The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Beijing Beat

06

Thanks to some volunteer teaching I’ve been doing for Beijing’s Olympics volunteers I got invited to the rehearsal of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Inside the stadium was at 90,000 capacity for two hours of set piece acts which trumpeted traditional Chinese culture. There was very little reference to Mao or Communism in the two hours of kung fu, drumming and elaborately choreographed dances. In fact the recital of imperial-era poems and songs seemed to me a repudiation of the whole Communist era, which has generally sought to portray the past as a  period of bourgeoise inequality , superstition and excess.

That has not been lost on the leadership in Beijing, who, according to the whispers going around are very annoyed that Communism isn’t more celebrated in the opening ceremonies. Olympic organizers gave the job of directing the ceremonies to film director Zhang Yimou and Steven Spielberg – who pulled out in protest at China’s relations with the Darfur-abusing Sudanese government. Anyone who’s watched Zhang films like Raise the Red Lantern will know he’s someone who celebrates traditional culture and pomp of the ancient Chinese imperial courts.

The stadium is probably the most futuristic of its kind: the silver ‘twigs’ of the Bird’s Nest wrapping around the red hardware like electrons. Landscaping is laboured in the usual Chinese style: plants, trees, grass transplanted from other provinces and pumped with water to bloom in dry Beijing. There’s several original and olde world recreations of traditional Chinese buildings in the Olympic park, which hasn’t yet been opened to the general public. I’m keen to see how all this pristine nature and cute park benches will be maintained once the masses are let in here.

 


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05

 

If there's one company to watch in Asia's music scene it could be Taihe Rye. Flush with venture capital and a massive recent investment from SK Telecom, which bought 42% of the company, TaiHe beat local and interational competition to signing Li Yuchun, a sensation in China when she won the Super Girl reality show in 2006.

I had an interesting visit recently with Zhan Hua, vice president of this most commercially successful of Chinese labels. You can tell that from the company’s office: rather than an apartment-cum-office on the 13th floor of a western suburb apartment block - the kind of place I've become used to going to find local labels - Tai He Rye's 90-strong staff has very nice digs. Staffers sit out onto a pavilion to smoke and shoot the breeze.Soothed by the green lawn and a bubbling brook, Tai He Rye’s top brass do their deals on mobile phones.

The jeep Cherokee parked rudely right in front of the door – and a stack of fan mail, with kids effort and writing, suggest a label with stars. Tai He called in a British songwriting crew to produce and write English songs for Li, “to get her an international presence,” and repackaged her as a girl-next-door looking starlet called Cris Lee.

The label wants more collaborations with foreign counterparts but is worried that English songs won't translate well to Chinese. I'll write a longer article later about my couple of hours on Taihe's giant purple executive couch in the office near Sihui subway stop but the key thoughts I took away from this interview was that multinational labels haven't got it made in China: Tai He beat its former partner Warner to Li YuChun and with SK's money the company will

 


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04

It seems strange to have you next door neighbours described as 'vigilantes'. But that's one of many cheap, and often unresearched shots, taken by western media on arrival in Beijing to cover the Olympic Games. Official corruption, abuse of migrant workers and the questionable air quality - not to mind the appalling tastelessness of the local nouveau riche are all fair targets for reportage. But some of the reports I've read over the weekend are just plain lazy cliches. The vigilantes reference - in the Economist, which I didn't expect - was a bit over the top, considering those the term describes are invariably local retirees running neighbourhood watch schemes. True, in the past their role often had more sinister, Stasi-like overtones and duties but I'm too used to being hooted at, and seeing these old folks being hooted at, by wealthy Chinese trying to get by in their new Ford/Mercedes/BMW to think these people are seen as any threat anymore. Too much of the coverage concentrates on easy targets - the vigilantes and the trying-ever-so-hard locals who are trying to quit spitting and queue jumping for the duration of the Games. I'd like to read more about how and why the people driving SUVs around town, those so devoid of good taste or common courtesies, appear to be running and owning modern China. How they got their wealth is a far more interesting story.


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03

A website I helped design and regularly update, beijinggaa.org, homepage of the Beijing Gaelic Football club, is no longer available to Internet browsers in China. Browsers in Beijing trying to get onto the site, which can be accessed via a proxy server,  get a blank screen with the words: "Problem Loading Page" and "the server has timed out." Even though China has pledged freedom of the Internet during the Olympics many sites remain off limits - but most are shut because they carry content deemed politicallly sensitive or pornographic. So where does a humble Gaelic football site fit in to this? Perhaps the country's huge security operatus, working overtime in the run up to the Olympics, have spotted the .org site url and confused Irish community with a human rights-campaigning NGO.  I just hope it comes back up in time for the new Beijing GAA season. The club is currently training for the Asia Games, in Malaysia in October.


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02

I was happy to get an email this week from Ionad, a Dublin-based voluntary organisation promoting the Irish language - through Chinese. Ionad has just posted some videos on their site which allows Chinese people to learn some useful Irish phrases. Considering China's 1.3 billion population - 300 million of whom are online - I'd say Ionad ought to be getting some hits in the East.


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26

You make your money in China out of studios. The nice smooth paint work and the upholstery of Pilot Records' studio in Chaoyangmen are proof enough that the label has money. Proof of that is that the label’s management appear to spend a big chunk of their time down here in the cool basement, away from the heat and the ugly slapped-up office towers of the surrounding Chaoyangmen district. A 12 hour stint in the studio costs RMB500 (EUR49).

It’s not easy surviving in a niche market on CD sales alone. Label founder Zeng Yu, the epitome of cool with wavy-haired goatee and brown recantangular framed glasses, chanelled a teenage passion for Metallica and Motley Crue into a guitar slot with Buffer, a college-days project that was the first band to sign onto Warner in China. The band broke up before an album was done, but Warner kept Zeng and the lead vocal "because they wanted us to do some arrangement and production."

A virtuoso rock guitarist, Zeng spent five years on pop production for cash-cow stars like Zhou Xun and Pu Xu - the only rock act at Warner in that period was Dada. The five big labels in China don’t pay much attention to rock because it’s not mainstream enough. By 2005 he'd gotten enough cash, connections and experience under his belt to set up Pilot, the achievement of a dream.

Zeng, 29, founded Pilot with Zheng Shen who founded the label in 2005. Zheng was a veteran of Sony, running the multinational’s public relations in China. “He loves rock music." The first three signings among the label’s ten artists were Reflector, Caffe-In and Honeygun.  The label also has since also signed local heavy metallers Spring Autumn. new hopes are Honeygun and Wudu Kung Fu. The label’s best seller is Caffe-In’s ‘Caffee-In Land’, which sold over 50,000 CDs following its 2006 release. The latest signings are hardcore rap CMCV and glam punk rock Ziyo, which released an EP on Warner before leaving for Pilot.

Reflector came on board because Zeng had been watching the trio since his college days. The punk trio been on the road for 10 years. The band’s sound was tighter than any of the other bands on the circuit. “They’re China’s Green Day!” Zeng picked up Caffee-In at a talent competition organized by an Australian- New Zealand label. As adjudicator for the China round of the competition Zeng championed Caffe-In, drawn by the band's blend of pop-punk and cultures: the band is a mix of Chinese and Japanese personnel. Unfortunately the band has gone to Japan for the summer to avoid Beijng's Olympic clean-up of foreign students, rock bars and alternative lifestyles in general. 

Reflector only had an EP to its name he signed them. “They had so many fans we wanted to give them something.” Doing his A&R Zeng is driven by the live sound. “We don’t pay much heed to someone’s demo. The performance has to be good as the music.”

Rock may be a minority market but local fans “ge mi” as he calls them, are very loyal. They’re the only music fans who’ll buy real CDs and they want t-shirts and caps too. The other Pilot strategy is its ability to get bands across the country on low-cost tours. A ‘tour performance department” does tight planning on routes and accommodation so that bands get to provincial fans while also making some money. "It’s easy nowadays to get gigs in China's cities, you can call the bars a few nights ahead. Few however make any money."

Pilot keeps its costs tight by focusing tours on particular regions. Honeygun is currently on the road in northeast China, a populous region or large cities like Changchun and Shenyang, near the North Korean border. Band management pick the dates carefully: big shows in larger venues on weekends and smaller cities during the week. Tours have been made easier by an explosion in the number of bars even in farflung provinces. “In Beijing there are too many bands but I love going to Urumqi because they don’t get bands too often out there so they treat them like superstars.” Pilot extends its RMB30 door prices in Beijing accross the country. Locals are willing to pay for the novelty of seeing a gig. A show in Qu Jing near Kunming is a stand-out because the audience’s warmth: 100 locals squeezed into a small bar held a party for the visitors.

A staff of 12 at work stations in a wood-toned office on the second floor of a nondescript office building. The name was chosen to reflect the fact that the label is pioneering. A collection of hip hop and several new albums in the first half of 2009. Zeng isn’t reliant on Pilot for cash. He moonlights as a producer for Zong Ke at Taihe Rye. Good producers make good money in China. A good melody is good enough for most Chinese listeners, not yet musically educated enough to pick up on a bad mastering job. "We producers need quality, but the listener doesn’t need quality. They want something soppy, that moves their heart." He points to Dao Lang, hugely successful crooner whose albums are however badly mastered. Pilot masters its albums in Japan and in the UK. Taiwan is the best fit however, "because the quality is good and it’s not that expensive."

Zeng also thinks Pilot is handy at PR campaigns: he smiles and hints at a thick book of contacts drawn from his Warner days. Several of the bands are invited on popular TV programmes: Kuai Le Da Benying on Hunan TV. But they’ll rarely get to perform their music: rather the musicians are invited on to chat shows as an envelope-pushing. “Our musicians image is not that weird as people used to think.” Presenters however tend to concentrate on musicians’ lifestyle.  Pilot wants to see rock bands closer to the mainstream, so we’re chasing TV and radio producers. But there’s no chance Pilot band will get on a Central TV channel. "I don’t think TV is the main channel for audience growth. Performance is more important for that." A Honeygun song has gotten a lot of play in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake. Corporate sponsorship is a necessary evil, which Pilot has also had recourse to: jeans maker Lee paid the label’s bands to play the brand’s Halloween Party. “Their style is closer to the rock style and they wanted to show that.”


Rock music bands have been pursuing the label but new signings appear thin on the ground. There’s over 1,000 bands in Beijing, says Zeng, but few have what it takes. “They all see that their performance will improve a lot with us. And they’ll get better PR. We really have a crew to back them up. “We’ll tell them that their guitars don’t sound right.” The biggest problem with local bands is that “they just don’t move on the stage. Pilot films shows and then sits the band down the next day to analyse the footage so they get better.

Zeng Yu, and below, Pilot fellow-founder Zheng Shen

 


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21

We got the lowdown on Beijng’s preservation (or lack of) its old town last Saturday night at dinner with Matthew Hu of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre. Private developers who promised to clean up an entire neighbourhood were welcomed in by city officials, explained Hu, director of this non-government organization promoting architectural preservation.

Things could be better if the city stuck to its five year plans, but money has talked: Beijing went from a neat grid of laneway housing to a post-1949 splash of communist blocks of self contained factories and apartments until private developers were allowed do the building in the 1980s. Politically connected developers got parcels of land from local governments keen for cash and flashy buildings with which to impress peers and superiors.

Maybe because they see tourists flock to the old buildings, district governments long blamed for selling land to private developers insensitive to local heritage, have become more accountable to please higher officials to preserve the remaining hutongs, says Hu. China is preoccupied with rushing up a mass-produced city, says Neville Mars, a Dutch architect who has done great things to publicise the follies of bad architecture and planning through his Dynamic City Foundation. “China is still being constructed as an empty slate. The idea is you build a project today and copy paste it."

Hu sees a new, subtle willingness among officials to listen first to preservationists. Well lets hope we see that in the rest of the city's breakneck urbanisation. Beijing is a bit like Dublin in that there's a deeply engrained divide between the northern part of the city, home to universities and business, and the south, a sprawl of cheap apartments, army barracks and factories. Now that developers have run out of space or money in the north, they're moving into southerly neighbourhoods like Fengtai. Down south Daxing has proven itself as Beijing’s industrial hub. Industrial focus has consolidated around the Beijing Development Area in Daxing.

 


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13

Picking up a copy of the 'new' That's Beijing magazine last night I found more (not unexpected) proof of the awfulness of local English-language media produced by local publishers who ought to know better. That's Beijing used to be produced by a US-run firm called True Run Media, and they did a decent job of listing all the worthwhile events, restaurants, bars etc in the city. They also ran some good writing on local art, music and literary scenes.

When their Chinese government-run partner/sponsor handed the magazine to a local firm - China Electric Power Media - its former publishers (True Run) relaunched as The Beijinger. They also took the writers and advertising, by the looks of the 'new' That's Beijing. It's mostly filled with over-written cliche pieces on pub crawls, weekend lunches and shopping outings in Beijing, interespersed with ads for spas and hotel bars. There's one worthhile article, on the founders of D-22, the rock bar in the university district of Wudoukou. Nothing in it though about how the bar has been told it can't have live music during the Olympics: local authorities gave them the choice of either selling drink or having music, and the proprietors have put concerts on ice till September.

The Beijinger - which has a couple of well-written pages on how the Olymics shut down on live outdoor venues is effecting the local rock scene - is edited by foreigners for foreigners. Hence it's what foreigners read, and where they go to advertise.I never stop wondering at Chinese publishers' preoccupation with the country's expatriate community - especially given that Russians, Koreans and Japanese make up the bulk of Beijing's expats and many don't even read English. Native English speakers/readers meanwhile would be hard pressed to maintain interest in what a magazine like That's Beijing - now written by Chinese for foreigners - puts out. There's nothing about rock music or anything else recommendably alternative in Expat, a new title focused at expatriates. Only advertorial and ads for watches, malls and yes, spas and hotel bars, in this title of heavy glossy pages.

Here's what happens to people who write about worthwhile, unwritten issues in Beijing. A cameraman for Czech TV on assignment near the north Korean border says undercover police searched his room, seized four videotapes and went through his computerafter he conducted interviews with North Korean refugees. Officials at the Chinese Foreign Ministry quizzed him for two hours, perused his computer and camera memory cards, then threatened the journalist with a deportation order, on the grounds that he "funding and planning the storming of 'foreign offices' in Beijing. His story is one of many of police harassment of reporters tackling issues - don't expect to read about in the 'new' That's Beijing or Expat magazines.


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13

It's s so hard to get a good quote from anyone in Beijing these days. A reporter is unlikely to get anything more than the obvious from company spokespeople: they’re so scared of saying something that could be interpreted as negative by super sensitive local authorities. Here’s a sample of a reply I got to 5 questions I emailed to a local real estate developer that’s just opened a luxurious apartment complex in the centre of Beijing that’s too expensive for 95 percent of the local population.

“Obviously, Beijing will become a test field for many world class architectural dreams. Beijing strives for the best and it is my hope that whatever develops will be good for the city. Each building need not stand out on its own, but rather should contribute to the fabric of the city and serve the people it is meant to serve. No matter developer or architects, we must never lose sight of the human being. That is how we will keep our profession most relevant in the future. Quality is the foremost issue related to humanistic approach.”

My original questions related to how environmentally friendly the new building is, the quality of the construction and the chances that the real estate market will collapse after the Olympic Games next month. The gunk I got in reply doesn't serve the media-hungry company since now I'm not going to write anything about them.


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08

I always enjoy chatting with the inimitable and irrepressible Yang Yu, founder of www.rockchina.com. He titles himself 'webslave' on his business card. Another of his roles however is founder-manager of Painkiller, China's admirably successful metal magazine. Painkiller has been turned into a cottage industry of gigs and merchandising by mild-mannered and helpful Yang, and the experience has made him one of the more forthcoming and infomed go-to people on the local industry scene.

Proof that there’s a market for music, even gothic metal in China. The German band Lacrimoso was the biggest earner: 1,000 local fans paid up to RMB670 (VIP tickets) to see the German metallers in Beijing’s Star Live. The organizers only cleared RMB4,000 profit (after paying band flights, hotels and visas) but that’s more than normal: “it’s so hard to make a profit, we usually only break even.”

Yang’s own festival, Metal Battle, has been affected: Canadian and German artists couldn’t get visas. After Bjork’s pro-tibet chant during her concert in Shanghai this year the local government culture bureau which gives out performance licenses and approves visas has played things extremely safe and effectively barred any shows – certainly anything outdoors till after the Olympic Games. They’re worried about protests or similar outbursts by visiting artists.

Nothing is said directly – the local police met with Midi chief organizer to effectively tell him it was off, only a week before the festival. The face-saving official reason was a train crash near Beijing and thus worries about youths travelling to the show. There was a vague compromise suggested: the festival would happen in October, unhindered. That has apparently, and understandably, annoyed the organizers of the separate Modern Sky festival, timed for October. Now they’ll be squeezed together and cash-strapped students will likely be forced to choose between one.

Local organizers have shaved any foreign names off planned events – indoors or outdoors – for fear of the show being shut down entirely. The shutdown period may be a time for reflection for everyone: Yang believes the local foreigner gig presence may if anything have grown too fast too soon.

Foreign bands want to come to China for the same people run marathons: to tick it off the list of challenging things to do. But China is not that challenging: small punk bands come on tourist visas and play dive bars on a seven day train tour of China’s largest cities, do a youtube video and a blog on their website. They won’t earn much but they don’t spend much either: hotel rooms can be had for 10 euros in most Chinese cities.

Yang is sure the Rolling Stones didn’t make any money off their gig in Shanghai last year: to get the symbolically important gig and the headlines that went with it (the band’s 2003 gigs were cancelled by the onset of SARS) the Stones dropped their fee and settled for a smaller indoor venue. Unfortunately only about 5 percent of the crowd was Chinese - the rest couldn't afford or bother to go.


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Nuggets from our archive

2000 - 'Rock Criticism: Getting it Right', written by Mark Godfrey. A thought provoking reflection on the art of rock criticism.