One of the odder things Lise Eisenberg and I did on our recent trip to Hong Kong was to attend a Mongolian rock and roll concert. It made perfect sense to us--Lise in particular seeks out unusual theater, we were both thinking of visiting Hong Kong as an adventure, and our trip overlapped the Hong Kong International Arts Festival. Tengger and the Wolf Band weren't our only entertainment choices, even if we eliminated karaoke bars and only looked at the arts festival: we had missed the Mark Morris Dance Group (who I really will see in New York one of these days), but we could have seen the Montreal Philharmonic.
International arts festival or no, we both knew what a philharmonic orchestra would sound like: Mongolian rock and roll was appealingly exotic. All we knew about Tengger was what it said on the festival posters, which merely told us that a Beijing arts festival and the Montreal International Film Festival had liked his work. That was good enough for us to walk up to the ticket booth. I asked for cheap tickets for the following night. All gone. How about Friday at Tsuen Wan Town Hall? They had them, but, "Do you know where that is?" the nice man at the Urbtix counter asked us. No, we didn't, and the question sounded a bit ominous. Are we going to be miles beyond mass transit, in a neighborhood where nobody speaks our language? Not one to scare off the customers, even customers who probably had no idea what they were buying, he helpfully told us: you take the subway to the end of this line, then walk over here, for me it's about a 15-minute walk. We still had our feet at that point, and figured 15 minutes would do for us too. Fine, here's my credit card, we'll take two of the HK$80 seats (that's about $10 US).
Getting dressed that morning, I figured my only real choice was my Flash Girls t-shirt: what better to wear to a concert by a rock band I'd never heard of than a shirt for a rock band that nobody in Hong Kong was likely to know? I hadn't quite figured out at that point that Hong Kong people never wear t-shirts: not at the park, not visiting their friends, not even at rock concerts. It didn't really matter, though: as the only two white people in the balcony, we would have stood out no matter what we wore, and were cheerfully overlooked in any case. The other concert-goers weren't there to look at us, they were there to see the band and talk to their friends.
Tsuen Wan is one of Hong Kong’s "New Towns." Half a million people live in high-rise buildings where a farming village of 20,000 stood 20 years ago. Along with the houses, the Hong Kong government has put up supermarkets, offices, schools, factories, and the Town Hall, which has offices, meeting rooms, a little cafe, and an auditorium. It felt a bit like Lincoln Center, without the "serious culture" overtones that Lincoln Center has even when it's trying to be casual: the audience was younger, but at least as well-behaved. We were even handed a program before the concert, listing all the songs. The people around us talked to each other in Cantonese, but quietly; we talked to each other in English until the concert started. The pre-concert announcements, welcoming us to the International Arts Festival and asking us not to smoke, the usual things, were in both those languages. General policy, I guess: if there were half a dozen people there who spoke English but not Cantonese, there weren’t more.
The concert was bilingual, but not in English: Tengger sang primarily in Cantonese, and sometimes in Mongolian, and he explained the Mongolian songs in Cantonese.
So there we are, halfway around the world, not understanding a word of the songs, and the whole experience feels very familiar. It's still a rock concert. Down on the stage, dry ice fog is swirling through colored lights as we wait for the show to start. The guys look like rock musicians. In the photos on the concert program, they’re clearly Mongols, but the style of the art is vaguely psychedelic, complete with something that might be a flying saucer.
The oddest thing about the concert was that it didn't feel odd. The musical idiom was very familiar--mostly Western-style pop, with a few folk songs--and I kept having this bizarre feeling that if I listened a little longer, the lyrics would start to make sense. They never did, of course: my Cantonese is nonexistent. But everyone around me understood, and the familiar cues told me that this was something that should make sense to me.
More to the point, the cues were so familiar that the whole thing did make sense. Lyrics aren't the point of most rock anyway, so why not Cantonese? Why not Mongolian folk songs instead of Irish? Besides, even if I knew Mongolian, I probably wouldn't be able to make sense out of "In the Depths of the Greek Prairie." And I didn't have to know Cantonese to know that he was telling the story, in Cantonese, before singing a Mongolian song. I didn't have to understand a word to recognize the ritual of introducing the band, though that was the only place I did understand a word: apparently the Cantonese words for "guitar" and "keyboards" are..."guitar" and "keyboard." Even without knowing the language, I knew the rules better than some people: I noticed a few people leaving the first time the band left the stage. We knew better: regardless of language, the concert isn't over until the house lights come up. So everyone clapped for a while, and the band came back out and played a bit longer.
After the concert, I went downstairs and bought one of Tengger's CDs, and took a poster from a stack they were giving away. I'd probably have bought a t-shirt if they'd had them, but nobody else would have.
copyright 1997 Vicki Rosenzweig. A shorter version of this article appeared in Andy Hooper, Victor Gonzalez, and carl juarez's fanzine Apparatchik
Last modified 16 November 1997