The west courtyard of the Duan Qirui government on Zhang Zizhong road in historic Dongcheng district is an unlikely location for a Chinese rock club, but one to die for. Unlikely less so because it's an historic monument (as headquarters of the warlord who dominated China intermittently between 1916 and 1926) but bChinese rock clubs can't afford the rent. Yugongyishan however seems to be alone among local rock bars in its ability to make money.
Manager/owner Lue Zhiqiang played guitar in a “really old” heavy metal band in the late 1980s but now the 37 year old is too embarassed to remember its name. A period in Berlin was mind-opening for the Beijing native, “it widened my view.”Lue learned from Germans – he’s married to one - to be persistent as well as open-minded: when his first bar Lu Xiang café near Tsinghua University was closed by the onset of SARS in 2003 (his partner imigrated to Canada) Lue opened Yugongyishan in 2004 in a warehouse in the corner of a carpark. Sensing fate perhaps, the bar's logo, made famous in t-shirts sold to punters, was 'chai,' the Chinese character for demolition.
When the bar was levelled in 2007 (the site was developed as yet another Beijing mall) Lue moved over to Dongcheng. Upstairs Yue has preserved all the cool of Rui Fu, a failed lounge bar/club that previously occupied the space. The lounge, or “quiet space” intended as a VIP lounge and green room place for bands, has all the colours and fittings of a 1970s GDR nite club.
Lue also kept the chandeliers hung by Rui Fu. That was the club’s previous incarnation, run by perennial bar hand Henry Li. “He also a friend, the place wasn’t going so well –his shengyin (sound) wasn’t good – so I took it over. Li overreached, tarting up Rui Fu for a sophisticated VIP set which Beijing doesn't have. He charged too much for drinks, thinks Lue. “Guests were drinking champagne and smoking cigars. Our crowd pays RMB20 for a beer."
Yugongyishan is breaking even: “enough to pay the costs and pay my mortgage on my house,” says Lue. “I’ve put millions into the place and not sure if I’ll get it back.” The bar doesn’t depend on the door fee, which can rise to RMB200 for a visiting foreign act.
Compared to the ghetto cool of the old venue, the new Yugong Yishan is unabashedly retro. A ticket booth by the door, bathed in round light from large lanterns each side create the feel of a 1950s cinema. - that's probably why corporations hire it for parties and photo shoots. He's reluctant to discuss his accounts but by a series of gruff nods Lue agrees that the corporates' cash helps pay a 30-strong staff: 20 are full-time, another ten work on the company’s flyers and website. A three-man team, Pierre Blanc and Oh Yang and Lue seek and book musicians.
There have been great nights. Like when International Noise Conspiracy played – in the old venue. “We got them through a good old friend who’s a very good friend of the band’s leader.” Local hero Zhang Qu in 2005 brought out the old bar’s biggest ever crowd: “700 people on 300 square metres and 200 people at the door who couldn’t get in… He hadn’t played in 10 years and suddenly he came back.”
The biggest night in the new venue was a free-in Wednesday night rockathon of local bands headlined by punksters Brain Failure, which drew 1,200 to 1,400 people. Yann Tiersen drew the biggest crowd foreigner at the new venue, selling 450 tickets. The bumper attendance was down to a co-operation with Midi festival organizers, which has a solid following among local college students.
“The size of the crowd doesn’t depend on the band, it depends on the music they play. I can’t say which of them will bring me the biggest crowd.” In trend-beholden Asia that’s a brave commitment. But less about quantity: quality is king, says Lue. “This is not a rock club, this is a place,” says Lue flicking a zippo lighter open and closed constantly as he talks. “I’m not concerned with how many people come, I’m more concerned about the quality of the music. Stop drawing us into categories, I’d just as gladly play reggae or African music as I would rock.”
African music is scarce, and quality arbitrary, on Beijing's music scene. Yugongyishan’s postbox bulges every month with demos from hopeful local bands seeking gigs. Sometimes we get eight demos and they’re all decent. Sometimes seven of the eight will be awful.” And sometimes there’s no accounting for taste. Only 70 people turned up to hear Austria’s Black Business play. “I thought they were great, but there was no one within ten metres of the stage.”
Sourcing good talent from abroad is beyond Yugongyishan’s own budget – “Sometimes there’s only enough [from door takings] for a taxi home for the band.” But cash from Beijing’s foreign embassies – Scandinavians in particular – allows Yugongyishan to bring European musicians – he cites the 30 musicians from Finland. Everyone pays a “certain amount,” but Yugongyishan’s share is a “shangye jimi,” a business secret, says Lue.
For so long on the run from the demolition ball, the name Lue chose for his bar says something about the man. Yugong Yishan name from an ancient Chinese myth. “Children study it, I did when I was a kid, it’s about the Yu Gong an old man living by the 2,000 metre high Yishan mountain in Shandong. It was right in front of his house, according to myth he had to go around it so the old guy decided to move the mountain bit by bit. Neighbours mocked Yugong, that he’s so old he’ll never see the day when it’s gone but he said his sons and grandsons would. The Chinese gods heard about it and decided they’d help him as they were touched by his persistence.”
And that’s the spirit of Yugong Yishan. “Persistence really brings you success. It doesn’t matter how big the challenge, you’ll do it little by little every day. It was hard to leave the Sanlitun bar with all its histories and stories. But although there were a lot of great memories it’s too small for me, I needed to move here.”