Model ‘Gunner: Li Chi


Beijing and Shanghai live venue Mao Livehouse has recently garnered attention in the yaogun world by putting up investment to get a bevy of acts to perform at Japan’s mega-festival Summer Sonic this (2011) August. A competition (see Beijing Daze‘s coverage of the Beijing round; China Music Radar‘s of Shanghai) added two bands – Beijing’s Nanwu (aka NAMO) and Nanchang’s RunRunLoser – to the five pre-picked by the club. Three of the five – Ghost Spardac, Perdel and Crystal Butterfly – are managed by Mao-related operations; well-known acts ReTROS, Queen Sea Big Shark and Muma and Third Party round out the list of pre-picks. It will be interesting to see what, if any, traction these bands get from the festival. As of right now, it seems that the festival slot will be these bands’ only gigs in Japan; it’s sad when a big trip only involves one show, but, for one, it’s a really big show, and, for two, Mao is to be commended for their efforts: First, they erected their own high-level stage that bands can aim for, and now they’ve taken that a step further by offering an even bigger, international, platform.

photo by jWc

Mao Livehouse is modeled on Japanese rock rooms, and it’s from there that the word ‘livehouse’, whose usage is now prevalent across the yaogun landscape, comes. The club has important backing from Japanese label Bad News Records, and opened in Beijing in 2007 and Shanghai in 2009 to rave reviews. It was a new kind of venue: There was pro gear, folks trained in its use, and management intimately involved with and committed to music. Lots of clubs had been opened by music fans, but none had the equipment or the desire to pump funds and energy into yaogun that made them actual institutions. Mao was – is – not problem-free (as audience member, promoter and performer I could draw up a list). But Mao is an altogether new kind of venue, one that has set a bar others can’t even see let alone come near. Which isn’t to say that it’s the only venue worth visiting or performing at (Genuinely Great Spots, which dot the yaogun map, are defined by vibe more than anything you can point to); it is to say that it’ll be a long time before there is actual competition to Mao.

Mao @ Midi, 2010

(And let’s not forget Mao’s stage at the May 2010 Midi Music Festival in Beijing, which was moved almost literally piece-by-piece, from the club. A last-minute addition to the festival, the result of getting busted for fire code violations, it was an example of what a well-oiled machine the club can be – not to mention a flipping of the bird to the authorities that tried to stop the rock. Artists lined up in support of the club to play at their tiny stage, and fans followed. It was a stage that this veteran of most Midis can attest was one of the highlights of the event’s decade-plus history.)

When you hear about Li Chi, the man behind Mao Livehouse, the appreciation of the venue he’s created transforms into something else. It’s a lot like yaogun: I thought I liked it, but the more I dug as I researched The Book, the more I came to appreciate it.

So it’s as good a time as any to introduce the Model ‘Gunners category, where we meet the folks that really make yaogun rock.

via The Beijinger

Li Chi isn’t the kind of guy that longs for the limelight. He represents the kind of guy with which yaogun’s path is lined: Those unsung heroes standing in the shadows of the ‘gunners that fans have come to know. He is a soft-spoken man, his salt-and-pepper hair no longer hanging, in shaggy-goth style, across his face; he’s got it close-cropped now, more pepper than salt, while his patchy facial hair has been sculpted into a goatee. When Mao opened in Beijing, he was just shy of forty years old, and he looked, and looks, both older and younger than that: He walks slowly and carefully, with a limp, but when he’s behind the lighting desk (at Mao and elsewhere, stepping in when bands need the help) or talking rock, he has the energy of the kid who’d gotten hooked on rock from the moment he first heard Taiwanese pop princess Teresa Teng (邓丽君 Deng Lijun in Mandarin); from there, it was a short step to USA for Africa, and Cui Jian and beyond.

Born in 1966, Li’s family worked for Air China, so he was blessed with access to not just music, but equipment: The four-speaker system his family acquired in the late seventies meant that the experience of hearing, for the first time, Michael Jackson and Teresa Teng was a stereophonically-enhanced mind-blowing experience. In the early eighties, he considered himself lucky to be able to afford a couple of tapes each month; when a friend passed along U2, Aerosmith, Bowie and more, he was hooked.

Li Chi dropped out of Beijing Institute of Technology and sold computers in the early nineties, while his love of rock and roll grew, fuelled by the early-nineties weekend-party-spot Sushanna, an office cafeteria that rockers took over on Saturday nights. DJs would spin tunes more often than bands would play, but it was still well worth the trip for Li and his crew, who used to walk a dozen kilometers to get there – only “sometimes” would they spring for a cab, while sneaking in Cokes because they didn’t have enough money to buy the pop on offer. Presumably it was because their money went to the RMB10 cover (approximately US$1.50 in today’s currency; for perspective, average monthly wages in 1995 were somewhere around the RMB400 mark) and their music collections. “I remember buying CDs, which weren’t cheap,” Li told me, “and treating them like girlfriends. They were that valuable to me.”

“I wanted to open a place like Sushanna,” Li said, almost twenty years later, and, despite the success of Beijing’s Mao Livehouse and its newly-opened sister club in Shanghai, he sounded like he was still figuring out how to make it happen. “I was pretty fanatical about it.” Li believed that, like himself, the average person would “need” a place like it. He already had a name: The People’s Disco (renmin diting 人民迪厅): “so that average people, blue collar folks, would come.” He had no idea, he admits, that what he actually wanted to build was not a disco, but his was an evangelical mission, with little time to sweat the small stuff: “What I wanted was to get people to hear rock music. The kind of music I was hearing at Sushanna: Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Iggy Pop, Queen, stuff like that.”

Li’s musical collection had grown, and he started to put together the team and equipment that would be necessary for his diting, which was going to be located in Jilin City, in the country’s northeast, not far from the North Korean border (there was no spot in Beijing they could find, and their connections were good up north). Right before they moved in, though, a fire broke out, wrecking the club along with much of the adjacent museum. Stuck with tons of music and the increased amount of pop knowledge Li acquired in preparation for the club’s opening, someone suggested Li go into the record business. Or, to be more accurate, the illegitimate record business.

It was the mid-nineties, and dakou, or ‘saw-gash’ tapes and CDs, were everywhere. Not exactly pirated material, they were the garbage of the Western music industry; albums were marked for trash and sent, ostensibly, to dumps overseas that found their way to places like Tianjin, the port city just over a hundred kilometres southeast of Beijing, where a veritable Mecca awaited Li Chi. “There were…rooms full of music,” he remembered. “There was a street lined with these shops. You could look…for days and still not see everything.” Between his own collection and the knowledge he used to acquire his stock, he did quite well. Starting as a mobile record store, dragging luggage full of tapes and discs behind him, Li eventually found a storefront, becoming one of the only shops to have some sort of system to organize music. Most shopkeepers had no idea what they were offering; Li knew too well, and had the self-proclaimed “best looking shop in town” to boot: He commissioned paintings of his favourite album covers, so anyone familiar with the work of Megadeath or Nirvana knew that this was the place to be. “There were kids that’d spend all day in the shop, instead of going to school,” Li remembered. Two years later, he sold the store and went into advertising.

Eventually, Bad News Records came calling; at the time they were managing ska-punk band Brain Failure, but they soon started talking about opening a venue. Li did the market reseach and concluded that any rock club would lose money, for sure. And so, in 2007, Mao Livehouse opened its doors. A planned three-year money-losing period never materialized; two years after opening, Li said, the club was in the black. Not far in the black, but certainly not in the red. Since there were never any plans for big bucks, everyone’s happy. “Our approach was if we lose money, we still need to bring this new approach to China,” he said. “Losing money was ok because it was for yaogun.” Because the priority is the music, the bar was, intentionally, an afterthought (and remains thus, as many have attested).

Li Chi, like so many other early ‘gunners, is fuelled by the inspiration he received from rock and roll, and because he knows of its power to affect lives, he is eager to get it to as many people as possible. “We hope that the idea of livehouse succeeds in China, that young people have the chance to like this kind of music… It’s not to ‘beat’ other kinds of music. It’s because we know rock is really great.”

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.


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”.