Dear thoroughly modern moshers,
I won't pretend to be an expert on Muslim punk rock (I haven't seen any of the bands play yet), but this all reminds me of the time I attended a marathon punk rock concert in northern China, back in November 2003. I was living in Hong Kong and working as a guest-editor and writer for the China-based fashion & culture magazine WestEast. Here is the piece, which appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of the magazine:
Glenn Belverio falls into the Manchurian mosh pit at Harbin’s Chinese rock festival
“How will despotism change us from inside?/How will moralism change us from inside?/When there is an oppression, there is a revolution…” – Miserable Faith
The email from my friend Tomoko in Beijing was barely legible through my Moet-blurred eyes. “You must come to Harbin tomorrow, there’s gonna be a big underground punk party this weekend!!!” After an entire day of quaffing gallons of complimentary champagne in Hong Kong, the idea of getting on a plane – after enduring six back-to-back flights on a recent trip to New Zealand – and jetting off to bitterly cold Manchuria seemed, at first, untenable. However, since I had spent weeks in punk rock-deprived Hong Kong – with the exception of a Halloween performance by Japanese metal-heads, Electric Eel Shock – I decided I was ready for some rebellious Chinese noise. And after recalling what I had heard about the Manchu male eye candy in Harbin from a rock groupie-cum-fashion editor friend of mine, I didn’t need any more convincing. I leave sub-tropical Hong Kong for sub-zero Harbin the next evening.
The city’s blanket of newly fallen snow adds to its Siberian-like mystique: the onion-topped Russian Orthodox St. Sofia Church illuminated by eerie green lights, the arctic winds, the fur-swaddled pedestrians. After a whirlwind tour of Harbin the next morning (see “Sino-Soviet Chic” in this issue), we take a cab to the forlorn outskirts of town where an old Communist cultural center operated by a State-owned electric factory is located. Considering the Party-sanctioned events that must have taken place here in the '60s, the center seems an ironic venue for something so potentially subversive as a punk-metal marathon. Inside the auditorium, one of the bands is in the middle of a sound check as many of the other musicians begin to arrive. The high ceiling of the theater is adorned with an enormous Red star – circa 1966 – and banners bearing old Cultural Revolution slogans hang from the walls.
Harbin, 1966 (From the book "Red-color News Soldier")
Because Harbin did fairly well under Maoism – but is now filled with factories that cannot compete in the modern age of China’s “economic miracle” – the city’s Marxist-Leninist time warp can seem more like hopeful nostalgia than vilified anachronism. Wandering through the stage wings, I find a large, metallic hammer and sickle amongst a stockpile of various theatrical props. With the giddy abandon of a ten-year old, I hoist the Communist talisman in my arms and dash around the backstage area, convincing various band members to pose with it for Tomoko’s camera. When the lead singer of the Beijing band Miserable Faith expresses political concern over my frivolous actions, I deposit the converted chunk of scrap metal behind a pile of old paint cans, as if unloading a symbol so fraught with historical turmoil could ever be so easy.
“A new Utopia is putting its shadow on me/Circling, then fading….Fade into the swamp of tomorrow.” - “Pretense”, Miserable Faith
The four-hour concert, featuring a fifteen-band lineup, is scheduled to start at 6pm. Over a thousand local teenagers and early 20-somethings have already filed quietly into the room and taken their seats. “Am I at an opera or a rock concert?” I wonder. Based on stories I have heard of the wild Beijing underground scene, I expect surreptitious boozing and pill popping aplenty. There is none of that in evidence here, even though the rocker chic crowd certainly looks capable of it – the room is peppered with brightly colored mohawks, Korn and Marilyn Manson t-shirts and multiple piercings. One young man has been accompanied by his mother, who insisted on tagging along in case the event turned dangerous – a remote possibility at best. Even the girl groupies lack the sexual recklessness of their western counterparts and most are already spoken for.
“My boyfriend is into rock music, so that’s why I like it,” explains Liu Xin, a flirtatious, pink pig-tailed Harbin student. With her fur coat, beret, quilted Chanel knock-off bag, near-perfect English and cosmopolitan demeanor, she has the air of a young, punk Barbra Streisand i.e. one could imagine her belting “Gotta move, gotta get out, gonna leave this town” at any moment. Other girls are lucky enough to have already scored actual band members such as the pretty pixie on the arm of Wang Ning – a 21-year heartthrob with bleached blonde hair and a pierced eyebrow who has traveled from Liaoning province to perform with the punk-metal band he fronts.
The show – which begins precisely at 6 – starts out with a bang with a growling nu-metal band featuring a synthesizer player sporting a gas mask. Since the concert is only a special yearly event, the excitement amongst the kids is acutely palpable. They sing or shout along with virtually every word of every song (all in Mandarin except for one punk rock Xmas song which is sung in English), and small mosh pits form in front of the stage and in various parts of the theater. Most of the bands hail from Harbin and its suburbs, but some have traveled from neighboring provinces and even as far as Beijing which has been a hot bed of underground rock for nearly ten years. Unlike some of the earlier, raw punk acts of the Beijing scene, the Harbin acts are tighter and more professional, impressively blending rap, punk, metal and the occasional western pop culture reference, such as a “South Park” sample. It’s a sound that would be ripe for international marketing/exploitation if it weren’t for the fact that most of the bands are not able or interested in singing in English.
The long-haired members of the next band to take the stage are all dressed in identical pleather raincoats and start out with an ethereal Goth ballad that soon gives way to speed metal riffs punctuated by throaty, guttural howls and sampled sound effects. Heads bang, propelling long tangles of black hair lashing through the air. The audience responds in frenzied tandem. One group of kids from Beijing shout “Tai niubi le!” – ‘totally cow-pussy!’ which is Beijing gutter slang for “You’re awesome!” Each band plays for about 10 or 15 minutes, with a one-minute lag time between sets. The time slots are more tightly regulated than acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards, except here no one ignores the rules and tries to play longer – everyone is respectful of each other’s opportunity to perform.
The last band to take the stage is Beijing rap-metal outfit Miserable Faith. Stripped to the waist, tattooed lead singer Gao Hu paces the stage like a restless cougar, his rapid-fire raps meshing flawlessly with the band’s groove-heavy bass riffs, violent guitar chords and precise drum beats. “Gloss over the flourishing age,” Gao growls in Mandarin. “Sell on, like a real bitch!” At exactly 9:59pm, an event organizer who works at the electrical factory takes the mic. “The show is over, thank you for coming.” I turn around from my spot on stage where I have been taking snapshots, to face what I expect to be an unruly mob screaming “More! More!! Cow-pussy! Cow-pussy!!” Instead, 80% of the crowd has already silently and obediently filed out of the auditorium, the lights have gone up, the stage is being cleared. Only in Communist China kids, only in Communist China.
“So have you ever had an evolvement? Through these thousands of years’ life as slaves and servants?” – “This’s a Problem”, Miserable Faith
“Chinese are very smart, but they think too much with not enough action," Gao Hu tells me after the show over a bucket of KFC in the band’s Harbin hotel room. “Because all the intellectuals have been swept away by the Cultural Revolution, Chinese are unmotivated. The biggest problem is coming from the inside.” The rest of the band and a girl named Nuan, who has been traveling with the band for two months, are gnawing on fried chicken parts and watching Taiwanese boy band F4’s TV series on the hotel’s satellite TV hookup. (The Taiwanese TV series has been banned by the Chinese government from being broadcast to mainland homes.)
“We don’t want to be commercial, but without commercial success it’s hard to keep going,” the 29-year old, Jiang Su province-born singer continues. “But we want to keep making music that is more characteristically Chinese. We don’t care if Americans hear our music.” Miserable Faith formed five years ago in Beijing and their name refers to “something I have inside. It was a period in my life of feelings that I had to face,” explains Gao. And like many angst-ridden youth around the world, music helped him get through that period. “The rock movement came about in China because of society and the government. Punk is like a weapon to make people aware of many things. North Korea needs a punk movement too,” Gao says emphatically. “But every country has a limitation of freedom, not just China.”
“Make good use of your ideology, make good use of your finesse/We gotta combat and take the might to the grave/We gotta combat when gifted with the rage.” – “Hooray”, Miserable Faith
Later that night, Tomoko and I join another performer from the evening’s concert at a 24-hour Sichuan restaurant for spicy skewered mutton washed down with jumbo bottles of Harbin brand beer. 22-yr old Wu Di sings for a Harbin-based rap-metal band whose name translated into English is roughly ‘Double Happiness’. To say that Wu is a formidable presence would be selling him short. Dressed in an enormous Boston Celtics jacket, Wu is tall, chubby, covered with piercings and tattoos and wears a perpetual, intimidating scowl. He can easily discuss and justify both his passion for Marxist dialectical materialism and Tibetan Buddhism before getting to the finer points of Beijing Opera and rap music, all while guzzling several bottles of Harbin beer. He began playing the piano at age 4 and went on to attend the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing at age 12 where he studied Chinese Opera.
“When I was 15, the government gave me a job working at a Harbin cultural theater performing opera,” Wu explains as he reaches for another mutton shish kabob. “By the time I was 16, I had joined the Communist Party.” Single-handedly proving that China has indeed made attempts – token or otherwise – at atoning for the missteps of the Cultural Revolution, Wu went to Tibet at age 17 to study Buddhism. His trip was paid for by the government. “My tattoos are all about Chinese culture,” Wu says as he rolls up the sleeves of his jacket, revealing ink work inspired by Tibetan painting. “I think old Chinese culture is the greatest culture.” After his stint in Tibet, Wu became a punk while listening to albums by the Rolling Stones and Cui Jian, the godfather of Chinese rock. At 18, he formed his band. “Because I’m working with the government and sometimes can’t talk too much, I use the music to express myself,” he says, and then to explain how and why one can be both a punk and a Party member he adds with Eastern succinctness: “People have two sides.”