Last week I took a quick trip up to Beijing to catch up on the indie music scene and meet a student from Loyola College, for whom I’m now serving as a mentor. The student’s name is John, and he is on a Ricci Fellowship, which entails spending one semester in Rome and one semester in Beijing. During the fellowship, the students engage in an independent research project. John chose to investigate the indie music scenes in both cities. NY Times journalist Ian Johnson, who is helping to coordinate the program in China, asked me if I would like to serve as John’s mentor while he is researching the indie music scene in Beijing. How could I refuse?
So I made a brief trip up to Beijing to meet John and introduce him to some folks I know in the indie music scene. I also wanted to see for myself how the scene is doing these days, as I had heard different rumors about crackdowns and closings, which have been going on for a few years now. While interviewing one person in the scene, we were rather shocked to find out that one of the long standing rock clubs in town has just been shut down. This is the club Yugong Yishan. The shuttering of this club does not bode well for the rock scene in Beijing. Nevertheless there were still plenty of signs that it is alive and kicking.
We met on Wednesday night at a club called School Bar, which is now one of the stalwarts in the indie rock scene. School Bar was founded a few years ago by the former bassist for the post-punk band Joyside. Ten years ago (2007 to be exact) when I was documenting the scene, Joyside was one of the more well-known bands. Fronted by a lead singer named Bian Yuan who hails from Xinjiang, the band had myriad influences from the 1970s punk scene such as New York Dolls and others. They were also notorious for performing while drunk, and I witnessed this on more than one occasion. Anyhow, the band broke up a few years ago and apparently Bian Yuan went on to a new phase of his career as a solo artist.
John and I hung out at School Bar that night and saw three bands and had a brief talk with owner and former Joyside bassist Liu Hao, but mostly we stayed in the bar area which is separated from the room with the performance stage. The performance area is very small and maybe can squeeze a couple dozen people in front of the stage, and there’s more room to the side of the stage where one’s view is blocked partially by a barrier. There are also stairs leading up to a loft above the performance space, so people can hang out there too. It’s somewhat smaller than the club D-22, which used to be one of the top clubs for indie music in Beijing during its heyday (2006-2011).
The band we paid most attention to that night is called Swarm. It’s a trio including a guitarist, bassist, and drummer. The guitarist wears his hair around shoulder length and wears lipstick and thick glasses. He plays in a jazzy, Pat Metheny kind of style, and the band’s music has an ethereal quality with a lot of reverb. This seems to be a popular style now in the indie music scene.
The next day, John and I met up again near the entrance to Nanluoguxiang, a commercialized alleyway in one of the historically richest hutong neighborhoods in Beijing. The hutong is to the southeast of the Drum Tower or gulou. First, I showed John where the MAO Live House used to be, before it shut down a couple years ago. The building housing this club, which in my view was the beating heart of the indie rock scene in Beijing ten years ago, was boarded up and looked sad and derelict.
We then walked down Nanluoguxiang and I showed John another club, more of a bar really, called Jianghu. This spot used to be one of my favorite hangouts ten years ago. Jianghu often features live music, and I’ve seen rock bands, jazz bands, folk singers, and many other styles of performances there over the years. The place was closed but I recommended that John come back on Friday night to see the band WHAI, and introduced him by wechat to Liu Miao, the drummer of WHAI and the former co-owner of 2 Kolegas, another of Beijing’s top rock joints back in the day.
While walking down the Dongmian hutong, in which Jianghu and the Drama Academy are located, we passed by the former residence of a Qing general and stepped in for a quick look around. I was happy to find that the grand archway that I remember is still in good shape. This is just one of many architectural treasures that you can find in this neighborhood from the imperial times.
After that, we sought refuge in a small restaurant also located in that hutong, where we had a vegetable soup and some dumplings and tea. I should mention that the temperature in Beijing was well below freezing and there was a biting wind. I had been walking around for several hours at that point, since I took the subway and walked over from the Gulou station. It was good to get indoors for a spell and get some good old warm Beijing cuisine.
After that, we had an appointment with Yang Haisong at the office of Maybe Mars records, just down the road a ways from the southern entrance to Nanluoguxiang. Yang Haisong is the lead singer of one of China’s most influential indie rock bands, PK-14, and one of the co-founders, along with Michael Pettis, of the Maybe Mars record company. We had a lengthy conversation with him and through it gained many valuable insights into the developments and the trials and tribulations of the Beijing indie scene over the past few years. Some of these insights will go into the book I am working on now on China’s indie music scene since 2007.
Following our meeting with Yang Haisong, we took a stroll around the Houhai area and I showed John the jazz bar East Shore Live, which is owned by Liu Yuan, a legendary figure in both the history of rock and jazz in China. He was one of the founding members of Cui Jian’s rock band back in the 1980s and plays various wind instruments. Nobody was there and the performance wasn’t til later that evening, so we moved on and eventually had dinner at an old wonton noodle restaurant located just east of the Drum Tower. Man, was that a great meal.
Heading eastward on Gulou East Road, we again passed the northern entrance to Nanluoguxiang. We were on the way to visit a fairly new club called DDC located a few blocks southeast of there. But we had some time to kill, so I proposed to John that we get a foot massage. There was a massage parlor just east of Nanluoguxiang, and so for the next hour we got to soak our tootsies in piping hot water and had them rubbed down by a guy from Hebei and a lady from Guangdong. At that point I had clocked around 15,000 steps on my watch, and my feet were like two blocks of ice, so the foot bath and rubdown were real life savers. This was John’s first foot massage in China, but I’m sure it won’t be his last! After that, we were ready to make the final slog by foot to the club DDC.
DDC opened a couple years ago, and I had been waiting for a chance to check it out. It has an open bar area with some side rooms (baofang in Chinese) for customers to lounge about in, and next to that is a small performance space. When we arrived, a band composed of two foreign guys and a Chinese (I think) drummer were playing. The guitarist has long curly blond hair and he was playing once again in a style reminiscent of Pat Metheny, with some metal chops thrown in.
The next band to play was a punk group called Xiao Wang composed of three Chinese women and a guy on guitar. The lead singer was dressed in a flamboyant red skirt. The other women played bass and drums. The band had a hard punk style and the singer did a lot of screaming and venting, which kind of reminded me of Kang Mao from my favorite Beijing hardcore band SUBS. Nevertheless, stylistically and performance-wise the two performers are worlds apart.
Xiao Wang is a fairly new band, and after they played, John and I had a quick conversation with them. The singer Yu Yuetu is from Yunnan, and they told us they haven’t been playing together for more than a few months. We complimented them on their energetic performances, while I also advised her to connect more with the audience and coax them to dance.
This brings me to a point about rock bands and musicians in general. The bands that I think are truly successful in staging live performances are not only good musicians, but they also know how to engage with the audience. They do this through talking to the audience in between songs and also through eye contact and other communication, both verbal and physical, with the people in the crowd. Good bands know how to get an audience pumped up and dancing to their music. This takes a lot of skill and a lot of practice and experimentation. Of course, not all bands are trying to get people to dance, but if you’re a punk band, and people aren’t moshing and bouncing around to your music, well...
The final act of the night was an all-male Chinese band that had a keyboardist in addition to guitar, bass, drums, and singer. The band had some cool sounds augmented by the keyboard, and was reflective of the tendency of bands in the indie scene to incorporate electronics into their acts. The guitarist was phenomenal, and I later found out that he was a career accompanist for some major pop star in China. The singer was a young shuai ge who seemed to have trouble remembering the lyrics and kept reading a lyric sheet, which distanced him from the audience. I felt that the band has promise but needs to work on its act—especially the singer.
We also hung out briefly with the owner of the club who goes by the name of 69. He is from Fujian. I hope to have another chance to talk to him at greater length about the club and about Beijing’s indie scene.
All in all, I left Beijing the following day with a good feeling about John’s project. Throughout our exploration of Beijing’s indie scene, John showed a lot of curiosity and despite not speaking Mandarin (yet), he wasn’t shy about talking to people and getting to know them. I look forward to following his progress and seeing what he makes of all this and how he draws comparisons with the scene that he investigated in Rome. I also left the Jing with plenty of good intel for the final chapters of my book. And finally, I must say that in terms of air quality, the city has really cleaned up its act!