Rockin’ the Stage

On a hot summer’s evening on March 1990 a large group of students gathered outside the Eastern Lake Hotel in Wuhan demanding to see their rock idol Cui Jian. The hotel had once been a regular haunt and secluded meeting place for some of China’s most famous Party luminaries. Now it had another star. As Cui Jian sat in his hotel room, exhausted after performing to a capacity crowd at the Hongshan Sports Stadium, the stifling heat suffocated the city.

Cui Jian was the defiant pin-up boy who exploits were acted out not in the Jade Emperor’s peach garden or among the denizens of a deep like the Monkey King, but at venues in Beijing and across the country. He was the guy who triggered off rock music in the mid eighties or at least launched rockets to propel the movement further.

Rock was an animal that didn’t exist at the time. The West had done it, or it had up to date done so in an orderly fashion since the 1950s. It was now time for China. Cui Jian’s ‘I Have Nothing’ came out in 1986 and the rest, as they say, was history. Bands started appearing like birds released from their cages, voices that had been locked up far too long and wanting to be free: China Power, Brother, White Angel, Fly, Toto, Da, Da, Da, Acupuncture, and 43 Baojia Street, the home of the Central Conservatory of Music. I don’t call them imitators; Chinese rockers delighted in subverting the genre and making their own.

Some rockers were professional musicians like the band 43 Baojia Street, transferring their skills to Western instruments. Cui Jian had played the trumpet since he was a kid and had also played with the Central Symphony Orchestra. Cui, I imagine was bored shitless just playing trumpet and like many of his music friends was ready for change.

A torrential downpour of popular music genres from the West rained down on China’s youth thanks to what today might seem like antiquated technology, the humble cassette tape. Foreign expats, tourists, businesspeople, Chinese returning home all played their part in getting the music to China. It was now up to cassette tape recorders and the airways to disseminate it.

In 1986 in the provincial city of Shenyang in northeast China, Lionel Richie was crooning ‘Hello’ through speakers in a park that was the burial grounds of a Manchu emperor and his empress. I have no idea how the park authorities got hold of a Lionel Richie tape, but a foreign student at Liaoning University had apparently met someone who worked at the park and had passed on a copy of the song. It was also at the same time that China’s economy was getting ready for a growing consumer market and record companies in Hong Kong and Taiwan saw the enormous potential for popular music, including rock that would return them profit and prestige.

Rock music has always worn the 'anti-badge', but no matter how we want to talk of rock music’s deviance—the bad boy or bad girl—it’s still part of what it projects to beat up or move away from. Rock music in China obviously created a space for alternative voices like anywhere, but live public performances of rock music have always been 'sensitive,' especially if you were someone like Cui Jian. One summer’s evening in a jazz bar in Beijing, the authorities decided to gag the rock icon: he could play the trumpet but not sing.

More than once I have found myself in a run-down warehouse in the capital listening to rock and grunge bands finely alchemizing the technique, the group precision. These are musicians who spend many hours a day honing their musical craft. They practice, they rehearse, knowing full well that there are little if any financial rewards. But that doesn't hold them back. There's a collective raw energy that binds them, a devotion not to persuade an audience and a larger community of spirits but to connect. Timothy Rice’s influential model of ‘how do people historically construct, socially maintain and individually create and experience music’ is equally valid here in these warehouses as any other music.

Many years ago I went to a punk rock concert in the capital with an American businessman who had an extensive vocabulary of Beijing’s foul language. The lead vocalist was the punk-rocker He Yong. Going around my head after the concert were words from his song ‘Garbage Dump’:

This world we live in is like a garbage dump

The people are like insects.

Everyone’s struggling and stealing

We eat our conscience

And shit ideology.

During the performance of the song I was watching all the other non-verbal phenomena going on stage and the interaction between the audience and the band. The audience helped shaped the song expressing their own opinions with shouts and applause, punctuated all the while by pulsating rhythms, electric guitar distortions and all the other bits and pieces suggested by the instruments.

It was pouring outside, the sound of rain lashing against a long line of parked cars. I was lucky to get a taxi. The driver was playing a CD of the Taiwanese pop star Teresa Teng. I was now light years away, musically, from what I had experienced that evening. I had moved across the popular music grid as effortlessly as Clark Kent darts into a phone booth and comes out as Superman.

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