Beijing Calling: A Crop of New Rock Bands Is Changing the Face of Chinese Youth Culture, Writes Flora Bagenal
Bagenal, Flora, New Statesman (1996)
It is an unusually crisp afternoon in Beijing, and positioned squarely between an impossibly large pile of cabbages and an oversized stone lion is a small door. As a convoy of brick-laden trucks thunders past on the road outside, the sudden racket of a synthesised drumbeat and bass guitar comes crashing out from within. The sign outside reads: "Yu Gong yi Shan", which roughly translates as "The man who moved the mountain instead of going around it". It is an apposite motto for the Beijing rock scene.
Inside, a stream of staccato bleeps and whizzing noises accompanies Gothic-sounding chords played on a mini-keyboard. A bunch of men huddles around a soundboard at one end of the dark room, facing a stage full of ladders, a half-constructed lighting rig, a drum kit and a large pile of electrical leads. In the middle of it all is a gangly man, dressed in an overcoat and thick, Clark Kent-style glasses, crouched on the floor and jabbing at the dials of an amp. This is 24-year-old Chen Xi, lead singer of Snapline, Beijing's latest music phenomenon. By day he is a graduate in mechanical engineering and nuclear energy who works for Microsoft; by night he becomes the jumpy, overexcitable frontman of a three-piece rock band, shouting about the universe, porn stars and his girlfriend Jenny.
"My band mates laugh at me for working for Microsoft," Chen Xi says in his practically perfect English. "They hate brand names." Snapline, like the rock scene from which they have evolved, espouse a self-effacing philosophy that would be unfamiliar to fans of much contemporary western rock, with its megabucks and competing egos. While the rest of China falls over itself to modernise and rebrand the nation for the outside world, a contingent of scruffy twentysomethings is cramming into dingy bars and underground music venues to drink beer, shout obscenities and headbang.
This is supposed to be the "me" generation of only children, born under China's one-child policy. Yet these young people are anything but materialistic, label-wearing consumerists. Like Chen Xi, they are mostly either college kids, studying subjects such as information technology, maths and economics, or graduates with good jobs. Their heroes are the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, Radiohead and the Cure. Their music of choice ranges from infectious electropop to angry punk with industrial guitar riffs.
"We started messing around making music at college in 2001," shouts Chen Xi, gesturing to the bassist Li Weisi, 23, and guitarist/key-board player Li Qing, 25, both of whom also play in another popular band, Carsick Cars. "Last December we heard an American label was over here looking for local talent. They liked our stuff and asked us to sign a deal." He shrugs. "We didn't have any other offers, so we said OK."
In September the band released their first album with the Chicago-based record label Invisible. Party Is Over, Pornostar is a snappy 40 minutes of pop, punk and rock tunes sung almost entirely in English. "I sing in English because my Chinese sucks," laughs Chen Xi, who claims he is no match for Chinese-language poets and feels more comfortable using English, which he learned at school. "People say our music is post-punk. I'm not sure I would describe it as that. It's hard to pin it down to one type, because we're always changing our minds. I sing what's in my head and the others play along."
The result is songs such as "S2", a track that involves Chen Xi talking and sometimes singing over a frantic and extremely loud backing: "It's not about physics/It's just a piece of truth that you have to know/It's a mistake that everything comes from the great explosion/Everything comes from the same line." What can it all mean? "It's about negative space," he explains with great excitement. …