I recently joined my friend's jazz band for a three-day gig in a shopping centre. Our set list was par for the jazz course: Autumn Leaves, Girl from Ipanema, Georgia on My Mind, and all the rest. But our arrangement was not; I brought along a conga drum. None of the tunes really needed the percussion, and I can safely say that I am not the best conga player in Beijing. But a friend desperately needed a foreigner for the gig: I was the Token White Guy. I have long overcome the politically correct programming that would have shocked me at being in a category of people that ignores so many national and physiological distinctions. And 'foreigners' - laowai (literally, 'old outside') - sell. Calls come in regularly from agents looking for 'foreign bands'. Overseas Chinese, however, need not apply. 'Do you have anybody who is more, ah, western-looking?' was the response to our Australian-Chinese member. One agent asked for a 'black-person band'. Hoping that I had misheard, I asked her to clarify what kind of music she was looking for. 'Whatever kind of music it is that black people play,' she answered. Agreeing to help out my friend, I thought of it as a way to earn a bit of cash and play music. But by the time we went through our third round of Masquerade in as many days, I was starting to feel more than a little disturbed and confused by the shopping centre management's demands. They did not just ask for a jazz band. They asked for a jazz band with foreigners. Are there great Chinese jazz musicians? Yes. Am I a great jazz musician? No. But nor am I Chinese. And in China, as a musician, this works to my advantage. The logic behind the demand for foreign performers is often put down to 'face', which implies that a business or venue appears more important if it can put foreigners on stage. I do not buy it, but then again, I am more interested in the sound coming from the stage than the view. Compounding the problem are the many TV variety shows featuring foreigners performing traditional Chinese arts. The audience is composed of the same people that expect the foreign blues band they have hired for their condominium-sales extravaganza to play the pop equivalents of the traditional songs being shown on TV: Hotel California and Take Me Home, Country Roads. Things are unlikely to change quickly, since the situation tends to work in our favour: getting gigs is a lot easier when I show my white, bearded face. And some of them pay. From the stage, there is a fine line between condescension and appreciation. And I can honestly say that I have yet to play any John Denver songs.