Editor finds fame playing the blues in the Far East

By Daniel Durchholz, Special to the Light

I read a lot of books in the course of a year, and one of the benefits of being a journalist and an author myself is that I tend to meet a lot of my brothers and sisters who are in the word business, too. These days, it seems an awful lot of the books I’m reading are by friends and acquaintances of mine.

I’ve known Alan Paul’s work for years, though we’d never connected on a personal level until recently – on Facebook, of all places. As an editor at Guitar World magazine, Paul profiled many of the major rock stars of the day, quizzing them not just on instrumental technique – which is, after all, the magazine’s mission – but on deeper insights into music and life in general. 

It was a curious thing midway through the past decade when Paul more or less dropped out of sight – or at least my particular line of vision. What had happened was that he had moved to China with his wife and family; personal upheaval that has resulted in a new memoir, “Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing” (HarperCollins, 272 pages, $25.99).

Indeed, Paul had become a rock star himself halfway around the world – fronting a band with the unlikely name Woodie Alan, which Paul had formed with Woodie Wu, a blues-loving local with a Stevie Ray Vaughan tattoo.

Paul’s China sojourn began when his wife accepted – with his encouragement, and then trepidation – the position of Beijing bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. The couple uprooted their young family from their suburban New Jersey home and moved into the Riviera, a walled compound for expats.

If he’d wanted to, Paul, who was the “trailing spouse,” could have laid back, caring for his three children, yes, but with the aid of a Chinese domestic staff that was de rigeur for expats. Instead, in the parlance of his old job, he cranked his life up to 11 – learning as much of the language as he could, learning to drive in China, and leading his family through travel adventures well off the beaten path of average Western tourists.

Eventually, Paul began writing a blog about expat life for the Journal’s website. And he began playing music, something he’d done only as an amateur in America. A need for guitar and amplifier repair put him in the path of Wu, and their band was born. 

The rest of the book finds Woodie Alan – which also features a U.S. Treasury official on sax, plus a Chinese rhythm section – growing steadily in popularity as Paul tries to balance a life he couldn’t have imaged for himself in America with domestic challenges, work responsibilities (his column won a prestigious award), and thoughts of home, where his father had fallen ill. Just as the band is reaching the height of its popularity and finishing its debut CD, Paul’s wife is called home by the Journal to take on a new position.

Paul mentions his Jewish heritage a few times throughout the book, but usually just in passing. At one point, he’s looking for musicians to jam with and hears loud live music playing nearby, only to discover it’s coming from an expat Christian rock band. Later, his Chinese language teacher, who’d become a monk, shows Paul how to pray before a golden Buddha. “This graven idol worship stirred no guilt in my Jewish soul,” he writes.

“Big in China” is a fascinating read on a number of levels – as a travelogue, a ground-level view of China’s inexorable growth, and a story of a family making a huge cultural leap of faith. But mostly it’s a look at a man nearing middle age who was able to, in his words, “hit the reboot button on my life,” facing unlooked-for challenges with wholly unexpected results.