My final morning in China opened with a degree of mild panic. I awoke with my alarm, feeling a little shabby, but managed to get myself down to the lobby to meet Ciga and head for the airport. The 10am call came and went, leaving me tapping my feet and getting a little edgy – I’m not bothered about waiting around, but I had a flight to Beijing to catch, and airplanes have a habit of not waiting around. Eventually the lady arrived in a cab and a tizzy, having overslept; apparently she’d continued adventuring the night before on Archie’s insistence. We drove hell for leather and made it just about on time for me to check in and drop my bags. I then bade Ciga a fond farewell – she was staying in Shanghai, seeing as she lived there – complete with promises to show her around London if she makes the journey over.
An uneventful flight arrived to an eventful airport greeting. One of the first bands I was in at school featured me, Chris and Ben (who went on to become Kneejerk) and a guy called Qiang on bass. Qiang was from China, although he had an Australian passport, because his dad was a diplomat. He was a pretty crazy punk, and dropped out of the band when we started getting interested in hardcore rather than pop-punk (we started sounding “like Metallica” according to him..!). Soon after, he dropped out of school as well and pretty much disappeared. 11 years later, a few days before my arrival in Beijing, Nathaniel (the other S-Plit promoter, Archie’s business partner) emailed to say that he knew Qiang and he was looking forward to seeing me. So on walking out into the arrivals area of the airport, I saw my old friend for the first time in over a decade.
Qiang and I jumped in a cab and headed into town, catching up en route. Apparently he’d spent some time in prison in China for visa violations, and told me a couple of meth-related anecdotes, so clearly it’d been a wild few years for him too – which didn’t really surprise me, to be honest. It was lovely to see my old friend. After stopping at the hotel for a quick shower, we wandered around some very cool pedestrianized small streets, crammed full of boutiques and cafes, and I remembered to do some shopping for friends and family.
After that, we met up with Nathaniel. He’s an American who studied Chinese history at university, and eventually made his way over there, to work and improve his Chinese language skills. He’s now been there for 12 years or so, and apparently speaks and writes perfectly, so he’s the administrative brains behind the S-Plit promotions project. He took me over to the venue, D-22, another classic dive-bar-cum-venue, apparently set up by a veteran promoter from the New York punk scene who’d decided to relocate. Soundcheck was easy, dinner was restorative, and I even managed a nap before showtime.
Another slightly unbelievable crowd showed up – around 300 people, again, some ex-pats but lots of wild and glittering Chinese punks. There’s something in the freshness of their approach to the business of rock ‘n’ roll that makes me think of New York in the 1970s – everything is bold, fresh, new, frontier-territory, and the effortless adolescent styles and gorgeous nihilism of the kids takes your breath away. The first support act had something of a Libertines fixation, which usually annoys me, but there was an innocence and earnestness to their performance that was captivating. The second band seemed to have endless members playing violins, accordions and acoustic guitars. I ended up playing third of four, and had a great show, another enthusiastic response. The night finished up with a Chinese band who seemed to be aiming for Motley Crue, but ended up somewhere a little more punk – thoroughly entertaining.
My final night was spent with old friends and new – Qiang, my old university flatmate Sha (who showed up unannounced and paid me back the £200 she owed me from 7 years ago – madness), and Alexei from Montreal band Handsome Furs, who blew my mind by promising to take me out to dinner with the guys from Godspeed You Black Emperor in August when I’m in her hometown. We drank Jameson sat in seats outside a bar in the warm night air and talked nonsense, ignoring the fact that I had an early flight home the next day. A fine evening, one to imprint on the memory.
So that was China. It was one hell of an experience, all told. Many parts of it were very foreign to me, it’s certainly the least Western place that I’ve ever toured. The shows in Shanghai and Beijing were the best for me, but the experience of being in Guangzhou was probably the more culturally adventurous. The business of being in an authoritarian state was interesting for me too, not least because of my own political leanings; the monstrosity of the system was less obvious than part of me feared it might be, but there was an insidious undercurrent of caution and intellectual repression, usually self-inflicted. Thankfully the personalities and brave character of the folks I met generally outshone those shadows. I’m certainly keen to get back there sometime soon.
In more work-a-day news, the American side of the Try This At Home competition is finally up and running properly – you can find the submissions page here, if you submitted before please do try again. Sorry for the inconvenience.