Friday, March 10, 2006


The person I've neglected to mention so far is a Beijing local I'll call Hunter Hai, the roadie/ merch guy. A little more than two years ago in late 2004 his band was possibly the first to chart the waters and do a thorough tour of China, playing about two dozen gigs in 19 cities over the course of a month. Jonas was the roadie then. In the two years since, big China tours are becoming more and more common by underground bands - and only underground bands, especially punk bands, who are more willing to roll into town at the last minute and whip off a gig.

Liu, guitarist/ vox for a punk band called the Banana Peels put it like this in Guilin a couple nights ago: "Rock in China is a really awkward right now. You have punk, metal, and Brit rock and they all do things different ways. Like metal and Brit rock bands, they're more worried about putting up a good image and getting famous. When they play shows, they have a lot of conditions and won't play if everything's not just so. That's why I like punk." And that's why the more commercial attitudes of those other genres keep them from touring, from being populist. This is what I always respect about punk rock. back to telling the story in order. In the morning MaD brought us to wander around the Yangtze River bank in Wuhan - which is actually three cities, Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang; we were in the Wuchang section - where a bunch of lao touze, or old fuckers, were milling around en plein air selling fake Viagra, trimming corns off each others feet, getting haircuts, and watching Chinese opera rigged with a red cloth and face paint. MaD took us to a musty dock warehouse full of second hand US clothes that come as donations from American homes to Hong Kong, Shenzhen, then here; it's where punk rockers buy vintage leather jackets and Doc Martins for cheap. Then the train to Changsha.

MaD's girlfriend, Wane, a shy little indie waif with pastel patches on her jeans, has joined us, and on the train she sat down across from me to ask Hunter Hai for advice on her college senior thesis: a history of American protest rock?! So Hunter starts in the 40s with Woodie Guthrie and then pulled out a small notepad and drew up an outline that took the tradition through the Vietnam era, then branching out into black music, the birth of punk, the women's movement, political rap, and so on - I interjected a few things along the way, coz you can't leave out Public Enemy. But mostly I watched and listened. Hunter had a much better grip on the pre-60s stuff than I do, but what's more interesting of course is how this fits into the picture of acceptable opinion and dissent in China. I asked Wane why she chose this topic, and she answered with a typical non-reason: "I'm studying journalism, and my teacher said I could do anything I want, and I'm interested in this."

"Why don't you right about Pangu?" I asked in a jokey tone.

She shrugged and didn't answer.

"But really, your teacher is okay with this?"

"Yeah, it's fine."

We were speaking in Chinese, and the car was fairly full, so I switched into English to ask Hunter what he thought, and he was a little more lucid. First he said, "You can write anything you want now, especially like this, if it's just for education. You can do research into anything. And this is just a college thesis, so it's not like many people will read it." I couldn't help pressing him on the obvious point - that it would be impossible to get away with writing an essay on post-Communist Revolution protest movements in China. He waffled on this for a couple minutes, and then did something I've seen very few Chinese ever do, ignore all notions of face and admit I was right. And for this he won my unlimited respect. "You know, it's true that there are some things where we can write about America but not China." And then, making me feel like a hardline journalist dick, he said, "But me, I don't really care about politics" and started reading the sports pages of a local newspaper - both him and MaD follow all the European leagues religiously, the weird thing being that MaD, who buries his nose in soccer pages daily, claims he has neither a favorite team nor players.

Now this kind of parallel universe agrumentation is just the kind of subtlety the Mandarins used to try suggesting new courses of action to the Emperor without getting buried alive or beheaded, and its popping up now in rock and the much bigger intellectual culture that surrounds it. A lot of people will tell you that rock critics in China are actually more important than any of the bands, and as assbackwards as this sounds, it is probably true - more on that later, maybe. Liu also said bands sing in English so the PSB won't know what their lyrics mean, and English in general seems an alternative universe where you can't (as easily) get caught for progressive ideas.

In case you were wondering, no one will complain if you get onto a train in China, take your shirt off, stand on top of a couple of seats and start yelling at everyone within range. Somewhere after Chibi, the land of rolling hills, escapades, and intrigues of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the train filled up with yokels and we had to stand. Another nuke plant rushed buy, as did a couple of ramshackle brick kilns, and the rice paddies were flooded here, though they had not been north of Wuhan.

Changsha - it was only about a 4 hour trip - reminded me a bit of Taichung, especially when the venue we rolled up to turned out to be a 10-story mall in the middle of the downtown commercial district. The bar, called 10 and a Half Floor, was a sort of glass skybox overlooking a movie theater, though fortunately the blinds were closed and it worked well as a club. The kids were all pretty well to do and had definitely dropped some coin on fashion - which paid off at the merch booth after the show as well, much to the band's relief. Wuhan and Beijing had been slow. Erik had an abbrasion on his forehead by now from probably smacking himself with the microphone the night before. And of course there was the short plug-in time - we rolled in at 8:30 with warmup bands starting just after 9pm. O well. After the set, Beggo came up to me and said, "Man, there were so many mistakes tonight."

"Yeah," I said, "But they loved it anyway."

Punk rock. It's all about the energy.


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