Another Week of Rock, Art, and Beauty in Beijing

It was another whirlwind week in the dusty capital, folks. Here are some of the highlights.

Sat Nov 3 tour of Xiangshan

The Dartmites and I awoke at 6 am for a trip to see the turning leaves at “fragrant mountain” or xiangshan. Normally it’s just a half hour outside of the city, but since everyone in Beijing goes there during this weekend, we decided to get up extra early to beat the rush. We were slated to leave the campus at 7 am. This was Zhu Laoshi’s idea and it worked. The crowds were modest when we arrived at the base of the hills around 9 or so, after walking a half hour from the parking lot where our bus had parked. At that point we split up into two groups. The real Dartmouth students hiked up the hill with me, while the pretenders stayed at ground level. We were rewarded with great views not only of the hills (some of which showed splashes of red, though not as much as I’d imagined) but also the great city of Beijing stretched across the plain, shrouded in a thick haze of smog. By the time we reached the peak, the crowds were thicker. Most of the leaf-watchers had taken the gondola up to the peak. We decided to take the same shortcut back down. On our way back to the bus, we saw thousands upon thousands of people swarming in on bus, car, or foot. Glad we missed the rush. The drive back wasn’t too bad either, though we were stuck in the roundabout for a while before the traffic freed up.

Tues Nov 6 Interview with Michael Pettis

On Tues eve I met with D22 club owner and PKU econ prof Michael Pettis for a filmed interview. Over a half hour, Pettis expressed his great enthusiasm for the Beijing indie rock scene and the role that D22 is playing in nurturing that scene. D22 is a music club and bar located near the Wudaokou area in north Beijing. Its location in the student district was a deliberate ploy to get the top uni students in China rocking to the new sounds of Chinese indie music. A Columbia graduate, Pettis had been involved in the music scene in early ‘80s New York, and had helped set up a club in the East Village. He also spent several years working on Wall Street. After visiting Beijing in 2001, he decided to transfer his assets and his considerable knowledge of indie music to the rock capital of China. D22 is a small club dedicated to incubating great Chinese bands. It doesn’t make a lot of money, but it has succeeded in helping several new bands to consolidate their status in the city’s music scene. Some of the favorites of the club are Joyside, PK14, Snapline, Hedgehog, Carsick Cars, and Guai Li. Pettis recently started a new record label, Maybe Mars, run by PK14’s lead singer Yang Haisong. More on these bands in the next section.

Wed Nov 7 a visit to 798 and interviews with Tamsin and Ed, Lao Yang, and Hedgehog

On Wed morning I headed over to the 798 Arts District in Dashanzi to film an interview with Tamsin and Ed the co-owners of RedT, a company that is also helping the indie music scene in Beijing to grow. Tamsin runs a gallery of the same name, and her partner Ed focuses on the music side of the company. Art and music are intertwined in every modern metropolis, and Beijing is no exception. Tamsin also wrote an undergraduate thesis on the punk scene in early 2000s Beijing, so she is no stranger to indie rock in China. After discussing the development of the scene with Tamsin and Ed, I headed over to the Sugar Jar, an indie music shop in the middle of 798, for an interview with Lao Yang, the owner of the shop. Lao Yang is an expert on all forms of indie music in China and knows just about everybody in the scene. He gave a great overview of both the indie music industry and the motivations behind the music. I’ll save the insights for my film!

That evening I headed over to the Wangfujing district to meet with the members of the band Hedgehog. They practice in a tiny space located in the back of an underground garage, and had invited me to come over at 7:30 for an interview. Fortunately I bumped into Bo Xuan, the bassist, as I reached the building, or I never would have found them. The other two members are Zi Jian, lead singer and guitarist, and Atom, drummer and backing vocals. Everyone who sees this band raves about Atom, a tiny waif of a girl with a dutchboy haircut, who just wails on those drums. But Zi Jian is the driving creative force behind the band’s music. Again, I’ll save their insights on the scene for the film, but suffice it to say that they were all quite articulate about their music and about the Beijing scene in general.

Fri Nov 9 PK14 @ Mao Livehouse

I’d heard good things about PK14 and had their latest album, but I hadn’t listened to it in earnest. On Wed while visiting Lao Yang I picked up their 2004 album. It has some hooky tunes. I’ve listened to it a few times since then. This is one of the “happening” bands in Beijing now and I just had to go see their act. They were the only band playing at the Mao that night. The audience was sizeable. The Mao Livehouse is divided into a bar and a music hall separated by a thick wall. Everyone was packed into the hall to catch the band. It’s been described as “industrial rock”. The band hails from Nanjing. The lead singer Yang Haisong has a geeky appearance that reminded me of Chen Xi (leading to an embarrassing moment that I will describe later in this blog), though he’s thicker set. He has a short cropped haircut and a pair of thick black-rimmed glasses. The bassist is a mean looking dude—tall and thin, high cheekbones and a sallow face, with long stringy hair and a lot of energy. The lead guitarist is a plumpish guy with a crewcut. The drummer is a white guy—a rarity amongst the Chinese indie scene. I will get to know the band better when I interview them later this month. As for the music, how can one describe it? Just see my film or buy their albums! Speaking of which, during the concert I also picked up a DVD of a doco film made by a guy named David Harris, covering a tour of China that PK14 did in the fall of 2004. I have yet to watch it.

Sat Nov 10 tour of Summer Palace (yi he yuan)

This time I gave the Dartmites a chance to catch up on their sleep.  We left at 1 pm for a tour of the Summer Palace, where Qing emperors once enjoyed a spot of leisure.  The willows lining Kunming Lake were all a fine shade of yellow.  We strolled down to the 17-arched bridge, then back to the "long hall" on the north side of the lake.  We were going to climb up the hill to the Buddhist temple and down the other side, but after a diversion to the Stone Boat built by Dowager Empress Cixi, we found on our return that the doors to the hill were locked.  We had to head back home after that.

Sat Nov 10 Night: Guai Li, Hedgehog, Snapline, and Carsick Cars @ Yugong Yishan

This was my first visit to the new Yugong Yishan, located next to the old naval headquarters and Duan Qirui gov’t building from the Republican Era. The old YGYS was more conveniently located across from Gongti Beimen, near Sanlitunr. This is definitely a classier establishment, with a nice marble bar. As Helen Feng, Ziyo’s lead singer remarked, the club has a few flaws though, one of which is that the stage is too high. The concert began with Guai Li, fronted by thin-as-a-rail female lead singer Wen Jun. I hadn’t seen them in three months, and I must say that their sound has improved. They’re a much more solid and rocking band. The bassist for PK14 was playing drums, and they had two guitarists and a bassist. After they finished, Hedgehog came on for a slamming half hour of “Cure-like postpunk pop” as some have described them. My mate Jimbo was helping me film, which freed me up to take photos and hang out with other mates, who were plying me with vodkas. After a few of them, my vision must have blurred because I went up to a guy who I thought was Chen Xi, lead singer of Snapline, and asked him for his contact info to set up an interview. Turned out it was Yang Haisong, lead singer of PK14! Fuck was that embarrassing. But he took it in stride and even laughed about it, saying it wasn’t the first time. In fact, I’d noticed Yang Haisong earlier that night and had meant to approach him, but my cocktail-addled brain had somehow gotten miswired. I sobered up for the final two performances by Snapline and Carsick Cars. By that time the crowd was quite large, and all the usual suspects had shown up, including Michael Pettis and manager Charles Salibas of D22, and Jaime Welton and his wife Ye Lu. Bian Yuan was also walking amidst the crowd, in his usual drunken state. Imagine CBGBs in the late ‘70s, with Debby Harry, David Byrne, the Ramones, Patti Smith, the B-52s, and members of the New York Dolls all hanging about and you’ll get a sense of what this scene is to China now.

Sun Nov 11 Ascension by Anish Kapoor and Experimental concert with Shouwang of Carsick Cars

On Sun arvo I met up with Juliette Ying, my colleague in Chinese contemporary art, who is giving a talk to the Dartmites next week about the history of the 798 art space. We went around photographing the galleries she plans to talk about. We started with the Galleria Continua, where a very cool exhibit was being housed in the former factory warehouse space. This is the installation “Ascension” by Bombay-born artist Anish Kapoor. The installation takes you through a spiral tunnel into a central chamber where a large vacuum tube sucks vaporized water from the floor up to the high ceiling, creating a sculpture of vapor. It’s an amazing exhibit and if you go to 798, you must see this in person.

At 5 pm, I headed to the Sugar Jar to catch a half hour of experimental noise by Simon Frank, a Canadian teenager, and Shouwang of Carsick Cars. Simon played around on the keyboard while Shouwang applied just about every implement imaginable to his guitar (to be more precise, at various points in the session he used a bow, a pressure tool, and a slider). I filmed the whole thing. It was… well, experimental all right, but I’m sure that this type of sound will continue to propel the Beijing rock scene into new uncharted directions. Michael Pettis describes Shouwang as the wunderkind of Chinese rock (he used the word “genius” in his interview) and you could see this in the way he continually experiments with new sounds, no matter how far-reaching they may be.