20080303-Punk band brain faulure has playe din the US.jpg
Punk band Brain Failure
While Beijing’s underground music scene is generally under the authorities — radar — hip-hop, indie rock and reggae groups perform regularly at nightclubs here — the producers representing broadcast media in China avoid musicians perceived as threatening. “There are pockets of freedom here,” said Wong Miao, 24, the director of Acupuncture Records, which doubles as a collective of D.J.’s. “Anyone can play what they want in clubs, and as long as you aren’t insulting the party, generally you’ll be left alone.” [Source: Jimmy Wang, New York Times, January 23, 2009]

Andrew Field, maker of the film “Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C.”, wrote: “For now, China remains in a tense state between the socialist idealism of old and a drive for wealth spurred by free-market reforms. These contradictions tear at the country’s social fabric, while simultaneously provoking and inspiring younger generations to greater artistic heights, especially in the realm of music. Field also said, “Given the brutal industrialization, destruction and reconstruction of China’s rapidly changing urban landscapes it is probably no surprise that Beijing musicians are heavily influenced by the no-wave sounds of New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They have nonetheless reconfigured this vocabulary to fit with Chinese opera’s traditional delight with textural experimentation and a centuries-long history of infatuation with shimmering melodic structures. With the sound of broken-down machines cranking out lovely pop songs, the unique sound emerging from China’s music underground aggressively questions the moral and social basis of the fragile modernity on which it subsists.

Bands that played regularly at Beijing’s School Live Bar in the 2010s, Jamie Fullerton wrote in Pitchfork, included “Casino Demon (described as "The Chinese Arctic Monkeys" by some), punks Demerit, icy synth-pop band Nova Heart (who enjoyed a breakout year in 2015 with their debut album) plus rockers the Bedstars and the Diders made early appearances, the latter pretty much becoming School’s house band. A ‘hall of fame’ of photos of acts playing there quickly spread across the walls, an appearance being a badge of honor for any Chinese band. [Source: Jamie Fullerton, Pitchfork, January 13, 2016]

Websites and Sources: 2009 Wall Street Journal article about Beijing Underground scene online.wsj.com ; ; 2009 New York Times article on Hip Hop nytimes.com Foreign Policy article on Underground bands foreignpolicy.com Chinese Pop Music Inter Asia Pop interasiapop.org; Sinomania, with old postings but still online sinomania.com ; Wikipedia article on C-Pop Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Cantopop Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Mandopop Wikipedia ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com

Underground Music Scene in Shanghai in 2010

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “The secret world of the old Shanghai bomb shelter seems to exist in a parallel universe. On the sun-splashed street above, migrant laborers slurp down rice and tofu lunches, while clusters of office workers in crisp white shirts walk past the small sign on the sidewalk. But in the dark recess behind a display of foreign-brand toilet seats, a young woman descends a staircase into a place she knows only as "0093." [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2010]

Passing through a pair of metal blast doors, the woman — 22-year-old Sheng Jiahui, who goes by the nickname "Sammy" — moves deep into dimly lit corridors. The bunker glows an unnatural shade of green. In its perpetual twilight, 0093 still evokes the deadening claustrophobia of war and communist revolution that snuffed out Shanghai's swinging heyday, when the mingling of East and West transformed the city into the Paris of the Orient.

A door cracks open, and a blast of electric guitar erupts into the corridor. Inside the small room, under a poster of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix posing as Uncle Sam, four young Shanghainese women’the other members of Sammy's punk rock band, Black Luna — are starting to jam. It is a serendipitous twist of history: The bunker, once the symbol of a wounded and cowering society, has become a breeding ground for Shanghai's music scene. The rehearsal rooms at 0093 — the moniker is a phonetic combination of its street name and number — have helped incubate more than a hundred local bands, reinvigorating a culture that now, as before, blurs the East-West divide.

Sammy sheds her jacket as the band lets loose. Orange, 20, pounds on the drums; Juice, 23, shreds chords at the speed of Shanghai's maglev train. Sammy sings, and her bangs flop up and down in double time. The daughter of a traditional Shanghainese opera singer, she is taking her family's musical talent in a new direction. "We are newborn birds, but we have big dreams," Sammy cries. "Let the whole world hear us sing."

When Sammy isn't underground playing punk rock, she's often perched in the 24th-floor apartment she shares with four other single women in a new tower downtown. Back in 1987, when she was born, her 28-story building would have dominated the skyline; now hundreds are taller. Looking out her bedroom window, she points past a jungle of green-sheathed high-rises under construction.

When Black Luna shot some promotional photos recently, the rockers put on flouncy cocktail dresses, with Sammy wearing a 1930s-style choker. "We wanted to capture the glamour of old Shanghai," she says. This wasn't nostalgia, though. It was a hip Shanghainese band plundering history for a cool new motif. In this city of constant renewal, the beat pounds so fast that the past can be turned into the future. The old can be made new again.

Beijing Avant-Garde Electronic Scene

In the late 2000s, Beijing had a small but active techno and rave scene. 2Kolegas, a bar inside a drive-in movie theater in eastern Beijing, and Sugar Jar, a Beijing music store, were ground zero for China’s avant-garde music scene. The former hosted a range of experimental and abstract electronica musicians. The latter sold recordings with titles like China; the Sonic Avant-Garde. Recordings deemed successful sell hundreds of copies. Artists make the little money they make playing at art galleries and making ambient music for real estate developers. Raves are have been held in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and other places. Many young people from Hong Kong head to Shenzhen for raves. Fruit Flavor Vitamin C is a popular techno-guitar band.

Techno artists active in Beijing include Wang Fan; Sulumi; Yan Jun; FM3, the inventors of the drone-producing Buddha Machine; 718 (the performer Sun Wei); the rock musician Dou Wei, who has a number of spacey recordings that use traditional Chinese instruments; Huanqing, a Sichian-based group that records traditional folk music in villages and manipulates it electronically; and Tortured Nurse, described by the New York Times as one of the “most extreme noise groups” in China.

Many of these artist have evolved on their own in isolation with relatively little influence from the West. Many find this very exciting. The critic and musician Yan Jun told the New York Times, “Chinese people don’t know the best music system. There are no rules. No teacher. I can use this, I can use that — that’s all interesting. In the West everything was created already. But here we don’t know that..” Among those who have given their approval to the Chinese electronic scene are British musician and producer Brian Eno and New York guitarist Elliot Sharp.Kenneth Field, a professor of electronic music in Beijing, told the New York Times, “Media is very centrally controlled at the top; at the bottom it seems to be a mirror of anarchy. There’s no innovation at the top, but at the bottom there’s a lot of informal freedoms.”

Jonathan Campbell wrote in China File: Many Chinese bands aspire to be recognized for their art, not as Made in China novelties. One of the few bands to escape this China Syndrome and be heard on its own terms is FM3, an ambient/electro duo made up of Beijing rock veteran Zhang Jian and Christiaan Virant, a long-time Beijing resident by way of his native Omaha, Nebraska. They are known best for the “anti-iPod” they created by repurposing a deck-of-cards-sized plastic transistor (the type East Asian monks use to tote around recordings of their mantras) and filling the brightly colored devices with analog loops of new age chants. Among the wide range of fans of the FM3 “Buddha Machine” is legendary British musician and producer Brian Eno. [Source: Jonathan Campbell, China File, November 1, 2013]

Lack of Underground Culture in China

On a lack of a true undergound the experimental musician and even organizer Yan Jun said, “The way society is organised today, there is no space for an underground. This space doesn’t exist, so you can’t go there. It doesn’t exist. So you could go behind those pipes, you could go to some space behind this wall, you could make a hole in the ground, but you’re not going to go anywhere new. There is no place prepared for you, there is no place prepared for the underground — like a basement where people say stay here and make art, or train an underground army. There is just another kind of maze. If we’re still addicted to this idea of the underground, we just participate in the same system. We give it a black flag but it’s just another side of the white flag. You can’t make your own flag here. The harder you push against the system the more you become a part of it, because this system is a paradox. [Source: Christen Cornell, Artspace China , August 27, 2011]

“Well, we always say the government has a way to control everything in China, but there is something that will get in the way of that control, like bureaucracy, or the grey areas of the system. You can’t fight with the law, but you can go through and around that. This is the system, the paradox of the system — it’s against itself. It’s the paradox of power in China. So today the system might tell you that you can’t do something, but tomorrow it might say — well, it’s not going to say “Yes you can do this now?, but it might just forget what it was you wanted to do in the first place. So there are still possibilities, but we don’t always use them. There is a big contract in China that goes from the surface to the inside. This is China — this is the system.

In this system everything is contradictory, so we don’t need to go and add a contradiction to it, like the idea of the “underground”. We don’t need to go and protest; protest will just become part of the system’s existing contradictions. What we have to do is deny it, negate it. We have to go and do our own things.

As for the alternative. The reason for a person’s life is to live, not to protest. And I don’t just mean artists here, I mean everybody — from business people to low level party members to people in positions of authority. Everybody. This is what we all need to do. Make our own life. When you go to protest, you just become a slave to the system. Real protest is one that doesn’t make you a slave to the system. You have to be stronger and more powerful than it. Real protest is attack, not revenge. Our underground rock generation spent too much time thinking about revenge. We were full of hatred. But I think we have to get to a time where we forget this hatred, and truly attack. Attack and revenge are two completely different things.

D-22 and Making Mars

Brain Failure poster
D-22 was one of the main underground clubs in Beijing in the 2000s. The Wall Street Journal called it “the center of new music in Beijing” and “home to the city's expanding counterculture.” Located in Wudaokou in Beijing. The club was run by Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University and blogger for the China Financial Markets.

Michael Pettis, a former investment banker, argued at the time that an authentic modern Chinese cultural voice from both a local and broader historical perspective had emerged in the 2000s. “Eight years ago many of my Tsinghua [University] students hadn't even heard of Nirvana, they were into syrupy pop like Celine Dion,” he told the Telegraph in 2009. “Even five years ago most hadn't heard of indie bands like P.K.14, but now at least 10pc-15pc know the band and have even heard the music.”

Maybe Mars was a record label linked with D-22. It was the youngest of the two leading Chinese independent music labels. It was started by musicians who had found a home at D-22, the rock club that was credited with giving crucial exposure and support to Beijing’s exploding music scene. In its first two years of existence, it had signed 24 folk, rock, experimental and noise musicians and bands, including most of the artists at the forefront of China’s music underground

Rock was also alive at a high-class club in Beijing called Yugong Yishan (named after the ancient Chinese fable, “The Foolish Man Moves a Mountain”). The club was housed in the former home of Manchurian General Duan Rui, in an historical part of the city that traditionally housed scholars and military men. Indeed, the lavish surroundings make the rock music feel a little tame. [Source: Alice Liu, Asia Times, October 14, 2009]

Describing the scene at D-22 in the late 2000s, Artspace China reported: "Sixty years of rock history are currently being mashed up in one thrillingly experimental moment. It’s almost like the entire canon of pop music has fallen out of the sky — punk, folk, reggae, rock, noise, rockabilly — and young Chinese musicians and their audiences are making of it what they will, taking a bit of Johnny Cash with a bit of Radiohead, Bjork and Joy Division and jamming it into something of their very own. The club space is long and narrow, with the bar on the right and the stage at the far end as you walk in. There is a balcony that runs from behind the stage right up to the front of the club. The walls of the club are painted a muddy red typical of old Beijing, and all along the balcony we have hung up the Matt Niederhauser posters of the best bands and musicians that have come out of the club.” [Source: Artspace China]

On big nights when the club is full — it can take about 300-350 people — the bands are surrounded by the audience, above, below, in front and around one side. That generally gets them pretty juiced up. In the audience we typically get a lot of repeat customers — mainly lost wild kids, musicians, and people involved in the music scene. I suspect that they like to come often because we never charge them for admission or drinks and it’s the only time and place in which they are treated like stars. Maybe because of that repeat crowd we sometimes get accused of being cliquish, but I am not sure that there’s much we can do about that, and it’s easy to become part of the clique — just show up often and talk to the musicians. Everyone is pretty friendly."

Underground Music Scene in China in the 2010s

D-22 closed down in 2010. After that the underground music scene in Beijing shifted to School Live Bar, a venue in Beijing’s Gulou area. Jamie Fullerton wrote in Pitchfork: “I first visited School in 2013 to watch four local bands, each more inebriated than the last, run through brilliantly ramshackle sets. Then someone plugged an iPod into the soundsystem and played back-to-back Libertines and Babyshambles songs until the final punter’s shoes were pried from the sap-sticky floor and trudged home.[Source: Jamie Fullerton, Pitchfork, January 13, 2016]

“School opened in April 2010, but the layers of gig posters on its walls and the build-up of dust-sodden trinkets that make its shelves bend, fool you into thinking it must have been there since China’s first heavy rock explosion in the 1980s. A little more than 150 people can cram into its two-story interior, and the place is near capacity during a mid-December visit to watch Wuhan-based math-rockers Chinese Football play a typically sweaty School compression session. As the band’s clever, clattering guitar stabs penetrate the room, local girls in ankle-length overcoats swig lager at the bar. With no physical barrier between band and crowd, a woman in a bucket hat shoves a Polaroid camera towards Chinese Football’s singer Xu Bo, shaking the resulting print as his guitar neck bobs by her forehead. Behind her, a stick-thin Western man wearing women’s jeans, stomach exposed and with waist-length Robert Plant hair, swirls rhythmically. “Shows like this take place most nights at School, overseen by the owners, cousins Liu Hao and Liu Fei. Beer in hand,

“After the 2010 closure of Beijing’s D22 venue, an underground music mecca considered the Chinese capital’s answer to CBGB’s, Fei and his friends needed somewhere new to drink. His answer was to open School as the headquarters for his rag-tag gang of friends on Wudaoying, which was still a peaceful area with just a few restaurants on it. They called themselves "Nianqingbang," which translates to "Gang of Youth," which they tweaked to "Gang of Gin" to reference a Babyshambles song. The venue didn’t have a stage and the group, variously 20-30 strong, drank there every night and fought over stereo control.

The place was funded by dubstep and house music DJ shows pulling in punters at weekends. "It felt like a friend’s basement hangout place, like when someone puts in a makeshift bar and a foosball table and you do a bunch of drugs when you’re 16," says Michael Marshall, a 27-year-old American who came to Beijing in 2010 and basically hasn’t left School since. He now helps out with promotion for the venue.

“The lack of a backstage area (and bathroom: customers use public squat toilets across the alley) has added to the feeling of inclusiveness and community. Marshall talks about an early 2015 show where he spotted the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei milling around at the bar alongside the veteran godfather of Chinese rock, Cui Jian. Seymour Stein showed up last October. Then there was the time Steve Mackay, the late saxophonist behind Iggy and the Stooges’ distinctively squalling sax sound on Fun House performed with the Shanghai band Round Eye. "This guy, who made one of the most iconic punk sounds of all time, was just hanging around chatting," says Marshall. "There’s no separation. It’s a village mentality that leads to amazing exchanges between local and foreign bands and fans."

Craziness in the Underground Music Scene in China in the 2010s

It is not clear whether School is still open or not and the comments posted in The Beijinger are far from complementary and make its sound like a place to avoid. In any case, Jamie Fullerton wrote in Pitchfork:““School’s reputation as an inclusive underground space slowly grew, but in 2012 it was under threat of derailment. Reacting to alleged incidents of violence at the bar, the US Embassy issued a warning about the venue, branding it unsafe for foreigners. The warning came about after School’s owners ended up in a street brawl with some Europeans they had befriended, with things turning sour when the latter group spouted extreme right-wing views. Fei, however, references an incident in which an American customer was beaten up by one of School’s bar staff after the former attempted to touch up the latter’s girlfriend. [Source: Jamie Fullerton, Pitchfork, January 13, 2016]

“Both admit that School’s staff hiring policy at the time may not have aided its reputation. "The selection process was, ‘My buddy just got out of jail and needs something to do, can we put him behind the bar?’," says Marshall. "Some of those guys would get really vicious and violent. As a joke I once bought the venue a wooden baseball bat but it ended up getting used to threaten people." "Fist fights happen everywhere, School was no exception," shrugs Fei. "A foreigner flirted with the girlfriend of a staffer who had been released from prison and had a hot temper, so he beat him up. We made friends with foreigners for years and it just so happened that this man was American. If he were Chinese it wouldn’t have had such an effect."

“In addition to shifting the bar staff demographic away from violent ex-convicts, a big factor in the rescue of School’s reputation was its transformation from sketchy dance club to gig venue in 2012. Fei fondly remembers the floor looking like it was covered with cement as customers’ vomit mixed with sawdust during its initial years, but he wanted change.

“As well as alcohol, nudity was a recurring theme during School’s first year as a gig venue. "The bikini party was particularly crazy," says Fei, who regularly performs at School singing in his hardcore band Dr Liu and the Human Centipede. "We made a pond on the roof full of girls in bikinis and guys in their underwear and all the bands played in swimsuits. It was like a bathhouse. We had our third anniversary show on my 30th birthday. My band wasn’t scheduled to play but we decided to perform impromptu — the people in the front row tore off my clothes and I played naked. All I can remember is being scolded by my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, on the way back home in my underpants and socks, still holding my other clothes. A classic School night."

Indie Rock and Punk Rock in China

“Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C.” made by Andrew Field. In 2007, Andrew Field undertook a personal journey through the indie rock scene in Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere in China, documenting that scene and capturing some of the top indie rock bands performing in the P.R.C. today. The film was finished in 2011.

Combining live concert and festival footage along with recorded music and interviews with select band members, rock club owners, record company owners and promoters, this film explores how Beijing is nurturing one of the hottest indie rock scenes on the planet. Bands profiled in the film include Lonely China Day, Joyside, SUBS, Carsick Cars, Hedgehog, Guai Li, PK-14, Brain Failure, Snapline, Re-TROS, and Flying Fruit. The film also features a special appearance by China's very own rock godfather, Cui Jian, the man who began China's rock revolution in the 1980s.

Since earning a PhD from Columbia University in 2001, Andrew Field has spent the past eight years teaching Chinese history. He taught at UNSW in Sydney Australia from 2002-2007, and he has also taught for several study abroad programs in the PRC, including Dartmouth College, CIEE, NYU, and CET. Andrew's first book, “Shanghai's Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954" was published in 2010. Andrew has also published several academic articles about nightlife and musical culture in contemporary urban China, including an article on the indie rock music scene in Beijing that he co-wrote in 2007-8 with Jeroen Groenewegen. He currently lives with his family in Shanghai.

Punk rock has a following among disenfranchised youth in Chinese cities but the punk scene is very small and largely underground. For a while, the Scream Club, a sort of CBGBs in Beijing, was ground zero for the punk scene. A member of one group that played there said the club is ‘small, dark, a little dirty, but cool...The Beijing punks are very enthusiastic and dedicated.” He said his group liked to get drunk and throw their microphones at audience. Many Chinese punk groups used to record on Uganda-based 89 Tiananmen Records. One punk band on that lable — 69 — did a speeded-up thrash-metal version of the Maoist standard “To Rebel Is Justified”, replacing the lyric "healthy bodies" with "empty heads."

One member of an all-girl teenage punk band told the Japan Times they spend most of their time hanging out at the flat of one of their boyfriends, listening to CDs, drawing on the walls, and smoking cigarettes. They sometimes played gigs the Scream Club until it closed down. Many Beijing punks are accused of being posers’ spiking their and hair wearing combats but have little idea of what rebellion is all about, attacking George Bush when they should be attacking Hu Jintao.

Punk Rock Groups in China

Underground groups that played in Beijing in the late 2000s included Lonely China Day, Joyside, SUBS, Guai Li, PK-14, Brain Failure, Snapline, Re-TROS, and Flying Fruit. At the time Snapline was one of Beijing’s most admired but most uncompromising young bands. Their music is dedicated to taking the sounds and ideas produced by the downtown Manhattan noise and minimalist movement of the 1970s and reinterpreting them in the context of contemporary Beijing, a city constantly being torn down and reconstructed in a maze of twisted steel, cranes, and huge holes in the ground, all manned by the dark and nearly-invisible army of migrant workers who flood into the city every day. Equally drawn to the dark, industrial music coming out of Manchester during the same period, the band performs strange, drum-machine-driven music over dark, minor chords. [Source: Andrew Field, maker of the film “Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C.”]

Punk and alternative artists in the early 2010s included AV Okubo, Hanggai and Hedgehog. Hedgehog was been called one of the cutest acts in China's indie rock scene. They are also one of the most progressive of their genre in terms of their experimentation with sound. They cultivated the cute, poppish sound in the mid 2000s but now “play with noise” and “maintain an ironic distance from their fans.” [Source: Shanghai Journal, Squarespace.com, May 1, 2011]

Describing their performance at the Strawberry Music Festival, Shanghai Journal reported: “Hedgehog stole the show with a 90 minute show that showcased their "hit" tunes as well as a lot of more experimental stuff. They had a solid fan base front and center, arms raised and dancing and singing to all their tunes. But I was also amazed at the size of their audience---there must have been several thousand people sitting on the hills around the stage, and they all stuck around for the entire show. So Hedgehog have definitely built a sizeable following in the past four years, which is nice to see. After the show a bunch of fans stuck around the fenced in periphery around the stage waiting for a photo and autograph opportunity with the band members. [Ibid]

The Beijing punk group Hang on the Box was led by singer Wange Yue, who has been described a Chinese Siouxsie Sioux. The group itself was described the Japan Time described as having “the energy of X-Ray Spex with faster and better tunes.” The Hang n the Box’s debut album was called Yellow Banana. One song on it called Kill Your Belly goes: “Kill your belly/ Kill my belly/ Kiss your belly/Kiss my belly/ Keep your belly/ Keep my belly/ F**k you, I don’t need you! O Oo Oooooo.” Hang the Box have said they earn maybe $10 or $20 to do a gig. The all have day jobs and sometimes need to call their parents to get taxi money for a ride home after the gig.

Punk and Rebellion in China

Punk is arguably the most tolerated form of expression in China. Groups sing about “No future,” “Revolution in Your Life” and “never forget the message from Orwell” and criticize the ruling elite by attacking Zhongnanhai cigarettes which has the same name of the place where the ruling elite lives. A fan at a Shanghai club told the New York Times, “What’s produced here is all about “You don’t love me? or “I don’t love you.” It’s lousy, and without layers.”

One Chinese punk rock song goes:

“Red flag in this sky, but it means nothing,
Red flag doesn’t need a star,
Like freedom doesn’t need a flag
So many [damn] rules, but I don’t care
Let’s burn this flag,
Now it’s the time”

The lead singer of P.K, 14, a group with a sizable following, told the Washington Post: “The government told people you should live for money, a house, a car, a bigger house. So more people get rich and more get poor. It’s a bad situation. Some foreigners say China has a bright future, but I say there’s no future...I try yo sing about this, express this in our music. I am not a fighter, a protester, a politician. Music is what I do, I can only do that.”

Punk rockers say what they think and get a way with it, perhaps because the government feels they have little chance of winning many converts. Their numbers are so small and most Chinese find them distasteful anyway, so perhaps the government feels they give rebellion a bad name

Many punk rockers are not that interested in politics anyway. The singer in one group told the Washington Post, “We used to have a song about police injustice, called “The Soul of Chinese Cops”. But we’re not politicians, or the president. We can’t change the system.” Cui Jian told the Washington Post, “Chinese punks want to show they’re angry. That’s enough. They don’t have to make a big statement. The most important thing is don’t lose yourself.”

In mosh pit of the Beijing club D-22 fans dive from the stage and shower performers with cigarettes.

P.K. 14

Andrew Field, maker of the film “Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C.” wrote: “Ask any of the younger bands about their influences and it is pretty obvious that P.K.14 has had the biggest impact of any local band on the growing Beijing scene. However, their artistic intensity and the care with which they write their songs do not keep them from completely rocking out, and their shows in China and abroad regularly receive critical acclaim. Often referred to as China’s best underground band, P.K.14, more than any other band, set the stage for the Beijing musical explosion. According to The Guardian: “Carsick Cars and P.K. 14 represent two of China's most visceral new acts.” Time magazine said the group was one of Asia's Best Bands and one of 5 Asian Acts to Watch in 2008.[Source: Andrew Field, maker of the film “Notes from the Chinese Underground: Indie Rock in the P.R.C.”]

PK14 has been performing since 1997. Their sound has been compared to the US southern rock band Kings of Leon. The group’s singer Haisong told the Asian Times, “Our pressure has nothing to do with Cui Jian's. The stars of the Moyan [rock label] and the [heavy metal band] Tang Dynasty really used politics as a weapon in that age. But it's different now. Three out of the four of us have regular jobs, and after you're used to it, it becomes comfortable,” Haisong said.[Source: Alice Liu, Asia Times, October 14, 2009]

Haisong is surprisingly soft-spoken when he does interviews. He told the Telegraph that “True individualism” was behind his decision to quit the engineering degree that back in the early 1990s guaranteed him a job, so he could learn to play guitar and go on to form P.K.14. He said, “The youth culture in China was never mainstream, you can't even say it's a counter-culture, in fact we have no youth culture, because everyone is subject to the media and external influences they do not have their own point of view...For us when we were kids, music was like a religion, it took us to a new place, to a new world of opportunity, a different lifestyle. We had no hope of becoming rock stars, we played because we loved to play. Now there's a TV show to make you a rock star. Haisong describes his relationship with the government with relative detachment. “We haven't been suppressed by the government, and we don't really understand what they are doing. And because it has not yet happened, I'm not really scared,” he said.

Describing a P.K. 14 concert in 2008, Peter Foster wrote in The Telegraph,”It could have been any other night on China's burgeoning underground rock scene, a group of close-packed, sweaty Chinese kids pogo-ing deliriously in a dark club to the sounds of post-punk rock served up Chinese-style. On stage Yang Haisong, lead singer of P.K.14 is half-eating a microphone, wailing out the trademark, strangled vocals that have made his band one of the icons of China's burgeoning alternative music movement. “The sound may be a bit retro for Western ears — you could describe it as The Clash meets The Cure — but it is also, say marketing analysts, the way to the heart of a new brand of young Chinese consumers that many Western brands are looking to for their next big growth opportunity.” However, the audience that night in 2008 in Nanjing, on P.K.14's “Love Noise” tour was different in one crucial respect from those that fill the music clubs of Beijing — they had won their tickets through a brand promotion scheme for Converse shoes.” [Source: Peter Foster, The Telegraph, November 20, 2009]

Cobra, China's First All-Woman Rock Band

20080303-cobra Chines rock n roll.jpg

Cobra is five-member all-woman alternative Chinese rock band, with a saxophone player and a lead guitarist and singer named Xiang Nan, who shrieks out lyrics like: "Escape right now into the storm, and don't fear the loneliness/ Cause the old lies will soon be the truth."

Not surprisingly, Cobra gets little air play on China's state-controlled radio and television. In the provinces they play in sports stadiums; in Beijing, they are confined to playing primarily in cramped clubs and coffeehouses that can squeeze in only a few dozen people. To get their first CD “Hypocrisy” released they had to take out a song about the Cultural Revolution called “1966" (the year the Cultural Revolution began).

Cobra was formed in 1989 by four friends (the saxophone player was added later). By the mid 1990s they were in their thirties and single, and earned enough money from their music to quit their day jobs. The question they are most frequently asked by the Chinese press is "Do you have husbands?"

In 1996, Cobra played before a packed house at CBGB's, the grungy New York punk club where groups such as the Ramones and Talking Heads launched their careers. Nam appeared at the show sporting huge pigtails and a shirt printed with images of Mao. Cobra has also toured the United States, Germany and Hong Kong.

In 1997, Malcolm McLaren, the promoter of the Sex Pistols, was promoting an all-woman band of Chinese-extraction called Jungk. All five members were models skilled in Kung Fu.

Pig Cage Uses a Real Pig as Vocalist

Pig Cage, a grindcore band from Inner Mongolia, uses pig sounds instead of human vocals. The band’s creator, Maihem, says he didn’t like the sound of his own voice, so he decided to use a pig instead. Lauren James wrote in the South China Morning Post: Squeals and grunts are part of every metal band’s musical lexicon, and now one act from China is hogging the limelight with a novel approach. Meaty blast beats, muddy breakdowns and oinking vocals are elements that are not exactly unusual to grindcore — an extreme branch of the metal genre — but there’s a twist in the tail: this particular band is fronted by a pig. The name? Pig Cage. [Source:Lauren James, South China Morning Post, January 30, 2019]

“The man behind Pig Cage is a graphic designer and musician, known only as Maihem (which he pronounces “ma-heem”), who expresses his disgruntlement with the Chinese government by sampling a splenetic swine on his album “Screaming Pig in China”. Pig Cage’s “lyrics” may be indistinguishable, but the sentiment is clear: Maihem has an abattoir’s worth of axes to grind. “I hate the government but I love my country,” he says, over the phone. “I use metaphors in my music to express my ideas about wanting to change the government through presenting two opposite sides: sometimes I am the butcher, but sometimes I am also the victim.” He continues: “There is lots of unfairness and adversity in China … Most of time I feel disappointed about myself and life; I would rather be a pig.”

“Released in 2018, Pig Cage’s full-length debut hams it up with a rollicking maelstrom of porcine fury, executed with a sense of humour characteristic of grindcore groups, which typically choose graphic and provocative names, song titles and lyrics. (Infant Annihilator and Prostitute Disfigurement are among the printable ones). With bona fide bangers such as Pornographic Legend, Psychotic Lover and Dissection (Sepsism), the nine tracks on “Screaming Pig in China” stay true to the genre, using sex, gore and black humour to lance social and political concerns.

“Like other bands fronted by non-humans, such as Hatebeak, which features a parrot on the mic, and the New York band Caninus, which features duelling dog barks, Pig Cage proves its chops, combining brutal gutturals with a relentless guitar grind. The album’s second track, Syringe of Meat, whips distorted revving with a hog’s agitated howls; Paranoid Personality Disorder has a distinct rhythmic bounce; the six-second Chinese Band is sudden frenzy of sound ending with a burst of flatulence, echoing grindcore’s British forefathers, Napalm Death, and their highly influential, yet comically brief album “Scum”.

“Maihem hails from Hailar, a city in Inner Mongolia, a large region of northern China known for its mining industry, arid grasslands and hard core winters. With the region’s rich reserves of beryllium, zirconium and niobium, metal literally forms the bedrock of life on the steppe. Around 10 years ago, Maihem, a long-time lover of heavy metal music, began producing his own black metal tracks, but found his work wasn’t connecting with fans. He figured a lack of context was the problem. “Black metal focuses on religious stuff, which is lost on a lot of Chinese people, as they don’t have religion to understand the themes,” he explains.

Image Sources: Fan, artist and Chinese rock websites and blogs

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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