Is the Curse of Kenny G About to be Lifted?

In my early days of blogging, back in 2005, I wrote a post titled The Curse of Kenny G, in which I went on a bit of a rant about the popularity of Kenny G in China.


Here’s what I said:

A great mystery here in the Middle Kingdom is the Chinese love affair with Kenny G, the bushy-haired soprano sax player, who anchors the “smooth jazz” genre of music. Kenny G music blaring out of stores, or wafting through hotel lobbies is as ubiquitous here as chopsticks and dumplings (OK, so I exaggerate, but only slightly). Once upon a time, I hate to admit, I liked Kenny G. music. But that was before I moved to China, where his music is impossible to escape from. For those of you who’ve never heard Kenny G (oh, how I envy you), it’s romantic, it’s soft, its’ sweet….and music that is sweet is irresistable here.

Ok, so what’s set off this little anti-Kenny G tirade this evening? This afternoon, a friend and I went off to visit the newly-restored section of Beijing’s old city wall, which runs east from Chongwenmen. It has been turned into a lovely park, and the old watch tower has been restored and now houses a museum. This particular section of the city wall was built during the Ming Dynasty, in the early 1400′s. The place just oozes history, and we went on top of the wall to soak it all up. Unfortunately, someone had decided that it’s necessary to pipe music all along the wall and through the park, and even more unfortunately, this afternoon that music was Kenny G music!! Augh! Is there no Ming Dynasty music available? Not a spot in the park was out of range of the music. I tell you, it’s a curse!! The curse of Kenny G!

I wonder how it gets broken!

Today, 9 years later, I think that curse is about to be broken. It seems that Kenny G was in Hong Kong yesterday and turned up at one of the protest sites to express his support. As you can imagine, it did not sit well with the Powers That Be in Beijing. Here’s how The Guardian reported it:

Most governments aren’t too bothered by what jazz saxophonist Kenny G does between concerts, but when he turned up at pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Chinese authorities were furious.

On Wednesday he tweeted a picture of himself making a victory sign in front of a poster reading: “Democracy of Hong Kong” and wrote: “In Hong Kong at the sight [sic] of the demonstration. I wish everyone a peaceful and positive conclusion to this situation.”

Within hours, the foreign ministry in Beijing had issued a frosty condemnation.

“Kenny G’s musical works are widely popular in China, but China’s position on the illegal Occupy Central activities in Hong Kong is very clear,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing.

“We hope that foreign governments and individuals speak and act cautiously and not support the Occupy Central and other illegal activities in any form,” she added.

Dan Levin, writing in The New York Times, highlights the popularity of Kenny G in China:

In one of the more inexplicable mysteries of Chinese culture, his 1989 saxophone ballad “Going Home” has for decades oozed from speakers across Chinese public spaces at closing time, triggering rapid exits by the masses. The song has no lyrics, yet somehow, when it is played in a mall, Chinese shoppers know what to do. They go home.[…] But an opposing theory that surfaced last week on Twitter said that Beijing might send Kenny G to Hong Kong to play “Going Home,” and that the protesters, who have occupied sections of Hong Kong’s business districts for weeks, would finally disperse.

You can read a fuller exploration of the popularity of this song in Dan’s May 2014 article China Says Goodbye in the Key of G: Kenny G. Be sure to watch the video clip as well.

I’m guessing that Kenny G’s music will henceforth be a lot less ubiquitous.

In other words, it’s entirely possible the curse is about to be lifted.


{Photo by Ryan Wise, via Flickr (creative commons license)}

East and West and Hong Kong

Like many others, my journey to being a Sinophile began in Hong Kong. In the summer of 1979 I spent 3 months in the city on an internship, teaching English and working in the office of the Chinese Church Research Center. When not working, I explored the city, taking random bus lines to the far-flung parts of town. In the course of the summer, I fell in love with the city. I remember seeing a t-shirt in a tourist shop that I thought captured the essence of Hong Kong. It said “There’s east and west; and then there’s Hong Kong.”


During the years I lived in China, I returned often to Hong Kong — for meetings, conferences, and to visit friends. I have the fun things I like to see and do when I’m in town: a trip across the harbor on the Star Ferry; ride Bus #6 from Central to Stanley Market (it’s better than a roller coaster); eat fried rice or fried noodles in one of the seemingly millions of mom & pop noodle shops; stroll the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Because of my love for Hong Kong (and my love for China), I am watching with great interest and unease the situation unfolding in Hong Kong this week. It’s hard to explain what is going on in three sentences, but let me try. As part of the “One Country, Two Systems” formula agreed upon by China and Britain, the Chinese government promised direct elections in 2017. Recently they announced that the candidates would be chosen by Beijing. This did not sit well with Hong Kong citizens.

Of course, it is much more complicated than that, and there are issues of economics and national identity at play as well. Fortunately there is excellent reporting coming out of Hong Kong that delves into these complexities. If you’re interested in some good reading on what is going on and what it might (or might not) mean for the future, I recommend the following articles to get you started:

Fate of Hong Kong Rests in Xi Jinping’s Hands (September 29, 2014, Toronto Globe and Mail)

What happens in Hong Kong over the coming days will tell us a lot about where China is heading in the era of Xi Jinping. A negotiated solution that appeases some or all of the protesters would suggest China finally has the kind of leader that the Communist Party’s undemocratic “meritocracy” was supposed to produce. The sidelining of Mr. Xi’s enemies – and his own genuine personal popularity among ordinary Chinese – gives him the power to surprise everyone in how he handles the Occupy Central movement.

A crackdown, particularly one that involves use of the People’s Liberation Army, would tell us China is in for another dark decade of stifling repression.

The Day that China Came to Hong Kong (September 29, 2014, China File)

Beijing has no good choices. The resignation of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, one of the protestors’ many demands, is no longer unthinkable; the Special Administrative Region’s first Chief Executive, shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa, stepped down in 2004 after massive protests. But Leung’s resignation would not solve the governance problem that entombs Hong Kong, that of a wealthy, well-educated city without an accountable government. If Beijing acts true to form, and in line with what we have seen to date from Xi Jinping, sustained protests could see Beijing order the Hong Kong government to end the protests, whatever that takes. On Sunday night, the government was forced to put out a statement denying that PLA troops, who are stationed in the city, were moving tanks in for action.

Hong Kong is different now.

Hong Kong People (September 29, 2014, The New York Times)

This past Sunday — when the phalanxes of riot police moved aggressively to clear the streets of peaceful protesters — Hong Kong became just another Chinese city. It was the moment when the “one country, two systems” formula Hong Kong was promised on its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 was finally laid bare as unworkable.” […] But even as the protests continue to swell, Beijing seems to hold all the cards. Yet even if it succeeds in tamping down the anger in Hong Kong — which is unlikely — its gains can be fleeting at best.The moment that Hong Kong citizens have been dreading for 17 years has finally arrived. 

The slogan I saw on that t-shirt 35 years ago seems even more true today.

Related Posts:

Make it Look Like a Parade

Three Decades in China; Four Trends

I Heart Hong Kong

Bound for Hong Kong





Please Don’t Smash My Car

Yesterday while sitting in stop-and-go traffic on one of Beijing’s many freeways, I spotted this on the back of a Nissan SUV. It’s a home-made sticker, covering up the Nissan logo.  It says:

“The Diaoyu Islands belong to China! This car belongs to me!”


No doubt the driver was hoping to avoid the fate of some other owners of Japanese cars over the weekend.

In case you missed it, there were violent demonstrations all over China this weekend related to a dispute between China and Japan over the ownership of some pieces of rock in the ocean.

There”s a good write-up of the action in the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Six days of sanctioned anti-Japanese protests – which escalated Sunday into a nationwide day of rage that saw Japanese businesses and diplomatic missions attacked – have whipped up hatred and created a situation that leaves the Chinese leadership little room to compromise in a showdown over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who is on the verge of calling an election that will see him challenged from the nationalist right, similarly has little room to negotiate.

Never a dull moment in Beijing, that’s for sure.

(2nd image source: National Post)