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In L.A., Taiwanese band Mayday rocks its all-Chinese audience

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Screams rang out Saturday night across the Los Angeles Sports Arena as Taiwanese band Mayday brought its brand of Asian stadium rock to an all-Chinese audience for a show celebrating its 15th anniversary.

"We don't usually do anything on our anniversary, but this year, it seems like things are different — because you guys all came," said Chin-Hang Shih, the lead guitarist, to screams and cheers.

With matching outfits and a yellow submarine gracing the cover of their press kit, the members of Mayday are sometimes described as the Beatles of Asia.

Mayday's fans lack the frenzied admiration that marked the British rockers' popularity, but in Asia, the band's audience numbers have begun to approach Beatlemania. The band's most recent tour drew 2.48 million people — more than Madonna's 2012 tour. At the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, Mayday sold out three concerts at the approximately 100,000-seat venue, including one show that sold out in less than three minutes.

And as with the Beatles, Mayday's politics have drawn fire in recent weeks. The band is facing a backlash in the Chinese media after one of its members expressed support for a Taiwanese student protest of a trade deal between Taiwan and China.

The controversy hasn't ruffled Mayday's fans. About 16,000 people turned out for Saturday's show, filling the aging Exposition Park venue almost to capacity.

The scene at a Mayday concert is a definite departure from the Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead concerts the sports arena has hosted. At an Asian mega-star's concert, the line for merchandise wraps all the way around the venue while the beer tent is totally deserted — even though you can get four beers for the price of a T-shirt, $40. The merchandise itself displays a use of the English language that is at times more decorative than precise — "Live in Live," reads one (the name of the band's documentary), while another is emblazoned with seemingly random English letters and numbers.

Inside, the mosh pit is furnished with folding chairs in orderly but cramped rows. Any boogieing occurs only in small, chaste circles. Fans wave light-saber-like glow sticks that change colors according to the beat of the song, while others take smartphone pictures and upload them to Weibo, a Chinese social media service that's like a mash-up of Facebook and Twitter.

The show begins with fireworks and a film that describes an impending environmental apocalypse. Jackie Chan makes an appearance in the short film, as does Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC.

Band members alternately tease and charm the audience. Their songs have the characteristic sentimentality of Taiwanese popular music, but they leave space to feature their instrumental skills — sizzling behind-the-back guitar riffs and crashing drum solos.

It's tempting to read into their politics. During one song, the words "Do you really not have the power to make a difference?" flashes across the screen, interspersed with images of protests, police crackdowns and a raised, clenched fist.

The band, widely considered to be the most popular Chinese band in history, had avoided politics until about two weeks ago. Bassist Sheng-Yeh Tsai closed his Taipei coffee shop and uploaded a picture of himself to Weibo next to a sign inviting patrons to join the protesters. "We could not sacrifice the future of Taiwan over such a meager business opportunity," the sign reads.

But Taiwan's relationship with China is a perennially prickly issue on the small island, and the band seems to have shifted gears to damage control. At a post-concert news conference Saturday, a Chinese journalist's question about the protest was quickly stifled by a moderator. Attention shifted toward a photo opportunity — cakes shaped like members of the band were brought out.

Lead vocalist and songwriter Hsin-Hung Chen says their music is not about politics.

"Our music reflects our worldview, but we try to express our opinions gently," Chen said.

After the show, in the band's dressing room, a coffee table is strewn with containers of Szechuan food from a restaurant in Monterey Park. The band likes to eat spicy food before shows.

Five guys with similarly complicated haircuts laze about on gray felt couches, absorbed in their smartphones and chatting quietly. The band members arrived in Los Angeles on Saturday afternoon, after a show in San Jose, and in a few days they'll fly back to Taiwan to rest after a long tour through more than 40 cities.

Since they began touring overseas in 2006, they've made sure to stop in Los Angeles. They say they're trying to develop their English audience, and sometime this year they will release their first English-language track, titled "Do You Ever Shine?" Tsai, the bass player, likes Disneyland and cheeseburgers from In-N-Out — he recently discovered "animal style" fries, on the chain's secret menu. The whole band geeks out over Guitar Center.

Chen, known as Ashin, said he hopes the concerts provide overseas Chinese audiences with a reminder of their homeland. He says a huge Chinese crowd always turns out in L.A.

Tony Lian, 19, of Walnut said his girlfriend dragged him to the concert. Lian, a recent immigrant from the Jiangsu province, admitted to being a fan as well, after some prodding.

"They are popular throughout Asia," Lian said. "Their music has no nationality."

Isabella Liu, 24, a graduate student from New York, missed the band's concert at Madison Square Garden. So she and her friend flew to L.A. to catch a show before the tour ended. They learned about the concert on Weibo.

Ticket prices ranged from about $150 to $250, but Li Wei of West Covina said it's worth it. He has been a fan of the band for more than a decade.

"This is the best band in Asia," Wei said.

frank.shyong@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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