China Daily

photo’s: Menno Otten

Anniversary of the soundwalk ‘China Daily’ 1987-2012

25 Years ago, in May 1987, 25 people wearing headphones gathered on platform 3 of the Muiderpoort train station and simultaneously pushed the button on the cassette player they were carrying. The train coming in at that very moment seemed to be arriving on a platform filled with a crowd of waiting fellow travellers somewhere in China.

On August 28, 2012, 26 years and 340 million babies later, in the company of Chinese visual artist Jing Jin, I push the button on the cassette recorder again, this time on Amsterdam’s Central Station.
After a ferrie trip on the IJ and through the harbour of Shanghai we step ashore on the stairs of the EYE Film Museum, our ears ringing with the sound of pilgrims climbing the seven holy mountains in China.

On the promenade of the EYE we celebrate this mini anniversary by drinking Chinese brandy, just like the hundreds of soundwalkers of 1987. Jin’s favourite moments are the instances when eye and ear meet.

Jing Jin listens to the world of sound that belonged to the China of her early childhood: the beginning of a period when Deng Xiaoping was opening the gates of the Chinese Wall to the West. The sounds don’t bring back any memories but she is amazed at the diversity of what she is hearing, especially the Mandarin Chinese accents which betray the many different origins of the speakers. She comes back to this time after time: ‘China is so big, people should behave differently’. She draws an imaginary line between Chengdu and Shanghai, 2000 kilometres to the east, and says: the sound of these cities now sound ‘equal, flat’. How quickly things have changed.

My own recollections of Chengdu – which now has a population of 14 million and looks like a Chinese version of Manhattan – are of a skyline not much higher than the waving hand of Mao’s statue on the city’s central shopping square. But maybe I’m wrong. I did see the contours of the huge bamboo scaffolding which announced the building of high rise flats.

But the sound of that centre space was predominantly that of bicycle bells emanating from huge streams of cyclists making their way along broad avenues, punctuated by the occasional honks of cars and ice cream sellers trying to drown out the sound of the cicadas. Added to the live mix was the latest Chinese pop music coming from the music stores in the winding, trendy little shopping streets.

An image of the time in sound, that is what I recorded on my portable recorder, with two microphones sown into my Alice band. They are sound images of a country that, like no other in the world, has changed beyond auditory recognition.

Jing Jin’s comments made me realise that a bizarre change has been wrought: the transition from a collective Communist state to a hyper modern urbanised society has resulted in less audible diversity and fewer identifiable traces of human individuality.

How would I, with my Chinese Daily ears of 26 years ago, listen to today’s China? Would all I pick out be the universal 21st century traffic noise which dominates all cities and whose hum drowns out everything else? How Chinese will China sound after 26 years, how Chinese the places I visited? Which sounds would I record this time around and which new media forms would I choose to present them? I wish I was there.

‘Mixing realities, matching tangible reality with a 3D sound experience originating from another place or time is a concept I use to this day. The Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland dedicated a feature on this ‘soundwalk’ as part of the SoloMarathon performed by theatre company Tender of which I was a member at the time. (Vrij Nederland, 13 juni 1987: is het echt of is het Tender?/ Is it real or is it Tender?)

China Daily (recorded in China in 1986) was the first of a series of soundwalks in the full sense of the word: a pure rendering of 3D reality sounds, unadulterated, without text, to be experienced collectively through headphones. The invention of the walkman made this new art form possible; ‘portable’ was key to it, as well as the binaural recording technique.

to be continued….