hearing punk rock in beijing

words jarret leong  |  images jarret leong & emma wind

I wanted to stop and admire the towering ceilings of the Beijing subway, bask in its industrial Soviet splendor, but I was busy steeling myself. In a minute, the train doors will open and people will stream out. You will have to fight. As expected, the train slid noisily into the station, people inside already crushed flat like the hor fun noodles I’d just had for lunch, and I had to escape before the next rush of passengers shoved me back in.

But I wasn’t worried. I had experience fighting crowds—at music festivals in large cities. However, the moment the doors hissed open, Beijingers came gushing out like a ten-foot swell, tossing me backward into another crowd. I came up for a breath and struggled upstream, but I was constantly pushed away. It dawned on me that I wasn’t fighting very well. The train was actually moving farther and farther away from me.

After I narrowly dodged a girl’s stiff arm, I abandoned proper disposition—the neat, composed way I kept my hands to myself, locked myself in a small, compact position, respected the rules of the urban commuter. I had to change tactics; this was the city equivalent of a mosh pit. So I threw my hands up in front of me, forearms facing the enemy, and I marched ahead.

I dodged the people I could avoid and shoved the people I couldn’t. I had to take extra care that I not lose my glasses as I battled three old men carrying plastic bags of clothing onto the train. The doors shut behind me with a hydraulic gasp and I took a look around. All the chaos in the station instantly evaporated when the train pulled away from the platform. The girl who had just moments earlier shoved me out of the way was now absently on her iPhone. I had already experienced my first Beijing mosh pit and I hadn’t even left the subway station.

I was coming from the highly organized and well-ordered Taiwanese city of Taipei, where I worked for Sony Music as a production assistant. In Taipei, I was introduced to a number of creative Taiwanese music acts, but I missed the grit and grime of Los Angeles noise rock. The closest I could get to it was flailing around to the latest Wavves hit in my tiny Taipei bedroom. When I came across a song by the Carsick Cars on YouTube, a Beijing post-punk band, I began to realize that I was looking in the wrong city in Asia.

In Taipei, the disdain for China cut into everything. I spent many evenings at the outdoor bar down the street from my eraser-pink apartment building, hanging out with local drunks. I was curious about Chinese-ness, about China, Taiwan, and how it all worked—or didn’t work—together. The owner, Ah Ben, had a motto: “No Drunk, No Life.” He told his customers what a totally messed up place China was. It was polluted. It was dirty. It was a cultural fucking wasteland. One regular, who got drunk and scowled at me for being American, contorted her nose at the mention of Da Lu Ren (大陸人), or mainland Chinese folks. She said they were uncouth and uncivilized. The more horrible these people insisted China was, the more sense China made to me. If there was punk in Asia, it wouldn’t come from the polite society of Taiwan—I had to go back to the dirty, polluted, culturally desolate mainland in search of it.

One evening in Taipei, when I was tired of having stilted conversations in my lousy Mandarin, I heard a couple speaking English down the bar from me. They introduced themselves as Annabelle and Tim, Australians back from a long train trip in Vietnam. We got to talking, and they said they were moving to Beijing. “That’s where the art is, mate. It’s like Paris in the twenties, blank slate. You’ve got to check it out.”

My interest was piqued. “Yeah, mate, come visit us, you’ll love it,” the girl said, and plans were formed. I went home and looked up some Beijing music history. English-language information regarding Chinese punk was sparse, but there was no doubt that an act called Underbaby (地下嬰兒) was widely noted to be the genre’s progenitor. I had hoped to find some explanation for the bizarre name, but neither alternative translations nor research turned up anything illuminating. From what I could gather, the band consisted of brothers Gao Wei and Gao Yang, who would practice outside their parents’ barbecue-duck restaurant.

Underbaby played their own brand of loud and fast punk. In 1996, an American study abroad student named David O’Dell helped organize a small Beijing rock show to commemorate Kurt Cobain’s death. People came expecting Nirvana covers, but Underbaby played their own way. O’Dell wrote, “It was original, it was in Chinese, it was raw and full of life.”  A scene soon emerged around them and they released their first song, Dou Yi Yang (都一樣) on Magicstone Records, an independent Taiwanese label. Not much remains of their work; my YouTube and Youku searches turned up only blurry monophonic recordings. Their fate was doomed when, shortly after they were signed, their label imploded due to conflict between their Chinese and Taiwanese branches. Even music couldn’t solve the larger rift between China and Taiwan.

My hostel was hidden behind a pair of heavy red doors, in a quiet courtyard of packed dirt. The amenities were basic, but the staff was friendly, and when I woke up late I was invited to join the hostel workers for a simple but satisfying lunch of egg, vegetable, and fish dishes set in the middle of the main table. They gave me an extra-large bowl of rice, assuming I had a bottomless American appetite.

I had an afternoon to kill, so I started off toward the Forbidden City and Mao’s Tomb. This was the weird part of Beijing: the ancient history of China smashed up against Communist buildings and infrastructure. Streets stretched ten lanes across, with empty concrete expanses surrounding the chairman’s tomb. These plazas were paved over ancient hutongs, which my cousin insisted has disturbed the ghosts who lived there. After a good hour or so of getting lost, I finally found the entrance to the Forbidden City. It was gray and faded, and the tour wasn’t great, so I headed back to the hostel in time for happy hour.

That evening, I set out to explore some local music with my friends from Ah Ben’s bar. Tim and Annabelle, a Chinese New Zealander, and a white Australian couple were veterans of the Sydney rock scene and had recently moved to Beijing. Tim had been hyping up what he called “donkey burgers,” so he wasted no time ushering me into his favorite donkey joint. We chatted over a pot of donkey stew and donkey burgers, which consisted of a couple slices of barbecued donkey between flaky sesame pastries dusted with spring onions. Goddamn they were good. The donkey meat had a tender, lamb-like texture without the gaminess I had expected. It’s said in a Mandarin phrase that the gods eat dragon and that man eats donkey. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought that this dish came out of some stoner’s deepest snack fantasies.

“Beijing is great, mate. We thought about moving to Berlin, but the Germans are too serious. You’d have to pop over to London every once in a while just to have a laugh.” He blew out a long breath of smoke. The two of them were in a constant cycle of either rolling or smoking loose tobacco cigarettes. “Plus the feed is much better here,” he said, gesturing to the meal before us. “Too bad the beer is such a bloody disaster.” For some reason the Chinese preferred their beer under three percent ABV, and at room temperature.

“You know when you think of Paris you automatically think, Monet, Picasso, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Satie, Debussy, and so forth? Beijing doesn’t have that pantheon of great artists quite yet, but we think that now is the time for Beijing, mate. Look at Ai Wei Wei and Cai Guo Qiang. That’s only the beginning. Fertile grounds here!”

“Beijing is a capital city. I was in a band in Sydney, way back,” Annabelle added, “and when you have a popular song you just wonder, ‘Would this be cool in London? In LA? In New York?’ Beijingers don’t worry about that. There is a confidence here that I find refreshing.” I asked about living in the constant smog and pollution. They both looked at each other and shrugged. “I guess we smoke so much we hardly notice,” Annabelle said, crumbling tobacco between her thumb and forefinger.

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We paid for our meal in An Ding Men and made our way to the Drum Tower district. Everywhere in An Ding Men and Yong He Gong were signs of a new DIY Beijing. Centuries-old hutongs were becoming new neighborhoods of vegan restaurants, fixed-gear boutiques, twee cafes, and dive bars.

Tim led us down a narrow flight of stairs to a bar with the word school spelled out in pink neon. Radiohead blared loudly on the speakers. “Mate, take a look at that,” he said, pointing to a weathered baseball bat hanging on the wall. “They use those for thrashing foreigners who don’t know how to behave,” Tim explained. “A few German guys recently came through acting like they owned the place so the bartenders beat the bloody shit out of them.” I Googled it later and School Bar was indeed unpopular among Westerners more accustomed to non-aggressive Asians. Some commenters called it a racist hellhole, while others praised it for not taking anyone’s shit.

We swung by a corner shop to pick up a couple of Chinese beers as we walked toward the Drum Tower district. After a few false turns (and a run-in with the smelliest public toilet that I’d ever stayed twenty feet away from), we found ourselves under the drum tower. Down the street was the MAO Livehouse (relation to the chairman undetermined), which had established itself as Beijing’s most famous venue. I was told that just one month earlier, Deathcab for Cutie had performed there. Tonight there was a battle of the bands in the genres of punk and metal, and there were Chinese versions of all the rock archetypes one finds in the States: guys in denim vests tied with band patches, sweaty metal-heads discussing the best way to keep their T-shirts from turning gray, guys in dark-rimmed glasses and flannel, pigtailed girls with heavy eyeliner and icy glares.

We entered the pit as the third band came on. The singer had his hair pushed up and was screaming in Mandarin. The crowd sucked forward toward the stage as the drums kicked in. Guitars wailed and the swell burst through the mosh pit. A skinny kid in a Mastodon shirt toppled over almost instantly. I reached down to rescue him, only to feel a dull pain in my arm that later bloomed into a big boot-shaped bruise. It felt good. It was raw and rude and unapologetic, on a continent where my travels had often been bizarre, but never impolite.

A guy helped me yank the kid up onto his feet. He leapt up on the stage and jumped over the crowd, pumping his fist. The look on his face seemed to say, “I live for this shit!” as he surfed away. The crowd was chanting the lyrics while I was just yelling because I didn’t know what they were saying, but it never really matters in those moments.

The Chinese punk that night was real and it was raw. The facedown crowd surfing was a little awkward, and the sound system was terrible, but none of that was important. I was struck by the realization that it was only natural for a culture as intense and unforgiving as Beijing’s to be home to China’s emerging punk scene.

I waded back to the edge of the pit. After some moshing, Tim and Annabelle motioned to me that they were ready to leave, so we headed out into the night for good. Angelenos got tacos, Berliners got currywurst, and Beijingers got barbeque lamb. We sat in a brightly lit restaurant with walls painted yellow like bulbs from the sun. A fat man appeared from the kitchen with three greasy paper bags. “Na!” he said, pushing the bags into our hands before retreating to his kitchen. We sat on a curb outside. I pulled my lamb shank out of the bag, just a big piece of bone with a fragrant hunk of meat hanging off it. Just taking it out of the bag felt like leaping into a Moroccan spice heap, spiced heavily enough with cumin and pepper to cut through the smells of the street. Tearing off shreds of the juicy flesh felt fantastically primitive. We wandered for a while longer, exploring the lake district at night.

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Looking up into the sky, Beijing’s infamous cloud of pollution had made an ominous return. It reminded me of home, where Santa Ana winds would whip up wildfires in the Santa Monica Mountains, the ashes turning the sky as red as the eye of Sauron. Beijing, foreign as it was, could feel exactly like my own Los Angeles. Tim rolled a cigarette and we sat there, enjoying the toxic sunrise.

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