Alan Paul is a rock star, playing with his blues band Woodie Alan in front of crowds of thousands, appearing on TV and blaring from radios. So why haven’t you heard of him? Well, because he does it all in China.
Paul is the author of the new book, the tellingly titled “Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming A Star in Beijing,” about how the Pittsburgh native transformed from an expat along for the ride of his wife’s new career to launching one of his own.
He’ll speak at the Squirrel Hill JCC’s Levinson Hall, Monday, June 27 at 1:15 p.m. about his experiences.
And it all started with a Stevie Ray Vaughn tattoo.
In 2005, Paul’s wife, Rebecca Blumenstein, accepted an offer to become the Wall Street Journal’s China Bureau Chief. Paul, a journalist himself who has been published in Sports Illustrated, Guitar World, People and The New Yorker, was “whole hog into it from the start,” he told the Chronicle, en route back from a book tour in China. “Originally, [Blumenstein] didn’t even tell me about the job because she didn’t think I’d consider moving, as our kids at the time were 20 months, 4 and 7. But I actually pushed her to pursue the job.”
That summer, Paul returned from China to Maplewood, N.J., for a long visit, and found himself playing guitar with some old friends. Determined to play more that year, he bought a new electric guitar — but after the flight to Beijing, the guitar was badly damaged.
“I looked for a repairman and found a young Chinese guy named Woodie Wu … he spoke great English,” said Paul. “When I saw that he had a huge tattoo of [Texas blues musician] Stevie Ray Vaughan, I knew we could do business.”
The new group played its first gig at a nearby restaurant and “it just snowballed from there,” said Paul, as American saxophonist Dave Loevinger and Chinese bassist Zhang Yong and drummer Lu Wei joined in.
Before Paul and his family returned to the States, his band became “bigger than I dreamed, but it’s not like millions of people followed our every move,” he said. Still, most Americans don’t get to say their ‘big in China,’ and mean it.
Pittsburgh is still “very much a part of me,” Paul said, though he now lives in New Jersey. “Most of my childhood is one big good memory. 1979 was a banner year — my bar mitzva and the Steelers and Pirates both winning championships, leading to the City of Champions tag,” he said, “which I took very seriously.”
China, however, rests very differently in the minds of many Americans. Paul aims to chip away at those misconceptions with his book.
The real China is “very, very different” from American ideas, said Paul. “This is not to minimize the fact that citizens can not challenge the government and face other restrictions, but most people are not political activists and they go about their business with a tremendous amount of freedom. China is not North Korea, and it is not the China of 20 or 30 years ago.”
After years abroad, Paul is excited to revisit his hometown.
“I’ve always had a twinge of regret and sadness that I don’t live in Pittsburgh,” said Paul. “It may sound crazy, but I think I was well prepared for expat life because I have always felt like an expat from Pittsburgh.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)