The Little Pink Book

A lost chapter in the life of an
Australian violin virtuoso


by Yung-Ying


Yung Ying in his Red Army uniform

From the shopping list of puzzling questions that we, at the end of this confusing century must ask ourselves, perhaps the most enthralling is - how did Johannes Rosenberg (well known violinist and owner of Australia's largest Chinese take-away restaurant chain) achieve such market success while at the same time retaining his humility and spiritual after dinner mateship? We do not have to look very far in recent history to see that this kind of personality can very easily become an uncontrollable monster of hideous proportions (one thinks immediately of the current rash of trumpet and (sad to say) violin players strutting their stuff on the world stages of mediocrity.)

When Rosenberg was sent home in disgrace from the 1936 Berlin Olympics ( cf. The Pink Violin p.150) he was still a petulant teenager in search of excitement and adventure. As luck would have it, the C.T.A.C.A (Chinese Take-Away confederation of Australia) had just started offering travel/music scholarships to up and coming Fine Music prodigies with a view to excelling their excellence in the increasingly dodgy looking China of the late 1930s. From our contemporary position of enlightenment, it seems an odd way to further education. But at that time, ducking the odd Japanese Zero attack while getting to grips with Zen and the violin was considered de rigeur . Indeed, it turned out that the young Rosenberg saw no contradictions in his education as, two years later he joined up with the Imperial Japanese Air Force to become a failed (luckily for us and the story of contemporary music) Kamikaze Ace.

The up and coming fine Australian violinist spent his time in the Sichuan district of China studying with the eminent master Mao Zedung - known to his followers as THE GREAT IMPROVISER . (Although only an amateur performer on the violin himself, Mao was instrumental in setting up the whole Chinese violin manufacturing industry after the 1949 revolution. It is estimated that Skylark and Parrot have produced more violins in the last 25 years than all the violins produced in the world since 1585. A remarkable achievement I think you will agree!) Mao gave Rosenberg a Chinese name - Bu Mai Le . It means, roughly translated - No Longer Want to Buy Something . A few moments later, Mao had realised his mistake and thinking of future television sales, gave Rosenberg another name - Grasshopper .

Wind powered surveillance violins guard the perimeters of Violin World


Last year I had the good fortune to visit the town of Xichang, close to the Yangtze river in the south of Sichuan province. Here, like my old comrade Rosenberg, I too had been a devotee on the eternal search of enlightenment while hoping for the ever elusive top paying gigs. Even though Mao has been dead since 1975, there is a substantial school there which keeps the pure tradition of THE GREAT IMPROVISER flourishing through a vast output of devotees and tourist souvenirs. Imagine my delight when a doggery old violin player came up to me with something under his arm. "My name is Po Face Nixon," he said. "I was with Mao on The Long Tango ". I looked into his drooping ears and saw for myself that he had indeed suffered much on his long march through violin playing life. "It's the original manuscript of Rosenberg's Little Pink Book . I heard you were from Australia, that's why I brought it out to show you. Thought you'd give me a few bucks for it or at least something to smoke." I could not conceal my excitement. Could this be the manuscript for the book that was copied in its millions? Could this be the book that foretold and articulated the pillars of reality that became The Age of Shopping ? Could this be the book whose title was ripped off by Jon Rose and Rainer Linz in their compendium The Pink Violin ? I studied the calligraphy - there was no doubt about it. The signature of No Longer Want to Buy Something was an authentic copy (Rosenberg would never have used his real signature!)

I wondered what I could do in gratitude for Po Face Nixon, $19.95 seemed a bit steep for an original Rosenberg manuscript. I told him I would find some jerky minimalist composer to write a full length opera about him. That seemed to satisfy the old timer although he kept on trying to bludge some smoke off me. I wandered up the street to a tea house for some of that green stuff and to quench the rising anticipation of browsing through The Little Pink Book .

Here follows the faithful documentation of Learnings held between Mao THE GREAT IMPROVISER and myself No Longer Want to Buy Something also known as Grasshopper . July 1938. Xichang.

As I made my way from the railway station dust tore into my eyes, such was the force of the howling wind raging down from the Siberian plains to the north. The street was deserted except for one or two members of the ever watchful People's Army on patrol. They eyed me suspiciously as I passed. Most of the population were boarded up in their tiny wooden houses waiting for a break in the weather. I peered over the shoulder-high mud walls at the tiny, derelict weed covered yards. Life looked like a bitch here. After some minutes I reached the end of the main street over which was erected a huge sign. It said Duifang ! which roughly translated means Welcome to Violin World !

Beneath the sign was a checkpost. A guard stopped my progress and informed me that I needed a card to insert into the machine standing by the gate. Here I was fresh from Australia and I had been already been dismissed leg before wicket. (a way of `being out' in the traditional game of Cricket).

Oh Grasshopper, have you not yet noticed how hard it is to smile and be angry at same time? In selling, a smile is very important part of salesman's tool kit. Remember old Confucian saying "Man without smiling face should not open sweet shop". And if he eat many sweets, he should smile with mouth shut so he no show that he no teeth has.
Very important.

I quickly unpacked my violin and (with a smile) played the old standard Pennies from Heaven . The guard immediately changed his tune and presented me with a handful of cards made of a material I had not encountered before (plastic). I looked through the range - Visa, American Express, Mastercard, Diners card, etc. Which one, I wondered, would satisfy the machine? The toothless and now smiling guard was at my mercy and had meanwhile read my thoughts " Violin World accept all cards" he said.

The Great Improviser's personal 19 string frame violin at the Yellow River (courtesy Violin World Museum)

Once through the gate, the weather instantly changed into brilliant sunlight and a temperature of a constant 24 degrees Centigrade. Everywhere around the Practice Garden of the People young novices were lovingly going through their pentatonics. It reminded me of my favourite take-away in Dixon Street, Sydney. A kind of chou-mein meets Vivaldi violin music and I had thought it would all be mah-jongg parties, ping pong and opium - well, the latter turned out to be true thank God!

I pulled up a stone stool and surveyed the luxuriant plants in the compound. There were hibiscus, camellias, magnolias, oleanders, sisal hemps, palm trees and roses - a blaze of colour that even included rare coconut and ginkgo trees (distinguished by their superb fan-shaped leaves). As my thoughts drifted off in the haze of scented jasmine, I did not notice a man with a smiling face (his smile never left him, that's how I knew he must have been smiling even though I never saw him exactly in that particular instance do it) striding towards me. He raised his arm and struck me on the head with his violin. For it was he - THE GREAT IMPROVISER .

"Do you find anything different anywhere than what you find here?" Thinking of all the times that I had been hit on the head with a violin I replied that I found nothing very different.

"If there is nothing different why don't you go back there then?" And he gave me another smack on the head with his violin.

I told him that if his violin had eyes to see, he would not do that.

"Violin has no eyes stupid" he said and gave me another three thumps with his fiddle. With that I knew I had found a profound master. He hit me again and told me my name would now be No Longer Want to Buy Something . Then he hit me twice more and with a revolutionary tone in his voice said "On second thoughts, the name Grasshopper has more commercial possibilities."

The next days I spent familiarising myself with the routines and customs of my new environment. Every morning after three hours violin practice, the novices were allowed to walk around the compound pushing shopping trolleys, each one loaded to the maximum with violins from the local factory. It was a stirring sight to see the concentration on their faces as they went about practising the scales and sales techniques of THE GREAT IMPROVISER . The packaging also looked resplendent with its imitation golden ribbons glittering in the morning sun.

One tea break the young violinists would educate each other in the common faults of violin sellers when meeting the customer for the first time . A list of faults soon became evident: weak handshakes, bone-crushers or condescending and ironic bows, making smart remarks, not looking the intended victim in the eyes, making no effort to keep the conversation going, talking too loudly or mumbling, ignoring the other person or pretending they don't really exist, looking the customer up and down, pointing out the sperm stains on their trousers.

I noticed that the student/novices who weren't really cutting it wore a badge on their breast which said Kong-zhi shi-yong which roughly translated means violin worthy but still under control and surveillance .

A checked out revolutionary guard sports his tattoo at Violin World

Those who had already passed the check-out (first year exams for sales representatives) proudly wore a small violin tattoo under the upper half of their bowing arms. They joined the sessions to show their solidarity with the beginners and to keep their hand in. ( Editor's note: it is hard to imagine from this idyllic picture that Mao, 20 years later, would turn into such a manic and irrational leader. Readers will be aware that between 1957 and 1958 he declared The Great Leap Forward and forced violin production to be doubled in this period from 5.35 million to 10.7 million tons. A staggering increase in a vain attempt to keep up with the West. But instead of reforming the violin industry proper, he decided to force the whole Chinese population to take part. There was a quota for every unit and every village - which had to be met. After the land had been stripped almost of all trees, nearly 100 million peasants were pulled out of agriculture and placed in the steel industry to manufacture the new metal violins (almost immediately copied and produced successfully by the Suzuki Factory in Japan). Mao had a metaphysical approach to violin problems. Some economists pointed out to him, in the most diplomatic way, that perhaps this level of output was unsustainable and besides which there was no paper, furniture, floorboards, toilet rolls, chop sticks, ritual swords, cooking utensils, sign posts, baths or plumbing left in the country - everything had been used up in The Great Leap Forward . Mao THE GREAT IMPROVISER dismissed their one dimensional thinking. Had these economists never heard of re-cycling? Violins of either wood or metal would be a reservoir of raw material to make anything the people needed. He ordered 2.7 million violins to be turned into wood-pulp for a poster campaign announcing Violins become Paper - for the People .) At one side of the compound a small tutorial was taking place underneath a banner which read Zi-qi-qi-ren which roughly translated means self-deception while deceiving others . The students were wearing badges which said Yes, we want to play for you . Important to this positive approach to deception seemed to be a system of memory training: figure out what the client needs, then keep on extending those needs. For example - try to remember this shopping list of seemingly unrelated items. Melon / condom / bottle of beer / beach umbrella / camera / hair removal cream / balloon / washing machine / violin / soap powder. Forgotten already? Now try this method.

First of all visualise the melon , the biggest you have ever seen, give it as much detail as you can and have it like a Magritte painting right in front of you pushing up the ceiling. Next take an axe and split it down the middle. Inside you find a condom with flashing lights and lubricating jokes. See yourself walking inside the condom where you find a bar selling bottles of beer . Hear the music; see the football fans getting horribly drunk. You rush outside to find someone being sick in a beach umbrella , the biggest you have ever seen. It fills up with vomit and there are thousands of people standing around applauding and taking photos with their cameras . Look at all these cameras flashing away, then you look closely and realise that they are not cameras at all but photographs of that creepy customer who wouldn't buy your latest line of hair removal creams yesterday because you had forgotten his lousy name which in this business is fatal. Suddenly the whole scene explodes and mushrooms into a massive balloon with the customer's name printed on it. When the balloon hits the fan it bursts with a loud bang and out pour thousands of little washing machines . You look inside one of the washing machines and you find a violin ready to be washed. You realise that first of all its going to need some soap powder -

At this point I realised that I should cut down on my opium intake but it was too late, my violin jumped out of its case and hit me on the head.

Oh Grasshopper, we have old saying. Put away holiness, forget knowledge, and throw away your noodles; thus violin player will profit hundredfold. Put away morality, forget duty, and throw away your noodle recipe; thus the violin player causes desire. Put away skilfulness, forget social function, and throw away your violin; thus the violin player starts a religion or supermarket chain .

"Yes master," I had replied, "excellent idea." and I asked him when I could start. He remained silent so I turned to leave his presence. At the door I suddenly realised I had forgotten to take my violin. He spoke -

Grasshopper, thirty spokes join at the hub; their use for the cart is where they are not. When the potter's wheel makes a pot, the use of the pot is precisely where there is nothing. When you open the window of your 10th floor apartment you accidentally send the pot flying down to the street below where it smashes into a hundred pieces, where it was there is now nothing. Therefore I say unto you, being is nothing and nothing is being. Therefore you do not exist therefore you cannot leave. Therefore you did not forget your violin .

Mao! What a guy!

That night I had one of my many significant dreams. In the dream I woke up the next morning and I found my purse had been magically filled with 24 hours of the golden tissue that fills the universe of everyone's life. No one can take this away from me I thought. No one gets more of this stuff than me and no one receives less than me. Wow! I could spend the whole day getting stoned out of my tree and no matter how I spent my time, I could wake up tomorrow and - do it all over again. Mao! But I can't borrow tomorrow's supply, I can't get into debt - I can only waste the bit that's going past me at the moment. I could sit here and improvise on the violin for all of those 24 hours without even touching tomorrow's supply. Mao! Just at that moment when I was about to attain enlightenment, I was rudely awakened by a sharp blow to the head. The violin belonged to none other than Mao himself. He was sleepwalking (a common activity in that part of China). He could also talk in his sleep (some say in a more profound and coherent way than when he was awake!)

Oh Grasshopper, stop carrying on like politically correct liberal wimp! Ganma! Hen wan le. Wo yao shuijiao le. Which roughly translated means Why on Earth! It's getting late. I have to go to sleep. Mei banfa. Dang laoshi bu qingsong. There is nothing I can do. It is not easy to be a teacher. Xiang ge banfa, ti ge yijian. Think of a way, make a suggestion. I said to him qu mai dongxi which roughly translated means why don't you piss off, I'm trying to get some sleep - go shopping or something. Quick as a flash Mao came back with the line Jie wo wushikuai qian which roughly translated means lend me $50.

This enlightening episode clearly showed that THE GREAT IMPROVISER knew exactly where and when to close a deal. He had a majestic sense of timing. A supreme knowledge of detail (notice he wanted hard Western currency) and a total response to the geography of temperament and repressed reflex. He promised me the next day that he would send me a postcard when he next went on holiday (a typical insincere travelling musician's touch).

( Editors note : There are two ways to increase sales: sell more to customers or sell to customers more. Surveys carried out on China's violinists revealed that they were and still are exactly the same as violinists world wide, with exactly the same problems of inefficient sales techniques - astonishing when one considers economic and cultural differences. Each violinist (improvising or otherwise) spends 30% of his time travelling; each violinist spends 15% of his time waiting; each violinist spends 11% of his time on the phone; each violinist spends 5% of his time at sales meetings; and only 39% of a violinist's time is actually spent putting the boot in on a sale. Rosenberg discovered in Xichang in 1937 that if it was possible to increase his selling time from 39% to 52%, he would in affect boost violin sales to the tune of 33%. This gem of information appears not in The Little Pink Book . Rosenberg kept it a secret until he started his own violin factories later, across the seas in Japan and Australia.)

Sometimes, after particular weeks of high achievement, I was allowed to leave Xichang for a few days of relaxation. On one such trip I headed due north to where the Great Wall of China is dissected by the Yellow River. Before the turn of the century it had been a notorious area of the country for elbow binding . This was a traditional and very painful method of guaranteeing a good supply of violin players - particularly in difficult times such as war or famine. The barbaric practise had died out by the early 1920s - there were, however, still violinists living who carried the scars of that bygone age. The process was called Ni zoucuole fangxiang which roughly translated means You travel in the wrong direction . The name refers to what in fact was done to the left arm of three year old children to ensure good posture and motor skills for violin playing. The arm was bound and the elbow dragged across to the other side of the chest where it was held fast with more binding. If the elbow did not come far enough across for practical or aesthetic reasons, the whole arm was yanked out of its socket and kept that way for up to four years. The arm eventually became fixed in this position of its own accord and the binding was removed. You could always recognise a genuine elbow bound in later life because their left arm seemed to stick out at right angles from the middle of their chests, and the forearm reared up at a peculiar angle to the rest of the body (a little like a dog's hind leg viewed upside down).

I had managed to procure myself (with the aid of some dollars) a seat with embroided cushion, courtesy of the Chinese People's Railway Service. The comfort though was not much of an improvement to the regular seat which was wooden and after several hours became extremely painful on the arse. Yes, this was tourism 1950s style. The train chugged its slow but merry way along the increasingly dry plains of the northern reaches. From the window I could see the peasants, stripped to the waist and under wide brimmed straw hats. Bent like jo-jos under the intense sun, I could just about hear their happy-go-lucky work songs floating across the rice fields. I spent some hours jotting down the melody lines in my `New Age Traveller' music notebook. This will fetch me some easy bucks when I get back to civilisation I mused. I was struck by the timeless sales quality of the scene stretched out before me and the old Confucian saying came again to my mind Life is a bitch; then you die .

No one seems directly responsible for having invented tourism but evidence shows that it is a comparatively recent phenomenon in the descent of Man. Marco Polo was probably the first documented (self documented that is) tourist. China remembers well how he ripped off the recipe for noodles and gunpowder - what a cultural imperialist! Whatever educational benefits there might have been for the `Grand Tour' (type of finishing school for rich young Europeans in vogue since the mid 1800s) it is sure what the character of tourism will be for the 20th Century. Tourism produces absolutely nothing of substantial use to humanity and the tourists themselves are encouraged to do as little as possible except where the resources of people who can least afford it, buy lots of non-functional rubbish, eat a lot, drink a lot, and fuck a lot. Exercise is only encouraged so the tourist is in better shape to do more buying-eating-drinking-fucking. I looked forward to this depressing scenario with relish!

These comforting thoughts were still in my head when I finally stumbled out of the packed wagon at Xichang Central Station. On the platform I struck up a conversation with a a man. " Ni neng gei women chang ge Zhongguo ger ma? " which roughly translated means What about singing us one of those quaint traditional Chinese songs?

" Wo jintian youdianr bu shufu, bu neng changger ," he replied, which roughly translated means I can't today because I don't feel well which in Chinese is a polite metaphor for telling you to fuck off. A passerby overheard our spirited conversation and chimed in with " Shushang xiede han qingchu Neng zai tushuguan li chi dongxi ma? " which roughly translated means It is written in the book, can one eat in the library? I laughed aloud at the joke. What a charming little fellow I thought to myself, these slit-eyed rascals are all such fun! I called out for a few of the locals to carry my bags - might as well train them in doing something useful I decided - besides the sooner they get hip to the tourist industry the better for all the little bastards. I selected three of the more healthy looking natives and we set off in the direction of the exit sign. However, I failed to notice that one of the many layabouts hanging about the platform had tied my shoelaces together. So with much pomp and ceremony I fell flat on my face much to the hysterical laughter of the whole railway station. As I struggled to my feet, by chance a violinist was walking past and his violin case hit me full in the side of my head. Haplessly, down I went again!

O Grasshopper, remember old Chinese saying ":If someone offers you simple ball, kick it. If ball bounce back, kick it again. If ball keep bouncing back, put it in a bag and take to market and sell."

A rickshaw arrived and I was bundled into it. We duly arrived at the market and a sign was placed around my neck which said (roughly translated) Today's Special: cheap foreign rubbish but good for a laugh. Can use in chow mein or as dish water . I was somewhat annoyed about this description as no mention was made of my skill and abilities on the violin. This place clearly needed a cultural revolution. I sat there chained up next to the exotic monkey stall for the best part of four hours but nobody seemed to take any interest - even after my sell-by date had been stamped on my forehead. Life started to look a little tedious at the best. Then a young boy came up to me and asked if I could sing Waltzing Matilda .Well, I can tell you readers, observing my predicament, I gave it my best shot. I screwed up a bit on the chorus but it didn't seem to faze the youngster - he handed over 29.95 Yuan for me. I thought it was quite a good price considering the current going rate for the short-heaired mountain blue monkey whcih was a steal at Y39.95. This reminded me of one of Lao Tsze's sayings -
The bargain lis like the bending of a bow; that which is too high is lowered, that which is too low is raised up. Where there is excess it is lessened; where there is too little it is increased. The providence of heaven comes up with a bargain for all things that which is their due - even those who are not familiar with the ways of the bow.

My new (but as it turned out temporary) master dragged me off at a brisk pace down the tangle of side streets leading from the market. Forward motion was not so easy as he held me by a chain around my neck. But since the slack amounted to only a few inches and he was under half my height, I shuffled along with my body bent almost in half - a kind of undulating stoop. Not a pretty sight!

After some two hours of painful stooping we arrived at what I can only imagine was his local tea house. to my surprise he asked me if I would like a cup of tea. How civilised, I thought. Nin he nazhong cha? Yes, the choice was wide-ranging - jasmine, Yunnan tea, Longjing tea, Shuixian, Lapsung, Tieguanyin tea, Shoumei or Woolung tea. Being at heart totally bourgeois, I settled for Earl Grey.

I was just about to take my first sip of refreshing tea ("the individual tea that everybody drinks") when my new temporary master gave me playful kick in the shins, "sing Waltzing Matilda " he ordered in a benign kind of way. I realised then that my life was going to be a permanent hell if I had to choke up this number every time we went to a tea house. Then I saw a violin hanging on the wall and suggested to Master Chicken Feet (for indeed Fengzhao was his name) that I could do a few numbers for him and the clientele. It worked a treat and I soon had them rolling in the aisles as I did my versions of Madame Butterfly , Widow Twanky , Old Man Yellow River and The East is Red with full sound effects. As I played the waiter passed around the tables topping up everyone's teacup in the time honoured tradition - using a kettle with a thin spout and pouring with pinpoint accuracy from a distance of one and a half metres.

All was steaming along quite pleasantly when the town's air raid sirens started up and then, moments later, all hell broke loose. Explosions lit up the street outside and everyone in the teahouse dived under the bamboo tables. I was informed it was an attack by a revisionist 4th Column lyal to Chiang kai-shek. To keep the courage of the comrades up I picked up the violin again and started to improvise in the very unpredictable rhythmic phrases of each artillery burst. I tried to think of some calming words from THE GREAT IMPROVISER, what would he do in a situation like this?

O Grasshopper, there are two kinds of fried rice in the world, one who think that there are two kinds of fried rice and one who think there are not.

Or since it is Friday evening and you all in big rush to get away for the weekend, remember old saying used by man on door of Chinese temple at closing time - Zhiyao ni xihuan, wo shenme dou mai gei ni! which roughly translated means I'll buy anything from you if you'll get the hell out of here!

Or perhaps old Confucian saying said by last guard on Great Wall when looking at great nasty mongol hordes - run you bloody fool, run!


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