olympics?
Alan: The Olympics loomed over everything from the first day we were there. There was this incredible amount of growth and development going on. It’s hard to say how much of it was fueled buy the Olympics because certainly it’s going on in many places outside of Beijing as well, but definitely the Olympics was driving some of the pace and really driving just how fast things were happening.
Dane: I read that you felt as you were going on that everyone, everything in China was reinventing itself and you felt free to reinvent yourself?
Alan: When I got back into writing a book and I reflected on it really struck me. I wouldn’t say people were necessarily consciously saying “Wow, I’m in China, I can reinvent myself.” But it really was in the air, and it really was happening. I list in the book a lot of expats I saw doing that. It felt for many people like a land of opportunity. I did know a British doctor who was running an import-export business, and a British banker who became the director of an art museum, and an Italian musician who started a furniture export company, and a Boston bakery owner who became a sports marketing agent, and on and on. And certainly things were happening with Chinese people as well.
Dane: You’re a married man, a family man, a stay-at-home dad most of the time, until you went to China when you went on the road as a rock star. What’s the road like for a rock star/blues star in China?
Alan: By the time we hit the road and started leaving Beijing, we were getting pretty close and friendly. It was a lot of fun. It wasn’t sex, drugs, and rock and roll, if that’s what you mean.
Dane: What is the blues in China as opposed to the blues in the United States? I think you know as well as anyone.
Alan: Ultimately the blues is the same. An attempt at honest music. There are certain musical structures you follow. Really it’s honest music about emotion, joy, pain, suffering. And we incorporated some Chinese elements.
Dane: In 2008, you won two awards. You were the best Beijing band for 2008 of the City Weekend Magazine. And you were the National Society of Newspaper Columnists 2008 online columnist of the year. Which do you think you were prouder of?
Alan: Oh, definitely the band, definitely the band. I knew that in reality the column award was more significant in terms of my future career and probably what I would be doing for the rest of my life. And I was very pleased of course with that award, and I was very pleased and proud of the “Expat Life” column and what I had been able to turn that into.
The music was more of a dream. I’ve listened to music with a serious intent for a long time, since I was 12 or 13. I was always a music guy. I have my long career at Guitar World and I’ve played guitar quite a bit for about 15 years, but it was still more of a dream to do that with music. It was something that I found inside of myself that I sort of hoped and imagined was there. But I didn’t have anywhere the confidence in that that I did in my writing. So for that to happen and to come to fruition and to build it and do it in this unique way with the three Chinese guys, it was it was definitely more unique and more special.