Monday, October 13, 2008

Pangu Reprise

Drinking Tea with Nanchang Cops, or Espionage for Retards

I went back to China for a 10-day trip to pick up the trail of Pangu's legacy. In Beijing, the trail was mostly cold, and the stay too short to uncover a lot of genuine emotion beyond the fact that most kids don't really know who the band is anymore or know enough to not say anything. It seems the government's tactic of delete and censor has erased most memory of the band, at least in the pop consciousness. But in terms of a deeper memory, a realm of whispers that silently remembers jailed lawyers, displaced villagers, Tienanmen Square and other denied truths, the band is very much alive and imagined mainly as an earlier version of themselves, the one that was credible and raw, not the current status of extremists exiled for a highly unpopular cause. If they weren't remembered, we wouldn't have been "invited" to "drink tea" with the cops of Nanchang for an hour and 40 minutes.

But that was a mistake in judgment on our part too. Pangu is from Nanchang, a provincial city of 2 million a six-hour train ride southwest and inland from Shanghai. The city is famous as the site where the first shot of the Mao's Communist insurgency was fired, and then after Mao died, it became a minor industrial center for its state-run auto factory. Nanchang's central square still boasts a hulking stone monument to the "Aug. 1 Insurgency," a thick column topped by a stone CCP flag. The irony of the monument is just that of Mao's China; the symbol is supposed to soar but instead looks more likely to sink to the bottom of the ocean for its unwieldy weight. It was on the stone steps of this monument that Ao Bo used to sit with his rock 'n roll buddies and dream of destroying these symbols and what they stood for, namely the Communist Party's rule of China.

In August when I spoke to Ao Bo in Taiwan, he got excited about the possibility of our going to see his father, who lives in a miniature cop village next to a prison in New County (Xinjian Xian), across the Aug. 1 Bridge from Nanchang City. The idea came to him as a spark, then ignited in his mind. "If you went, that would be - wow! That would be something!" In emails since, however, he progressively began to dismiss the idea. He hadn't spoken with his father in a year, and convincing him would be a problem. Later, the day after our tea party, he called from Sweden, berating me, "Not just anyone can walk in there! If you wanted to talk to him, you should have set up a meeting outside."

But CC and LL, our local contacts, were also curious. They'd never seen the man, and Ao Bo is the type of figure that makes one wonder what could have caused a person to become like, as LL said, "always supporting some political position or other, but in that, you never got a sense of his own personal self."

So we went on a whim and a chance, and it just happened to be the last Sunday of the National Day holiday, and the community's guard was down. We found the senior Ao, a spitting resemblance, and he was willing to speak with us. What he expressed was a gruff prison-official-of-a-father's love for his intransigent and rebellious son. And we got it on tape.

At the end, we asked the senior Ao if he had pictures of Ao Bo as a boy. He said he might, but he'd have to rummage around. He'd be in touch with LL if he found anything. Then that night, he called LL, saying he'd found some artwork and notes, things we might want to take. We should meet him back at the cop village the next day at 4pm.

We arrived at 3pm, and within five seconds of stopping the car, a uniformed cop had us pegged. LL's ID was taken and we were instructed to drive back to the end of the block, where there was a precinct station. They took LL's car keys and then our passports and brought us in for questioning.

The first cop was egregiously smiley, laughing constantly in phony way and inviting us repeatedly to drink tea and smoke Jiangxi's local cigarettes. We took hot water. I excused myself to the bathroom and called a friend, telling him I was in a police station and would call back in a couple of hours if everything was ok.

The cop, Smiley, asked us our names, place of residence, occupations, and how I had come to speak Chinese so well. And what we were doing there. I told the half truth that I had met Ao Bo at a rock concert in Taiwan and kept in touch through email. When I told Ao Bo I'd be traveling through China, he'd asked me to pick up a few things from his father.

After a few minutes of this, a second, sterner uniformed cop came in, Bad Cop. He had a hard jaw, a louder, deeper voice and slicked back hair. He asked us the same questions, and we gave the same answers. He told us that Ao Bo was a serious matter. That's about as much as they ever told us about Ao Bo, though through opportune mentions of "Taiwan" and a few other things, it was obvious they knew a lot more.

Different cops kept shuffling in and out of the room, but whoever was asking the questions, they were always the same. We were offered more hot water and smokes. Some plain-clothed cops appeared and were introduced by Smiley as being from "our travel agency." The euphemism was so ridiculous I didn't even bother to ask what it meant. I guessed they were the National Security Bureau, though that may have been wrong. The next day, LL was to meet with National Security Bureau agents for questioning. So who the hell were these guys? They all had buzz cuts, wore slacks, dark gangster shirts and bad leather shoes. Two of them were young; they never spoke and unsubtly perked up their heads the couple of times we spoke English. The senior plain-clothes asked us the same questions as the others. We gave the same answers.

One thing they never asked though was why we'd been filming, and this worried us, and not just then, but all of that night as we rode an overnight train in hard sleeper berths to Guangzhou. During the interview a day before, Ao Bo's father had called me a "journalist," and at one point I'd told him I was making a documentary. This was potentially damning. My partner P, in China with the special pseudo-passport that China gives to Taiwanese citizens, was mulling the fact that China has imprisoned tens of thousands of Taiwanese accused of spying. I was even more worried for LL, who had a wife, kid and a government job to lose. As a Western national, the worst that could happen to myself was a few days of detention and expulsion from China. I kept telling myself, fuckit, these are cops, and played dumb, repeated the same story and tried to crack the odd joke.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, P heard one cop say that he wanted to bring in Old Ao. But another said, "No, they're not finished talking to him yet." The father was being questioned somewhere else at the same time, and I think he must have been putting up a smoke screen, possibly for himself, possibly for us, possibly for his son. I'll probably never be sure. But the cops did repeatedly say that Old Ao was "one of our own" and that they had to "take charge" of him and "protect" him.

About an hour into the tea party, we told the cops we had a train to catch, and we showed them the tickets to Guangzhou. They told us not to worry about it and offered to drive us to the train station in a police car. "In America, if you ride in a police car, it is only because you are a criminal," joked Smiley. "But in China, that's not necessarily the case."

Our excuse to get out of this was our wish to have a final dinner with our friend, LL. Also, we had no desire to give the cops even the faintest idea of how much camera equipment we were carrying by putting our luggage in one of their cruisers.

When we opted out of the royal escort, Bad Cop just shrugged and said fine. I got the feeling it would save him some trouble. Our passports were handed back, and LL got his ID and car keys. Smiley waved and said it wasn't a big deal and he hoped he hadn't inconvenienced us. I was about to get in the car, but after thinking about it for a sec, turned back to him and said, "Look, I want to ask you something. There's still one thing I don't understand, and that's why Ao Bo is so sensitive. I don't really know this guy, and now I'm wondering if I should call him up and tell him he's an asshole for sending me here and getting me in trouble with you people."

"No, no, no," said smiley. "It's just that...this is a sensitive area. There's a prison here, and outsiders never come in. You're outsiders. Of course we just had to find out who you were. Next time you're in Nanchang, feel free to come back."

As we drove out the gate of the cop-prison village, I assured LL we'd keep his name out of the film. Then in the back seat, P wrote on a piece of paper, "They may be listening." This was all a little surreal, so I did what anyone else who'd only ever seen movies about this kind of thing would do, I kind of smirked to myself and ran my fingers over the dash, around the rearview mirror, opened the glove compartment...

"Would you stop that!" said P from the back seat.

Dinner was grim. We barely ate, just drank beer instead. CC had just gotten off work and finally joined us. Thank god she'd missed it. She said she wasn't worried, even if the cops did come knocking. She'd been through that before and knew they couldn't touch her. LL also assured us he'd be fine, but I had no idea if he could possibly mean that.

On the train, P and I had a comically paranoid conversation, a long, drawn-out "What would Jason Bourne do?" bull session. I saw two alternatives. One, hide ourselves in a safe house in Shenzhen, have one person cross the border carrying nothing, and if he made it, call back to the other to give the all clear.

"Dude," said P, "That's how drug smugglers get caught." He was convinced they were setting us up, that they'd let us keep going to see what we'd do and who else we could implicate. "You don't know how the Communist Party works! This is the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom shit!"

The cops' conspicuously blind eye to our filming activities was the unnerving question that kept stabbing back at us. I bemusedly proposed an Occam's razor solution, "Look, since they have to write a report to save themselves from getting in trouble if anything happens later, maybe they are just happy enough to play along with our bullshit story because like most cops everywhere, they are lazy and just want a plausible answer that will save them from any extra work."

P was having none of that. Every other guy on the train had a buzz cut and bad leather shoes, and even though we had bought our tickets through a scalper and without showing any ID, he was lining up suspected shadows.

"Well, how about at the next stop I'll grab my backpack and hide in the bathroom, and we'll see if secret agent Larry does anything," I said.

At least that lightened things up.

"Yeah, what would Jason Bourne do?"

God! he was thinking it too!

In the end, P chose option two - get the hell out. We arrived at Guangzhou East Station around 8am, and he left me with the camera and tripod, took the tapes and bought a train ticket to Hong Kong. I was fine with this. He had the most to lose.

P made it through customs in Guangzhou before 8:30am, too early for whatever the hell it was we were scared of. We'd figured that since the cops let us go around 4:40pm the day before and still had someone to question today, they may not have filed any reports before getting off and we wouldn't be flagged yet. I now doubt we ever were flagged, or else the process was so slow we won't find out till next time.

I headed for a safe house in Shenzhen. Actually, it was a friends apartment I had keys to, but calling it a safe house was really feeding into my whole spy fantasy thing. Now that I look back on things, that whole 24 hours was like the Bourne Conspiracy for retards. It was like, 'Geez, I may be a national security threat for my little videography project, so I'll just hop a train to Shenzhen, switch SIM cards, then go check my email in Starbucks.'

Which is exactly what I did. When I called P that afternoon, he'd just gotten off a plane from Hong Kong and was back in Taipei. "Yeah, there was a little bit of a scare going through customs, but I think it was just a random check." He was fine. I also got an email from LL, who said the meeting with National Security had just been routine, and I hope it in fact was.

Perhaps a bit like Chai Ling, the student leader at Tienanmen Square, I had a lingering hope for a more brutal police display. She had so infamously anticipated - in fact almost awaited - the bloodshed of Tienanmen, saying it was the only way the Chinese people would learn of their government's oppressive nature. Unlike her, I graciously never got my wish. What I got instead was an afternoon of drinking tea with cops and a brick wall sealing out everything people knew about Pangu and would never say in public even if they knew it to be true.

This affected the Nanchang cops and Beijing's rockers alike. The old punks and metalheads I found in Beijing who clearly hated the band wouldn't express anything openly, even anonymously, i.e. with only a voice recording. Talking into a microphone to someone who didn't even know your name was still too public and potentially dangerous for most. My being a stranger and a foreigner I guess had a lot to do with that.

Getting to real feelings may take longer and require less direct questioning, maybe even a different identity. Two and a half years ago, a kid tried to stop me from buying a Pangu CD in a Wudaokou music shop, in no uncertain terms letting me know "Their music sucks!" "They betrayed their country!" "They sold out their country!" This time, the best I could get was some dorky metalhead trying to evade all my questions, but not so slyly saying, "My view on Pangu is consistent with that of the government." That and a Guangzhou music critic saying he thought they were conned by Chen Shui-bian and the DPP, that they were naive and didn't know the deal going in.

What surprised me though was the continuing belief in what Pangu was, an identity the band assumed in person around 1998 and was slowly disseminated throughout China over the next two or three years. I found a steady collection of rockers from Guilin to Shanxi to Xinjiang with a consistent story, namely that when they were 14 or 15 or 17, they suddenly found a band that was telling them the truth through rock and roll. "Before them, I listened to Cui Jian and Zhang Chu and He Yong, and I thought that was great. But then I heard Pangu and realized that everything they were saying was all wrong."

It was not just one kid that made such claims. It was several. And the stories were so often the same.

And it's that memory, of a band that suddenly meant something, which is Pangu's legacy in China. The egregiously political entity they have become since then, for worse in the eyes of most who still even remember them, seems not to be the important thing. It is the whispered legacy of some raw punks from Nanchang who screamed out "You won't let us rock!", who lampooned Cui Jian and the whole Beijing scene, and who intimated that kids had a right to want something better. That's what remains. And that's what's buried behind a wall of official silence, not forgotten, and waiting for its story to be retold.


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