Culture : Chinese Rockers on a Roll : No longer a back-room phenomenon, the youth music has gone commercial--under the watchful eye of the authorities.
“The world we live in, is just like a garbage dump
People here are like worms, fighting and grabbing
All they eat is conscience, all they waste is thought.”
-- Chinese rocker He Yong from his new album
What was occurring at the Children’s Drama Theater on a recent afternoon looked suspiciously like a rock concert.
Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with various English formulations using the “F” word, Chinese “New Rock” performer He Yong was on stage executing twisting vertical leaps and violently slapping his guitar strings as he sang “There is no hope! There is no hope! There is no hope! There is no hope!"--the deafening refrain from his new song, “Garbage Dump.”
Officially, however, what was taking place on the small stage in central Beijing, was a “press conference” sponsored by a Taiwanese record company, China Fire Productions, that has contracts with He Yong and two other young rockers who performed that afternoon.
The performance/press conference was approved by Beijing municipal officials only after Taiwanese rock promoter Landy Chang, who has a total of seven mainland Chinese rock musicians under contract, pledged that there would be no politically subversive lyrics.
One of Chang’s best-known groups, the heavy-metal Tang Dynasty, sold 2 million albums last year, including significant sales in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. Their success won them another first for mainland China--sponsorship by a major instrument company, Tokyo-based Gibson Asia Inc. In the last two years, China has been swarmed by Taiwanese, Hong Kong and Japanese talent agents eager to get young artists under contract.
No longer a back-room phenomenon, Chinese rock ‘n’ roll has entered what performers and promoters say is a new phase of commercialization, with artists scrambling for foreign contracts while trying to compete against Hong Kong bubble-gum music and karaoke bars for the public’s attention.
The carefully staged event in the Children’s Drama Theater represents a recent push by the Beijing government to cash in on the rock music market while, at the same time, also trying to keep it under political control.
“My artists don’t push political themes,” Chang, 32, said during an interview in a hotel coffee shop. “They love their country. They want to create, not destroy.”
Such talk is sweet music to the Chinese Communist leadership, long suspicious of rock music as a moral and political pollutant. Just to make sure things didn’t get out of hand, several officials sat in the back row of the theater watching nervously during the midafternoon performance. Even holding the concert at 3 p.m., not exactly prime time for the nocturnal rock crowd, was another way of controlling the event.
Afterward, when the officials joined promoters for drinks and food, Chang said they confided their satisfaction that the performers had restricted themselves to themes of alienation, disgust, anomie, frustration, nausea, hopelessness and despair instead of diving into corruption and politics under the Communist regime.
Normal teen-age depression, it seems, is OK. What the government definitely does not want is the emergence of another Cui Jian, the charismatic rock star whose song “Rock ‘n’ Roll on the New Long March” became the anthem of the student generation that led the 1989 demonstrations in Tian An Men Square.
Since 1989, the government has only permitted Cui Jian to perform on special occasions, such as charity concerts. Several of his scheduled performances have been canceled without notice.
In May, when the new Singapore-managed Hard Rock Cafe opened in Beijing, Cui Jian was denied entrance to the inaugural concert featuring American blues master B. B. King. After waiting for an hour outside the club, which features a mock Sistine Chapel ceiling with Elvis as God, Cui stomped off in disgust.
“This is not a real Hard Rock Cafe,” the rejected rocker pronounced to reporters, “I think they are kissing the government’s butt.”
Hard Rock Cafe manager Nicholas Ong denied excluding Cui for political reasons. “He was simply not invited and did not have an invitation card,” said Ong, who avoids government interference by booking only foreign groups in his 400-seat club, where he says 80% of his clientele are foreign residents and tourists.
But that does not mean that Ong is always able to steer completely clear of controversy. Old Maoist suspicions of foreign devils twanging electric guitars still persist.
In late July, the Beijing Hard Rock Cafe was attacked in an editorial by the official China Youth News for the “barbaric” practice of stamping an inked symbol on customers’ hands when they enter the club.
“The marks stamped on the body are a form of barbarism and humiliation,” the editorial railed. It described the club bouncers as “border security police” and described the club as “a hard rock under the wheels of civilization.”
In the mind of Wang Yong, a talented musician who played the traditional Chinese stringed instrument known as guzheng in Cui Jian’s band, rock ‘n’ roll in China is already in a period of creative decline after it first emerged in Beijing in the early 1980s. For the past year, Wang has concentrated on creating computer-generated music.
“The market for rock ‘n’ roll is in depression since last year,” Wang said in an interview. “This is not only the government’s fault. Most of the young people today like superstars from Hong Kong and Taiwan, or Western ‘easy listening’ or disco music.
“Our bands are always pretending they’re frustrated, shouting as loud as they can, like He Yong. But maybe there are not so many frustrated young people now.”
For his part, rocker He Yong, sipping hot tea in a trendy new underground coffeehouse after his afternoon performance, was simply happy to be back on stage under any conditions.
“For the first half of this year,” he said, “they didn’t let us perform at all. We were always being harassed and closed down. Sometimes they let us do shows in Inner Mongolia and other places far away, but not in Beijing.”
The sudden government permission for the afternoon “press conference” performance, the 25-year-old rocker said coolly, was not an artistic, cultural endorsement.
“Look, rock ‘n’ roll is a business. The government supports business.”