From 2003-2008, FACT operated as a bi-monthly print magazine. As part of our From The Archives feature, and to tie in with our 10th birthday celebrations, we’ve uploaded a cache of vintage articles from FACT’s ink-and-paper days. Below is Kek-w’s account of the Beijing rock scene, originally published in 2006.
Beijing’s punk explosion has irreversably changed China’s pop-cultural landscape, giving birth to an incredible and eclectic new underground network of artists, fanzines, promoters and record labels.
In 1998, at the height of its notoriety, the Scream club was Beijing’s answer to CBGBs or the 100 Club: a tiny, sweat-soaked incubator that spawned some of China’s best-known punk bands. Dave O’Dell, former bass player with Brain Failure, remembers the Haidan district with affection. “It was a nasty scene. You had whores in the karaoke restaurant next-door, junkies high on hash and opium in the alley and drunk punks fighting. It was fun, but it was eating itself alive. Eventually, Scream closed down. It was too rowdy. The whole neighbourhood got demolished: two square kilometres of squalid housing, drugs and undesirables. I don’t blame ’em,” he laughs. “The punks just moved on to other venues.”
The urban renewal programme that claimed Scream was part of an ambitious post-millennial plan to modernise Beijing and make it more palatable to tourists during the 2008 Olympic Games. If China was going to become an economic powerhouse then it needed to re-engage with the rest of the world, not just trading physical goods, but also e-commerce via the internet. These days, Google helps the Chinese government block politically sensitive web pages, but back in the ’90s the authorities were worried that increased exposure to western culture might reignite internal political dissent.
In 1989, the student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square adopted ‘Nothing To My Name’, a song by raspy-voiced rocker Cui Jian. After Tiananmen, ideologically unsound artists were blacklisted, restrictions were slapped on their live shows and the Ministry of Culture censored any music that threatened to cause social unrest. As such, popular ’90s groups lie Tang Dynasty played it safe, making politically neutral music that used dire US soft metal as its template.
Exposure to foreign rock music was mainly through bootlegs or Dakou (“saw-gash”) recordings. Western record companies destroy surplus, unsold stock by cutting across CDs with a saw, but only a few of the tracks are rendered unplayable, so wily entrepreneurs sell the damaged albums on to their Chinese counterparts. In the ’90s, saw-gash CDs bypassed normal Chinese customs checks because they were exported as ‘scrap’, but they found an enthusiastic audience among students at Beida, the University of Beijing.
As American mainstream rock embraced grunge, bands like Nirvana inspired a new generation of Asian youth, and China was no exception. Drummer Pete Liang Wei met Dave O’Dell, and American IT guru, at Beida in ’95 and the pair bonded over pirate punk tapes. The following year, Pete threw a Kurt Cobain memorial party at a new bar called Solutions and one of O’Dell’s artist friends asked local rocker Xie Tian Xiao to perform with his group. Xie invited a new band called Underbaby to play at what became the first punk rock show in Beijing. “The place was so packed,” recalls O’Dell. “But it was a small venue, so maybe 50 people that night, mostly foreigners from Beida. Underbaby was the first western-style punk band, whose roots were The Clash, Pistols and Ramones.
O’Dell started hanging with the Beijing punk contingent in a flat in Baihua hutong, where they fantasised that punk might kickstart a Chinese musical revolution in the same way it had in the west. Other gigs followed, featuring the fierce, hi-energy punk of Underbaby alongside a band called Catcher in the Rye, whose blend of angst-ridden existential lyrics and bubblegum power-pop earned them comparisons with The Cure.
Underbaby’s drummer Gao Yang met charismatic teenage singer Xiao Rong at a show called Punx Not Dead. Obsessed with Minor Threat and Fugazi, the pair teamed up to create Brain Failure, China’s first hardcore punk band, and Xiao’s trademark mohawk made him an instant underground icon. A decade on, he recalls: “I remember my parents asked why I did it. And I said I just wanna change. I wanna change the rules and I wanna fight in this world. I believe in rock’n’roll and everything else is just bullshit.
In the west, 30 years of commodification has reduced punk to a series of retro-ironic gestures, but the Chinese punk explosion was no stage-managed art school prank or hollow rebel posturing. Chinese bands sang in slang-heavy broken English to baffle government censors and played guerrila-style hit-and-run shows in tiny backstreet bars like Storm and the Busy Bee. Hard drugs were too expensive, but the shows were intense, riotous affairs fuelled by beer and hash. Despite Xiao’s fascination with straight-edged US hardcore, he had a propensity for getting completely wasted. O’Dell recalls: “One night after a show, he almost threw himself off the Great Wall of China in a drunken stupor.”
After ska was imported to Beijing by a student called Rusty, second generation punk groups like Reflector created a spring-heeled ska-punk hybrid that owed a debt to US ska-core group Operation Ivy. Other new bands, like 69 (featuring Pete Liang Wei on vocals), found inspiration in rowdy UK street punk and Oi! bands. Jingwen Records released ‘Wuliao Jundui’ (‘Bored Contingent’), a compilation CD that helped build an audience, but live favourites like Anarchy Jerks’ ‘Our Freedom of Speech Has Been Eaten by the Dogs’ had to be dropped.
The Scream Club was opened in April 1998 by Lu Bo, an artists who exhibited his work there. “This was quite common,” explain O’Dell. “But Lu Bo was close to Jingwen Records, so it was a natural progression to play music there. Other bars just didn’t have that ‘in the shitter’ locale. Scream got raided now and then, when fights broke out. Years earlier, the area was on a watch-list to stop dissidents doing spoken-word stuff in the bars.”
Scenting blood, foreign journalists and film crews quickly descended on the club, but the authorities had softened their policies during the Olympic Games bid, allowing the scene to gain a tentative foothold. Xiao Rong remembers Scream being packed with “Chinese students, foreigners and fucked up young kids… they get drunk, fight and sometimes get very badly beaten up. It was a good time, but sometimes it could be the most violent of places.”
All-girl band Hang on the Box played their debut gig at Scream. Drummer Jing Shen (AKA Shenggy) recalls: “It was small place, with the audience crowded round the band, but the atmosphere was charged. It filled up fast, because word spread that a group of girls were playing punk rock there. Nobody could believe it. People just stood with their mouths open, but soon everyone got into it and went crazy.” HOTB songs like ‘Arsehole, I’m Not Your Baby’ combined the playful day-glo bounce of X-Ray Spex with the spiky punk feminism of The Slits, gleefully breaking taboos and challenging traditional gender politics.
The golden age of Beijing punk was brief but incandescent. Ultimately, it was too small, disorganised and insular to spark a major social revolution. The authorities had correctly gambled that increased economic prosperity would dampen support for pro-democracy protests. However, punk irreversibly changed China’s pop-cultural landscape: it created an infrastructure of bars, fanzines, promoters and labels; resources that could be used by subsequent waves of underground artists. “Everyone had a DIY attitude,” recalls Shenggy. “It was very liberating.
Punk was a white-hot catalyst that propelled the Chinese underground into an exciting new epoch comparable to the UK/US post-punk explosion of ’79-’84. The Beijing scene blew open a floodgate of new ideas and sounds, unleashing no wave, free noise and industrial groups like Car Sick Cars, Mafeisan and Torturing Nurse, Shanghai’s answer to Throbbing Gristle.
Instead of drifting into self-parody, HOTB have enthusiastically embraced psychedelia and krautrock, replacing punk’s monochrome palette with a more colourful and expansive sound called ‘Future Rock’. This summer, they’re recording with Blixa Bargeld from notorious German metal bashers Einstürzende Neubauten. This willingness to experiment and grow is the true inheritance of Sino-punk’s revolutionary zeal. Says Shenggy: “The Scream days are a long time ago now. Punk was an entry point for us; it was the attitude that we drew our energy from, as much as the music. The sense that things could be different to how they were. Punk always promised a clean slate, a new order.”
Name-checking influences as wildly diverse as Sun Ra, Terry Riley, Neu! and This Heat, Shenggy also plays synth in a new group called WHITE, which she playfully describes as “cosmic industrial minimalism”. Chinese street culture is still in the first bloom of youth, restless and hungry for new experiences: it is energetic, open-minded and untainted by Euro-American corporate cynicism, eager to hybridise itself with a hundred years of alternative musical history. If Western rock continues its slide into middle-aged complacency, then the world is surely theirs for the taking.