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Four young guys in their twenties are sitting in a tiny cheap restaurant in the old part of Beijing. The air is filled with cigarette smoke. Beer bottles crowd their table. They’ve just ordered “infinity” of them, turning the original “eight” and making it look like a mathematical sign on the order form.
It’s only the guitar cases next to the table that give the guys away. The four are members of The Bedstars – the band that has been playing “doomsday rock” for two years now.
The young man with a head of black messy hair is bored with my questions about the Communist Party.
"Why are you asking so many questions about the government!? Ask something dangerous already," Victor frowns.
Victor’s classic punk indifference toward authority is partly true — he espoused a more pesonail revolution against a society which according to him needs to be liberated not politically, but rather mentally. It’s also several parts bravura in a part of the world where crackdowns on punks have become increasingly common.
In recent years, governments have targeted punks in Indonesia, Burma, and Russia, making headlines around the world. While scores of Indonesian punks have been locked up for “moral reeducation” programs in Banda Aceh, two members of the punk performance collective Pussy Riot are serving prison time last year’s 40-second performance denouncing alleged corruption in a Moscow Cathedral. (For more on these episodes see our sidebar on punk crackdowns in the region.)
In China, public gatherings are effectively banned without official permission, public criticism of things like poisonous baby formula or illegal land grabs by petty officials have drawn prison sentences in recent times. In September, officials embarked on a campaign to limit online criticism of the government, fearing the influence of “Western hostile forces.” None of this would seem to bode well for punk rock.
What started out in Detroit fifty years ago as an irreverent DIY attitude towards making music has since splintered into a motley horde of punk ideologies, ranging from early drug-fueled odes to anarchy and the racism of some skinhead factions to songs calling for political equality and human rights.
Perhaps the only thing these ideologies share is a strong skepticism of authority that has long disturbed governments threatened by social unrest, starting with the U.S. in the 1960’s and 70’s, when police arrested bands like the MC5 for “disturbance of the peace.”
Many here see punk’s outsider attitude as part of a long tradition in China.
Li Bo, a guitarist from The Bedstars, says his music follows in 300-year-old footsteps of a renegade group of artists from Southern China known as the Yangzhou Ba Guai – the Eccentric Eight from Yangzhou. Born into poverty, the eight rose to develop individual, expressive styles of calligraphy and painting, ignoring rules about how images and characters ought to be made during the early Qing Dynasty.
“They rebelled with their paintings and calligraphy,” said Li, who also teaches calligraphy. “And what they did was revolutionary and creative… I want to do the same with music. I want to change the pattern, the tradition.”
Punk rock has been around in China for nearly 20 years now, coming here after a long delay since the country was closed for foreign music until the period of reform and opening in 1980s. It was Nirvana that broke the wall and appeared on the TV screens of some young rebels.
“In the end of the 90’s, that sort of classic punk was much more popular. It was mainly Beijing and mainly Wudaokou [a neighborhood where many Beijing universities are located],” Nevin Domer, COO at Maybe Mars, an independent CD label, said.
For the most part, China’s punks have avoided official censure – a fact partly due to their lack of widespread popularity and partly due to the cagey duet punks and record labels dance with the country’s censors.
"You have to give them all the lyrics, and if they are in English, you have to give them the translation,” he said.
If the lyrics pass inspection, an album is assigned a code.
“Without the code we can’t make it in the factory,” Domer said. Even if an album is somehow packaged for distribution, stores won’t sell it without a code.
It’s hard to predict what will pass muster. According to Victor, some of the songs get rejected because they criticize the evening news shown by the state channels – the program that is seen by young rebels as a joke. Some are forbidden because they mention cases of child abuse and domestic violence, something that is not supposed to happen in the country.
"There is not a list of things: you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” Domer said.
Instead, the companies must try to divine what might provoke the wrath of the government.
“There is nobody telling them ‘you have to check for this’,” Domer said. “They can make their own choice, but if they make a decision and somebody later gets upset about it, they can lose their job.”
Online distribution is also closely monitored.
In recent years, the punk song Chinese censors have attacked most rigorously was a song skewering the cost of living in China’s big cities that went viral online. “Shanghai Doesn’t Welcome You,” by Top Floor Circus . The band mocked the cheery face official Shanghai presented to the world in the lead up to the 2009 World Expo despite the fact that regular people can no longer afford to live there.
When the song spread across the Net, censors erased it, banned the band from performing for eight months and ordered t-shirts with the song’s lyrics destroyed, according to the online punk magazine, TK.
Censors care as much about who is listening as what is said.
“It has to be big enough for them to care,” Domer said. “If the underground music got really big in China, then the government would pay more attention to what is happening. But when it’s small no one can watch it too closely."
With so little money to be made from album sales, live shows seem like a more likely source of revenue.
Most of the indie venues in Beijing are located in the old city area, a maze of shady alleyways, called hutongs, lined by low slung grey buildings, often crumbling at the corners, punctuated by brightly lacquered wooden doors and gates. The old scenery makes for a surreal backdrop for tattooed/studded kids with day-glow mowhawks wearing often dark clothes. Some of the best bars and clubs are the hardest to find, tucked down tiny hutongs among the bicycles, laundry lines and puddles of old dish water hinting at the lives of families who have always lived here. The Bedstars play in one of them, "XP."
Fifteen minutes after the show was scheduled to start, a bartender peers at us across the tiny, empty room. Twenty minutes later, more people begin to show up.
The band stumbles in and immediately starts its set. The first chords rip through the air, and we are knocked off balance by the sound wave. The music is too loud and it's impossible to hear a single word of what they are singing about. But a few girls in the crowd are singing along. They look very young and definitely stand out. One has Rihanna-style haircut – one side of her scalp shaved.
The majority of the visitors are young and Chinese in their early 20s. Somehow it seems that most of them are friends with the musicians or the club owner, so they don't have to pay for the tickets.
"You don’t make any money playing in the band," said Johanna Atterby, a Swede who promotes shows.
“A lot of kids that first got into this music came from wealthy families that had privileges, so they could have exposure to things from the West that other people didn’t have exposure to,” Domer adds. For example, they were able to watch MTV and VH1 at home – something that the majority of people could not even imagine.
However, with regular kids now able to listen to music online, punk has become more widespread. Nowadays musicians do not necessarily come from rich families.
“I used to have many friends who played in bands, but they don’t anymore, because their parents didn’t support them,” said Atterby. “It’s not that easy if you don’t have someone to help you.”
Needing money to survive, many punks work as photographers, designers, and editors. Some become entrepreneurs.
“I now own a fashion label,” said Gia Wang, a founder of one of China’s earliest and better known punk bands, Hang on the Box.
In her teens and twenties Hang on the Box toured the US and was featured on the cover of Newsweek. The band's website lists Marilyn Manson and Jackie Chan as it's fans. However, those days are in the past. Gia still sings, but she says her new band, Girl Kill Girl, needs more time to develop. For now she survives by designing t-shirts with provocative phrases about sex on them.
“It’s not hard to find a job, but it’s hard to keep up with it,” said the Bedstars’ Victor, who works as a magazine editor. “In the morning you have to take the crowded subway. And look at your boss’s face.”
Soon Victor and The Bedstars' drummer, Wang, plan to open an online shop selling "kinky underwear."
In the end, marketability has never been punk’s point. Go back to the roots of the music and the most subversive thing about it was its rejection of music industry insiders and the earnest belief that music is anyone’s business. Back in the 70’s, The New York Dolls were a bunch of addicts who put on dresses and makeup and strove to make themselves as unreliable as possible. The point, according to lead singer TK, was to show that “anyone can do this.” Eventually the dolls would inspire the likes of the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop.
"Maybe I can't make revolutionary music,” Victor said. “But the least I can do is get on stage and play what I want to play and sing what I want to sing, stand like I want to stand and talk like I want to talk. Maybe some kids who are confused with their life, when they see us, they will think, oh these guys – they are no different from me. If they can do that, I can do that. I can say "no" to my parents, say "no" to my boss or whatever. That’s enough.”
Maybe it is.