Red Rooms: The What? Bar

As good a reason as any to kick off “Red Rooms”, in which the venues of the Middle Kingdom past and present are introduced, is the heads-up, via BJ Daze, about Beijing English-language twice-monthly City Weekend‘s piece on the What? Bar: The Old What Bar Schools Other Venues in Manners. The “Old What Bar”, as the magazine refers to the place (it’s the newest What?, so why the ‘old’?), is the fifth location that boss-lady Qin Xuan has been holding, Samson-like, virtually on her own, for over a decade, in an improbable location a stone’s throw from the Forbidden City, the palace which was inhabited by two dynasties’ worth of emperors.

In addition to running the What? Bar, Qin Xuan has been in several local bands, including Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐 chou doufu, whose drummer may be familiar to readers of this blog), pictured here, on the stage of the bar’s second location, which was in the northeastern part of the city.

The What? Bar, circa 2002: Stinky Tofu, with bar-boss-lady Qin Xuan on vox

The What? Bar is certainly one of Beijing’s, and yaogun’s, classic venues. But it’s classic in that particular way that only a filthy, slimy, dank and dark joint can be; it’s lovable, but more from a distance: The concept and memory are far superior to the experience therein. Which is not to say good times weren’t had, and will be had. It is to say that it’s a hole, and you can romanticize it all you want, but when the toilet overflows out of the crapper and onto the floor in front of the stage, and the furniture is coated with the spillings, dirt, spew and grime of nearly a decade and a half, it’s not easy to wax poetic about it. But aside from that (or, perhaps, because of it), it’s a classic. And I mean all that in the nicest way. Because much of my yaogun days were spent in What?’s various locales, and I loved every minute of it.

The bar began as Jungle (the sign followed the bar around the city), one of the few highlights of the walk of shame that eventually became central-Beijing’s Sanlitun South Bar Street. Sanlitun South Bar Street was, initially, the more down-to-earth cousin of the early and quickly Disneyfied (not to mention sleazified) North Bar Street, where a seemingly never-ending gauntlet of touts barked the wares that awaited one inside the cookie-cutter spots along the drag: Cold beer and pop tunes cranked out by the invariable qipa-sporting vixens alongside a synthesizer-cum-backing band.

In contrast, South Street, in its best days – before, that is, bargain-priced shooters were sold from closet-sized rooms and the street became a sea of drunken humanity – featured more chilled-out spots, like No. 17 Bar, River, and the Jam House (all prime candidates for future Red Rooms).

Sanlitun South Bar Street; the fuzz of this shot, as anyone who's been there can attest, is apropos (via

And Jungle. Jungle’s stage was wide open, and jam sessions that followed gigs featuring up-and-coming rockers would go long into the night. Its demolition came earlier than the rest of the strip (which disappeared in 2004); oddly, Jungle itself was razed to make way for a small parkette-type grassy area, which soon came to be gobbled up by the neighbourhood’s still-ongoing high-rise construction.

When South Street met the wrecking ball, Jungle moved north, down a long, dark and sketchy street from what was then Beijing’s premier live music spot, Get Lucky (about which there is not enough ink to cover properly, but mark my words, I’ll try, eventually). There it sat, as the What? Bar, for several amazing years, where an eponymous band grew up and out of it, producing some of the most intriguing yaogun of the new millennium: There was prog rock a-la Zappa and Floyd, and there was traditional Chinese music too, not to mention horror-flick theatrics, and a bit of kiddie music to round it out. Here’s a taste of What?’s 2003 demo, (it was released as one twenty-nine-minute track):

What?, the band; Qin Xuan on the hanky and pointy finger.

It was tiny, but it was also the kind of place where one could quickly become a regular (many did). It kept up Jungle’s tradition of the late-night jam, but it also proved to be an important spot for music of all kinds: The early-aughts punks often put on shows at the spot, and a long line of bands just starting out, without the chops or connections to get gigs at the bigger joints across town, graced, and outgrew, its stage. The sound system sucked; the stage was tight; the gear in various states of disrepair (which could describe most of the city’s other venues as well), the place was a sty, but there was something about the What? Bar. It was clear just how much the folks behind the bar loved music and providing a space for it.

It was big news when the bar moved into new digs in the shadow of the China Central Television towers that were then still under construction and yet to be perpetually nearly-completed and covered in the ash of a nearby fire.

If you look closely, you can see the resting place of the second new What? Bar, on the starbord side of the tower (photo via

They were in a small but hip ‘creative compound’ of the sort that popped up (and still does) all over the city, and it felt like a boost up the ladder to legitimacy for the club to be neighbours with art studios, youthful agencies and other assorted “creative” types. The club was certainly a scaled-up version of the old dive, with smooth concrete and lots of light. But it wasn’t the ‘creative’ neighbours that were most significant: The club’s heavy doors, installed at great expense and with much thought – doors that closed tight with a comforting and inspiring ttthhhhhhhppppppttttttt that told you, if you weren’t sure, you were in – couldn’t, alas, keep the racket from spilling across the street, where sleepless residents of apartment buildings called the cops, not hip to the noise coming from across the street (the incessant twenty-four-hour construction on the so-called pair of pants that were to sheath the HQ of their national broadcaster, though, didn’t seem to upset these same residents in any way). And so, between the complaints from across the way and the expansion around the base of the CCTV tower – despite the initial optimism that the Towers brought to all in the area, figuring that they were close enough to hallowed ground that they might last in their current locations – spelled the end of that What?.

Meanwhile, the What? peeps opened up a spot in the it’d-be-hysterical-if-it-weren’t-true Yuan Dynasty Wall Bar Street. The bar itself, for all reports, was fine. But most What?heads skipped entirely the trip to this feeble attempt at a neighbourhood. If Sanlitun North Bar Street was Disneyland, it’s hard to know how to file YDWBS, with its attempt at, erm, recreating? a Yuan Dynasty architectural experience and stuffing therein as many bars as could fit. On top of that, the two simultaneous What?s were draining the resources, and the double-duty didn’t last long.

When the little bar that could found a spot along the western wall of the Forbidden City, it was hard to know how to react. Certainly it was hard to resist the imagery: Down-and-dirty rock and roll a stone’s throw from the emperor’s throne. Sure, it was a dank and filthy hovel of a bar. But now that the spot has passed almost eight years there – this in a city known for creating, destroying and recreating several times over in a span of days – it’s actually more an institution that just a little dive where you can see music.

Handsome Black @ What? Bar, circa 2004 (just out of frame is the toilet water slowly seeping its way toward the stage). (pic by jWc)

Qin Xuan is doing noble work: D22 gets buckets of international ink; Mao Livehouse and Yu gong yi shan have huge stages and rooms that fit hundreds, but the What? Bar, and other little spots like it are doing the grunt work, providing the training ground necessary for any scene to exist, let alone thrive.

Yappin’ Yaogun

The July issue of monthly Beijing English-language magazine the Beijinger featured a cover feature on yaogun, or, more specifically, the talking thereof (the article is downloadable here).

Under the banner of “The Great Music Debate”, the magazine gathered a dozen and a half members of the music community in a room, threw out some questions and took notes. There were folks from all corners in on the talk: Reps from record labels, festivals and venues; promoters, performers, observers and writers.

One thing in particular that struck me (other than a nice mention of yours truly) was the couple of occasions on which the general lack of recognition for that which came before was raised. It’s is something that I’ve fought hard to counter in recent years; it was, truth be told, in direct response to the realization that I hadn’t been giving the early years and those rocking therein the respect they deserve.

That recognition isn’t just a major theme running through Red Rock – my aim was to focus on the journey and the people that had paved the way – but it was the inspiration for it. It didn’t start out that way, but digging into yaogun’s history showed me the importance of the contributions of the early ‘gunners. (Which is not to say that Red Rock is only about the past; it is about, inasmuch is possible for any book, the current state of affairs in the context of how it came to be. Context, turns out, is everything).

So, with my ‘history is everywhere’ goggles on, when I saw the rock-talking panel in July’s Beijinger, I couldn’t help but think back to 2005, when, along with several members of the staff of the magazine then called that’s Beijing (now called the Beijinger), we gathered seven rock-scenesters to sit down over beers and talk rock.

In 2005, times seemed simpler. It felt like yaogun was still finding its footing; its glory days were far enough behind it that they seemed ancient history, and it wasn’t clear how it might regain any semblance of that time. The conversation had an overall pessimistic tone; there was a lot of talk about the obstacles up in yaogun’s way. It was a time, as Lv Zhiqiang (also known as Gouzi [‘go-dze‘), or ‘Dog’), put it, of challenges. “I think the music scene is in a bad way because nobody thinks of what’s wrong with it and how to solve the problems.” Lv ran then, and runs now, live venue Yu Gong Yi Shan (which was demolished and relocated to much fancier and larger digs in 2007). “We should figure out what’s wrong, and fix it.”

There was little international interest in yaogun then, in a way that seems inconceivable these days. Though one of the panelists, Leo de Boisgisson (as well as myself, though officially an observer rather than a participant), was in the business of exporting Chinese music along with bringing in international acts, it didn’t seem like yaogun was ready to take on the world just yet, as international touring for local bands was extremely rare (de Boisgisson had taken three amazing acts on a French tour the previous year; I was about to head to Scandinavia with Subs; a literal handful of others had made international trips).

China Music Lab, France, 2004; Subs, Nordic Europe, 2005

Back then, there seemed to be no sign of the internet life as we know it today. Case in point: In 2005, we thought it important that a record store owner was in on the conversation. In 2011, Tian Jianhua, of skate-punk band Reflector, put it best when he said: “Times have changed, brother – nobody listens to CDs anymore.”

Changed, indeed. In 2005, “Stanley” Chen Yi, who was, then, PR Manager at Beijing label Scream Records, could still genuinely describe the kids buying his label’s records as folks that “regard rock music as their spiritual pillar…if they don’t have rock music, they may lose the meaning of life…(Nothing will change) their love of and attitude toward rock. It’s a part of their life.” This is the type of rocker I continually encountered during my yaogun research, and though it sounds pretty cheesy to hear it in this age of gigabytes of music swirling through the air, in one’s headphones on demand, one can’t emphasize enough how deeply these feelings were felt.

But not so much anymore. Tian Jianhua, himself having been deeply affected by rock and roll – and who, in turn, affected deeply through his own music, multitudes – put it succinctly during the 2011 panel: “The younger generation grew up eating McDonald’s. They’ve never had time to think deeply about anything.”

It’s the difference, broadly, between the pre- and post- Eight-Ohs, the general generational divide slapped through China’s young adult population (which, like any generalization, works only to an extent). Those born after 1980 (‘eight oh’) are painted with the broad strokes that describe that “Little Emperor” phenomenon, that unintended consequence of China’s one-child policy. When families of multiple generations share a home in a world defined by that definitely-post-1980 mission to make mounds of money, it’s bound to happen. There’s more money to spend on kids, and a desire on the part of parents and grandparents to overindulge  their only progeny. Add to that the technology with which these young’uns are surrounded and from which they seem to draw their very life blood, and what you get is not just a belief that all ought to be available all the time, but that this is how it always was and always will be.

So the idea of rock star has become different. Less something to strive for, or, gasp!, earn, than yet another thing on a list of desires that invariably get gotten for them. Again: these brush strokes are broad, but useful still.

Between 1993 and 1997, Niu Jiawei, who participated in our 2005 rock talk, worked at the Beijing office of Magic Stone Records, the label opened on the mainland by Taiwanese outfit Rock Records to cover yaogun. This was Magic Stone’s – and yaogun’s – heyday, when records sold widely and rock rang out from the stadium stages, radio stations and cassette players of the nation. Magic Stone and a few others created rock stars out of dudes previously slugging it out in the venues of the country’s underground. “It’s a problem if things develop too fast,” Niu said, in 2005, citing the record time in which rock stars were made, and the swiftness with which they were dethroned. “There was a crash. I don’t think rock musicians are suited to live like stars.”

Stars of yore: Black Panther

Which is not what folks seem to be thinking in 2011. This year’s panel wrapped up with talk of the value and usefulness of handing out rock awards. Already, two such events occur: Mao Livehouse, the premier live rock venues of Beijing and Shanghai, has been hosting awards from their earliest (2007) days with a nice mix of folks nominated and awarded. Midi Productions, those behind the Festival of the same name, decided, in 2009, to give out awards as well; reviews of Midi’s Awards have been mixed (I have been on the Midi jury, and am more often than not disappointed with how things turn out; more on that, I’m sure, eventually).

“Awards help to establish standards and attract more attention from the fans,” Liu Huan, deputy general manager of the Midi Festival and Midi Productions told the panel. “We need to make the stars stars.”

That statement is what differentiates the two rock panels: In 2005, we weren’t talking about stars, we were talking about survival. And it’s tough to know where I’d rather be.


Radiohead meets Yaogun, Possibly

Seems that this blog will alternate through time. We started at the beginning; we now continue to the recent present. We will thusly hop around for the foreseeable future.

Radiohead opened an account on the Chinese microblogging site, Weibo.


If it’s actually Radiohead (an enormous “if”), nine days after posting “testing the weibo”, they have 67,500 reasons to post something more. If it’s not Radiohead, which is a distinct possibility (nothing more has been posted as of now, other than just about 4600 comments from fellow weibo-ers), they might want to consider joining the fray.

The Guardian asked what I thought, in this article, which ran on July 6, five days into Reibohead.

If any band can attract a loyal, hip, intelligent and savvy group of netizens to help their cause, I told the paper (the ’cause’ being accruing interest in a China tour, or of record distribution, rather than, say, freeing political prisoners), it’s definitely Radiohead. They could, I continued, employing the kind of subtlety and reasonableness much-needed in our over-hyped world, be kings of the virtual world.

Of course, it’s unclear if they opened the account at all. And if they did, whether it was done with an eye to performing, or just, you know, to “test”.

Their politics are what everyone’s talking about vis. China, which is reasonable, especially if the idea is to post on weibo the kinds of things they’ve been posting in other forums — which they won’t be able to do.

It’ll be a long time before the group gets permission to play in China (and before that, it’s arguable that the country isn’t ready, technically, for what that would entail). Certainly playing for/supporting/encouraging support for, say, an ethno-religious group headed by an elderly monk in a small Indian mountain town isn’t the kind of thing that looks good, in China, on a resume. Forget the permit-issuing authorities; it’s not likely an application would even be submitted (even if presenters could afford the fee or get specs up to snuff). Sinologist Perry Link talks about censorship in China as the “anaconda in the chandelier”: The snake will generally leave you alone, so long as you don’t poke at him. Radiohead, in this scenario, is the big, long stick.


Like most bands, whether or not they know, tried or cared, Radiohead does, in fact, have something of a presence in China already, via, first, dakou, or ‘saw-gash’ tapes and CDs:


…and later, thanks to file-swapping, p2p-ing, and the fact that in the post-OK Computer world few rockers or fans would not be aware of or attentive to Radiohead, whether in Beijing or Brighton. And, of course, there’s “indie”  label Modern Sky, who snagged the rights to Kid A a million years ago (2001) and (officially) distributed it in China. (one is hesitant to add that they did so well with it that they never distributed another Radiohead record again, though their catalogue does still include the occasional overseas record.)

Unlike most bands, though, Radiohead has been a major influence to a large number of Chinese rockers: There are few yaogun bands active or formed in the last decade-plus who don’t cite Radiohead as a major influence (not unlike the situation in many parts of the planet).

Also unlike most bands, Radiohead is well-known for a vision of the music biz that is similar to their conception of rock and roll: Their strategy for releasing In Rainbows (ie: pay what you want) seemed just as off-the-charts as what their brand of rock and roll created in each album since OK Computer.

China is a place where models of any kind tend not to work, so a band that is up for anything — not to mention creative about approaching the ten-tonne behemoth known as the music industry — is a perfect match for the Wild, Wild East.

Imagine if Radiohead actually set up the weibo account, and if it signals that the band is ready to seriously consider China. They could, like Linkin Park, make a real impression (LP were fortunate to have Huang Feng on their side building serious traction in-country in the days before weibo, douban and the million o

ther platforms part of the new normal). There is much to learn from LP; as much about finding success as avoiding failure: The recent hugging/high-fiving the band didwith a certain elderly monk seems to have slowed that train’s return trip to China, but the point is, Team Linkin spent a good amount of energy building a real presence, and it paid off nicely until things went pear-shaped.

Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda and Rob Bourdon at the 2011PTTOW Summit via

Which is the other point: Real investment in China requires a full-on effort and an outlook that goes far beyond scheduling. Which doesn’t mean bands that want in to China need to drop causes, shut up and play. It means they have to know what the investment in China involves.

So let’s say Radiohead is weibo-ing. Let’s say they get a few zillion more followers. They might well become invested in the country, proving their commitment not to the sales of billions of records but in the healthy development of an industry that is, to put it kindly, still finding its feet. There are two ways to look at the music business in China (like so many other industries): One: It’s a complete mess. Piracy is rampant, censorship is difficult, apathy is widespread. Two: It’s a clean slate. Everything is brand new. Nobody’s been doing anything for very long, so the potential for change is so huge.

Radiohead didn’t have a clean slate upon which to write the rules to their recent releases, but it sure seemed like they did. Imagine what they could do with an actual clean slate.

Let’s be clear: It’s not that Radiohead will be the tide that rises all ships on the storm-ridden and pirate-infested Chinese market. But a real involvement could certainly make others stop and rethink strategy, both inside and outside the country.

One yearns to bring this all back to Red Rock, that much-anticipated book now less than three months from international release. One can. Because Radiohead’s earliest imprint in China was made in the wake of Pablo Honey and the song “Anyone Can Play Guitar”. Influential radio DJ Zhang Youdai named his short-lived program (1994-1995) took the name and under its banner brought axemen into the studios of Beijing Radio to teach tunes to listeners. Many a young rocker snuck headphones into their extracurricular classes to listen in on those lessons.

Yang Haisong, the singer of post-punk outfit P.K. 14 and a major figure in yaogun, told me that among his crew, “Anyone Can Play Guitar” was more than just a song. It was their mantra and guiding philosophy. “Grow my hair,” Thom Yorke sang. “I wanna be wanna be wanna be Jim Morrison”. It sounds cheesy, and maybe he was poking fun. But when you find out that yaogunners were longing for the excitement, action and promise of America’s sixties to lift them out of the angst of China’s nineties, and that they believed they found it in rock and roll, it takes on a whole new meaning.

It was more than a rock song: It was the impetus for a life-altering decision, one that separated you from 99.9% of the world as you knew it. You couldn’t just grow your hair until the late nineties; those locks marked you as a rebel of a kind that those of us in rock and roll’s homeland couldn’t imagine.

“I wanna be in a band when I get to heaven,” went the song. When young ‘gunners heard that, they took it to heart, and you can hear it in the best of the music they made.

Let’s hope Radiohead remembers that.

Yaogun’s Beginnings

Since we’re at the beginning, why not start from yaogun’s beginning. Cui Jian kicked off yaogun when he performed “Nothing to My Name” at the Workers’ Stadium — and on nationwide television — in May 1986 (There’s a voice-over, and the action cuts out early, but surely you get the gist):

But what might just be the most entertaining aspect of the whole yaogun clock is that it came amongst the Hundred Stars’ wanna-be “We Are the World” extravaganza, “Let the World be Full of Love”, in which a Cui Jian of a very different kind appears at around 13.05, when he steps to the mic and “sings” words that were never were truer: “The world is changing/It only longs to never change”.