Life As An American Punk Band in China
1970s punk rock was all about stickin' it to the man. Rules were made to be broken, and guitars were made to be played badly. China came late to the punk game, in part because the culture puts great reverence on traditional music, and in perhaps greater part because the government does all it can to take the counter out of counterculture. But punks in China have now at last begun to rock, even if they have to tell blatant lies to the government to do it.
American punk band Shore Leave are cruise ship musicians by day, and when they're done crooning for tourists, they don bandanas and fake names to rock out at Chinese venues, often dodging government censors in the process ...
Every Show Is A Battle Between The Performers And The Censors
China started cracking down extra hard on concerts in 2013, and it was all Elton John's fault.
Elton John had dedicated a recent concert to Ai Weiwei, a sculptor, architect, photographer, and strong critic of the Chinese government. Police were brought in, asking Elton to release a statement saying he was only inspired by Weiwei's art, not his political activism. Elton refused. So officials responded by calling for new rules for foreign performers, including one that would surely silence all kinds of underdogs: No one would be allowed to perform unless they held a college degree.
Officially, the restriction was never put into place, but unofficially, organizers scrambled to find university certificates for their acts, and a bunch of new applications for performance licenses got turned down. And this is just one part of the infernal regulatory machine in China, where every individual music performance and even every lyric sung at concerts needs to be approved in advance by the Ministry of Culture. If the lyrics are approved, the show goes on. If they are not, either the song is pulled from rotation or the band is banned from playing completely.
"No lyrics that criticize the ruling party," says The Captain, who does bass and vocals for Shore Leave. "No lyrics about ghosts/supernatural stuff." One anti-capitalist rule insists artists refrain from romanticizing the luxury life -- so no songs about tigers on leashes and Crystal-filled hot tubs, please.
The vague nature of these laws lets the government censor whatever they like for basically any reason, and a scary number of those reasons come down to bigotry. "You used to be able to sing pro-LGBT songs," says The Captain, "but that's changed," which keeps Shore Leave from performing this album opener:
This is the case despite the fact that China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and removed it from the official list of mental disorders in 2001, but maybe it's not too surprising. After all, the country still has forced electroshock conversion therapy.
Many bands dodge fallout by changing their most controversial lyrics before they submit them for review. Take Shore Leave's not-at-all-political ode to Parks And Recreation's alien cult leader, Zorp. "The promoter told us the 'revolution' lyrics in 'Armagedon-A-Go-Go' might be problematic," says The Captain. "So we wrote 'Revolution / They gonna burn city hall' as 'Evolution / They're gone, Arsenio Hall.'" Hey, nobody said the new tunes had to make any sense.
There's A Secret Language That Lets You Badmouth The Government
When bands in China reference "Zhongnanhai" in a negative or mocking way, they'll insist they're not referring to the residential compound for China's top leaders, but rather the popular cigarette brand.
Whether they're hiding their anger in their lyrics or merely airing their grievances to their mail delivery person, the Chinese have implemented a sort of code that allows them to speak freely without drawing scrutiny from the powers that be. Guitarist Lt. Bugs recalls one of their first experiences with this special language: "Someone told us about a venue owner in Beijing who was 'lost in a game of hide and seek.'" That, it turns out, is local slang for someone who died suddenly while in police custody.
Other fun examples include phrases like "the square of hopelessness." That's not a description of soul-crushingly dull cubicle life, but a thinly veiled reference to Tiananmen Square, which is a mostly off-limits topic in the arts.
Sometimes the code isn't code at all. Musicians simply sing in English, as many Chinese officials do not speak or understand it. This plays to Shore Leave's advantage. Regardless of whatever was officially submitted beforehand, they sometimes simply sing their original lyrics onstage -- the odds are no one will be able to tell the difference.
Some Bands Are Completely Manufactured
A Chinese performance venue might mix bands to create new acts on the spot, dumping yet another challenge on artists trying to keep it real. Punk bands are subjected to this as much as anyone else is, despite that going against the very nature of everything the genre stands for. You may be thinking, "But NSYNC and the Spice Girls were manufactured. Were they not the greatest groups in the history of music?" Yes, they were. But those group members auditioned, got to know each other, practiced their craft. They became friends and co-workers before they ever set foot on stage. Manufactured bands in China are not afforded that luxury.
Lt. Bugs says these bands are often thrown together by agents at such a last minute that many of them "probably didn't even meet before the show." But it doesn't matter if the band members can play their instruments with any real chemistry. Hell, it doesn't matter if they can play their instruments at all. "Sometimes they'll even be playing instruments to backing tracks," says Shore Leave drummer First Mate, "making the singer essentially perform karaoke."
The venue well may not be hiring these musicians for their creative abilities anyway. Lt. Bugs tells of the time she saw a promoter switch a band's singer and bassist right before a show. "The bassist was a pretty-looking white girl," she says, "and the singer was a darker-skinned Hispanic man. They wanted the pretty white girl up front." Shore Leave has even seen fliers for their own concerts using stock photo models instead of their actual faces. That's what happens when none of the band members are pretty enough for promoters.
By now, you might be wondering how watered-down lyrics and plastic supermodels equal punk. To put it simply, the very act of listening to anything that isn't traditional music is an act of defiance in China. The genre of punk and the identities of the singers often boil down to "This is not Chinese." If it's not Chinese, it's "Western." If it's Western, it's not traditional, and it's therefore subversive. Even the iconic punk style has received a makeover thanks to this amalgamation of all things Western. Fans will wear denim jeans and clothing with English phrases emblazoned across them as a roundabout way to show their love for the American lifestyle.
The Most Legit Punk Shows Go Underground
If you're still worried these concerts sound fatally not-punk, take comfort in knowing that some shows ignore every regulation. Rather than going through the proper official channels, artists slap shows together and hope to high heaven that they don't get caught.
Of course, advertising an illegal concert is super risky, so promoters take a very DIY approach to generating buzz. Flyers passed at shows drum up excitement for the next gig. Super secretive magazines provide info. "No names are included on zines," says Lt. Bugs, "because, again, you have to get gov permission to distribute any sort of media. So nobody wants their name attached to an unofficial print." The band shared an example of an underground magazine promoting local shows.
That's all very cute and 1980s, but this is 2018, so of course online advertising is a thing. For Chinese punk acts, ads are usually images, because JPEGs are a lot harder than text for censors to read and flag. And because illegal promoters can't advertise via normal channels, things get pretty creative. Shore Leave once got a whole audience together through Tantan, China's Tinder. "We spent a couple weeks before our ship landed talking to girls and guys online on the app," says The Captain. "Told them to meet us for a drink at the bar we were playing at." 50 lonely Chinese singles showed up at the bar that night and were converted to punk fans.
Despite all the measures to avoid government attention, illegal shows still feel the wrath of censors from time to time. Usually it's when a rival venue sees an opportunity to take out some of the competition. "That happened to an expat bar where they didn't file for an entertainment license for an open mic comedy show," says Lt. Bugs. "The place got raided. Some bartenders got fired for not having work visas. The bar got fined." This put the fear of the law into them, and the place never hosted a show again.
Small Towns Are Hearing Punk (And Seeing Foreigners) For The First Time
Like we said, there's a heavy focus on traditional music in China. Rebellious youth have also grown fond of rap and hip-hop, but these genres aren't always gateways to the wider world. For starters, there are those pesky bans on seditious lyrics. And then some of China's most popular rap songs are so damn patriotic that they go all the way to the other side and become inflammatory toward all outsiders. Take this lovely gem, which starts out with the phrases "stupid foreigners" and "fuck your mothers."
You'd think the government would clamp down on that sort of thing, but it's possible that Chinese censors aren't 100 percent consistent with their standards.
Rock is new to many Chinese audiences, and so are foreigners. It's not unusual for a punk band to perform for an audience that has literally never heard rock music before ... or seen a white person up close and personal. "There's almost a freak show element, in that some people just come to see foreigners, regardless of the music," says The Captain. When people approach band members after shows, they often don't talk about the music. "They just run through some conversational cues to practice their English."
Because of this novelty, punk bands often find themselves sandwiched between bigger acts, like those aforementioned traditional Chinese performers. This means any hip youngsters looking to stick it to the man are forced to share space with chess-playing grandpas who want to hear the bamboo flute music they grew up with. "The promoter," says The Captain, recalling one such show, "told us that the old men at the bar were complaining about the punk bands: 'The singers can't sing!' The age gap between the two audiences present was obvious."
But hiding in the sea of grumpy old men and wide-eyed punk rock virgins is a handful of rebellious youth who absolutely understand the point of the genre, even if they don't understand the lyrics. "This one girl," says Lt. Bugs, "who knew a little bit of English, kept buying us rounds of Tsingtao and baijiu shots and saying 'revolution revolution' over and over to us." She never quite figured out the group's actual name, so she called them the "revolution band." And really, there was no reason to correct her.
Shore Leave appeared in a documentary on this subject alongside Bill Stevenson (Black Flag, The Descendents) and Steve Terreberry. Watch it online for free. Listen to their music and buy their album to support them here. Fight the power with Carolyn on Twitter and Instagram.
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