China Adventure Report

On September 28, 1995, I began a four-week trip to mainland China to investigate the current rock music scene. During the following four weeks, I traveled to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. I visited numerous nightclubs, listened to bands, and spoke with musicians. The following describes my experiences during this adventure.


I chose Beijing as my first stop primarily because I had heard from an acquaintance here in the U.S. that the only rock music in China is in Beijing. This person gave me the names and phone numbers of a few musicians in Beijing whom he believed would be able to help me. During my preparations for the trip, I also discovered that a former coworker of mine is friends with the publicity manager for Cui Jian. Cui Jian is easily China's most famous, and arguably China's only, rock star. He currently lives and records in Beijing. I hoped to arrange a meeting with Cui Jian during my stay in Beijing, or at least be able to hear him perform.

Upon my arrival in Beijing, I began trying to contact the people whose names I had been given. This proved to be more difficult than I had expected due to my limited ability to speak Chinese. I knew that my limited Chinese language skills would make communication difficult, but I (foolishly) expected English-speaking people to be more plentiful than what I actually found in Beijing and Shanghai. For example, many of the people I wanted to contact could only be reached through pagers, and as a rule the paging service operators speak no English (paging services are not automated in China as they are here). In retrospect, I think most of the people who had assured me "most young people in China can speak English" were themselves native speakers of Chinese, and thus didn't test these claims as thoroughly as I did. Luckily, I had some English-speaking acquaintances in Beijing who were able to assist me.

My attempts to arrange a meeting with Cui Jian ultimately proved fruitless. I spoke with his manager on several occasions, and learned that Cui Jian has been forbidden to have concerts in Beijing. Apparently some of his songs angered the government (no surprise), and this is their way of silencing him. He was scheduled to play a concert in a few weeks in the city of Hunan, and thus was too busy preparing for this to have time to meet with me. The concert date was not yet finalized, either, so I couldn't adjust my travel arrangements to allow me to hear him play in Hunan. Other people I talked to during my stay in Beijing warned me that Cui Jian probably wouldn't be willing to spend time with me, and would refuse to speak English with me even if I did meet him, so I didn't push for a meeting too much.

One of my acquaintances in China, Hu Xiao, actually lived outside of Beijing but worked in the southern end of the city for a Beijing television station. She did not know a great deal about the rock music situation in China, but felt that most young people didn't like such "angry" music anyway. She told me that Beijing television stations are not allowed to show rock music videos or rock musicians. This is apparently an unwritten rule that "everybody" understands and follows. She also felt that due to the fact that not many Chinese are interested in rock music, it is fairly easy for the government to suppress it.

Beijing Scene and DJ Youdai

My first breakthrough came almost a week into my Beijing stay when another friend introduced me to a fantastic publication called "Beijing Scene". This English-language newspaper is targeted at the large foreigner community that lives in the diplomatic sections of Beijing. It proved to be extremely useful in my search for music, as it had listings of current events, addresses and phone numbers for local nightclubs, and even a few articles that were relevant to my search. Coincidentally, the August issue (there was no September issue, so August was the most recent) had a very good article about the efforts of a radio DJ, named Youdai, to introduce Chinese listeners to rock music. Each week he has a one-hour program called Anyone Can Play Guitar in which he plays Western guitar-based rock music. He also has two other weekly one-hour shows, one in which he introduces new "alternative" music, and a late-night show featuring blues. His biggest contribution to the Chinese rock music scene, however, are the informal guitar instruction classes he holds periodically. At these classes, he invites local bands to perform, he gives guitar-playing tips to audience members, and he shows music videos by Western bands (such as Nirvana). Apparently many of the local musicians got their start by attending these classes.

Unfortunately, I didn't find out about DJ Youdai in time to attend one of his music classes, but I was able to listen to his Anyone Can Play Guitar show. He played Joe Satriani for an entire hour. There was very little commentary from Youdai, he just introduced and played the music. Personally, I'm not a big fan of Joe Satriani, but it is definitely Western rock music, and thus a dramatic change from most of the radio programming I heard on other programs. It is worth noting that the only other English music I heard on the radio in China could best be described as "elevator music".


One of the names I had been given as a contact in Beijing was Yu Jin, the drummer of a Beijing band called Cobra . A great novelty in the small Beijing rock scene, Cobra is a five-member, all-female rock band that plays a combination of cover tunes and original music. After several days of trying, I finally caught Yu Jin at home by calling at noon and waking her up. I'm not sure if she was unhappy about being awakened or just really busy, but she didn't have much time to talk with me. She told me that Cobra is currently preparing their first-ever album to be released in Asia. Last year, they released an album in Germany, titled "Hypocrisy", and the new album will be mostly the same. It contains all original Chinese-language songs. Due to their current lack of an album in China, they don't yet get played on the radio, but they're hoping that will change soon. They are also preparing some music videos which they hope will get played outside of Beijing. Yu Jin confirmed that Beijing doesn't allow rock music to be played on television. She also told me that Cobra makes enough money from their performances to support the band members, a fact which makes them even more unusual among Chinese rock bands.

I really wanted to meet Yu Jin and the rest of the band, but they were very busy with their album and video preparations. When I first spoke with Yu Jin, the band was scheduled to play at a local nightclub, The Poacher's Inn , on the same weekend I planned to be on a train to Shanghai. I changed my travel plans to stay in Beijing through that weekend so that I could hear them perform and meet them after the show, but their concert was postponed at the last minute and I missed them. Before I left Beijing, however, I did manage to buy one of their German-released albums from them. They had a few leftover copies from the supply they were given by their German distributor. Interestingly, I picked up the album (a CD, actually) from another member of the band who was taking an English course at the Poacher's Inn . The owners of the bar were big fans of Cobra , and thus gave them free English lessons each week.

Wang Xiao Mao

My next big break occured when another of my connections was able to arrange for me to meet Wang Xiao Mao. I had never heard of Wang Xiao Mao previously, but my friend assured me that he was very famous in the rock scene. I met Wang Xiao Mao at a nice hotel where he was staying, just a few blocks from his recording studio. He owned and drove his own Japanese sports car, which seemed like a good indication that the things I had heard about him were accurate. He also "looked" like a rock musician, complete with long hair and blue jeans. He told me that he isn't interested in rock music anymore, however, because he "isn't angry anymore". He now spends his time producing pop music bands. In the mid 80's, however, he and Cui Jian were very much into rock. He grew up in a military family, and wanted to rebel against the rigid military lifestyle. He wanted to be a movie star, but there were no opportunities for that. He and Cui Jian both felt rock music was a good way to express their frustrations. They didn't expect to become famous, they just wanted to make music.

He told me that the first time they tried to have a concert, they almost got arrested by the police. That incident scared them, but didn't stop them from playing music. Their parents didn't want other people to know that they were their children due to their appearance (long hair, weird clothes, etc), but other than that didn't mind too much because they were happy that at least their kids weren't in gangs. He said the long hair and clothes were an attempt to be different, but their choice of rock music was more closely based on what they had heard of Western music. Most of their contact with this kind of music was from attending parties held by foreigners.

He wrote most of the songs that appeared on Cui Jian's first album in the early 1980's, and they soon became rather famous in China. Cui Jian has continued his successful rock career throughout the years, but Wang Xiao Mao lost interest in rock and moved on to other types of music. He said that he continued to write a few other Cui Jian songs after the initial album, but not very many. He feels that the rock music situation in China has improved a lot over the years, but it is still tough. Rock music isn't allowed to be shown on television, although it is occasionally allowed on the radio. He has found that the Americans in Beijing tend to be very interested in local rock music, and they provide most of the support for local bands. He said that his record company tries to avoid rock bands now because these bands tend to have management problems and aren't very stable. Another interesting comment is that foreign bands have less trouble getting permission to play rock music in China because they sing in English, and the government knows that most Chinese don't know English well enough to understand what the musicians are saying. Bands that sing in Chinese, on the other hand, find the situation much more difficult.

Chen Bin

On another evening I went to a coffee shop, called the San Wei Shu Wu , to see a local jazz band. After the band played, I asked one of the musicians about the rock music scene in Beijing. He told me that he was once in a rock band, but he "outgrew" it. Also, rock music has a smaller market in China, so he can make more money by playing jazz. All was not lost, however, because he had a friend, named Chen Bin, who knew a lot about the local rock scene and would probably be willing to speak with me. The next day I called his friend and arranged to meet him and his wife at his house the following evening. Although Chen Bin could not speak English, his wife was fluent in both English and Chinese, so she was able to translate for me.

My meeting with Chen Bin was very informative. Although he was not currently in a band, and for all intents and purposes had given up on rock music, he was very well informed about the music situation. He said that he has been in three major Chinese rock music bands, including He Yong and Dou Wei. He was also involved with a punk music band for a while. Overall, however, he felt the rock music scene in Beijing is really bad, and there is no scene outside of Beijing. The problem is that there isn't a big enough market for bands to make a living unless they are really famous. Only a few nightclubs have live music, and most of them don't want bands that play original music. There are so few opportunities for a band to make money that they go broke and break up before they really get a chance to get their acts together. This problem is compounded by a great lack of skilled rock musicians. As a result, virtually all of the current rock musicians know each other well, and tend to sound somewhat alike. The bands also end up having to share some of the same musicians, which is how he was able to be a part of so many relatively famous (I had heard of them) bands.

I also asked him how he sees the situation changing over the next few years. He feels that it will definitely get better, as foreign music becomes more accessible to the average Chinese teenager, and the government eases its controls. He thinks it will take at least 10 years before there is a dramatic improvement, however. My last question was in response to the numerous people who had told me they had "outgrown" rock music. I asked him if he felt rock music is just a phase that kids go through, and (somewhat surprisingly) he said "no". He believes it is a legitimate form of music that will increase in popularity in China, and he was surprised when I told him how many people in China seemed to believe otherwise.


On several of the evenings I was in Beijing when I had no particular plans, I visited nightclubs and bars in search of music. The Chinese sections of town (well, I should say everywhere except for the diplomatic sections) tended to have nothing but karaoke and K-TV clubs, which I purposely avoided. Cui Jian once said in an interview (in the San Jose Mercury News) that karaoke is "like a cancer", and I tend to agree. The popular style of karaoke music is slow, syrupy, and completely unoriginal (since nobody sings karaoke songs they haven't heard before!). As I was searching for new music, I knew I wouldn't find what I wanted there.

Some clubs in the diplomatic section of Beijing (the SanLiTun area) were closer to what I wanted, but still not very impressive. With only a single exception, all I found were Chinese bands playing covers of old American soft rock songs (sung in English). The exception occurred the very last day I was in Beijing, at a club called "City Pub". A four-member band played the usual collection of old cover tunes, and then everyone but the bass player and drummer packed up and left. The bass player said that he wanted to play some original music and stayed to play four more songs. These songs were original, sung in Chinese, and sounded quite good. Unfortunately, it was apparent that he was doing this on his own, i.e. he got paid for doing the cover songs with the rest of the band, and was doing the original music just because he liked it.

At that same club, a friend and I both recognized one of the waiters. I recognized the waiter from a different club where I had seen him in the band that was performing, and my friend recognized him from a Cui Jian concert she had attended in the United States! We asked him about this, and he told us that he is a musician who occasionally plays at the local clubs with various other area musicians. The group I had seen him with wasn't actually a "band", per se, they just practiced a few songs together so they could play at the club and make some money. He had toured with Cui Jian in a similar capacity: he wasn't a permanent part of Cui Jian's band, he just got to join them for their tour. He told us that there aren't really any clubs that will hire Chinese bands to play original music, so they have to play cover tunes and work at other jobs to make money.


Although I had been warned by various people that the only rock music in China is in Beijing, I felt confident that a city as large and metropolitan as Shanghai must have some sort of rock music scene. The reality turned out to be somewhere between the warnings and my expectations: there are some rock musicians in Shanghai, but there aren't many of them and they don't have many places to play.

Super Star Country Club

The biggest success I had in locating any live music was at a bar called the "Super Star Country Club". A friend in Shanghai had heard about this place, and through various connections managed to arrange for me to speak with a few local musicians there. I went there on a Tuesday evening, and found the bar mostly deserted. Eventually a band showed up and started playing a (now familiar) variety of cover tunes, including songs such as "Heartbreak Hotel" and even "Achey-Breaky Heart". While they were playing, the musicians I was scheduled to meet arrived, and I had some interesting conversations with them. I spent most of my time talking to a guy named Sylvester, who was born in Shanghai but had moved to Hong Kong when he was young. He had lived live in Hong Kong until just two weeks prior to my arrival in Shanghai. In Hong Kong, he had been a member of several heavy metal rock bands. He claimed that a couple of these bands were very successful, and had released numerous albums. Now he had returned to Shanghai to live with his mother and make his fortune with heavy metal music. Although I had already developed the opinion that mainland China is not yet ready to welcome hard-core rock music, he felt strongly that the time was right. He felt that the Hong Kong music scene is a disgrace, because the bands there are only in it for the money. In mainland China, however, the attitudes are much better, at least among musicians. People in China make music because they love music. He also did not like Cui Jian, claiming that Cui Jian isn't really very talented but instead was effectively marketed as a political rebel by "some French guys" who were just trying to make money.

I asked him what he thought about the common use of rock music as a platform for expressing political messages, and his answer was somewhat surprising to me. He said that he thinks it is wrong to do that, because anything he thinks or says is just his opinion, and he shouldn't confuse or mislead other people with his opinions. He thinks that making your music political might "create a lot of problems for kids and particularly the older generation." He also said that he thinks the current music situation in China is just fine, except that it needs more heavy metal music. Interestingly, when I asked him about his favorite bands, he listed bands such as Nirvana and Faith No More that often have very political lyrics. I can only assume that he either doesn't listen to their lyrics carefully, or he hasn't thought through his position very well. After playing for almost an hour, the band took a break. The guitar player was apparently one of Sylvester's friends, so he came over and I was able to talk to him for a while. He told me the group that was playing tonight wasn't really a band, they were just musicians who got together tonight to make some money (just like the waiter/musician I had spoken with in Beijing). In fact, he told me that their lead singer tonight was forced upon them by the government, and that is why he was so bad. Apparently when they apply for a permit to play a concert, the government "encourages" them to hire at least one of their band members from the government's staff of temporary employees. They have to hire him at a fairly expensive rate (since the government gets part of his wages), and thus the government gets an extra cut of the band's income, in addition to the other fees they must pay for the right to play.

He told me that there aren't any places in Shanghai that let bands play original music, and there is only one other place that even lets bands play cover tunes (all the other nightclubs use prerecorded music). The other bar is called "Malone's American Bar," and as the name suggests it caters almost exclusively to Americans and other foreigners. The Super Star Club, in contrast, has a fairly large percentage of (affluent) local clientele. Looking around the room, I did notice that almost half of the people were Chinese, which was a larger percentage than I had noticed at most of the other bars where I had heard live music. He said the music scene is much better in Beijing, but he doesn't want to go there because there is too much competition. Although I didn't find many competing bands when I was in Beijing, I think he meant that there are so few places to play compared to the number of bands, that the bands can't stay busy enough to make a living. He told me that he had been in various other cities, such as Canton, and as a rule they were much worse than even Shanghai.

Malone's American Bar

Since there was supposedly only one other place in Shanghai that had live music, I made it a point to visit it. Malone's American Bar certainly lived up to its name. Once inside, it was hard to remember that I was still in China. They had foreign beer, CNN on the televisions, and a very American motif. The place was very crowded, and pretty expensive for China: even tea cost US $2. A little before 11:00pm, a band started playing. This band featured the same guitar player I had spoken with at the Super Star Country Club, but the other band members were different. They also played covers of Western songs, but this time the song choices tended to be more modern and trendy. I heard a few songs by current alternative music bands, which was a nice change. Unfortunately, there was no original music.

The Trouble with Shanghai

One of the people I met in Beijing had a girlfriend in Shanghai whom I contacted to discuss my project. She had attended music school in Beijing and was now a piano player in Shanghai, so her boyfriend hoped that she might know something about the rock music situation. Unfortunately, the best she could tell me is that "Shanghai people don't like rock music." She explained that rock music is "only for young people who have lots of free time", and in Shanghai everybody works very hard to try to get rich. She said that people in Beijing have a lot more free time, and that is why there is rock music there. When she was a student in Beijing, she often listed to rock music by groups such as Cui Jian and Hei Bao, but after returning to Shanghai she found that nobody here appreciates this music. She said that rock music isn't relaxing, so when Shanghai people come home from a hard day's work, they don't want to hear it; they want to hear soft, calming music. She claimed that most Shanghainese young people have two or three jobs, so they rarely have free time, and when they do have some time they want to spend it going to karaoke clubs or to discos to dance. Discos play "light" music from Hong Kong, and never have live bands. The closest thing to rock music that Shanghainese people like are musicians such as Michael Jackson and Madonna.


Another of my contacts in Shanghai worked as a distributor for the liquor company Seagrams-Martel. She confirmed the rumor that Shanghai youth prefer karaoke and dancing over rock music, but told me that the nearby city of Hangzhou has a more active nightlife than Shanghai, since it is a popular vacation spot for Shanghai citizens. Since I wasn't getting very far in Shanghai, I decided to make a short trip to Hangzhou to see what I could find. I spent a Thursday and Friday evening in Hangzhou, but again I just found karaoke and K-TV. I did find one bar called the "California Cafe", which sounded promising, but it turned out to be another karaoke club. The front desk at my hotel sent me to yet another nearby club, which actually had live music, but the music was the popular Hong Kong style, which is not even a distant relation to rock or alternative music. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised that I found no rock music in Hangzhou. This city seems to cater primarily to Shanghai tourists, whereas all the rock music I found was in areas with large numbers of foreigners.

Chinese Prerecorded Music Market

One idea I had prior to visiting China was that it might be difficult for Chinese people to acquire Western or even Chinese rock music. This did not seem to be the case, however. I checked out the music sections of several Chinese stores, including the various Friendship Stores, and found that many of them had reasonable collections of Western and Chinese CD's and cassette tapes, including rock and alternative music. The prices for American tapes and CD's were roughly comparable to their prices in the United States, but the Chinese rock music was significantly less expensive. Shortly before leaving the U.S., I had gone CD shopping in San Francisco's Chinatown in an effort to get some Chinese rock music. I discovered a collection of four CD's called the "China Fire" series, which features rock musicians from mainland China such as He Yong and Dou Wei. The store I visited in Chinatown only had two of the four in stock, and charged about $18 per disc (which is typical for an import CD). In China I was able to find this collection of CD's selling for under US$10 each.

A second, cheaper source of Western music in China is the bootleg CD blackmarket. I was often approached by Chinese men saying "CD? CD?" to ask if I wanted to buy music or computer CD-ROMs. Purely in the interest of research (well, mostly in the interest of research...), I investigated one of these offers and found that it is possible to buy a wide variety of foreign music, including groups such as Abba, Michael Jackson, Sex Pistols, and The Scorpions, for less than US$2 per CD. At these prices, I think Western music is within the budget of many young people in China. If the U.S. succeeds in stopping the music piracy business in China, this situation will clearly change. While that might be a bad thing for the Chinese music scene in the short term, since it would make foreign music more expensive and thus less accessible, I think it would also make China a much more viable market for commercial music of both foreign and local origin. China clearly has a lot of low-cost CD manufacturing facilities, so the only thing they lack is music they can legally put on those CD's. Hopefully Chinese rock musicians will be able to fill this void soon.

Chinese Television

I also spent a fair amount of my time watching Chinese television. The local stations weren't particularly interesting to me, since they were entirely in Chinese and didn't have many programs of interest, but I was able to find some good shows on satellite television. My hotel in Beijing, as well as several places I visited in Shanghai, had a few Hong Kong stations, including a station called "Channel V". This station is the Chinese equivalent of MTV (Music Television) in the U.S.. Channel V plays music videos during virtually all of its broadcast hours, including a fairly large amount of Western music. They also play videos from a few Chinese rock musicians, such as Zhou Wei, though most of their Chinese music was closer to karaoke in speed and style (i.e. slow and syrupy). I believe this slower style of music is currently very popular in Hong Kong, which explains its popularity on Hong Kong TV stations.

I asked some people about the availability of these Hong Kong stations to average Chinese citizens, and was told that it wasn't legal for them to get these stations at home. The government doesn't allow Chinese citizens to own satellite dishes, so they are restricted to local stations that cannot show rock music. Some people own satellite dishes anyway, but they are quite expensive and the owners run the risk of having them confiscated or taxed. I also inquired with the manager of my hotel in Beijing about why his hotel does not have any foreign television stations such as CNN (I asked this shortly after watching the O.J. Simpson verdict announced on Chinese news, in Chinese, and not being able to tell if he was found guilty or not). He told me that hotels such as his, which cater primarily to Chinese people, are not allowed to have English news stations; only the big foreign hotels can have them.


Overall, I feel my trip was successful in giving me a chance to learn a lot about the current music situation in China. I had hoped to find a more active, positive music scene, but what I found was still quite interesting. Things are changing rapidly in China, and all of the musicians I spoke with felt that things are changing in the right direction. I think my biggest surprise was the almost total lack of a music scene in Shanghai. Based on what I knew about the popularity of Western-influenced music in Japan, I expected to find much of the same elements present in China. I believe the key difference is that Chinese citizens still have limited and government-filtered access to Western culture, and not enough time and money to really pursue "frivolous" interests such as rock music.

Presenting My Findings

In my Durfee Award letter, you state that in addition to a written report, you would like me to give a presentation to an audience of my choosing. I assume the purpose of this is to distribute my findings and let others benefit from my research. I would like to propose that I fulfill this goal in a different way. Instead of verbally presenting my paper, I would like to prepare a World Wide Web site that includes this paper (or an updated version of it), plus pictures, music, and possibly even some video from my trip. The World Wide Web allows me to integrate this document with related information, to include pictures and even portions of songs that people can download and hear on their computers, and to provide links to other information about the Chinese music situation that is on the Internet. I did a lot of my early research for this trip on the Internet, and I feel it is a very effective means to distribute and access information. Furthermore, because the Internet is truly world-wide, doing this would make the information available to a much larger audience, including people in China.
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Brett Coon -