10 Jul 2014

Punk in translation: Studs and spikes in China

1:15 pm on 10 July 2014

In New Zealand you can have a punk scene which will openly criticise Prime Minister John Key in a song and call him all sorts of names, but you’re not going to get that with China's President  Xi Jinping says photographer John Lake.

Hell City outside the Old What? Bar, Beijing.

Photo: John Lake

Maoist punks are the latest critique of China’s slide towards a capitalist economy. But this new left-wing can find themselves precariously positioned in the China today.

Lake’s images of the band Hell City sporting their carefully cultivated mohawks as they play pinball in an old Beijing hutong neighbourhood  speaks volumes about the clash of the very ancient with the very recent (or at least “recently revived”).

The punk scene has been developing in Beijing since around 1997. These days, the place still holds a sense of passion and new-energy. Curiously, Maoist punks uphold the original ideals of Communist egalitarianism, which puts them at risk of strife from the current powers that be - especially if you are loud, tattooed and sport a three foot, bright green Mohawk.

These are young people who missed their parents’ experience of the trauma of the Cultural Revolution but are not afraid to be (carefully) outspoken about what they see as new issues in China. At least you can’t miss them, staying true the punk in spirit, they’re the real visual minority in China.

Chinas Godfather of Punk Xiao Rong.

Chinas Godfather of Punk Xiao Rong. Photo: John Lake

Earlier this year Lake, who is a punk himself, created the first Chinese/English bi-lingual magazine focussed on the Beijing Punk Scene.  Up the Punks! came about after John returned from a three months Red Gate Artists Residency in Beijing, he was taken by the burgeoning punk scene there.

John’s the first punk to get it, something that tickles Jennifer King’s sense of humour - she’s the Director of Culture for Asia New Zealand Foundation. Jennifer tells me that John’s presentation of Beijing’s hard core punk scene to the staff had her anxious initially but everyone loved it. It was an opportunity to view his striking photographs and videos that explore cross-cultural perspectives of the punk culture here and in China.

Community engagement and collaboration is exactly what the Asia New Zealand Foundation look for in Red Gate applications and John’s Up the Punks! project had this in abundance. With no spoken Mandarin but a good idea of which bands and who to approach, he went to Beijing in order to embrace their version of beer, spit, sweat and potential tinnitus that comes with, well, being a punk.

Where were you based?

Red Gate has a Gallery in the centre of Beijing and the artists’ studios were based Fifth Ring Road in the North East corner – if you’re heading out towards the airport, in the Northern Chaoyang District.

How did the first week in Beijing feel?

I found it exhilarating and mind blowing – all those clichés but I was really glad to be out in the village, really – rather than in an apartment in town. There seemed to be a bit more interaction with people – further out, the city can be a bit generic.

You went without being able to speak Mandarin, that’s total immersion, how did you get on? John replies in Mandarin (very capably) that he could order beer and a meal but he couldn’t speak Mandarin very well, however if you were stuck for translation then – 

There was a lot of communicating through things like iPhones and stuff, everyone carries and iPhone over there and you can use the apps for translating and there seemed to be um, at least, you’d always find one person in a bar somewhere late at night who could speak a little bit of English, if not a lot – and I was using random people to translate. The moment people found out that you were interested in what they were doing they were keen to share.

What were your observations of consumerism in Beijing?

Just how much the overseas market are chasing the Chinese dollar as a new primary market in the world and how that alters, I guess, how China sees itself, how the Chinese see themselves – how they’ve embraced European brands. It’s not so much a rejection of their culture but – it becomes a status one-up-man ship to have a European car rather than a Chinese made car. This pursuit of wealth is a new thing in terms of current generations, contrasted to their parents or grandparents’ generation.

New Zealand itself is seen as a benign outside influence. People don’t know much about New Zealand, they know it’s where the milk powder comes from. Even trying to tell them that there is a punk scene here in New Zealand – people found that quite shocking – they have the impression that it’s just cows and sheep. That is an image that is very much marketed, in terms of a tourism image that very much favours our country side and our agrarian history.

Our tourism industry neglects that there has been any questioning or unrest occurring in New Zealand history – ever. They don’t want to know about Maori and our Land Wars or the ’81 Springbok Tour or anything like that.

Sochu Legion singer Yang Chong.

Sochu Legion singer Yang Chong. Photo: John Lake

How did you share our punk history with the Beijing punks?

I made attempts; my booklet produced in 2012 with accompanying CD explain the last 35 years of history – I had that translated very simply with a selection of tracks that I was giving away in the BMG Shopping Mall, at the kiosk I had set up.

For instance the Wellington based band Riot 111 formed specifically for the 1981 Springbok Tour riots and Compos Mentis, around in the 80’s, wrote politically charged songs that critiqued both mainstream New Zealand and the cliquey factions within the alternative music scene. They were part of an anarchy-punk scene that emerged here and overseas, introducing an anarco-politico thinking into the punk scene ... so it wasn’t just a lot of “let’s gets dressed up in the weekends and jump around.”

Tell me more about the Maoist punks? Their ideals relate to Maoist communism at its earliest and most pure?

I think the ideology of a band like Gum Bleed is very much promoting the cause of the worker and the working class and they’re very much about the idea of class. I guess within China a lot of these egalitarian ideals that were around in their parents and grandparent’s generation have been completely demolished in the reforms that have taken place. A lot of the economic growth that is being championed in China, I suppose, has heightened levels of inequality hugely.

You saw that for yourself?

Yeah – the place I was staying in, in the village – it’s an artist’s studio area that is co-habiting with the migrant workers from the Chinese greater districts who have come into the city from the countryside. So you have this juxtaposition of some extreme wealth (in terms of overseas artists creating products for high income consumer market) alongside very poor people who were gaining their income from the recycling industry and things like that.

People don’t know much about New Zealand, they know it’s where the milk powder comes from. Even trying to tell them that there is a punk scene here in New Zealand – people found that quite shocking – they have the impression that it’s just cows and sheep.

Almost third world?

Yeah. It must be among some of the most rapid change in the history of humanity. I mean this is one of the issues that come through in a lot of the punk and hard core music over there. There’s repeated reference in songs to the bulldozing of whole neighbourhoods, whole hutong areas, just how much has been demolished to make way for the new apartment blocks and new business districts ... Even though these are young people talking about things, they’ve only grown up in a period when there has been this change. They haven’t grown up through the Cultural Revolution but there is a sense of loss, they’re aware of it. At least some of them are.

So they have names like Gum Bleed, Unregenerate Blood, Brain Failure and The Subs (with characters translating roughly as Scream Universe Scream) – John’s bemused response is that at least they match the punk scene overseas with their band names.

So how do they get around censorship?

Lead singer D from Gum Bleed finds it’s easier to sing in English and track listings will be fake song names such as Santa Baby, but dig a bit deeper, the real song title might emerge on an iPod as Civilisation Crime.

Do any of the bands mix it up with their music style? Do they experiment with traditional instruments or influences?

Gum Bleed plays very hard core punk sound but in their first album Bale Fire Juvenile they do use traditional stringed instruments and play around with the composition. So you know, hard core music tends to be short, sharp, shock music, they do that as well and then mix in eight minute compositions that can be quite lyrical – so there is this blending of old and new styles.

Where to from here?

In terms of China, I definitely want to go back with a New Zealand band called the All Seeing Hand who employs a Mongolian throat singing vocal style. So there’s a cross cultural reverse swing back this way. They want to tour South East Asia later this year and then later to China. I’m also interested in expanding on Up the Punks again but creating an online guide for touring bands – maybe 2015 getting funding to bring these bands from China to tour here.

LISTEN to John Lake talk about Up the Punks! Beijing: