Monday, November 30, 2009

Sounds of Beijing advertising bullhorns


Here’s something I’ve been meaning to post for a long time.

Two years ago I went to China and wrote two stories about the music scene there. Most of my time was spent working, but I also did some sightseeing, and one day I went to the Forbidden City.

A beautiful, arresting place, and also an example of how awkwardly the art of tourism has taken root in China, at least by the standards of a Western snob like myself. Many of the rooms in this world-famous cultural treasure are visible only through scratched Plexiglas, and are too dimly lighted to see much anyway. Absent or poorly translated display copy kept much of it obscure. There was a Starbucks in one of the ancient buildings, and scaffolding was everywhere. Surely, I wondered, the bulldozer won’t eat this like it seems to have devoured 90 percent of the rest of Beijing, right...?

I was especially struck by something near the ticket windows out front. Around a corner I could hear a loud, scratchy voice barking something in a short loop. Didn’t sound like a very friendly message. From the tone of the guy’s voice he seemed to be saying, “All hail our glorious state; move along, Workers,” over and over. I found the source in a small courtyard, where a bullhorn was strung from the roof of a souvenir/food stand. Not a soul was around.

I held up my trusty digital tape recorder and got this:

When I came home I downloaded the audio, along with dozens of interviews and some other found sounds, like this city bus:

Pretty ordinary, I know, but it still transported me when I listened, as did the megaphone message, still untranslated months later. I enjoyed fantasizing about what it could mean. A warning of some kind? “Don’t touch the power lines”?

Then I contacted my friend Qing, who helped me in Beijing. He was a relative of one of my sister’s co-workers, a Beijing native who also happened to be a SUNY Albany grad. He stands as probably the most hospitable person I have ever met, interpreting interviews, helping me get around town, picking me up in a heartbeat whenever I called, and taking me to some fabulous, fabulous restaurants. The food alone was an adventure I will never forget.

Anyway, Qing, being so helpful, thorough and scholarly, crowdsourced the audio file I sent him. Sounds like it wasn’t easy, but here’s what he came up with:

Finally, we came to this: “kuai4 can1 he2 fan4, tai2 wan1 kao3 chang2” (2 phrases, as pronounced in standard mandarin) — this seemingly makes sense.
  • kuai4 can1 (fast food)
  • he2 fan4 (box lunch)
  • tai2 wan1 (Taiwan)
  • kao3 chang2 (broiled hotdog sausage)
Then you see, it might be someone selling the fast food lunch featured with Taiwan style broiled sausage.

So it was broiled sausage, not a totalitarian commandment. I wonder how the old Yankee Stadium “cold beeah heeah” sounds to a Mandarin speaker.

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