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Rhythm & Xues: The dream that powered unlikely venue

Driven by a passion to fulfil his father's dream- and to strike a blow for culture - entrepreneur Simone Xue has restored a Zhuhai temple complex to its former glory. Today, it is the unlikely venue for, among other things, an international jazz festival, writes Thomas Bird

 

Beishan's Zheng Road is anything but idyllic. It may be the main street in this part of Zhuhai's Nanping town (about three kilometres northwest of the Macau border) but it is really no more than a lane, with a cracked pavement and soupy pools of black rainwater through which litter drifts. A makeshift abattoir-come-butcher shop operates beneath a tarpaulin; a tiny room houses a mahjong parlour. Overhead, electric wires knot with telephone lines. Remarkably, some remnants of China's majestic past remain: a few Qing dynasty buildings, ramshackle and forlorn, sit between "kissing" houses - charmless low-cost tenements quickly (and often illegally) built so close together it is said that neighbours can kiss.

"Everyone here is from outside," says Mr Peng, a migrant worker from Hunan province, over a steaming bowl in one of the street's eateries, a Chongqing noodle shop, explaining why no one here appears to speak Cantonese. "The local people rent us the houses, they've already moved to new housing."

A short distance away is some of that new housing: Huafa Century City is a modern waterside development of luxury apartments, Western-style coffee shops and European brand-name stores. Closer still is a construction site on which, it is claimed, will rise Zhuhai's swankiest mall: Huafa Shangdu.

And at the centre of the melange of often quite ugly buildings, both old and new, that radiates out from Beishan village sits the magnificent Beishan Hall, a complex of temples that had fallen into disrepair but has now been restored to its former glory.

 

ZHUHAI WAS PREDOMINANTLY rural until paramount leader Deng Xiaoping earmarked it as a special economic zone in 1980. The new city boomed due to its proximity to Macau, making landlords of fishermen and swelling the population with a labour force imported from the rural hinterland. As Peng puts it, "I've come to Zhuhai to work. I'll do anything."

Last year, the mainland's urban population exceeded its rural population for the first time in history but the country's breakneck urbanisation has brought with it a rash of problems, not least of which has been the loss of architectural heritage to the wrecking ball. Culture in general has been seriously neglected in the race to improve individuals' material standing. For a people who, as Martin Jacques writes in When China Rules the World, "live in and through their history", the homogenous and austere cityscapes of modern China are a travesty.

That is why, when one emerges from Beishan's dingy main street and stands before the gilded Huafa New City, a commercial and residential development like a million others, the sight of Beishan Hall is so arresting.

"My father [Xue Yihan] first discovered Beishan 10 years ago," says painter Simone Xue (Xue Wen), over a cup of kung fu tea. "He came here to paint [southern revolutionary] Yang Baoan and, when he returned home, he excitedly told our family that he'd discovered some Qing-dynasty buildings."

Xue Yihan was a revered naval printmaker who had moved with his family from Zhanjiang, in western Guangdong, to Zhuhai in the late 1980s.

Once, "all the best artists joined the military", Xue Yihan's eldest son explains. "They could get an education and move around more easily."

When he was a child "we could barter soft-seats on trains because my father made the best Mao Zedong badges", says Simone, who was born in 1967, amid the Cultural Revolution.

"My father talked about Beishan a lot," says Simone. "He said he'd spoken with the villagers and they weren't interested in selling out to property developers. He became particularly anxious when developers knocked down Shanchang [another historic village in Zhuhai]."

Xue Yihan wanted to save Beishan but had not had the chance to begin before he died, in 2008, a misfortune that proved pivotal in the Xue family history - and, by extension, that of Zhuhai.

"He took my brother and I to see Beishan but we privately had our doubts," says Simone. "[Restoration] was a big project that should have been taken on by the government, not a private venture. But when my father passed, we began to feel differently. We owed it to him, to his memory."

After attending the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in the late 80s, Simone tried to make a living as a painter, but "the country had been closed for half a century and people didn't know Andy Warhol, they couldn't understand Monet or Picasso". Disillusioned, he launched what was to become a chain of English-language schools that now extends across Zhuhai, Zhongshan and Dongguan. With the successful business, TPR Education, as a foundation and his brother, Justin Xue (Xue Jun), by his side, Simone dug deep to raise the funds needed to renovate the temple complex.

"When you come [to Zhuhai] and you're young, you just want to make money, but once you're past 40, your thinking starts to change," says Simone. "I have a 20-year relationship with this city. It has become my home and I want to make a difference.

"When we took the project on it was a mess. There were migrant workers living in the temples."

Xue led a 15-strong team of builders, designers and artists for 18 months as they painstakingly rebuilt Beishan Hall. The restored complex, 1,000 square metres tucked in between a scruffy migrant village and the ever-expanding swathe of skyscrapers, was inaugurated in August 2009.

Xue takes me on a tour. We begin in Kang Zhenjun Temple, which dates back to 1759 and is now a contemporary art gallery and office for Beishan Lihe Creative Cultural Industries, which organises the events that take place in the centre. The explosive and radiant works of Parisian painter Criss Cusson, whose exhibition officially opens on Thursday, adorn the walls.

"I met Criss at an exhibition in Shunde [in Foshan] in April and I really liked his paintings so I invited him to Beishan," says Xue. "I see music in his art."

We walk across a classical courtyard to the Xue Yihan Memorial Hall - a filial tribute to a father who dreamed big for Beishan, housed in the Yidi Temple, which dates back to the reign of Emperor Xianfeng (1850-1861). Inside, many of Xue Yihan's woodcuts are on display as well as family heirlooms and photographs. One picture shows the family clad in socialist military garb, including a plump baby wearing a Lei Feng hat.

"That's me," Simone says, chuckling.

Perhaps most remarkable of all is the Beishan Theatre, which has been refurbished to its Mao-era splendour, albeit without the political rallies.

"This is where we hold the jazz festival," Xue proclaims proudly.

The Beishan International Jazz Festival, which will take place this Friday and Saturday, is now in its fourth year, but in that short time it has become a major stop-off on the Asian jazz festival circuit. This year, 4,000 people are expected each day, to see the likes of Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo and British-based Israeli drummer Asaf Sirkis perform. A striking promotional poster carrying the image of Dutch singer Ntjam Rosie is plastered all over town.

How did the festival come about?

"Actually, when I finished Beishan I had a headache. I didn't know what to do with it," says Xue.

He considered dividing the theatre up into separate spaces, to be let out as cafes, bars and shops, and secured the services of French events promoter and publisher J.J. Verdun to assist him.

The entrepreneurial Verdun has been living in Zhuhai for more than a decade and both he and Xue recall a drunken night several years ago when they discussed the feasibility of a jazz festival.

"A few years ago I organised a rock festival on Yeli Island [off Zhuhai's Xiangzhou district]. Simone organised an event on the same night. I attracted a lot of foreigners, he attracted a lot of Chinese. Afterwards, Simone came to me and suggested we do something together."

"We needed something specific to Guangdong culture," says Xue. "Rock 'n' roll is popular in the north but Cantonese like softer things. That's why we chose jazz. It suits the lifestyle here. Zhuhai is a relaxed seaside town next to Macau, which was a major entry point for jazz music in China back in the 30s."

"Timing is very important in China," notes Verdun. "Back then, the idea was premature. But when Simone got [permission to rent from the village committee] Beishan, it dawned on us that we finally had a venue for our jazz festival."

The idea of dividing up the theatre was shelved.

The success of the first jazz festival, in 2009, paved the way for the Beishan World Music Festival in 2010. Both events have run annually ever since. Xue and Verdun see the space as crucial to the success of the festivals.

"Beishan is why I wanted to work with Simone in the first place," says Verdun. "Most people would have pulled it down and built a tower. Simone didn't. And you know Chinese people feel at home in Beishan because it is a familiar space. When they feel comfortable they are happy to experience new things."

"Musicians love to come and play here because it is not like other venues," Xue adds. "This is a real village, with people inside buying vegetables. It's a new experience. We're making the past part of the future."

We explore the Yang Family Ancestral Temple, now a community hall complete with table tennis room, library, wood and jade sculptures, and an ancestral shrine. The Yang clan were influential in Nanping and built the temple to pay homage to their ancestors in the late Qing dynasty. It survived the Cultural Revolution because soldiers patrolling the Macau border slept in it. In the early 20th century, a member of the clan became an early proponent of socialism in China and, decades later, the revolutionary Simone's father first visited Beishan to paint.

The Yangs' temple is now a veritable "East" of the imagination, projecting as romantic an image as any classic Zhang Yimou film.

"It's here we host the festival food court, with over 20 food stalls from around the world. We try to make the festival like a carnival," says Xue.

Adding a gastronomic element seems intuitive in food-obsessed Guangdong, but is there enough local interest in jazz in a region so often referred to as a cultural desert?

"It's been something very new for the locals, but we have 10 universities in Zhuhai, so we have a large educated youth. We run workshops for them during the festival. We are looking to the future; perhaps one day we'll even host a local band."

Graffiti festoons a wall opposite the theatre, a vivid reminder that Xue wants Beishan to promote foreign forms of contemporary expression as well as the splendour of China's past. The theatre walls bear posters of artists who've recently performed here, such as Beijing rapper J-Fever and Chaozhou folk-rockers Toy Captain.

The surrounding area alludes to a more familiar China: prosaic apartment blocks that only a few years ago replaced the cheap tenements that had themselves replaced far more traditional housing. The Xue brothers are acutely aware that old Beishan represents something paradoxically new.

"The model before was to knock down and rebuild. Our model is softer and more natural. We aim to maintain the city's past and develop a new community. We hope to be an example for all of south China," says Simone.

Justin adds: "Beishan is an example of how to protect history and promote culture. I hope every city will have something like Beishan one day. Not a copy - every city needs to consider its own personality and circumstances - but there should be a place of culture. This improves the lives of citizens.

"As we like to say in Beishan, 'Better music, better life'."

 

Tickets to the Beishan International Jazz Festival can be purchased through xuxiw.taobao.com.

 

To get to Beishan from Hong Kong, take a ferry from China Ferry terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui to Zhuhai's Jiuzhou port, from where Beishan is a 20-minute taxi ride away.

 

 

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