A Chinese Rock Odyssey: On tour in Hunan and Wuhan with Beijing punk band SUBS and Veteran Rocker Cui Jian


Above:  Cui Jian exhorting the crowd in Hunan to kick loose and boogie

An epic weekend. Two cities, Changsha which I’d never been to and Wuhan which I hadn’t visited in 20 years. Three rock bands and a “concert on the sand” in the middle of rural Hunan featuring China’s biggest rock idol, Cui Jian. And a one-hour return flight that turned into a nightmarish 15-hour odyssey through the stormclouds of northeast China. All in all, another unforgettable China adventure.

Getting to know the SUBS on a train to Changsha

On Thursday I joined the Beijing-based punk band SUBS on an overnight train from Beijing to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, where they were slated to play on Saturday night alongside Cui Jian in a government-organized “concert on the sand.” After that they planned to visit their old hometown of Wuhan in nearby Hubei, where they were playing at a local bar that Sunday night. My intent and purpose was first of all to film the tour, second to get to know the band. I’d never been to Hunan so I was looking forward to seeing the homeland of the ancient Chu kingdom and the modern Chinese rock god, 老毛。

The train journey was a great chance to get to know the members of my favorite punk band in Beijing. I’d already met and interviewed lead singer Kang Mao and lead guitarist Wu Hao. The two other members of the band, who I hadn’t spoken to before then, are Zhu Lei, who plays base, and their drummer Zhang Shun.

Four distinct personalities make up this band. Living up to her namesake, Kang Mao is strong and wild like a lionness on stage, gentle and playful like a kitten offstage. Wu Hao is the silent type, but full of creative powers--he drives the musicality of the band, as I found when I gave him my acoustic guitar to play on the train. Endless bursts of creativity pour out of his fingers as he strums that guitar. Bassist Zhu Lei is physically robust (he works out at the gym three hours a day) full of energy, humor, and wit. Zhengzhouese by birth, he has a long lion’s mane and a face to match. Zhang Shun is thin and small, with a wispy mustache--the last sort you’d expect to back up Beijing’s most powerful punk band, but he has the stuff all right. He’s generally quiet and reserved, but if you get him alone, he has a lot of perceptive things to say. All in all, a good balance of characters.

The Sprawling City of Changsha

After an overnight journey in the soft sleeper section of the train involving a lot of strumming, singing, and beer and wine drinking, we arrived the next morning in Changsha. The rolling green countryside was dotted with lakes, hills, and quaint farmhouses as we headed towards Hunan’s great metropolis. Distant mountains followed us in the background. The countryside soon gave way to a more urbanized environment consisting of endless rows of identical apartment buildings, many of them surrounded by green webs of scaffolding and topped by cranes. Soon we were in the city proper. It was a lot more developed than I’d imagined it would be. A real sprawling megalopolis with elevated highways and skyscrapers and endless parades of neon signage.

We were met at the station by members of Hunan’s e-TV station, one of the key sponsors of the “Concert on the Sand”. The two representatives who took care of us, Long Xiaoping and Zeng Lina, gave us all a great impression. They really rolled out the red carpet. Obviously the fact that Cui Jian was headlining gave the concert a special prestige, which explains why were were all set up in a four-star 31 storey hotel. As an honorary fifth member of the band, they accommodated me as best they could. Zhu Lei and Zhang Shun took a hit for me by doubling up in a hotel room so that I could have a bed--later in Wuhan I got the chance to pay them back in one way or another.

I spent most of the day in my hotel room catching up on much needed sleep. It had been a long week, with two consecutive binges at ppg not to mention a most regrettable Monday night at Maggies, and I needed some z’s.

At five pm I joined Kang Mao who was escorted to e-TV’s radio station for a live interview with the local radio hostess, along with Cui Jian and the lead singer of the Verse, Huang Bo. Journalists gathered around 老催 like flies around a mound of fresh honey, snapping and shooting away as he mumbled his way through the interview. I couldn’t hear half of what he said, but perked up when he talked about how he’d specifically asked for the SUBS to join him after seeing them last year at Beijing’s MIDI festival.

A taste of Changsha nightlife: meili sishe

That night, after a faux-Hunan meal in the hotel’s banquet room (I say faux because it was not nearly as hot as xiangcai should be) we headed to a local music bar run by friends of the SUBS. The SUBS were SUB-dued as they drank their Tiger beers, all neatly lined up for them on the bartop. The bar was rollicking. A couple of cover bands played American pop tunes. Nothing special really. After a few beers the SUBS went back to rest--they needed to energize for the next evening’s performance. Meanwhile, at the bar, I met a pair of local girls who offered to take me to Changsha’s hottest nightclub. How could I refuse such an offer?

I got a real taste of Changsha nightlife at meili sishe 魅力四射. The club was jam-packed with revelers, mostly Chinese but a few laowai and laohei here and there. It was a large disco-like space but filled with small round glass tables. Groups of people gathered round the tables which were filled with plates of fruit and trays of shot glasses. Four 400 RMB, we purchased a set that included a full bottle of Absolut vodka, an endless supply of sweet green tea and various local snacks. I didn’t think we’d get far with that bottle, but my local guide, who I’ll call Sunny, called up a couple of her mates who showed up in short order. One of the girls was on a birthday binge--and I mean binge.

Oh and lest I forget, the bathroom of the club was absolutely horrid. The trash cans were full to brimming with piss and vomit, and guys were urinating into them, too pissed to wait for the urinals to open. Men were puking their guts out in the toilet stalls, which were also surrounded with piles of fresh, steaming vomit. Clearly the emphasis of this club was on heavy drinking.

We danced a while around our tables to the beat of cheesy old disco tunes. The social environment was limited by the lack of movement, but there was a lot of good natured toasting and downing of shot glasses between nearby tables. Since it was just me and four girls, we were plagued the whole night by social pirates, including a hefty African man who came over to dance. Long and short is that we piled into Sunny’s car (she’d been drinking lightly) at around 2 am and they chauffeured me back to the hotel. The birthday girl, who I’ll call Moony (she had a nice round Hunan moonface) had been downing shots with a vengeance and was completely off her rocker. She went into the hotel lobby to divest herself of the excess alcohol that had accumulated in her gut, and I had to physically carry her back to the car.

Concert on the Sand with the Verse, Cui Jian, and SUBS

I awoke the next day feeling somewhat less than refreshed, but serviceable nonetheless. I missed breakfast but joined the band for lunch. At 1 pm we all got into a big bus, all except Cui Jian who was escorted in a black-windowed black automobile to the concert site. The trip to the site lasted about four hours. Mostly we traveled on the Jing-Zhu 京珠 highway, the longest highway in Asia, which runs from Beijing to Zhuhai in Guangdong province. About three hours into the trip, past the town of Yueyang, we turned onto a rural road, passing farmhouses, small brick villages filled with idle peasants, water buffalo resting in small bogs of mud by the side of the narrow one lane road. We started hitting traffic as we passed fields of rice paddies on the narrow road, and headed into the hills. Around 2000 people were supposed to attend the concert, many in their own cars, which made for some real traffic jams.

Finally we made it to the site. The place was a large, natural stretch of whitish grey sand in the middle of otherwise green hills. It was an odd site all right. Sand and dust whirled around us as we headed out of the bus into the summer heat of Hunan province. Umbrellas were lined up along the sand for people to seek shade from the burning sun, amplified by the treeless desert surroundings. Huts and tents selling drinks and snacks were lined up along the edges of the viewing grounds. A large stage stood in the middle of the sand, and behind it were a few tents and a large hut made of bamboo where the bands sought shelter. Behind the hut there were hundreds of yellow tents arranged for the audience to stay the night at the venue--there would be more events in the morning, but none of a musical nature. The army had also set up latrines, shower tents, and medical emergency tents.

Cui Jian stayed in his car the whole time, which was left with the engine running so he could keep air-conditioned. He was surrounded by a cadre of local police at all times. Nobody could get near him. The SUBS settled into the bamboo hut and waited for the sound check. One by one the bands did their sound checks, starting with Cui Jian and ending with the Verse, who immediately started playing afterwards around 8:30 pm. By then a sizeable audience had assembled before the stage, consisting of perhaps fifty percent local peasants who’d walked over from their nearby villages and fifty percent affluent Hunanese who’d driven from Changsha or Yueyang in their cars. Most if not all were there for one reason: 老崔。

That afternoon I went around and asked a few locals if they’d ever heard of SUBS, and nobody had. The only real promotion was for Cui Jian so it’s understandable that nobody knew that two other bands were playing that night.

The line-up began with the Verse, a Beijing-based funk band, complete with a horn ensemble and two back-up Chinese female singers. They did a few James Brown like numbers and got the audience revved up. I was focused on my band the SUBS but I did capture some footage of the Verse in action. The stage had been set up on an elevated square of sand and the police made sure that the audience stayed around 20 meters from the base of the stage itself, leaving a large open space for me to film. I also did some filming on the side of the stage, but had to make sure I didn’t get in the way of Hunan’s e-TV which had at least four cameras on the stage at all times, including two guys onstage doing closeups of band members.

The SUBS came on second. At that point I’d say there were at least a couple thousand people in the audience. After introducing them with a brief video, they played their set. It took a few songs for them to warm up the audience, which at first was completely bewildered and baffled by the raging noise of Kang Mao and her band, but in the end she won them over. By the end of their set, the audience was screaming for more. She was given a bouquet of flowers and jumped off the stage to distribute them to the audience. Unfortunately, given the distance between stage and audience, she couldn’t really develop the connection that she is so good at building in the more intimate clubs.

Cui Jian and his band were last. They played a few new tunes and a bunch of old standards including the anthem “I have nothing” yi wu suo you. The audience sang along. Girls in the audience were practically dripping with pleasure at seeing and hearing their rock idol live. All the dudes in the audience wanted to be him, all the chicks wanted to shag him--or so the saying goes.

Sunny and Moony and their friend Jade showed up and they were having fun listening from behind the stage as I pranced about the front of the stage capturing Lao Cui and his band. They told me later that they were impressed by Kang Mao’s energy and her message to be yourself and follow your own tune and not take no shit from nobody. She’s a real feminist and individualist at heart, I think.

They offered to drive me back after the concert. Hmm...bus full of jaded, sweaty rockers, or a private car with local ladies? Which would you choose? We walked back to their car in the vast desert parking lot as the sounds of Cui Jian’s old classic huafang guniang 花房姑娘 swirled around us.

During the long journey through the Hunan night back to Changsha, Sunny told me some interesting stories. She said she had several sisters and brothers, including a twin sister whom she’s never met. The two had been separated soon after birth. Sunny lived with her dad’s sister for a few years, who pretended to be her real mother in order to beat the one child policy. She grew up in a small village near the concert venue outside Yueyang, then went to Changsha as an adult to seek her fortune. She’s built a fine career for herself in the real estate biz and now has a car and house of her own, and is busy investing in other properties. She is young twenty-something and single, with no immediate intention to get married. Another type of female model for the new China.

On Veteran Washed Up Rockers

The next day after some hesitation I decided to accompany the SUBS to their hometown of Wuhan. I was exhausted from filming the night before, but recouped some energy on the three hour train ride to Wuhan. Zhu Lei slept like a lion the whole way. Kang Mao and Wu Hao (who if you haven’t figured it out by now are a couple) passed the time watching Futurama videos on Wu Hao’s little video deck.

I chilled with Zhang Shun, who had some interesting things to say about the previous night’s concert. The SUBS all agreed that it was a heavily commercialized, and in many senses artificial in the sense of canned, experience. The distance between band and audience was palpable, and most of the audience was completely oblivious to what rock is about. They just took it as another kind of show.

Zhang Shun was also justifiably critical about Cui Jian. What is this guy doing? was his attitude. I could see the point. He had a kind of washed up quality to him, even though his band gave a well-polished performance. Personally I felt that he was like a caged lion. Here was China’s veteran rocker, who’d performed blindfolded on Tiananmen Square in ‘89. The man who’d opened up a whole new space for future generations of Chinese rockers to scream their hearts out at the injustices of the day, or just to scream for the pure pleasure of it. And he was surrounded by police and cordoned off at all times. Giving a concert sponsored by the government that he'd defiantly challenged so many years ago.

At one point in his performance Lao Cui did momentarily break through the cordon of the police state, beckoning the audience to come up to the stage. One by one they broke through the police line and cheerfully lined up in front of the stage, mostly ladies, and danced about as he and the band performed. Soon a sizeable crowd had gathered around the base of the stage and the police came up and started pushing them back. It was a highly symbolic event to be sure, but not too different from what you’d see at a Beatles concert in the 60s or a Stones concert today. In fact, I’d say that Cui Jian is washed up in the same sense that Mick and the boys, or old acts like the Who or Roger Waters are, playing the same old tunes that were once fresh and new in the 70s and 80s. Veteran rockers are a bittersweet phenom to witness. You love their tunes, you sing along, and you relish the opportunity to see them in person, but you’re reminded that these guys aren’t it any more. They're a bunch of granddads who made their millions and moved on. All in all I’d say that the SUBS completely blew Cui and his band away that night. They ARE the new sound of China for the 21st Century. And they are the real deal.

SUBS in their old hometown Wuhan

There is nothing pretentious about the SUBS. They exult in the humble pleasures of life. A beer here, a cigarette there, and most of all, the company of good friends. This was obvious in Wuhan, their hometown. They were really in their element. That night they gave an outstanding performance in a local club called Vox, run by a friend. Kang Mao obviously enjoyed being back on a stage where she could touch the audience, which she did repeatedly. The audience was mixed. There were a lot of foreigners--this was in Wuchang’s university district after all. A loyal crowd of mostly young college age Chinese guys and gals hung around the stage and moshed with wonderful violence as the band played. Kang Mao gave a few of her usual speeches, about freedom and the right to be me, which they lapped up. The rest of the audience hung back--some people weren’t into the band, but most were rocking or enjoying the show.

I mustered up the remains of my energy, downed a couple shots of whiskey and filmed them from all angles--onstage, offstage, upstairs. Got the best shots I’ve collected yet. Afterwards we went down the street with a bunch of their old mates, many of them in local punk bands, and hung out at a local night food street, stuffing ourselves with shaokao. I spent most of the time bonding with Zhang Shun and talking to a local artist friend of note, named Gong Jian 龚建, whose specialty appears to be oil paintings of shagging pandas. Kang Mao was in pure heaven surrounded by her old friends, eating the local cuisine and chatting away in the local dialect. Back to that in a bit.

We all parted at around 1 am. I got a chance to pay Zhu Lei back for doubling up in the hotel in Changsha by offering him an extra bed in the five-star hotel room I’d booked, which happened to be conveniently located down the street from the bar. It was well worth the 500 RMB I dished out for a good night’s rest. Got a great sleep and the next day had plenty of energy for the harrowing flight back to Beijing.

An international flight from Wuhan to Beijing

An hour-and-a-half taxi ride the next morning got me to the airport. I figured I’d reward myself for all the hard work of filming over the weekend by taking the easy way back. Boy was I wrong about that.

At around 12:30 we got on the Eastern Airlines flight MU 2453 and hung out on the runway for a while. A report came in that Beijing’s airport was closed off to air traffic. We didn’t know why at that point. A couple of hours went by. They decided to let some people off the plane and back to the airport. Then they changed their minds--a report had come in that a space had opened up in the lineup for our plane. People came shuffling back on. Everyone was confused. Then another report came that we’d missed our opportunity owing to an errant passenger. We finally learned that severe thunderstorms in Beijing were causing the delay.

At around nine pm the flight finally took off. I told my flight companion, a cute young girl from Wuhan, that it was a miracle we’d taken off and it would be another miracle entirely if we landed. Turns out I couldn’t have been more right.

Fortunately Tiantian, a lovely 21-year old girl from Wuhan, was there to keep me company. I learned a lot about her life in Wuhan. She was your typical 80s child all right, a totally self-centered, self-occupied kid whose big interests were working out and eating right. She had the figure of a trained athlete, accentuated by a black body suit for an outfit. I was completely entranced. Yet the dazzling effect of a 21 year old Wuhan girl on my 38 year old brain was destined to be short-lived.

Upon reaching Beijing’s airspace, we were greeted with an amazing display of lightning which lit up the tall cloudbanks for miles around. The captain came on the intercom and told us that we were being rerouted to Shijiazhuang for an emergency landing. We ended up on the tarmac at this podunk airport to the northeast of Beijing, which was completely shut down. Nobody was there to greet us or tell us what was going on. The captain remained in his cockpit for most of the time and the hostesses, who were professional and courteous and outright gorgeous for the entire trip, were clueless too. As it turned out, according to the most competent hostess on the flight, the management of the airline had gone to sleep leaving them to deal with this crisis on their own. We were there with five other planes, waiting out the midnight storm, which persisted for another three hours. Who knows how many other Beijing-bound planes were stranded in some podunk airport that night.

As soon as we landed at Shijiazhuang, the whining started. I admit that I had some spleen to vent myself--I was angered that we’d missed our opportunity to fly out at 5 pm because of some idiotic passenger, and made it known. But eventually I realized that this was one of those hopeless situations that is truly nobody’s fault (at least nobody within a fist’s reach) and went with the flow. There was talk of providing some overnight arrangement at first, but after some clear thinking it was obvious that this small town could not accommodate such a large group of people. Nor was it practical to seek other means of transport at that hour for the 300-k journey to Beijing. We just had to wait it out.

Some of the male passengers were getting agita. One man seated behind me got up and started venting, crying out for a refund. He was joined by three Wuhanese women sitting in front of me, three clucking mother hens or as the Shanghainese would say, “old cabbage leaves” lao caipi 老菜皮. I found them supremely annoying. To top it off, Tiantian was getting all anxious and was talking nonstop in Wuhanese to the women in the seat in front of her, who clearly didn’t want to be bugged by the younger, much cuter upstart who’d netted the attentions of a laowai. Soon they were all standing over their seats jabbering in a chorus of Wuhanese. Now, no offense to my new friends from Wuhan, but Wuhanese is a twisted, distorted, bastardized form of Mandarin. It sounds like Mandarin Chinese would if you got all the tones wrong at once. It was like a terrible broken record playing the worst song you’ve ever heard over and over and over. I had to stand up at one point and tell the man behind me, in a very unpolite way, to shut up. That calmed everyone down, though afterwards there was a lot of nasty mumbling in Wuhanese about that rude foreigner. Needless to say, Tiantian sided with her laoxiangmin and didn't say a word to me the rest of the flight.

Meanwhile at the front of the plane, a group of men had assembled and were demanding their rights. They wanted food, water (which we’d run out of) and a place to stay. I went over and told the most intelligent looking among them that while I sympathized with their anger, was it really doing any good to cause such a fuss? He stopped whining and went back to his seat. Pretty soon the others followed.

By that time it was obvious to all that we could do nothing but wait. The hostesses weren’t trained to handle such emergencies but did their best--I have to say that they really impressed me with their professionalism and should be commended for staying calm and supportive. I spent some time talking to them and told them how much I appreciated their work. 辛苦了. To be honest, I have a weakness for Eastern airlines hostesses so it wasn’t a chore.

There wasn’t an authority figure to tell people to sit down and shut up so they just had to let the customers vent for a while. Pretty soon everyone settled down into an uneasy stupor. Some of us passed the time chatting amiably--there was a small group of foreigners, including a German-Canadian man and a man from Colorado, both of whom had missed their international connecting flights.

Finally at around 3 am word came through that we were good to go. A half hour flight got us back to Beijing. As I stepped into the corridor leading to the Beijing airport, I had an inkling of how a man must feel after being released from a flight that’s been hijacked by a group of radicals and diverted into some godawful mountain retreat.

Thus endeth my first Chinese rock odyssey. I hope there will be others to follow.