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China | Audio nights in Beijing

Where the music underground scene carries the kind of energy you haven’t seen since New York in the 1970s
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First Published: Sat, May 25 2013. 12 09 AM IST
A Chinese punk band performs at Mao Livehouse in Beijing. Photo: Fu Xintun/Xinhua Press/Corbis
A Chinese punk band performs at Mao Livehouse in Beijing. Photo: Fu Xintun/Xinhua Press/Corbis
Updated: Sat, May 25 2013. 11 07 AM IST
The history of independent music in Beijing can be depicted through a series of images of iconic entrances.
The now defunct Scream! Club, which incubated Beijing’s nascent punk subculture in the 1990s, had the words “Heavy Metal Fans and Old People Not Allowed” stamped over the graffiti-covered front door. The now closed D-22 on Chengfu Lu (a tiny dive bar where Beijing’s current crop of post-punksters and alt-rockers cut their teeth) was a jet-black building with red curtains, slouched like the Addams Family residence. Even forgettable venues like the popular Propaganda nightclub in the Wudaokou student district have unforgettable façades—in this case, a glowing five-pointed red star in the middle of an empty wall.
In Beijing, doors have a special, almost cosmological, significance. As portals into other worlds and other sounds, it’s perhaps fitting that the city’s live music venue entrances reflect an edginess and sense of possibility.
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The fall of 2012 was turning to one of Beijing’s biting winters when I first discovered the magic of the local music scene. I was walking along Gulou Dong Da Jie, past the solemn Drum and Bell Towers on the city’s symbolic north-south axis. With its trendy restaurants in charming old siheyuan courtyard houses and cafés in narrow hutong alleyways, the Gulou neighbourhood is Beijing’s hipster epicentre. Just past the perennially crowded Nanluogu Alley, I found my destination—a rusty, crumbling door set in a jarring, iron-riveted wall. This was Mao Livehouse, arguably the city’s premier live music venue.
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Bell Towers. Photo: Thinkstock
I was there to see a collection of local hip hop crews take the stage to celebrate a new release from MC Nasty Ray, a local DJ and rapper. I was expecting nothing more than an amusing distraction, maybe worthy of some funny Facebook updates. But inside the grimy and smoky concert hall that perpetually smelt of Zhongnanhai cigarettes, I found the music transformational.
I’d followed local scenes in Delhi and Singapore, but I realized right away that this was at another level. Not only was the atmosphere full of energy, but the bands on stage were unexpectedly professional, and of consistently high quality. The audience was appreciative, the sound top-notch and tickets cheap.
I heard smooth, dirty Beijing gangsta rap from crews like the Xin Jie Kou Collective, and even more esoteric regional imports like Mongolian hip hop. I came back to Mao a few days later to hear folk artiste Xiao He, a crazy avant-garde performer who generated otherworldly sounds with just an acoustic guitar and a laptop. The week after, it was the smooth post-punk minimalism of Snapline, a band that captured the ethereal urban soundscape of Beijing like nothing I’d heard before.
I was hooked.
The Mao Livehouse became a regular destination. I heard “traditional” Mohawk-sporting punk from the likes of Demerit, and spacey post-rock from Hua Lun. I started following local bands on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, and Douban, a social network for what the Chinese jokingly called “cultured youth” (wenyi qingnian, read: hipsters).
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Over the next few months, I learnt that lurking underneath Beijing’s pea-soup sky was this vibrant music underground—a remarkable constellation of musicians, artistes and writers creating a genuinely grass-roots movement. The local scene felt genuinely magical—fiercely iconoclastic, free from pretension and fearlessly creative. It was distinctly Beijing, and yet reminded me of what I had read about, say, New York in the days of The Velvet Underground, or London in the hold of the Sex Pistols.
Seeing a local band take the stage in Beijing was like watching the genesis of something raw, sincere and ambiguous. It was precisely this edginess, this abrasive rough-around-the-edges quality that made Beijing’s live music underground so special. It was one of those things I began rooting for, and fell headlong into.
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I bought Cui Jian’s era-defining album, Rock ‘n’ Roll on the New Long March at the charming Du Yin Changpian (literally, “Indie Music”), a local record store run in Gulou. The owner suggested I go and see Lao Cui play live—he was doing an arena tour around China, and was hitting Beijing first.
On a grey evening in December, I made the long trek to the west Beijing neighbourhood of Wukesong to see the legend take the stage in front of 30,000 screaming fans. When the first notes of Nothing to My Name rang out, 30,000 lighters, glow-sticks, cellphones and other luminescent devices were raised in unison. I knew I’d seen something special.
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Soon I had become a scenester.
This meant, first, regular trips to Yugong Yishan which, together with Mao, was the city’s oldest and most venerable concert venue. Two imposing stone lions stand guard at the entrance to this sweaty, dark live house housed in the former residence of nationalist-era warlord Duan Qirui. Inside, makeshift stalls sell band T-shirts, and mosh pits churn to noise-wave rockers like Carsick Cars (Beijing’s biggest indie brand name) or legions of metal bands leading exercises in furious head banging.
Weekend afternoons were spent sometimes in Zajia Lab, where moppy-haired Beijing youth danced to avant-garde electronic acts, or at XP, near the touristy Beihai lake, which ran weekly improv nights and incubated fresh new acts.
Once I was lucky to get a rare ticket to a secret, intimate show at the School Bar, hidden inside a cramped courtyard house. I followed a tiny signboard down a dark corridor until I hit a neon-lit ticket booth. Here, a small knot of about 100 fans was quaffing cheap Tsingtao beers and dreaming to trippy shoe-gaze bands like Skip Skip Ben Ben or grooving to Sino-funksters like Perpetual Motion Machine, two local favourites now spreading their influence to other Chinese cities.
In my last week in Beijing, in the dark depths of a frigid January, I braved sub-zero temperatures and three subway transfers to reach Dos Kolegas, an eclectic venue located in the shell of an old drive-in theatre. I was there to see Residence A, a new Beijing band I’d followed like a proud parent since their tentative first gigs. They played an infectious brand of rock ‘n’ roll, with a wildly energetic frontman called Zhao Zhao who always looked like he was having the time of his life on stage.
At the end of a knockout performance, I noticed that the girl standing next to me in the crowd looked like she was about to cry. She shouted at the band for an encore (they’d already played two), then turned to me. “I love them so much,” she said in Chinese.
I smiled and nodded. No further explanation was necessary.
Krish Raghav is a journalist and student of public policy based in Singapore and Beijing. He draws comics at www.beijingbrown.tumblr.com.
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First Published: Sat, May 25 2013. 12 09 AM IST