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March 21, 2005

Bumpin' It in China


by Sascha Matuszak

It's 3 o'clock and the sun is shining down bright upon the scattered groups of people hanging about in front of the shopping complex. A huge banner over the front façade blows gently in the breeze – the number "8" fills the banner, and hundreds of tiny photos depicting various bands and their crews fill the 8.

People slowly file through the front gate – teenyboppers with pink hair, short skirts, and dangling chains; twentysomethings with sunglasses; thirtysomethings with wire rimmed glasses; and the older crowd with their families.

The first shot they see is a row of 8s – signifying the eighth birthday of the Little Bar – the underground Mecca of these parts. On the left is yet another yellow banner with markers dangling from strings inviting the guests to leave their mark. After the obligatory signature and doodle comes the photo gallery: 100+ visual representations of the hearts and souls of the kids that make up the underground music and art scene of this city. Long-haired and screaming, buzzed and tattooed, pierced and cool – all have their piece of the wall.

The next floor is given over totally to five women artists – three painters and two sculptors. The paintings show scarred and bruised female bodies, sweet huge-eyed princesses, and the caprice of a drop of rain. The sculptures are wild iron boats and stone monoliths…

The third and top floor is humming in anticipation of the night's events. Cameramen and girls mill about as the bands check the speakers, let blast, and light up smokes. The sun filters through tobacco and weed smoke, and two very young girls sell beer, T-shirts, and CDs.

It's the Underground festival of the year for Chengdu, set up and run by Tang Jie, Little Bar proprietor and godmother of all wannabe rockers in Sichuan Province.

"This is definitely underground," says Tai Ran, lead singer of Ashura, a prominent Chengdu band freshly signed to a Beijing label. "This concert has no official recognition, no permission, and no big sponsors – man, we came here on the bus."

Peasant Famous

The underground is popping in China, and it's not just the labels who are taking notice. Big-time foreign firms and the consulates that "represent" them are steadily tapping into the growing pool of musicians and DJs to promote their products and their culture.

The big liquor companies – Coors, Carlsberg, Chivas, Heineken, Absolut – are using any and every tool at their disposal to break into one of the biggest guzzling markets on the planet. Pretty peasant girls in tight skirts and shiny brand-name outfits patrol the KTV karaoke bars and clubs promoting Chivas and green tea and Carlsberg Chill. Skyy Vodka has an army of girls following the waitresses around. But these girls can only sell so much – now these companies and other giants like China Mobile, Sony, Siemens, etc., are creating traveling circus acts with their Chinese advertising partners and taking the west of the country – Lanzhou, Gansu province, Xian, Chongqing, and Kunming – by storm.

Chinese shoppers love a show. There isn't a shopping center in the country without a bumping disco beat permeating the atmosphere and a stage filled with oddball characters screaming into the mike to get the attention of the masses. MCs and models take the stage with stuffed animals and "the product" and strive to get the crowd involved. And a crowd will inevitably form – migrant workers staring dumbfounded, thieves plying their trade, students out for a jaunt, groups of amazed old grandmas…

What the companies have realized is that a band with skills helps. A band with a laowai (foreigner) is a gold mine.

Once, broke traveling foreigners took to the English classroom to keep their trip alive – now, random gigs promoting dumplings, whirlwind drinking/singing contests in a karaoke room, and modeling shoots for The People's Clothing Brand are the craze.

DJs are in hot demand – a minimum of experience with a turntable can get you a nice gig at a local club, complete with live sized photos, a juicy bio, free drinks, and a rat's-eye view of the Chinese club-based underworld.

A skilled DJ can get a sponsored gig through Carlsberg, for example, and travel the country for free, rocking clubs in Urumqi and getting paid for it. Promo packets and videos, CDs and autographs, pretty women giggling as you walk by … fame.

A relatively famous foreign-based performer such as DJ Krush can get a huge paycheck and a king's treatment. Magicians have stayed at the Marriot and been wined and dined by elites – all for the promotion of this or that company, this or that new plaza, housing development, bar, or restaurant … any business venture in China might be accompanied by a band or model show – with or without foreign intervention.

In Shanghai, the scene is developed enough to accommodate a whole strata of agents and promoters, managers, and headhunters. The Pegasus Club routinely brings in big underground hip-hop DJs from abroad and serves them up to an audience of rich white boys, rich overseas Chinese, and a core group of teenage rebels with all the right accessories.

The British consulate is known for promoting educational and cultural exchange. They brought Morcheeba to the campuses of Chongqing, and they routinely sponsor events (such as a wine tasting at an Irish pub) to ease the plight of the moon bears, the orphans, the environment, etc.

The Canadians are extremely serious about utilizing the underground swell to promote understanding. The Canadian-consulate-sponsored Mutek festival featured a long list of bands and DJs and visited every major city in China.

The Americans are, unfortunately, too busy flying secret stuff in and out and rotating their Marine detachments to bother with silly shows, and the Germans (according to the word on the Chinese street) are too busy ingratiating themselves with the host to do anything else at all.

Big Time

Tai Ran's definition of underground transcends borders – broke and illegal, down-to-earth and creative. The road toward "above-ground" is paved with the souls of the creative.

The same group of once-underground artists that helped create the Little Bar eight years ago now drives BMWs and Hummers around town. Their works are gobbled up by the Europeans, especially the French, and they take frequent trips to Beijing and Tibet: to the former to solidify their ties to the above-ground, and to the latter to reestablish ties to their roots. Tibet is cool; Beijing is necessary.

Things move so fast in China that underground punk music is already experiencing sellout trauma just a few short years after its inception. DJs play "business music" at the clubs for the masses, who haven't really caught on to hip-hop, trance, or even house yet.

Big-time comes quick for the underground band with soul and heart in this nation of merchants – a needy, thirsty populace has gone from demanding live DJs to demanding live VJs in less than five years. Arkaos is making a killing out here.

People here are already talking in terms of "hardcore" and "sellout," "real" and "wannabe."

The real hardcore cats disappear to Qinghai, Tibet, or more likely Dali in Yunnan province and set up filmmaking, music-making, and graphic-arts labs – smoking herbs and basking in the sun, reading ancient Chinese poetry and downloading the latest Deltron track. The Chengdu-Kunming path is littered with the hardcore labs, rubbing shoulders with armies of tourists and sellouts from Beijing. You can tell them by their uniforms – they wear hemp and sandals and drive muddy old Jeeps. The not-so-real roll into Lijiang (the Shangri-La of Yunnan) with the newest North Face gear and a shiny new Jeep.

The trick for these new underground rebels is moving from peasant famous to big-time without losing their souls in the process…

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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