Cover Stories - Catcher of the Wry - More Hangzhou Restaurants, Reviews, Places to go and what to do in Hangzhou. More Hangzhou Entertainment Guide
Home>Archive>2014>Catcher of the Wry

Catcher of the Wry
By Jack Cameron

Fuyang Native and Best-Selling Author Mai Jia: Decoded

“Mai Jia is described in the publisher's blurb of this absorbing and unusual book as ‘the most popular writer in the world that you've never heard of.’ Now, with the translation of his 2005 debut being published in the west, English-language speakers will have a chance to see why Mai deserves this reputation…. [T]he central story is a gripping one, offering a protagonist who is never exactly sympathetic but whose struggles in service of an unknown and unknowable goal seem all too clearly an echo of what his fellow countrymen faced during the postwar era.”
                                                                                                                                      - The Guardian, 2 February, 2014 


It’s been 32 years since best-selling author and Zhejiang native, Mai Jia, last set foot in his childhood home. His first stop is the ancestral village temple, a hall rich with some 400 years’ worth of history, and a sacred space which has heard the hopes and dreams of generations. He surveys the scene with nostalgia in his eyes.

“The ancestral hall is well-preserved. In the last year or two, there’s been some painting. The appearance should be the same as when I was a child. Nothing’s changed. It is the place I first started my studies. I spent the first year of my primary school here, or, my intellectual life began in this place, on the second floor.”

Mai Jia, born Jiang Benhu, is perhaps the most famous person to hail from Jiangjia Village. Known affectionately as A’hu, he guides me on a tour of his hometown, which boasts some 600 years of history, and apparently an equally impressive literary tradition. It is informative.

“This is where I studied. I started primary school here. My seat at that time, if I recall, was here. The seat was against the pillar. Teacher was over there. This place has no windows. It was freezing cold in winter. Snowflakes can still float in.”

We approach an old, and not particularly inviting, building. “I was born here,” he says. “In fact, I lived here until I left.”

The structure has long since been abandoned. Fifty years ago, six households lived there together. Mai Jia and his family, seven persons in all, lived in one room. It was in the confines of this small space that he honed his creativity, imagination, and sense of urgency.

“The biggest dream I had was just to leave here. It was poor and backward. Given our family status at that time, I knew it was only a dream. I could hardly leave here,” Mai Jia says, referring to his family home. “But it couldn’t stop me from dreaming. How could I get out of here?”

Mai Jia’s grandfather and father were both victims of political persecution. The circumstances of which gave his family – everyone in it – a tinge of contamination. The subject changes the character of Mai Jia’s nostalgia.

“I feel at that time, my father was talking less. This was the atmosphere, the atmosphere of society. I felt we didn’t have the right to speak. As a result, he was very depressed. The inhibition and sorrow took their toll. But, in fact, when we look at it today, it’s [part of what] made me a good writer.”

It is almost cliché, but the atmosphere of the times certainly facilitated cliché. Mai Jia's father was irritable and hot-tempered. His mother was kind and merciful. Limited by rural poverty and stigma, his parents, nonetheless, tried to light their children’s way, albeit in very different ways. Today, his strongest sympathies seem to lie with his mother. He says, “Later, after I left, I’d remember my childhood and be overwhelmed by how great I felt my mother was.”

Throughout childhood, Mai Jia kept looking for a way out and a way of life that suited him. While the period known to history – and as it was propagandized at the time – as Reform and Opening-Up would not immediately reestablish his family’s reputation, or their fortunes, but it would be the stage upon which Mai Jia began to open up.

“The relationship between my father and I is complicated. Once, we were absolute opposites. We seldom communicated with each other. Today, I have to say, my father indeed benefited me. It was the Spring Festival of 1978, and it was my last semester of junior high school.” He paused thoughtfully, “It was my father who brought me to a senior high school, seven or eight kilometers away from home. Walking around the wall of the school, he told me that everything was going to change. In other words, he knew entrance examinations were going to be resumed.”

In 1978, senior high school entrance examinations were resumed in the rural area of Fuyang, and Mai Jia, with parental prodding and paternal support, successfully matriculated. Mai Jia explains, “Crops can be destroyed by floods. Luxurious houses can be burned to the ground. But a great storehouse of knowledge, this cannot be easily destroyed by either floods or fire. For this reason, he encouraged me to study.”

Mai Jia studied hard. He graduated from high school in 1981 and was admitted to a military academy. After graduation, he became a respected officer, and the pride of Jiangjia, but celebrity, or perhaps redemption, was a long way off.

Jiang Jinle, a friend of Mai Jia, attempts to elucidate, “Many people have said it already. Mai Jia writing novels is itself a novel. I can understand what they mean. First, Mai Jia is a person who speaks little but thinks a lot. Second, in junior high school and senior high school, the writing courses were completely irrelevant to [an aspiring] writer. Right? At that time, Mai Jia might not have written good compositions, you know, the kind that matched the teachers’ tastes, but Mai Jia never meant to do that. A good article Mai Jia wrote at that time was not considered good. This phenomenon still exists today.”

Mai Jia’s preference for introspection seems to have begun as an effort to transcend the village, his family’s infamy, the congested confines of their home, and the silence of his embittered father.

“I spent plenty of time thinking. Since I was young, I’ve had many funny ideas. Writing diaries became a part of my process, because I thought too much and never spoke to others. There was no one I could talk to. My mind was full of ideas. They wanted to rush out. Finally, I chose to pour-out in a diary. I wrote diaries because I thought too much.”

After graduating from the military academy, Mai Jia was assigned to work in a confidential unit in a remote mountain area. It’s there that he picked up his pen and wrote. Lonely, his emotions, his depression, found a voice in his novels.

“The mid-1980s was a hot time for literature. Publishing a novel was evidence of your talent. The motivation for starting my novel was simple. A very utilitarian purpose. I just wanted to show my talent. I just wanted to catch my leaders’ attention. I wanted to change my life. The Catcher in the Rye had a great influence on me. I started my literary career because of that book. I told you just now, in my youth, I kept diaries. After reading this book, I realized how to write a novel. I thought I could also write novels. So I began to write.”

And on the origin of his nom de plume he explains, “In the 1980s, around 1986, I changed my name to Mai Jia. It has a double-meaning. First, it pays homage to The Catcher in the Rye. Second, our family planted wheat when I was a child. So for these two reasons, I named myself Mai Jia.”

Mai Jia’s style was influenced by both European and American modernist literature; Hemingway, Faulkner, Krakow, and Kafka. A mild seismic shift came when he encountered Latin American magical realism. After encountering the works of Argentinean writer, Jorge Louis Borges, Mai Jia says his silent but unstill ruminations about his craft became much deeper.

“Some of his theories about the novel guided me. Novels had to have something other writing did not. A novel is just like handicraft. It should build a kind of maze. He influenced me in this respect. I wrote a novel about a cryptologist and another was a spy thriller. Both of them are closely connected with [Borges’] concept of the novel. To some extent, it was [Borges] who taught me how to use my own life experience, to find my position in a literary family. Over these 16 years, I kept writing silently. Today, what has brought me fame and fortune is my novel, Plot Against. This novel was rejected 11 times. My first novel, Decryption, was rejected as many as 17 times.”

After years of hardship and rejection, Mai Jia brought his novel, Plot Against, to completion in 2003. It quickly became a bestseller, one which he himself adapted as a teleplay. The success of the series he created triggered a wave of contemporary Chinese spy thrillers, earning him the sobriquet, China’s Ian Fleming. The lonely road that began with poverty, sadness, and failure, has now led to accolades and awards in both literature and television. Mai Jia is currently one of the most famous and wealthiest writers in China.

“A writer wants fame and fortune, but not many writers can get it. I think luck is relatively important for us. If you want me to summarize what I have done, I think two things are worth mentioning. One thing is I am a decent man. I never take the conventional route. I never take shortcuts, and I never look for shortcuts. The other thing is I work hard. These are the two points I’d mention. I walk the right way, so I can walk further.”

In 2008, Mai Jia returned to his hometown in Zhejiang Province. He has a studio in Hangzhou’s Xixi Wetland. This year, he was elected chairman of the Writers Association of Zhejiang Province. He still worries about those struggling to get out from under, and make names for themselves; and so the dreamer turned darling and doyen of the literary world established a writing base for young writers, one that focuses mainly on those facing the greatest challenges. As a chairman of the provincial chapter of the Writers Association, Mai Jia has to attend all kinds of conferences and social events, which he does, but what he wants most, he says, is to live in peace.

“In a sense, it is easy for me to concentrate. Once I touched literature, I fell in love with it. It totally changed me.”

He is currently writing a love story. A story, he says, he has never shared before. The novel, a departure from the genre for which he’s now best-known, will likely shed some more light on Jiang Benhu. Fans and critics are sure to want to engage it and decode it.

FROM PENGUIN BOOKS (AVAILABLE MARCH 2014):

DECODED

Mai Jia

Translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne.

Never before translated into English, Decoded tells the story of a maths genius who becomes China's greatest code-breaker, only to be driven mad by the unfathomable darkness in the world of cryptology. With the pacing of a literary crime thriller, it combines elements of magical realism with historical fiction and state espionage. The fact that it takes place in a fully characterised shadowy world of the Chinese secret security, where Mai Jia worked for decades, makes it all the more unfamiliar, intriguing and authentic… Decoded was published in 2002 and became an immediate success. There are over 3,000,000 copies in print and it has won several awards.

 

SHARE THIS
Latest 5 Stories

My journey from West to East

Inspired by the skills of martial artists Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, 18-year old Tim Vukan and his friends were intrigued by this ancient art. After seeking guidance and training from Ving Tsun Gong Fu instructor Jan Hantelman, a connection was made for life. He shared with us stumbling across a tiny Chinese bookshop and discovering hundreds of books detailing the very art he loved. Intrigued by the images he found within the pages, he often went back to look around. It was here that he found the book that would change his life: Chinese Shaolin Kung Fu. Being the only book he found written in German, it became a part of him, attached to him day and night. After watching a live performance from the Shaolin monks in Hamburg he knew it was time…

After six years of intensive training and teaching in Hamburg and Münster, Tim took the plunge and moved to Dengfeng, Henan to practice directly at the source. Home to many academies and thousands of students, he chose to study at Wushu College where a little girl took him by surprise: “The best teacher I had was a nine-year old girl. She taught me high kicks and how to perform very difficult techniques. She taught me to be honest and kind to people.”

 

What was the most difficult part of your course?

The most difficult part was we had to train very hard every day no matter what condition our bodies were in. Training started at 5:30am and continued all day until 6-7pm. After three weeks of intensive training, I couldn’t walk up the stairs and suffered from heavy muscle tension pain in my legs. Once I was lying in bed, I felt calm and peaceful until the loud Chinese march music woke me up in the morning and it started all over again. This pain is necessary to understand your body. If you want to perform Shaolin Gong Fu and to reach a high level we must go further to feel what it means to have focus.

In Chinese there is a saying 先苦后甜, which means after hard and bitter work there will be sweetness. It means that we have to work hard if we want to achieve something. Everything we do is to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and to learn how to control our body and our mind in different situations. Our body is sometimes weak. Learning Gong Fu is a way to train our minds to tell our body what to do and when to stop. I learnt jianchi 坚持 – it doesn’t matter if we fail or succeed, it is more important to go on. Our body and mind each have their own language and we are able to control our body with our mind. If there is a strong mind and a clear heart, there is a strong body. Many diseases are based on an imbalance of our body and our mind. If we stay focused in the moment, we can prevent illnesses and have a happier life! Gong Fu is a way to choose health and happiness in your life.

 

After Henan, Tim moved to Yangshuo, Guangxi province to continue with taiji quan classes. There he met a woman who was offering taiji sword lessons and became her student, learning taiji next to the Li river. She taught him many things like Chinese cooking and the art of bartering. He felt happiness getting to know a culture which he had always wanted to learn more about.

During his travels in 2004, he really enjoyed Hangzhou. Growing up in Hamburg, he was a part of nature. In Hangzhou, he found he could still have that in the beautiful mountains and bamboo forests surrounding the city. From the beginning of his martial arts career, he often came into contact with Chinese medicine. In 2005, he decided to start studying it. In ancient times, masters of Gong Fu were often also doctors of Chinese medicine – it was a natural progression. Zhejiang Chinese Medical University offered him a place.

 

We hear a lot about the pressure of education in China, did you feel a lot?

The Chinese education system can be very challenging for foreigners. First to master the language and then to get used to the way of teaching. Asking questions doesn’t have much space in classroom; it’s very different to the west. Chinese students are not used to communicating with their teachers, only listening to gain information. This caused a lot of pressure while studying. Preparing for a test required memorizing and repeating facts instead of putting the theory into our own words like back home. Every culture has its own specialties, especially when it comes to education. Now, I often meet young people in the clinic telling me about their life and study and that it made them sick. Young students are often overwhelmed with pressure. I start telling them my story, hoping to inspire them to find their own way to learn.

 

You’ve founded your own company, how has that been? Do you have good support?

I founded Wushan TCM, a Chinese medical network, with the goal to connect the east with the west and to offer Chinese medicine education to students and current practitioners. There are live webinars and recorded online courses about the theory and practice. I also arrange local treatments for foreigners with Chinese medicine and take care of the language translations and clinical arrangements. I work in cooperation with Chinese medical doctors whom I’ve met during my studies and practice over the past twelve years. I want to help people to come to China and to gain their individual experiences.

 

You’ve studied tai chi, TCM and lots of other ways of healing. What would you say is the best medicine?

In our modern times a practitioner has to have knowledge from both western and Chinese medicine to offer the patients the most accurate and suitable diagnosis and treatment. Even though western and Chinese medicine are very different from each other, they can be combined in many different ways. While western medicine is treating the illness, Chinese medicine is treating the symptoms of the patient and finding the source. An example of how they work in harmony would involve undergoing surgery for an external injury (western) followed by Chinese medicine to strengthen the patient help to recover in a more comprehensive way. Both medicines have their limitations and their benefits.

I won’t say that TCM is the best medicine. I believe Chinese medicine can help a lot of people, where western medicine cannot. Above all, the best medicine is when people take better care of themselves and gain more understanding of how we can keep healthy and prevent illness. It’s about our lifestyle, our emotions, our living and working environment, our family situation, our nutrition and so much more. I want people to gain more sensibility about their lives and what makes us ill.

 

What plans do you have for the future?

I would like to combine my life in China with the life in the west. At the moment, I am preparing the German natural license test to be allowed to work and to treat in Germany with Chinese medicine. In the future I want to offer more lectures, seminars and tours in Hangzhou and to give more students the great opportunity to learn from professional doctors. More and more foreigners are interested in coming to China to study TCM. I want to help them however I can. The world will become more connected. Let’s become a part of it!

 

Tim Vukan has been studying and practicing Chinese medicine for more than ten years at the Zhejiang Chinese Medical University in Hangzhou. He founded Wushan TCM in 2008 to connect Chinese medicine practitioners and students by offering Chinese medicine online courses and training tours to enable an authentic education in the theory and clinical field of Chinese health cultivation methods. To learn more, visit the website at www.wushantcm.com.

Campbell House

I first visited Georgetown, the capital city of Penang Island, Malaysia, in 2008. This was just before Georgetown gained Unesco World Heritage designation. I vividly recall the beauty of the decaying historical buildings dating back to the late 18th century British colonial rule. The multi-coloured shop houses with peeling paint stood stoically, telling countless stories of the centuries gone by.

In 1786, Britain established Georgetown to rival the Dutch trading port Malacca in a bid to gain control of the important trade routethrough the Straits of Malacca which connected Europe, the Middle East and India to the west with China, Southeast Asia and Japan to the east.Georgetown began attracting Chinese, Indian and Malaysian merchants and settlers. Each group broughtalong their language, food and religion making Georgetown a very special mix of cultures living together in harmony.

Georgetown’s Unesco World Heritage zone is a compact, easily manageable area that you can walk around in two to three hours. Start at the grand KapitanKeling mosque, built in 1801 by Indian Muslim settlers with its Mughal-style domes and Indian-Islamic minaret, from where the call to prayer can be heard five times a day.

Then wander around Little India with Bollywood music blaring from shops and colorful silk saris on display. Tantalizing skewers of tandoori meattempt you to stop and nibblewhile tables piled with samosas and Indian sweets are hard to resist.Then further to the north, near the coastline are the British colonial buildings that now house banks, western bars and restaurants.

Turn a corner and head towards the Chinese area with colourfulclan houses, temples and shops. Bustling hawker stalls line the streets, selling Penang’s famous street foods like CharKwayTeow, Chee Cheong Fun and HokkienMee. The Chinese community has roots from Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka and they here are a linguistically talented bunch who easily switch between conversations in Cantonese, Mandarin, their own Chinese dialects, English and Malay.

By the time I visited in 2008, much of the historic area had fallen into disrepair. Then came the Unesco World Heritage designation breathingrenewed life to Georgetown and historic buildings were restored and converted into cafes and boutique hotels. Previously, Georgetown mainly offered budget guesthouses and one very top end hotel. Now, there’s a growing range of boutique heritage hotels for visitors to choose from.

Campbell House was one of the first boutique hotels to open in Georgetown, and work on converting the building into a hotel began even before the Unesco World Heritage listing was announced. The owners, wife and husband team Nardya Wray and Robert Dreon, both saw the potential in Georgetown and had faith in its future. Nardya has a personal history with Penang, having been born in Malaysia before moving to UK andthen often returning to Penang to visit family.

Robert and Nardya bring with them a wealth of knowledge and experience, both coming from successful careers in London’s luxury hospitality industry.The couple embarked on restoring the hundred-year-old corner shophouse, completely gutting the building down to the original beams and structure.Working tirelessly over three years, they lovingly restored the building and filled their dream hotel with antique furniture sourced from around the region.

Campbell House offers eleven suites, each with an individual character representing a different element of colonial Malaysia, such as the Colonial Room with a four poster bed or the Sari Room graced with a headboard made from sari silk.

The rooms are luxuriously appointed and feature modern fixtures and technologies like flat screen TV’s, Nespresso machines, chilly central air-con, rain head showersand newplumbing. You may be staying in a heritage hotel with antique furniture, but you will not lackfor any modern comforts.

Campbell House is located on Campbell Street, right in the heart of Georgetown and makes a great base for exploring the city. The next street over is LebuhChulia, one of the main roads of Georgetown, where you’ll find many bars and street food.

Leaving behind the chaotic colourfulstreetlife and stepping into the peaceful tranquility of Campbell House, the first thing you will notice is the lovely lemongrass scent. Then the friendly receptionist will get you checked-in and pull out a map to show you where to find the best food and attractions.

Respecting the original architecture, there are no elevators in this three story house, but the hotel staff will use a clever pulley system to get your luggage to the top floor. Smoking is not permitted indoors, but you can do so on the rooftop terrace.

As is the tradition in Malaysian houses, guests have to leave their shoes in the public area before proceeding upstairs to the rooms. This ensures that the living areas are immaculately clean and you get the warm feeling that you are an honoured guest in a private house. Each guest receives personalized attention and you can even make special requests for breakfast to suit your dietary needs. The library invites guests to lounge and chat with each other and we had many lively conversations with our fellow travelers there.

Rooms are cleaned twice a day, and atnight they will leave iced tea and some sweet treats in the fridge. The soft and fluffy king-sized feather-topped bed is so comfortable, there seems to be a magic spell around it because as soon as you lay down you almost immediately fall asleep.

Breakfastis served in their Italian restaurant from 8am-12pm, so guests can leisurely sleep in or go out for an early morning walk before temperatures get too hot and still have ample time to return and enjoy breakfast.The breakfast spread includes a basket of freshly baked bread, a selection of housemade jams like coconut, orange marmalade and pineapple, a large platter of fresh fruit and a choice of entrée such as Eggs Benedict or Welsh Rarebit.

Their Italian Restaurant, Il Bacaro, draws on Robert’s Italian roots and offers an alternative to local cuisine. As much as I love curries and fried noodles, sometimes you just crave a fine Italian meal. It’s become a trendy dining destination for travelers and locals alike.

Georgetown is a city you can come back to again and again and never grow tired of.The Unesco World Heritage designation came just in time to save many heritage buildings from demolition. Though developmentis bringing about changes, its soul and authenticity still remains, just a scratch beneath the surface. The introduction of a heritage hotel like Campbell House means you can now visit Georgetown and stay in style and comfort.

Campbell House is a World Luxury Hotel Award winner and is ranked #1 on TripAdvisor for B&Bs in Georgetown. Rooms range from 600-800RMB per night.Air Asia flies from Hangzhou to Penang, transferring in Kuala Lumpur.

Bon Provecho!:

The Hyatt Regency welcomes Raul Avendano, a 31-year-old chef from Chile, to “spice up” their restaurant and buffet. This South American hottie creates a flavor so refreshing it will whip your taste buds into shape and wake you up from a world of slumber. This talented chef started his career in the hotel business studying administration, but after one year he decided it wasn’t for him. He changed majors to be in the kitchen and everything fell into place.

“When I put on my uniform and take my knife, I feel different. I get this intense feeling, just taking the raw ingredients and transforming them to something incredible.”

Raul has been cooking in top hotels all over the world. After four years traveling in Mexico, he moved on to Macau to open a new branch of the Banyan Tree. He was also the chef in the pre-openings of Dubai’s exclusive beachfront bar and restaurant Zero Gravity and the Grand Hyatt Casino Hotel in the Bahamas.   

His Mexican Flautas are a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with Latin cuisine. Succulent chicken breast cooked in a tomato base and wrapped in a crispy flour tortilla, topped with sour cream and fresh salad. Next, we tried the Pork Loin Roulade with onions, garlic, dried cranberries, nuts and apple sauce, pan seared and finished to perfection in the oven. This was served with roasted potatoes and a chorizo-like sausage. If that wasn’t tantalizing enough, the final surprise was the Green Lamb Chops marinated with lemon and served on a bed of creamy quinoa risotto that really got our tongues tingling! We managed to have a chat and find out ‘more’ about the man himself for all you readers of MORE Hangzhou.

So Raul, you have quite the resume! Can you tell us which of your experiences have been the most rewarding so far?
A great place for me to work was Dubai. It was challenging at first because of the religion and restrictions. In Chile, we like to cook with red wine and experiment with new ingredients and spices, but there I could not use alcohol or pork. But, the supply of fresh meats, vegetables and spices was endless and we had good contacts with the suppliers. In the end, I really honed in on other techniques and flavors. It was a memorable time.

We all know how difficult it is to get certain ingredients here. Why did you choose China?
The fascination came from when I was a kid, you know. Growing up, I loved the Chinese movies with Jackie Chan, and I was amazed by the different culture and, of course, the food! Then I worked Macau and I learnt so much! I thought “I’m here! I’ve done it.” China is a place that people from the west think they know until they arrive here and it all opens up. It’s a whole new world. After I left Macau and went back to South America, I thought… “Something is missing in this kitchen… the woks!” Working on a line with these tools and producing a different taste was incredible, and I am happy to be back working with a talented group of individuals.

What’s the greatest difficulty you have here?
It has to be the language. I’m learning slowly but it will take time. I always say “I have no problems, just challenges,” and because I have no problems, I have more time to find solutions. I love working in this team. To these chefs, it isn’t just a job, it’s their passion and that’s what make this food very special.

Where did your motivation come from? Did your mum cook at home?
Oh no, my love for cooking comes from my Dad’s side of the family. My aunt and my Grandmother, they have good taste. My teachers too, they really inspired me to do more. I hope the people in Hangzhou can be open to try new flavours and enjoy eating my food as much as I enjoy creating it.

If you would like to join the taste fiesta, then head down to the Hyatt Regency hotel for their Latin Festival which lasts until April 10th. The buffet, which includes the dishes we tried, will run you 348RMB from Sunday to Thursday and from Friday to Saturday 368RMB (both prices have a 15% service charge).

Raul is in the process of creating a whole new a la carte menu that will be available after the festival with other dishes of Latin taste to tease you too! For more information on this, go ahead and contact the hotel or pop by for a sneaky peak at Raul himself hard at work in Café at the Hyatt. Buen Provecho!

CrossFit:

To be honest, this is not exactly how I saw my Saturday morning going. After a good deal of persuasion, I had given in and decided to come to CrossFit Qiantang to see what all the fuss was about. Standing in a room full of about twenty-five athletic-looking sorts limbering up, little did I know that I was about to experience what would be one of the more intense twenty minutes worth of exercise I had done in my life.

In the car on the way to the gym, after having signed up for the class, we found out what the WOD (workout of the day) was. That day it would begin with 150 Burpees, a movement which involves going from standing to lying, to standing and a jump to finish. Then, 100 Wall Balls, requiring you to throw a medicine ball to above a line high on the wall. These two exercises were to be completed as a team, shared and in rotation. The final part, 5x200 meters, would be an individual effort.

After stretching and warming up, we were put into teams of three, our team name placed on the board, thereby riling up the competitive spirit in each and every athlete present. As the countdown began from ten, the crowd erupted, and as the music got louder, the tempo in the room sky-rocketed and the anticipation became unbearable.

Then, the room exploded as the battle for supremacy began, each team pitted off against each other in an effort to achieve the best time. During the next twenty minutes, I found strength in me that I didn’t know existed as my team and trainers (and even the opposition!?) spurred me on to reach the finish line in as fast a time as possible.

So this was my experience of CrossFit, a way of working out that has taken countless countries by storm and is now rapidly spreading through the mainland of China. For a better explanation of what CrossFit actually is, I spoke with the founder of CrossFit Qiantang, The General. Summing up my experience perfectly he told me, “It’s all about stepping out of your comfort zone. CrossFit is fun, but at the same time it can be brutal because it pushes you to your limits. The purpose of CrossFit is to train at your threshold area, which means you need to push your margin out.”

What is CrossFit?
CrossFit has three core fundamentals: constant variation, functional movement and high intensity. The first, constant variation, aims to improve your overall fitness, offering new and completely different workouts each time, using muscles you never knew you had, in contrast to a more focused improvement that some sports or traditional gym training offer: “We want every single one of our athletes to have a great general, broad fitness, which means they are prepared for the unknown,” said The General. In addition, you only find out the WOD after having booked the class, so if it’s something you don’t like, there’s no backing out: “You have no idea what you are going to be doing that day, just like real life. Life is unpredictable... CrossFit is the same thing.”

Functional movement involves using non-artificial movement – many gym machines promote a movement that is not entirely natural, whereas functional movements are more daily-life based and can therefore be used more in everyday situations.

High intensity is fairly self-explanatory, the benefit being you can put in less time but get more benefit. Rather than spending countless hours on a treadmill, CrossFit can condense this into around fifteen or twenty minutes of actual workout time (not including warming up or down), and yet offers results to match and even surpass longer, less intense workouts.

Why do CrossFit?
Aside from obvious health benefits, the most valuable thing CrossFit can offer is community. Looking lost on my first time in the gym, I was warmly received by trainers and members alike, as they approached me to introduce themselves and confess their great love for CF. Jenny had been CF-ing for around six months and was quick to praise the social aspect CF offers. She’d been working out in traditional gyms for years, rarely meeting anyone new: “I would be next to a guy on a treadmill every week for five or six years and have no idea about his name or who he was. Coming to CrossFit, there is a real feeling of community; everyone is very friendly and a strong bond is formed.”

This bond can only serve to improve your workout input as when you are making that final push, those around you shouting your name are sources of admiration and inspiration, team members who want nothing more than to see you do that extra rep, sprint that last 100 meters. They expect nothing less than 100%, and that is exactly what you should give them.

Furthermore, CrossFit supports and encourages its members to leave their comfort zone behind and do things they never thought they were capable of. The General explained, “The vast majority of people in this world only want to do the things they can do well… we like to give you something that you’re not good at… just use four or five hours a week to do this and your life will change completely.” So rather than doing something which comes easily to you, something you’re used to and can handle with relative ease, why not improve yourself by doing something you’re terrible at. Makes sense, right?

Some go to church, others go to CrossFit
For most, CF is more than just a workout. It’s way of life, a way of thinking that seems to make people want more from themselves. For one member, Adriana, CF was the missing piece of the puzzle, and after discovering it, her life came together, leading her to quit her job and become a shareholder in the company. Like many of the members here, you too may find yourself starting a new chapter of your life. Discover a new you, meet new friends. There’s really no excuse, so go on down and meet the CrossFit Qiantang family.

Give it a shot
For those of you thinking of joining, the first step is to sign up for one of their trial classes, either on Saturdays at 10am or Wednesdays at 8pm. The Saturday morning class will include members, so you’ll have a chance to meet the whole gang, something I strongly recommend, whereas the Wednesday evening class will include prospective members only. Also, many different membership schemes are available depending on your availability, ranging from a one-off drop in fee to a five-times-weekly membership.

To play live is to feel carefree

Etienne Jeanne, guitarist with gypsy jazz band Three of a Kind, has been living in China for almost ten years. His Russian bandmates are based in Paris which means he mostly gets to play with them when he returns to France in the summer. This year however they are recording a new project in April and are hoping to embark on a world tour next year. I asked Etienne some questions about the band and the musical genre of gypsy jazz.

How did you meet your bandmates?
The three of us met in Paris in 2002. I had just moved to Paris when I was 18 in order to start my career as a professional musician, and met Aliocha and Vladi separately while doing gigs in Paris. It was the beginning of the "gypsy jazz revival" at the time. They were performing in an old Russian cabaret every week. I went to jam with them and found we had a strong connection right away so we decided to form a band. We've remained friends ever since.

How do you define gypsy jazz?
Gypsy jazz is a musical genre developed by the late great Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in the late 30's, on the initiative of Hugues Panassié and Charles Delauney who wanted to build and promote a unique type of European jazz. That is why the Hot Club de France were the first "strings only" jazz quintet ever, innovating jazz music with a totally new sound never recorded before.

Is gypsy jazz the hardest genre to play on guitar?
It definitely requires strong guitar skills to play gypsy jazz, but not only that. A certain knowledge about jazz and gypsy culture in general, and an acuity for improvisation are also important.

Do you think there is a large audience for this type of music?
There is undoubtedly a large audience for gypsy jazz as this type of music is getting more and more popular. When I started to play this music, it was kind of a geek thing known principally in France and a few countries around (England, Germany, Holland, Italy), and now there is a Hot Club in every major city in the world, such as San Francisco, and even in Beijing! This style of music is pleasing to the ear, non-aggressive, and visually strong as you can see guitar players and violin players going crazy on their instruments! Plus it involves the guitar, which is the most popular instrument in the world, so people tend to identify themselves with it even more, especially metal guitar players.

What's the best thing about playing to a live audience?
Two things; the reward of an intense practice at home for years when people are clapping their hands, and the freedom to re-arrange our tunes, improvise, and make people surprised with a brand new show each time. To record is to leave a trace in time, to play live is to feel carefree again.

Where's your favourite place to play in Hangzhou?
I personally like to play in JZ Club because the venue is well adapted for live performances. There are many other places in Hangzhou offering the possibility to watch live bands, but not enough in my opinion. That is why I still need to work in Shanghai regularly since there are more opportunities. Fingers crossed about more musicians coming to Hangzhou in the next few years.

Has Chinese music had any influence on the music that you play?
Chinese music had an influence on the way I write originals indeed, we also cover a few songs from the early 30's Shanghai jazz repertoire.

Which bands are you following at the moment?
In the field of gypsy jazz, there are a lot of good musicians upcoming from all around the world although I think this type of music is precisely the legacy of Django Reinhardt, and hasn't really improved yet. People tend to copy the "authentic gypsy style" too much instead of working on their own interior music, which I think wouldn't have been the wish of the creators of this revolutionary musical genre.

If you would like to see Three of a Kind playing live, you can check them out at the venues below.

April 2nd @ ABC Café (Starts at 7:30pm)
1/F, Changjian Mansion, 415 Huanxing Rd, Binjiang, 滨江环兴路415号长建大厦1楼

April 8th @ Amigo (Starts at 9pm)
8 Yugu Rd, 玉古路8号  

April 17th @ JZ Hangzhou (Starts at 9:30pm)
6 Liuying Rd (Nanshan Rd) , 柳营路6号(靠南山路) 

April 22nd @ Reggae bar (Starts at 10:30pm)
131 Xueyuan Rd, 学院路131号 

April 23rd @ Schänke (Starts at 9:30pm)
Room -3 and 2-2, Building 32, Qingchunfang, Qingchun Rd, 庆春路青春坊32幢1-3室和2-2室

Click for Hangzhou, Zhejiang Forecast

Get Weekly Events to your Mailbox