Touring the China Underground

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Our correspondent John Yingling joins P.K.14 for a tour across mainland China.

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John Yingling | November 21, 2013

China Underground

All Photos by John Yingling

I was scheduled to meet up with the seminal P.K.14 in Zhuhai, China. This was after a short stint in Hong Kong filming the excellent Noughts & Exes busk in “Times Square”, chatting with a few members of Hungry Ghosts. I was comfortable enough in Hong Kong, but it's not China, that much was clear. A short ferry ride, I entered the mainland. Suddenly, nobody knew what I was talking about, but everybody was staring at me. The cameras surely made that worse.

I exited the ferry terminal to shouts of “Hello! Taxi!”, and after waiving them off, I started walking. Probably not the best idea, in hindsight, but I had the address to the venue in Chinese. How tough could it be? I showed the characters to a slew of people, all of which waved me off. I started to wonder if the person wrote them down wrong. A younger kid walked by. He looked curiously at the paper, and that's when I found out the “rock guitar” motion goes a long way with the youth of China. His eyes grew wide, he nodded and jumped on his phone, brought up the venue. We had found it. He called them. No answer. It's a 30-minute walk, but he'd take me there. I trusted him. “No taxis,” he said as it's business hour. As soon as those words came out, I spotted a woman exiting our car. I ran over and jumped in. He excitedly did the same. “We got taxi,” he yelled gleefully. He told the driver where to go, and rode with me. Refusing to let me pay for the ride, he took my heavy roller-bag out and brought it up to the front door. We high-fived. He refused my offer of getting him into the show as he had to go eat supper with his family. Besides, he said, he “couldn't drink the beer.” So began a two month excursion in mainland China.


[Noughts & Exes]

My first P.K.14 show was a bit of a religious experience. I had listened to them for a while, but it's a different beast live. Faster, louder, and more energetic. Frontman Yang Haisong commands the stage with no fake attitude and little calculation. I jumped into the middle of a 31 show stint that stretched as far up as Harbin, and as low as Taiwan. The show was a bit sparsely attended, but two kids bopped around energetically in front of the small stage, windmill dancing to themselves. I was the only foreigner in attendance, but everyone was overly accommodating. It was a ludicrously good first meal in China proper. These meals, I'd find, would be commonplace from here on out. The food in China is immensely varied and spectacular. Don't trust any nerdy food bloggers, just go and dive in. The restaurant also sold mobile for numbers with a few lucky 8's in it for only $25,000. I slept on Haisong's hotel room floor for the first time.


[P.K.14]

We headed to Shenzhen. P.K.14 were touring in a van this time around, which they were quick to point out is very rarely the mode of travel for most bands. Usually, you get back-line and you load your gear onto the train. Someone has to watch it all while the other members mull around or sleep. So you take shifts. This particular band just so happens to be a Beijing staple who have been around for over a decade, so now they have the ability to not only tour in such a way, but pick their openers – also something most bands don't get to do. I rode with them for the shorter trips. I was a bit apprehensive, as I knew I'd be an odd man out, even with two members being well-versed in English. I felt comfortable due to how nice they were. It was a quick trip and we headed into the jungle-like OCT Loft area. They converted a slew of old warehouses into art spaces, galleries, and performance areas. Tonight's venue: B10, a giant empty room with chairs lining the sides.

Some of the nicest venue staff of the whole trip. I watched the soundcheck, and walked around a bit. A younger guy came up to me, and said hello. It took me back a bit to hear perfect English from a stranger after 48 hours of hearing no such thing. His name was Anran. We talked about rock and roll, what it's like in the States. I took him outside and had him talk to the camera. A nice kid, opinionated, excited about the future. He wants to come to America. “I love the weed there, LSD motherfucker, please don't put that in the documentary.” I asked his opinion on the rapid growth and construction, and he seemed a bit miffed. “One day we will have kids, and we will have to tell them about the past, and what if we have nothing to show them?” When I asked what foreigners outside of China, should know about China, his response was one echoed by many through these two months, “come to China.” Step on the soil. See their position. Walk the streets. Don't trust the media. Everyone has their own version of what China is. In the end I asked if there's anything else he'd like to say. He looks deadpan into the camera. “Dog is tasty. There's nothing wrong to eat dog.” I must have made a face, as he said I disagreed. I said no, maybe I'd try it. “Great place to try it, Guangdong province.” We watched the show, drank beers, and were scolded for smoking inside for the first, and only time in China.


[P.K.14]

Guangzhou, round one. I was excited to go here, as Josh Feola had lined me up with a few kids running a collective called Full Label. They put out records, host shows, and generally try to raise up a very small scene of kids. I met Lee Howie and Yuen Song. We bounced around at another P.K.14 show, went out for food. Pairs from Shanghai were supposed to play in a small club across town the next day, but their flight kept getting delayed. They pushed the show back to start at midnight, and ended up canceling it entirely. It was a shame, as I went ten-fold over budget and had to cut Shanghai out of my itinerary.

There's a guy currently in Illinois, Benjamin Fawkes, who e-mailed me before I left. He runs a space in Rock Island, Illinois called Rozz-Tox. It also turns out, he runs one in Guangzhou, China, Loft 345. A hidden mecca for artists and collaborators. The best way to describe it would be like the hideout in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You pass a loading dock, down a dark alleyway, and “follow the graffiti” to a tagged door. Up some dicey stairs, more hallways, and you're there. Almost like an upscale bar mixed with a kid from their early Twenties' living room in the middle of nowhere, Guangzhou. Surrounding the bar, dozens of rooms, art spaces. It's been open more than a decade. I chat with Wu Wei, an artist and teacher. Having not translated that interview, I still don't know what he said. I'm told it's really good though. I'd return to Guangzhou on the tail end of the trip, but it was a good start.


[Changsha]

Changsha. Hunan province. I was excited to keep rolling. Dig into the food. The weather. The show. I was starting to get addicted to seeing P.K.14 play live, each show seemingly growing in intensity in the middle of a 31 date stint. The band had a day off, so I took the ridiculously clean and efficient fast train over to await their arrival the next day. It's difficult to describe the Changsha night market. Picture a main street, your nose and eyes burning as you walk through endless wok fire. Heaps of seafood, stinky tofu, and other good bits on sticks calling your name. Every offshoot alley clogged with the same. Oh, and hundreds of club kids running around, puking on the sidewalks, all the while club music pulsates from afar. Picture this sea of food-filled tables, with a stream of wasted people wading through. However, I saw not a single one even so much as graze a food station. A silent code of respect.

One spot in particular caught my eye. Clearly a family affair, the mother furiously ran the wok, the father on grill, and a quiet and reserved daughter in a long dress came up to greet you. She kindly asked what you wanted, and found you a table in the midst of the madness. I sat down, and two girls immediately start peering my way, filling an empty cup with beer. A shrimp order comes, and the girls swap food with me. Not a single word was exchanged. Only smiles and beer. The next day, I headed to the 46 live house.


[P.K.14]

I found out the hard way it had changed locations. Upon getting dropped off at its old address, the hotel it has been replaced with simply said yes, I was at the correct address. I went to a phone store next door, and a nice fellow kept trying to find the address for me. He kept insisting I had incorrect information, but I knew the place existed. After an hour, I finally found a recent article in English about its relaunch. The name was slightly different before. The guy got excited, told me he could give me detailed directions for a taxi, and started scribbling. I thanked him profusely, now only having about 30 minutes to get to the show. Walking outside, I was met with deadlocked traffic and a slew of full taxis. I started walking with my arm up. Nothing for a good 10 minutes. I kept my cool, convinced it would all work itself out, when an older gentlemen in a hard hat pulled over on a motorbike. He donned a construction helmet, and had fittingly dirty clothes. “No taxi! Where?” I showed him the address. He pointed across the bridge and motioned for me to get on. Fuck it, I thought, and jumped onto the back seat. He pulled over, pointed, and denied my money. This sort of thing happened a lot. I wish I had the balls to pull my video camera out on that ride. Thanks, Changsha.


[P.K. 14]

Chonqing, the notable Nuts Club. That city has an air of craziness about it I couldn't fully grasp only being there one day. The shows were still heating up even though it was the middle of the tour, and I took my first, and last sleeper train to the legendary Chengdu. Brutal, only due to my late sleeping schedule, but otherwise interesting and comfortable – considering. I got one hour of sleep and awoke haggard as hell to be fed fruit by an old man and his wife. I watched them play patty-cake and that game where you slap each others hands for a few hours. Everyone said I'd love it and I was looking forward to sticking around for a few days. Jef Vrys, who helps run New Noise, was hosting me. The idea behind said company is similar to Guangzhou's Full Label. Set up shows, help the community grow, any way you can. He had just gotten off a tour with EF, and was sick as a dog. A shame. It was then I hit my first hitch. My computer wouldn't turn on.

Needing to dump my camera, I found myself stuck. I hung my head and went to the Apple Store, which of course, told me the logic board was fried. 6,000 RMB, they told me. I left immediately knowing that was their stock solution. They are the used car salesmen of computer repair. The extremely helpful girl at the hostel I stayed in the first night took me to her computer guy, the first trip to a Chinese electronics market. It messed with your senses, these giant highrise buildings, strewn with hundreds of little kiosks. “Hello! Computer!”, everyone yells, as if that would make you suddenly up and purchase one. We get to her guy – and in classic form – the goddamn thing turns on. We laugh, I dump everything I need before turning it off again, and I head to the legendary Little Bar.


[P.K.14]

Little Bar as been a venue for 15 years, the longest standing venue in the region. No easy feat for anywhere in the world, let alone China. After soundcheck, I ate with the band and the opener, two gigantic pots of deep red Hunanese greatness. Meat, veggies, the ever present lotus root. The flavors were outstanding. I watched silently as Haisong chatted with this young, local opener, they sat puppy-eyed with their chins in their hands, eating up every word. I'll never know what was said.

Jumping back into the venue before the show, I try to load up my computer for the final checks, and no dice. It's dead again. Visibly frustrated, the only other person in the balcony area comes up to me and asks me what's wrong. I explain the ordeal and he tells me not to worry, he's got me covered. He must have paid a bunch as he and his girl, along with Haisong's wife and I, were the only ones up there. I head over to his table and we share an entire bottle of Bailey's on ice. The girl wanted it, he said. It was then I discover the absolutely excellent Hi Person.

They have no online presence, but you'll be introduced soon enough through the film. I was floored by simple poppy rock music. They remind me of Chicago's Tyler Jon Tyler, an old favorite. Catchy as hell, serious hooks, female fronted excellence. Simple but I knew I'd be humming those for days. As we chat, I'm still worrying about my computer. I have to be as it's the only way I can comfortably keep filming without losing my mind. I have two backup systems for good measure, but no way to get anything on them without serious headaches. Bailey's guy, he reminds me we're about to watch P.K.14's first Chengdu show in years, takes my number, and tells me he'll take care of it with me in the morning. Drink up, he says, we cheers, and the band rips the place apart.


[Guangzhou]

In the morning, I get a phone call. “Where are you?” I give him the address. I go outside and he's in a black Audi. I get in and he takes me to yet another shit-show electronics market. Only this time we go through a side door to a back-room where five kids are pulling apart computers, soldering wires with maniacal speed. I film nothing. I give the computer to who I'm told and the guy takes it apart in 14 seconds and starts testing wires. “You need this chip,” he points. 710 RMB. I agree and he says it will be ready in the morning.

While listening to Chinese death metal, I talk about the city with this random angel who proceeds to bring me to Proximity Butterfly's practice space, almost clipping a pedestrian in the process. That guy has some good vibes coming his way. I filmed two other local bands rehearse. The excellent Stolen, another young band, really surprised me. I'd meet with them again later in Beijing. I was so taken with Hi Person, I had them play another set for me in their practice space. They led me to a watery island near a park for their interview. I can't wait to show you this band. They have nothing recorded yet. This was Chengdu. The taxis seemingly drove 20 miles per hour. You cross the street normally. It felt like every other Chinese city I'd been in, slowed to 50%. Sijiang from Hi Person says there's a saying, “When you're young, don't come to Chengdu. When you're old, don't leave Chengdu.”


[Hi Person]

I bid farewell to P.K.14 until we'd meet again weeks later, and was off to Beijing for one month. This had me giddy. A chance to stay put for a while and really sink my teeth in. Josh Feola helps push the scene forward. He runs Pangbianr, a news outlet, championing what's good in the city. He also helped found Sinotronics, books shows, plays improv noise, and runs events at a space called “The Other Place”, tucked away in the Beijing Hutong alleyways. He was a catalyst to this whole thing happening. Josh threw the contact out to Nevin of Maybe Mars, who made tagging along on the P.K.14 tour possible. Those two threw every contact I wanted at me and I ran with all of them by myself. I'm grateful for that. So, I went to work.


[Stolen]

The very first night I got my mind blown by WHITE+ and Residence A – two Beijing staples. The next night an intense chat with Helen Feng and a performance by the excellent Nova Heart. Beijing is where I really dug into everything. What had people excited? What's happening now five years after the Olympics and the hey-day of the seminal D-22. Where would everything go from here? Every band I contacted to do something said yes. Almost every show I saw was great. New, young blood like the snarling punk rock of Diders, to established vets like Carsick Cars and Bedstars. The surf-inspired hooks of The Dyne. One of Beijing's indisputable best, Hedgehog, played one show this year, and I missed it by mere days.

Recording a new record while I was in town, they invited me to join them. I was grateful, but I had to see this band play in their natural element. I pushed for a practice space session and they agreed. I met frontman Zo and we headed down to an underground parking garage to their space. I heard familiar noise. “Oh, Carsick Cars are practicing too, want to go in?” Too perfect. I caught a few songs, thanked them, and went next door. Hedgehog's new material is slower than past endeavors. The three foot tall powerhouse drummer Atom, who can barely hold the sticks, cooing out harmonies. She sings a few by herself, too. It's excellent. I filmed and recorded it as well as I could. I've been listening to it for weeks now. This record, though a departure from the fast rock of their old records, should be something great. Free from their commitment to Beijing's Modern Sky record label, they're releasing this one on their own. Be stoked.


[Nova Heart]

I finally met back up with Yang Haisong in his practice space and studio near Tongzhou. Haisong now records and produces bands in Psychic Kong Studios. He also co-runs a label called Share The Obstacles with a small, fiery drummer named Za Za. She loves Shellac and all the good American underground shit. They have another band called After Argument.

After Argument is Haisong on guitar and vocals and Za Za busts out some of the fiercest drumming I've seen in quite a while. After having a tough time getting that man to say more than a few sentences on camera the whole tour, we talked for nearly two hours that night. I'd catch After Argument on my next stop, Wuhan, and when I returned to Guangzhou, the perfect continuity making me laugh after everything working out so perfectly. Though minimal, the music rips. You'll love it. I witnessed one more P.K.14 show at YugongYishan in Beijing. Beforehand, I walked with drummer Jonathon, listening to a story about how their sound guy ate a whole lamb's head the week before. Jonathon had some great stories you'll hear in the film, and was completely kind and generous the whole time. They all were. They didn't have to be, but they were. Glad to have made such wonderful new allies across the globe.


[DIDERS]

So, what about China itself? What's happening? Well, I don't want this thing to be 30 pages and I'm also aware that my view on the whole thing is skewed. I'm not a local. I don't live there. One thing that surprised me was hearing stories about the government. The mafia in China? The police. They do as they please, and if you don't like it, well, things will be quite difficult for you. The police can wander into your bar and close it down because they're tired and “want to go home.” Sonic Youth had to do a switcheroo with Carsick Cars, stating they were the “local band” to even be able to play. They can cancel your show or festival entirely at any point, including while it's happening and you have no recourse but to nod and gulp it down. They can, and do, walk in and demand money at which point you have to give it to them.

I realize this isn't a new concept. The venue in Wuhan said they no longer have shows for expats on Christmas because the government would cap it at 100 capacity, saying they want to go home. It's not worth the trouble, they said. One night, walking back toward where I was staying in the hutongs, my host was telling me about this arcade near Ghost Street, a shitty, overpriced eating area where you go to show off to clients and girlfriends. He was excited for it to open, saw its progress, but it never came to fruition. As we walked by we noticed the doors open and a purple light on. It was about midnight. We went down to see what we could. We saw dozens of arcade machines, all unplugged and scattered around a main room. Two tables of guys all glared at us. We cartoon-walked the fuck out of there. That's no arcade and it never will be. What were they doing? The rent is surely astronomical. People with something to hide don't take up a gigantic space next to one of the busiest areas of Beijing.


[Hedgehog]

That said, I'm happy to say that there's an air of optimism amongst the endless cranes, construction, shitty air, and endless noise. The youth of China is rebuilding a culture of their own. They're exicted about the future. It's easier to get a VISA out. Stick to the “normal topics of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll” and you'll have little issue getting your records out. Expats help fuel the scene. Nevin Domer started a new vinyl only label called Genjing. DIY culture barely exists, and it'll be a while before it catches on like anywhere else, but this is what most hope will be the new wave. “Come to China.” I heard it over and over again. One of my final questions to everyone was, “what do you think foreign people outside of China, should know about China?” Almost every answer was the same. You need to come to China and see. Step into the soil. Don't trust me media. Everyone has their own version of China and it's probably not what you think. “Rock and Roll saved us,” said Zo of Hedgehog.


[SUBS]

Off to Wuhan, I caught After Argument in a natural setting and met up with Wu Wei of the legendary punk band SMZB. They've been together 17 years. Wuhan is gnarly. Endless construction and dirt, killer food, and VOX livehouse, which is nestled in a downtown area indistinguishable to any of the others. I got smashed with locals in the nearby Wuhan Prison bar, filmed local weirdos AV Okubo in an art-riddled parking garage on Halloween. When I went back to Guangzhou, After Argument were even more potent. I had so much fun and nothing to do the next day, so I jumped a train with them back to Shenzhen's B10 for one more show. They remembered everything about my first visit. As I said, some of the best staff of any venue I went to. I said a final goodbye, honored to work with Haisong for so long, grateful for what I'd done, and sad to see them go.


[Wang Xu aka White+]

I filmed a total of 47 bands in seven cities on the whole trip. Took up the first four pages of a re-launched Jingweir zine. Spent an awful amount of time hammered at the excellent School Bar. Caught a few of the legendary “Zoomin' Night's”. As a one man crew with little proper training, it couldn't have gone any better than it did. Being surprised over and over again never got old. Beijing has a lot going for it. Other scenes, some being microcosms, pushing forward in every way they can. Women are ruling China. Acts like Hi Person, Wild At Heart, Skip Skip Ben Ben, Girl Kill Girls, and SUBS. You'll be introduced to them all soon enough. Ah…SUBS, a local favorite. In China, when you buy a shitty phone number you get all sorts of spam phone calls and texts. One morning, I awoke to my phone buzzing. I just so happened to pick this one up just to see what it was like and it was Kang, their frontwoman, inviting me to their practice. Good timing and a little luck ruled this trip. They also have a new sound and it's as excellent as anything they've ever done. It used to be D-22 was packed every show, now shows are spread throughout a dozen or so venues. The scene is growing. People hope some new bands come to light that do their own thing.


[AV Okubo]

With a scene that's mostly optimistic anything is possible and it'll be interesting to watch what happens from here. I'm endlessly glad to have gotten a chance to grab a moment in time. That's what this was all about. Could a one-man crew dive into foreign territory and capture this, and do it well? I'm happy to report that the answer is yes. Sure, there are some misses due to the limitations, but it went as well as it possibly could and way better than I expected. If we edit this right, it's going to melt your brain. A few times, I found myself a bit overwhelmed and blown away at all that had been done, genuinely curious as to why it had all gone so smoothly. A couple people took me aside and told me this went so well because of the way I went about it. My demeanor. It was then that I knew I was on the right track. It was a whirlwind trip with enough staying put to get a good sense of what was real. Enough time to capture the moment I was looking for. You're going to love this. Stay tuned.


[Speak Chinese or Die]


[Wu Wei aka SMZB]


[After Argument]

The World Underground is a global idea. China was entirely funded by communities that have supported what I do in the past. The goal is to capture moments in time in underground communities around the world, make hour long documentaries, release them on The World Underground for a suggested donation online. Pay what you want. Release all the sound files, free to all. Compile it on a website with contact information for each band, label, and scene supporters. Begin an ever-growing archive of sound from around the world and open up the global network. Open up more communication between the world's communities. Underground music has a smaller network than you might think. It's a work in progress and I'm not going to stop. If you want to donate to this project, you can send a Paypal donation, or contact me for a mailing address or further options.

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