Fans of This American Life were treated to a bit of China this week, with an episode entitled “Americans in China.” With that in mind, I figured I’d drop a little piece of my own China experience; an article that the Globe and Mail published back in May of 2005. Literally every foreign musician playing in China will have similar stories.
As a former foreign resident of the Middle Kingdom, it was both shocking and unsurprising to hear the number 594,000 bandied about, in this post on the China Beat (yes, that is the site you know from its posting of an excerpt-plus from Red Rock as well as a range of great and insightful readings on China), about how many non-Chinese, in 2010, called China home.
The number is both higher than I thought and lower than it ought to be, and the article points out several reasons this is so. The visa situation for many non-Chinese residents, which is perhaps best explained by evoking the colour grey, means that many foreigners are not exactly counted in official stats. Compounding that situation are the periods of regulatory, erm, adjustments that tend to follow periods of Special Events — say, the Olympic or World Expo periods. But on the other hand, anyone that’s lived in China for an extended period of time knows that foreigners can’t truly live under the radar.
Alas. There are foreigners, a whole bunch of them. And, to turn things, as we often do, back to Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll, as long as there have been foreigners, they have used their devilsh ways to spread gospels of many kind, rock and roll being only one of many recent such gospels. There have been many unsung heroes, bringing their collections to the hungry ears of local audiences and several important figures who brought not just the sounds, but the actual artists into the country desperate to experience for themselves the music. And, of course, there have been players.
And so, a brief look, at some of the laowai (“lao [rhymes with ‘how’] why“, literally, ‘old outside’) inside yaogun:
If Cui Jian is yaogun’s Adam, Eddie Luc
Lalasoa Randriamampionina isn’t Eve, and he’s probably not the snake, but he’s definitely one of the other residents of the Garden. Since the earliest days and right through to today — unlike any other musician — Eddie has been alongside Cui, making him the most famous foreigner in yaogun, and one of the most famous foreigners in China. He also played for legendary blues crew Rhythm Dogs as well as the amazing Nogabe, in addition to early band Ado (which became Cui’s band from early one).
One of the first alt bands to come out of Beijing was Xue Wei, a band about which little is known, other than they had a big fan in Cui Jian who told a reporter that he wished they’d play more. Scotsman Colin Chinnery, maven in the contemporary Chinese art scene as both artist and curator, led the band (and is pictured at right). Check out their tune, “Trivial” (微不足道), streaming here.
Thin Man has established itself even into the mainstream, but in the band’s earliest incarnations, Chandler Klose played an essential role; he and still-frontman Dai Qin formed the band, and it was Klose that brought Dai, who had only just discovered the Beatles (and was playing in one of the early-nineties party scene’s favourite bands, which became known as the Mongolian Beatles) under the spell of the alternative music only recently dominating the American rock scene. Klose also played alongside Zang Tianshuo (soon to become a pop star) in the band 1989, but left it for Thin Man. Here, the band’s contribution to 1994’s Original Chinese Rock compilation, “Passed this Place”
P.K. 14 remains atop the yaogun heap, even nearly 15 years after their formation. Soon after Yang Haisong and his now-wife Sun Xia moved the band to Beijing to break into the then-nascent but bubling scene, he met Swede Jonathan Leijonhuvfud, who had brought punk bands on tour through the mainland from his base in Hong Kong. Like Yang, Leijonhuvfud discovered that Beijing was where it was at, and moved there in 1999, joining the band soon thereafter.
Beginning in the early aughts, bands with members from outside of China were less rare: There were more spaces to rehearse and perform and there were exponentially more of us. And we got around. Which doesn’t mean that your humble narrators two most recent bands are unworthy of mention here…
Black Cat Bone, still going despite my departure (as well they should be), formed in 2005ish, is a blooze band of the party-with-us variety.
Finally, RandomK(e), a dark space-post-indie rock band formed in 2005 and disbanded in 2010 with, alas, my departure.
Sometimes, you forget that the touring situation for bands coming into China is actually quite normalized. There are clubs, presenters of some form, festivals and audiences awaiting in major cities across the length and breadth of the map. Rock, jazz, folk, metal, blues and other bands have been on what could be diplomatically referred to as trouble-free tours — speed bumps exist and appear on the proverbial road with a predictable regularity (though the size, shape and form of the bumps are never predictable), but a system, of sorts, is in place and has been, for a few years now. Just because it doesn’t look like touring the States doesn’t mean it’s not a system.
But, like I said, sometimes you forget. Because sometimes, you come across word of the recent experiences of a family band in China. And then you remember that there are crazies operating just outside the ‘system’ to which I referred, close enough to give the impression to bands of the rock ilk (those that play clubs, tour and sell CDs) that they are yet another presenter of gigs in the general rock and roll understanding of the term, but far enough from it that anyone who’s even had a glance at the touring road of the Middle Kingdom can smell an intruder from a mile off.
The trials of Joei and the Fulcos — and, I must add, these are not trials that seem to have upset the group/family much; they had their rose-coloured glasses on for their entire China visit, and it’s a good thing — are one reminder of the Other Side. The Fulco family, who describe themselves as the Partridge Family with attitude (and who were featured on ABC TV’s The Wife Swap), was drafted to perform at the Zhangjiajie International Country Music Festival. It’s a festival that has a pretty wide-ranging definition of country music, as evidenced by the festival website’s rundown of performers, such as the Wangqing dance troupe, at left, from northeastern China.
The Fulcos’ bio does not seem to appear on the festival site, but their bio wouldn’t seem to belong among the dance troupes and large numbers of nothing-to-do-with-country-music acts gathered under Zhangjiajie’s banner (see, also, this article for a look at who was on the bill). The China Daily emphasized the tourist-related benefits of such a festival — alarm bells to the ears of those familiar with China’s frenetic festival scene, where local government departments with visions of endless tourist revenues are eager to jump into the festival-production fray — and concluded with talk of the mayor cartoonified, strumming a guitar to “Country Roads” (pictured above; the video is here).
While one doesn’t want to take away from the Fulco family experience, one does want to emphasize the variety-show nature of the type of tour on which the band was put. The best thing that can happen with these wacko tours is that they create good fodderfor writing and for stories told around the proverbial campfire. The worse thing that can happen, though, is that bands with genuine hopes fanned by excited and excitable presenters will wind up upset at the prospect of being little more than performing monkeys helping to sell condos in some far-flung minor city, or in front of an audience super-psyched to get photos and autographs but one that doesn’t, on the large scale, tend to be too picky. Or, remember your name beyond “band from USA”.
Is there a chance that the Fulcos, and others before and after, can win hearts and minds over to the rock and roll (or country, or anything genuine, authentic or remotely original)? Absolutely. Is that part of the draw of touring China? Certainly. Having been on stages large and small in front of just those kinds of audiences, I’ve been both excited and depressed by the prospects, experience and aftermath. And the Fulcos’ experiences underline a big reason for touring in the first place: It’s news-worthy, a peg upon which a band, even in 2011, can hang some nice press coverage back home.
But for a band making a cross-continental trip, the key is to know what one is getting into. So Future Fulcos and assorted others: The Chinese music industry is in its infancy. Don’t be afraid, but do be aware.