The NS Interview: Lang Lang

“China is much better, more open, but also rediscovering its roots”

Your name is now trademarked. Does it feel odd to turn your identity into a brand?
Not really, because you wouldn't be happy if someone was using your name for funny things. As a performing artist, your name is on posters, on television, in print. For me, it's important that I protect my name in certain ways.

You started playing the piano when you were two. Were you always ambitious?
Yes. I wanted to be a world-class musician. Music is not my hobby; it was part of my life from the very beginning. Once you have decided to do that, you have to work harder than people who play for fun. The amount of time you have to put in is tremendous.

You've been criticised for how demonstrative you are. Are you aware of how you play?
I kind of know, but I don't know exactly. I know how I shape the phrase, but once you are putting yourself into the music, you don't know what's going on. You just care about the sound.

You spend a lot of your time encouraging young people to play classical music. Why?
They are the future. Just like reading the great novels and Shakespeare, classical music, for me, has real emotion, and it's great when little kids get involved early in their life. It's almost like learning a language.

People talk about "the Lang Lang effect" - so many children in China are now learning the piano. What impact will that have?
It's a great thing, because the piano is a very international instrument and one that shows openness to the international world. Piano is an instrument where you don't need to speak a language - you just hear the music and start to respect the culture through the music.

How does it feel to have become an ambassador for China?
As musicians, we are not only representing our country; we are representing music as a culture. I would like to play more Chinese music to share with other cultures that have never heard classical Chinese music before. At the same time, most players in China are playing western classics so, in a way, as pianists, we are bridging cultures.

How has China changed in your lifetime?
It's a tremendous change. For me, it's getting much better. I feel that China now is much more open. China is trying to find not only the western way to have life experience, but also its own roots.

Do you think the country has neglected its own history?
Ten years ago, China was tearing down buildings to erect a lot of modern stuff. That wor­ries me, because what happens to the old culture and the traditions that China had for so many years? In the past five years, I see they restore the old buildings. In a way, we are rediscovering our own history. Which is a very important thing for every country; you need to have your own identity as well as being open
to the world.

How do you imagine China's future?
For me, as a musician, I'm focusing on helping the younger generation and also bringing better programmes to concert halls. There are already great concert halls in China, but they are not at an international level yet. I'm not talking about Beijing or Shanghai - the real challenge
is in the secondary cities. A secondary city in China is eight or nine million people.

Is your charitable work as important to you as performing?
It's important for us to help the society. If you are somebody whom people recognise, who is a public figure, that's something that will bring awareness. But charity is not only about whether you're a star; it's for everybody.

Is there a plan?
I will turn 30 next year. I will keep performing, but at the same time I would like to do more things on the education side. Maybe I'll reduce some concerts and have time to give some more masterclasses to students and to work for other charity organisations in countries where children are really suffering: to see them and to give time to them, to talk about life and to play music, and to bring some inspirational spirit to the children.

Did your talent ever feel like a burden?
I found there's a great deal of responsibility. You are very lucky to be liked by many people as a musician. I believe it is a real gift - but it's important for musicians to stay modest.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
Not really. There's some things you don't want to experience again, but you wouldn't forget about them.

Do you vote?
No, I don't.

Are we all doomed?
I really hope this will never happen to us. Let's work together to try to prevent it.

Defining Moments

1982 Born in Shenyang, China
1985 Begins piano lessons after hearing Liszt in a Tom and Jerry cartoon
2001 Sells out debuts at Carnegie Hall in New York and Royal Albert Hall in London
2007 Guest soloist at Nobel Prize ceremony
2008 Launches Lang Lang International Music Foundation with Unicef. Opens the Beijing Olympics to five billion viewers
2011 Performs at the Southbank Centre in London with 100 young British pianists

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

Getty/Julia Rampen
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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced found support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. Could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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