Freak Scene #42: The Freak Scene Goes to China Edition

August 17, 2009

In this week's Freak Scene—now back to mainland America—Jamie Johns recounts her experiences, noisy and otherwise, living in China, including Torturing Nurse, ritzy Haagen Daz, scant record stores, These Are Powers, white skin and big feet.

In this edition of Freak Scene, I will be trying to piece together my experiences and observations of China and Chinese music. My primary reason for traveling to China was academic; my university awarded me a summer research grant for my thesis. I initially thought I would have more time for travel and music-related fun within the country but my research took a little extra time and I was sidelined by stomach illness more than once. Thus, the opinions and observations that follow are probably not wholly informed and are based on my first direct experiences with Chinese music, musicians, and record stores. I did get to go to Sugar Jar, one of the few record stores in China where you can find weird stuff, went to see a show at D-22, heard a few releases and spoke with a few people involved in music, all of which is below. The photos were taken at Sugar Jar in Beijing.

A few notes about actually being in China. I was pointed at, stared at, yelled at, and/or photographed on a daily basis which was really intense. Sometimes this attention was funny or cute and sometimes, mostly when I was traveling and schelping my luggage while people gawked at me, it was really annoying. For me, this was much worse in Shanghai than in Beijing where, post-Olympics, there seems to be more foreigners, or in Hangzhou, where people gawked but then complimented me and, as I am only human, that felt nice. At least once a day someone would compliment my “pretty white skin,” which was a very awkward first. However, a sales girl had to put a male shoe on my foot to see what my Chinese shoe size was, so maybe not so beautiful after all.

Standing on line is not really something people are into or do and no one will say anything if someone tries to cut the line, which meant that I had to. If I tried to tell someone to not cut me in line (in Chinese) he or she would start laughing because they thought it was funny that I was picking a fight. Most of the time when I tried to speak Chinese, people thought it was really funny or cute. Three years of intensive language training down the drain! Anything foreign is really big, which means there are really weird American/European brands everywhere. Haagen Daz is a fancy place in China, and Shanghai is about to get its first Carl’s Jr. The bag that many girls are carrying, and which I now proudly own, has MINUTEMEN, MEAT PUPPETS, DESCENDENTS, ANGST written on it. Only one of the people I talked to with this bag knew what those words meant. Lastly, ALWAYS CARRY TOILET PAPER OR TISSUES. Neither are guaranteed at any bathroom you go to, even the nice ones.

Now, onto the music:

First, a big thank you to everyone who talked to me, let me interview them, or helped me out while I was there. This includes Junky from Torturing Nurse and Lao Yang from Sugar Jar, both of whom struggled through my poor Chinese and who were incredibly chill and kind, and Sarah Brooks who was my Beijing sherpa. Also a big thank you to Christaan and Zhang from FM3 who were also very nice and responsive!

I spent the first three weeks of my trip in Shanghai doing research and unfortunately, there weren’t any shows going on. One of my big regrets for my whole trip is that I did not have an opportunity to see Torturing Nurse live. The group is known for its physical performances which involve attacking analog electronics and one another to create noise. Most performances include a female member in a nurse uniform, pantyhose, belts and/or tape. Out of all of the Chinese noise groups, they seem to have the best idea of what is going on in noise outside of China—the group has done collaborations and split releases with Mutant Ape, Wasteland Jazz Unit, Mattin, Government Alpha, and Black Leather Jesus and their list of influences include Emil Beaulieau and The Haters.

Junky of Torturing Nurse, the man responsible for all of the good concerts in Shanghai, was kind enough to answer a few questions via e-mail. Junky runs Noi Shanghai, which brings together foreign noise acts like Astro (Hiroshi Hasegawa from C.C.C.C.) and Chinese noise acts for performances in Shanghai, and Shasha Records, which releases most of Torturing Nurse’s recorded output. Outside of Junky’s work, it seems like Shanghai is a virtual dead zone when it comes to music. The area around where I was staying was full of migrant workers sleeping on the street, but next to this extreme poverty were massive Gucci superstores and streets of high-end malls, Haagen Daz with 40 minute wait times, and BMW dealerships. It should also be noted that I saw more Chloe stores in Shanghai than I have ever seen before. Nearly everything is being ripped apart to make way for a new development or mall. This could be said about most of China but in Shanghai it took on a more soul sucking feel than in Beijing or Hangzhou, the other two cities I visited.

I asked Junky about good record stores in the city, to which he said he couldn’t think of any because there was “too much shit.” I also asked him about the difficulties of performing noise in China. He said (my translation from Chinese to English): “In our opinion, noise is still not really accepted at Chinese performance venues and the audience isn’t very large. Because of the size of the audience, there are venues that restrict noise performances. However, noise has the freedom to be performed anywhere, thus, we aren’t very concerned about this.” For any noise fans or performers going to China, this is the guy to talk to.

After my time in Shanghai, I ventured north to Beijing. One of my “must sees” was Sugar Jar, a record store in the 798 art district of Beijing, which is pictured above. It is one of the few stores in China where you can purchase recordings by Chinese experimental, noise and rock artists. The owner, Lao Yang, was one of the nicest people I met while I was there. If you are ever in Beijing, definitely stop by because dude is super friendly and the store is great. As you can see, the store is covered from floor to ceiling with CDs. There was a small selection of albums from non-Chinese artists (including Prurient). We spoke in a bizarre half-Chinese, half-English hybrid; I could get the basic sentence structure out in Chinese but I didn’t know the words (yet!) for noise, experimental, record label, album etc… Thankfully, he knew those words in English and my dictionary was there to help. 798 is a weird area. It’s an old factory that was turned into artist studios and galleries which is now been turned into a tourist hot spot. Sugar Jar is across the street from Galleria Continua, which had an exhibit that was just “We kill all the men/women/children/people” and “We eat all the men/women/children/people” written on the wall over and over again. Sugar Jar hosts in-store performances every Sunday and Lao Yang posts mixes of Chinese music online, which you can check out here.

I asked Lao Yang for his recommendations for Chinese experimental and noise acts. The first he suggested was Ronez AKA Zhou Pei, another Chinese noise performer from Guilin. Like Torturing Nurse, Ronez performs analog electronics and runs his own label, Doufu Records. The release I picked up is called Recycle the Broken Sounds, and it is a collaboration between Ronez and DJ Monkey. Another was Li Jianhong, who comes from the scenic town of Hangzhou. He’s a Keiji Haino-esque long haired guitar noise savant who produces the kind of guitar feedback free avant whatever noise that I could listen to all day long. Like other musicians, he also runs his own label, 2pi Records. The release I picked up was a recording of a live collaboration between Li, Huang Jin, Ji Mu, and Li Tieqiao simply called Live in Nanjing. This one falls more in the realm of free/experimental than harsh noise. Lao Yang also brought up Xiao He, who sings in the style of Beijing opera, which was not necessarily my thing but definitely a new listening experience. The Ronez and Li Jianhong CDs are both excellent, though they’re from 2007 and 2006, respectively. In my research, I have noticed that Chinese releases kind of peter off around 2007.

Most people I spoke with either buy CDs or listen to stuff on the internet, and when it comes to non-Chinese music it is primarily the latter. Junky told me that his exposure to influential Japanese noise groups like Incapacitants and Hijokaidan began through the internet and Soulseek. Lao Yang told me that keeping his store open is hard because at any moment the government can come in and close the store. "Without independent people, you can’t make independent music. Without independence, it’s not independent music, it’s not good music."

I work at a pressing plant in New York and I am a vinyl fetishist, so I had to inquire about the dearth of records at Sugar Jar. Lao Yang said that people think records are too old and that no one wants them. As I prepare fellowship and grant applications to go to China again, I had to ask myself: Could I really live without vinyl for a year or more?

These are Powers were touring China at the same time I was but I was only able to catch one of their shows in Beijing at D-22. After feeling really homesick, going to D-22 felt really, really good. It was started by a Columbia alumnus and the guy at the door gave my friend and I cheaper entry because of my student ID. There was beer, foosball and Sonic Youth playing in the background before the bands started. However, when I looked around nearly everyone in there was an expat. There are two other live venues in Beijing for rock music, 2Kolegas and Mao’s Live House, but I think D-22 is probably the closest to a New York music club that you will find in China. In honor of the solar eclipse, These Are Powers played short improv sets with the opening band, whose name escapes me, but whose guitarist was really trying his hardest to be Thurston Moore. I probably would have been more into this if I hadn’t woken up at 4AM or consumed my body weight in Yanjing beer prior to arriving at D-22.

When I returned home from China, White’s debut album was waiting for me in the mail. Produced by Blixa Bargeld, now a Beijing resident and someone I was really hoping I would see on the street, the record is one of the few new albums by a Chinese artist that is getting a proper release outside of China. I have written a little bit about the group before, and now their debut is getting released on Open Note. Shenggy used to be in Hang on the Box, a rowdy all girl punk band from Beijing who jammed hard and sang about female troubles, and Shou Wang is in Car Sick Cars, who are coming to the States in the fall. A lot of reviewers have compared White to OOIOO and those comparisons are kind of correct because there are transcendental sounds and a female voice. The album just feels positive: redemptive synth drones, light industrial beats, and loops, all with a layer of vocals about riding the subway or outer space on top. And hey, I can understand what they are saying when they speak in Mandarin! You can find out more about White and purchase their debut album here.

Around 2006/2007 (before the Olympics, during which D-22 and other venues were closed), there was a lot of talk in the U.S. about Chinese music. Before I arrived, a few friends of mine who had been said that despite all of this, the Chinese music scene is actually quite small, which I found to be true. The groups that people have talked about over the past few years are still there: Car Sick Cars, PK-14, Queen Sea Big Shark, Hedgehog, FM3, Tortured Nurse, Subs, White etc… and beyond that, there isn’t much else. Gear is hard to come by in China and there were times that it seemed to me that a lot of the people who go to shows and support bands are expats. However, I found that everyone I talked to who was involved or had an interest in music, even if there were only a few of them, was really interested and engaged in what they were doing. Although there are restrictions on American and European musicians performing in the country, bands like Fucked Up, Ex-Models and These Are Powers are still finding a way in. I asked Lao Yang what his opinion was of Chinese music and his recent development and his answer really struck me:

“In my opinion, imitation is still the main characteristic of current Chinese experimental and rock music. The big thing is to imitate modern Western music, Japanese noise, European and American rock music and so on, however, there are also people who are starting to pay attention to traditional Chinese music and culture and to bring Eastern and Buddhist culture into their music. The way out for Chinese music is to seek its own road. This road, should collide with the Western, Eastern, modern, classical, folk, institutional, and national roads, while also having its own individual and distinct place.”

Please send your cassettes/vinyl/lathes/CDs and CD-Rs to:

Jamie Johns

5407 2nd Ave Apt. 3B

Brooklyn, NY 11220

Also, I have to apologize to anyone whose package may have been returned. I asked for my mail to be forwarded from my other address while I was gone and it only kind of worked. My apologies! Until September 5th, you can send anything to the above address.

From The Collection:

Freak Scene
Posted: August 17, 2009
Freak Scene #42: The Freak Scene Goes to China Edition