Sunday, April 30, 2006

Indie-Pop vs. Wanna-Be Mainstream - The Gap is Closing

Every blue moon I stop in the Ximending Rose Records to check the listening stations, usually just for 10 or 15 minutes because there's always somethig enjoyable about how dumb the latest S.H.E./Machi/Jolin CD is. What surprised me a couple days ago was most of 12 CDs in the players - at least 7 or 8 - were local indie releases. I'm not sure if MC Hot Dog counts as indie anymore, but aside from him the lineup included recent CDs by Tizzy Bac, Natural Q (自然卷), Bear Babes, Rose Din, one folk/ethnic/aboriginal comp, something else that escapes me, and also the Aprils, a Japanese group distributed by Silent Agreement.

So what this basically means is a victory, and if not really for indie, then definitely for indie pop.

Tizzy Bac, Natural Q, and Bare Babes are all predominantly feature female vocalists, and while instrumentals have various influences, the singing is mostly in the pre-R&B Mando-pop starlet style - as in, the milky-tea love melodies of fake Taiwanese virgins? This has something that's never really happened in Taiwan's band scene before as a trend, but now I'm wondering whether the idea of indie pop really ever heralded a different direction? Anyway, now the ugly head is reared.

Ok, some quick reviews (all links have song previews):

Bear Babes I fast-forwarded through with few reasons to stop; they're a semi-competent rock band that at times manages to be cute in singing about how bored and dreamy their lives are. Some songs would make passable radio play, like maybe late night on UFO with Johnny talking over the music and doting on how cute it is.

Natural Q, "C'est la Vie 2" is the most polished, and at times it is not bad if you're in the mood for fluffy light Japanese-style bossa nova, but is even more cutesy than Bear Babes for the simple reason that they're better at it. The CD also has songs that might as well be commercial jingles and these will annoy the holy fuck out of even Stephanie Sun. This is a band, a duo actually, that has achieved reasonable notariety - for example, I heard the news that they "broke up" last month on a Beijing radio station while in a taxi. (I think they're actually just on haitus.) They site Cornelius as an influence, and while they try to make music as comfortable as his, they ignore the reasons why he is rough and jarring, i.e. that easy feeling has to come in relation to something. I'd rate this one: Listenable.

Tizzy Bac - While I've always loved Chris' singing and jazzy almost-ragtime electric piano, and while I also like the way the backup instrumentals are moving more into a driving, heavily rhythmic new wave kind of thing, I'm still waiting for them mesh. This is an interesting album, not bad in a lot of ways, but at times it sounds like two different kinds of music happening at the same time - indie rock + female pop (the vocal melodies here are much less dynamic than on the first album). So I dunno, maybe they should have recorded separately and made a mashup?

And finally, Rose Din, well they just kind of suck in the way that skinny long-haired rocker dudes with nothing else to distinguish themselves other than being skinny long-haired rocker dudes tend to suck. And on top of that they're also trying to be pop stars. But I don't think they're good enough to be May Day 2.

Ok, was there anything that should have led me to be optimistic here? No, of course not. But there is still plenty of marijuana in the Shida area, so music here still may have a future.

For the moment I'll stick with White Eyes (白目) as the best new band to make a showing at last month's Spring Scream. Don't know much about them, but the girl singer really goes nuts on stage, kinda like P.J. Harvey or Yeah Yeah Yeahs style, and the rocker dudes backing her up just step up and rock it like all they have to do is press play. Rock 'n roll power. Nuff respect!

Friday, April 28, 2006

Dongguan Swingers

Check out this article by blogger/journalist Shenzhen Zen (not sure how to navigate his archive, look for the header "Strange days indeed, mama"):

``Will you help me to practice my English?''

It's not an uncommon question for a foreigner in China to field from
strangers on trains, planes, buses, sidewalks, in stores and cafes. The urge for
Chinese men, women, children alike to learn better English, even randomly and at
inopportune moments, is strong.

In this case the question came from a topless middle-aged woman in the
midst of a mostly Chinese partner swapping party in Dongguan, Guangdong
province. To budding English language student's left, along a 20-foot mirrored
wall and on four large mattresses strewen with condom wrappers, tissues, clothes
and underwear about 20 others were engaged in a, well, the correct world is

And it just goes on from there, including a funny intro on his trying to get it published at a Hong Kong newspaper.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Midi Fest Pull Quotes

The Midi Festival, China's biggest annual rock, happens in Beijing next week from May 1-5. Here's a few quotes from fest organizer, Zhang Fan (張帆):

On why goverment rules and red tape limiting advertising and promotion don't present much of a setback:

"If we don't do any promotion, the day it opens, we'll still have 10,000 people show up."

On problems/ things he's had to explain - to the police:

"What I hate most is when there is a line of Public Security Bureau officers standing in front of the stage."

"...The police are afraid that if people stand up and drink some beer, something terrible will happen."

"...I explained to them that people who take ecstasy need more music than just a 45-minute rock set, otherwise they get uncomfortable."

[The festival provides its own security, and they wear t-shirts.]

On band selection:

"We never invite old rock bands because we want new energy."

"60-80% of the bands will be different from last year."

"A lot of the foreign bands are coming as a result of sponsorship and cooperation with foreign diplomatic offices."

On the 10,000+ expected attendees:

"Fifty percent of them aren't necessarily coming for the music. They're just coming to have fun, but that's also bringing them in."

On the festival's goals:

"Before you could never do a big outdoor festival. We're trying to let the government accept that rock 'n' roll is not dangerous."

What's the difference between Midi and Snow Mountain and other festivals?

"The biggest difference is that at the beginning we didn't have any money, while they had big sponsorships. But the [Midi School of Music] had equipment, so that was free, and we used the campus. So we didn't have any pressure. We could grow gradually."

On the Midi spirit:

"No cops, music, pogo, dye your hair, be yourself."

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Return of Rolling Stone China! Well, Kind of...

After the glorious debut and near-immediate dissappearance of Rolling Stone China in March, the magazine is back - but with a different name, Yin Xiang Shi Jie (音像世界), or Audio World, an already existant but foundering music magazine resurected as a shell for Rolling Stone. So reports Lawrence Li in the HK Standard. Gee, I'm betting the folks in San Francisco are really psyched about this branding/licensing fiasco.
The renamed magazine will continue re-publishing some Rolling Stones articles in
Chinese, blending them with original articles on homegrown music. [Editor in chief] Hao says there is no mandatory requirement on the ratio of translated and original articles.

Quick note about the author: Lawrence Li is a music critic in Shenzhen who runs a blog devoted to avant-garde music, noise, and sound art. His tastes are not exactly mainstream, and that comes out in his criticisms of the first issue.

Also worth considering: while Rolling Stone China got slammed with the Beijing censorship hammer, there are other major western magazine brands with presence in China: Men's Journal, I think, and several women's fashion magazines are on newstands everywhere. So it can be done, They're just not letting Rolling Stone do it.

Filipinos on the loose

There's a clear gulf here in understanding why this happens, and while migrant groups tend to push aside the issue of economic migration, I don't see the Council of Labor Affairs doing much to open any dialogue.

Why Taiwanese companies say their foreign workers ran away:

- instigation by other foreign workers
- imminent expiration of the employment contract.

Source: 2003 Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) survey of Taiwanese employers, as paraphrased in a recent statement by the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants

Why migrant workers say they ran away:

18% said they suffered abuse
39% found their work too hard
24% stated they were about to be repatriated
6% had finished their contracts
13% gave other reasons

Source: Catholic Hope Workers Center, from the same APMM statement

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Beijing Censors vs. Taiwan Street Food

They rub their greasy fascist hands over everything, nothing too small, xiao chi (小吃) included. This is an email conversation I've been having with the editor of an English-language mag published on the Mainland who asked me to write something about Taiwan street food....

hey friend gram,

can i get a taiwan street food article from you? i'd like to run it for JUNE issue (our food issue). and unfortunately, our censors will want to run it as "local" travel. ridiculous but that's the way it goes. what do you say?

let me know - thanks!
editor guy

email 2:
hi editor guy,

the article should be ok. what's the deadline on that? and do you pay extra
for photos?

as for running as "local" travel, i'd figured as much, though maybe you could ask them for a special label for HK/Macau/Taiwan, playing up the one country two systems thing. I know a lot of media in China and Taiwan differentiate these zones with hai3di4 (海地) vs. nei4di4 (内地). might be worth a try.

friend gram

email 3:
hi friend gram,

i've been bugging our censors about how to couch this and they insist Domestic travel
which is bullshit. we can't do the haidi neidi thing since it's all china baby ... according to the party that is

not sure what to do right now so can we stay in touch? yes, i pay extra for photos. i apologize for this but can we hold off? i'd still love to run it not into looking like an
idiot for running it as domestic travel.

be well,
editor guy

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Organ Harvesting Controversy

The US State Department rebutts Epoch Times claims of torture and murder; or A Hong Kong Coffee with the Falun Gong

Shortly after the Epoch Times called wolf on a medical prison for organ harvesting of Falun Gong practictioners - they essentially described as a concentration camp for some kind of final solution to the Falun Gong - an independent probe with links to the US State Department visited several of the sites described in Epoch Times reports and found no evidence to back up their claims.

After first reading of the hospital in the Epoch Times - their story was sourced from a former employee who defected - the claim seemed so astounding that I couldn't help post on it. Now I'm wondering ~~ and what's developed is a dispute between the Epoch Times and the US govt reports (here).

To be sure, Epoch Times does some of the best frontline reporting on human rights in China.... and the only thing that makes it suspect is their function as a propaganda unit for the Falun Gong. Is this one over the top?

In February I met with an editor and reporter from the Epoch Times in Hong Kong. We met at the Starbucks near the in-town airport check-in desk in Central and talked for close to an hour. Both were women, one a short-haired, attractive, and very proper woman in her late 30s and the other a bony, tomboy type with frizzy hair in her late 20s. They wouldn't agree to meet me at their office and would tell me very little about it, including the number of personnel. They described problems with landlords - changing lease agreements, pressuring them out, and other fishy harassment - and the natural insinuation was that the CCP's invisible hand was behind everything. (The story in Taiwan is quite different. Though I've never been to their office here in Taipei, the address is openly published. Doh! that makes perfect sense...)

Still, I can't help get they feeling they are wary of other outsiders, including the western media, people like me. They want us to pick up on their stories, but not ask too much about how and where they get them. While no one else in the world has bloody photos of massacres like Shanwei, they do. And their sources for these stories must be so delicate that extreme secrecy can be understood. But not absolute secrecy - because in the end that is only propaganda. And I think with something as big as this alleged organ harvesting in Shenyang, outside confirmation is the only thing that will make people believe it - and believe them. In a lot of ways, the Epoch Times' credibility is on the line with this one.

Over coffee, the two women mentioned reports about the Epoch Times they found unfair. They didn't mention precisely which reports or what they said, but they let on to a general suspicion of media. They did offer that they and all other staff were volunteers, and they did not mention numbers but said they were not large. Whatever their staff size, the paper is rapidly becoming one of the largest alternative news services in the world with a presence everywhere in the world you find ethnic Chinese and editions in 14 languages (at least online. Paper editions come out from the big HQ in New York, HK, Taipei and several other places). It is also truly an army of housewives; when I asked, they admitted as much.

Both women said they were Falun Gong practitioners, and when it came to China, they repeated a lot of the moral rhetoric you can read in their newspaper: "the evils of the Communist Cult will be punished by God at Judgment Day", etc. What they said was not as extreme as this but very similar to what you can read in their paper, so I won't describe it more. A big problem with the view is viewing the Chinese Communist Party as a static entity, as something that has not changed, this despite the enormous and extremely obvious changes that have happened - and benefitted the lives of hundreds of millions of people. This is something the Epoch Times refuses to weigh on its scales. Equally perplexing is where it's narrative of CCP collapse will lead: so, what happens after judgement day?

Okay, so is the Falun Gong a just some freaky cult? I had this discussion with a US diplomatic corps guy last weekend over beers. He was inclined to think they were, and this is reason enought to brush them off like sawdust off your shoes. Coz if you don't the sawdust will maybe even get in your socks. He was also inclined to believe that religion is basically useless and has no place in the future of humanity - in a way that reminded me quite a bit of the contemp. French novelist Michel Houllebecq. A few years ago at the wedding of an ABC girl and a mixed Chinese guy, the mother of the bride was a Falun Gonger and delivered a few words when the toasts came around. It was very banal, wishing for peace and love and world harmony, something like that. Later the mother of the groom, who'd studied philosophy and had a raspy smokers' voice, shot off some comments about not being able to stand "zealots." It's impossible for western liberals to accept simple-minded faith in anything, especially there are these secret society aspects hanging around. I pretty naturally find myself on this side of the fence, especially when it comes to establishing the truth of something like a concentration camp which would have major repercussions for world trade and the holding of the 2008 Olympics. But at the same time, if I find the Falun Gong a little strange - on the scale, maybe only a little more strange than the first time I saw a white guy doing Taichi in Washington Square Park (NYC) - I hardly find them threatening. They don't proselytize fanatically and they back a public mouthpiece that supports secular values like human rights and democracy. Maybe the bottom line is that they do some good and little bad. For that, I'm pretty inclined to look the other way when they do their dorky concentration exercises in the park.

But where the Epoch Times is full of shit is the 10 million "resignations" from the CCP it claims will coincide with Hu Jindao's visit to the US. ET has created a site where people can disclaim the Party, but when I asked the two women, they said that this is actually anonymous and in no way involves any official paper shuffling within China. No one is really dropping out of the CCP, and the Epoch Times is wrong for presenting this illusion. What they are instead offering is a hit counter for dissatisfaction with the government, an Internet phenomenon that extends far beyond them. They may be in the front lines with all their crazy hacking technology that breaks through the Great Firewall, but they should still admit as much.

While in China recently I did meet with one bona fide dissident. Around 50 years old, he's been on the government's list since the first campaigns to reign in political thought following economic liberalization in the late 1970s and was in jail as recently as a year and a half ago for essays he'd posted on the Internet. When I asked if he ever wrote for the Epoch Times, he shook his head and said, "Hardly ever. They're too Falun Gong. I usually write for some other sites." If even a lifelong democracy activist is put off by the Epoch Times whiffs the propaganda, is it any wonder that we're also suspicious?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Fishy Food Poisoning @ Formosa Plastics

The Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM) is charging that something is fishy about a recent rash of food poisoning cases that affected 31 workers at the Formosa Plastics Yunlin campus on April 13. The press statement seemed to imply that some of the poisoned workers were worker leaders - workers at this plant have held strikes three times since last July for various reasons - but wasn't completely clear on this point. After the first strike last July, several of the strike leaders were forcibly deported, and at least one, Gil Lebria, was beaten severely to scare the group into signing waivers that terminated their employment contracts with Formosa - this according to Lebria's story as reported in POTS. This case is still pending in Taiwanese courts. A local legal assocation is doing pro bono work for Lebria, whom I believe is now back in the Philippines.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Epoch Times claims Chinese concentration camp

The Epoch Times has done the earliest and most immediate reporting on a number of human rights cases in China, notably the massacre in Shanwei Village, Guangdong a couple months ago. The latest claim seems almost too increadible though: a north China concentration camp for Falun Gong practitioners. Epoch Times is deeply Falun Gong, and is committed to the belief that the Chinese government is "evil" - something that rings more true of the Mao era than today, but this is a difference they hardly recognize. If this concentration camp story is true, international outcry will be warranted. For now, this Reuters story on Boxun takes a look.

Final thoughts on RSC (RIP?)

Now whatever happens to Rolling Stone China will be a matter of practical finagling, and one thinks it might last. Men's Health and several women's fashion mags also have China editions, but those aren't as sexy to the media as rock 'n roll. Anyway, in case it dissappears, let me get my last thoughts on this out of the way.

From the local perspective, Duo Duo, a rock site webmaster in his early 20s who lives in a basement apartment in the Beijing's ghetto-hipster Haidian District, had two things to say: "I thought it was good," and "I didn't even read the Chinese articles." So for him it was all the translated stuff - the movie and CD reviews especially. I suppose I shouldn't forget that Chinese have a habit of ignoring/ disbelieving the news, though they do maintain faith in info from the
West. The weird effect here actually runs counter to the nationalistic ideas the government seems to be pushing. All the confabulated adoration of US 60s/70s rock and protest culture is just a substitute for two things: 1) the history Chinese rock doesn't have, and 2) the story it can't tell. Now - and this is different from even two or three years ago - Chinese rockers are really finding their roots in the West. Lots of bands in Beijing (Hang on the Box, SUBS, Ret-ros, etc.) are now singing in English, and this is new. And in the Wudaokou record shops, this leaves the playa haters saying, "They're not making music for us here. They're making it for the West, coz they want to be famous."

...also, when I asked about Cui Jian, last week the director of Beijing's major annual rock fest, the Midi Festival, said that in spite of his relative fame - I get the picture he's more famous with the foreign press than the average Chinese - he was still an outsider when it came to government culture and a political hot potato. In other words, he doesn't have good guanxi. "Whenever he does something, it's not necessarily easy." And that's probably why he was the first RSC cover: rock in China is still fighting for acceptability, so it's using the best hero it can muster. I can support this to a degree, but the problem is that once you strip yourself of your values, then it just becomes a power play and the direction of social change becomes an afterthought, which is pretty much how things seem right now.

Rolling Stone China gets the axe?

Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! This article in Boxun is reporting that Rolling Stone China may be cancelled after only one issue. The second issue would be due out right around now. The majro reason cited in the article is that the deal Rolling Stone China worked with a local partner - local partners are a necessity as no foreign entity can own media in China (see below posts on That's Beijing - 1 and 2) - didn't get the proper permission from government authorities, where the magazine is based.

The article says RSC's first issue circulation was 120,000 and selling well. Through various major media news outlets, it quote a Shanghai official saying that the magazine partnership never got proper permission from the Bureau of News and Publications (trans? 新闻出版局) and a news bureau official saying that the partnership is over. Again, this sounds exactly like the That's Beijing story....The Boxun article has more interesting commentary as well....but RSC editor Hao Fang says they're still preparing the next issue. My guess is it will probably come out - late. And this morass will drag on for a few more issues, and then we'll see....

...and I hope it continues, coz I got a few more things to say....