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May 5, 2011

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'Rock Soldier' who came a long way from the army

IT'S much harder for folk singers than rockers to find gigs because to appreciate folk music, the audience really needs to listen to the lyrics. Yao Minji talks to folk singer and novelist Liu Jian.

Confucius said, "At age 30, I stood firm," and for Chinese, the age of 30 is considered the time when one should stand firmly on his own two feet, fulfill his family and social responsibilities (marriage) and be able to point to some achievements.

In 1998, Liu Jian, then a 20-year-old soldier majoring in literature at the People's Liberation Army Art Academy, had set himself the goal of publishing three books and releasing one music album before the age of 30.

After studying at the prestigious academy in Beijing, he would have become a lieutenant and enjoyed stable life with good benefits.

Two years later, Liu quit the academy and became an itinerant singer and writer, living on his freelance writing for advertising companies and singing with his guitar in clubs.

But after wandering for a while around the night streets of Beijing, he felt lost and it seemed his writing and music goals were slipping away.

At age 25, five years earlier than his plan, Liu decided to move south and settled in Shanghai, performing in clubs, singing in Metro stations and freelancing for magazines and companies.

He also met other folk singers and founded Shanghai Rock United several years ago.

In February this year, 31-year-old writer and folk singer Liu married American journalist Rebecca Kanthor. He and the native New Yorker working for The Associated Press tied the knot in his hometown in Henan Province in a cheerful, traditional wedding. Liu rode a horse and Kanthor was carried in a sedan chair.

Pictures of the lively and colorful wedding were posted online, drawing fans of the cross-cultural romance from around the world.

This year, Liu will also realize his goal of a third published book and one music album.

His first novel "Rock Soldier" in 2004 described about the rigorous military experience of a rebellious rock fan, as well as his own growth; it's based on his own experience.

He had trouble finding a publisher who wasn't wary of "rock soldier," but finally decided to publish it as "Soldier." His wife, who has learned Chinese, has translated the book into English and they're looking for a publisher to publish the English version.

The novel "Veteran" in 2007 is the story about a group of young veterans who struggle to lead exciting lives after leaving the army.

Each book comes with a song composed and performed by Liu.

Liu has already finished writing the third book, the two-volume "Memories of a Wandering Singer," containing the stories behind 16 of his more than 40 songs. It will be accompanied by a CD containing the 16 songs.

One of Liu's favorites is "Granny," a song about tender memories of his grandmothers, as well as wife and his days in Shanghai.

When Liu first arrived in Shanghai, he sang in the underground Lujiazui Metro station for nearly six months. At first, police took him away for questioning, but when they found out he was a singer, the cops asked him to sing them a song. Liu sang "Granny:"

"My Granny has a round face,

My granny has clear eyes,

I never saw her when she was young,

I only knew that she suffered.

I was naughty when I was little,

Escaping into her arms when I was wrong.

Her hug was like an umbrella,

Protecting me from thunder and storms,

And keeping my childhood warm.

I grew bigger and granny got older,

I didn't know about life back then,

And I believed that granny would be with me forever."

His sincere voice and the simple lyrics touched the police; they told him he could continue to sing in the station, but stay out of sight when police patrols arrive.

"Granny" was also the song that connected Liu with Kanthor, when she saw him performing in a club in Hangzhou, a neighboring city of Shanghai. Kanthor was touched, she went backstage to meet Liu and they became friends. Their romance lasted for six years.

"When most people were busy fulfilling their materialistic desires, I found peace and self-satisfaction in the spiritual world," Liu tells Shanghai Daily.

"Now that I will soon have fulfilled my dream of youth, and now that I'm married, I will take up more family responsibilities as a man and provide an exciting and pleasant life for my family."

Liu has a lot of ideas, and he acts fast.

He now works as an editor for a literature magazine Jiangnan (region south of the Yangtze River) in Zhejiang Province.

His organization Shanghai Folk Rock United is an association of around 50 folk singers, including a dozen expat vocalists. They give regular performances every month by six members, usually three Chinese and three expats, on a rotating basis. The venue is Old York Art Space near Hengshan Road.

Liu plans volunteer work, such as teaching guitar to students in schools for children of migrant workers.

He receives invitations from music festivals - which is rare for folk singers - and he hopes he can use the stage to bring more folk music performances to Shanghai.

What he needs is time.

Since his wedding pictures online became popular in February, Liu has been busy with domestic and foreign interviews and recording shows for TV stations. As an editor himself, Liu appreciates the efforts of journalists and understands that they need to interview him. Still, the busy schedule, makes him nostalgia for the early, calmer days when he first arrived in Shanghai.

"Shanghai is probably a lucky place for me. It was suggested that I go south and near the water, so when I felt lost in Beijing, I headed for coastal Xiamen, and ended up in Shanghai," Liu recalls.

He remembers the summer afternoon in 2003 when he got off the train in Shanghai, holding his guitar and laptop. He gave a cab driver 100 yuan (US$15) and told him to take him anywhere. The driver went east and stopped at Fudan University.

Liu lived in the area for the next two years, writing "Rock Soldier," singing in bars and forming East District Power, which would later become Shanghai Folk Rock United.

"It is more difficult for folk singers than rockers to get chances to perform, because you need to listen carefully to the lyrics to appreciate folk songs," Liu says. "Usually you need more than one folk singer to organize a show, so it is necessary for Shanghai Folk Rock United to exist and to connect the musicians," he says.


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