Beijing Rock Scene Is Inspired by Western Hipster Chic Rather Than the Search for a Deeper Soul

Bands in China now sing about material things, observing people's opinions on money and the need for affluent lives. Not only this, increasingly more people on the scene need to have an outfit first -- an outfit that befits the lifestyle.
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Photos by Matthew Niederhauser

BEIJING - It was the first day of summer in Beijing. It also happened to be the May holiday, when Chinese people had three days off in honor of International Workers' Day. Holiday is a rare treat in the booming city, and the metropolitan youth poured into public parks to enjoy a new type of leisure activity: the rock festival. However, not everyone is there to hear the music. Instead, they give cool looks and are aloof, eyes gazing idly towards the bands. They dress retro, hip, bohemian, punk, creative, whatever. Consuming this "alternative" trend has become the mainstream fashion of the day.

There was a time when rock meant more. But twenty years have passed, and the first rockers -- Cui Jian, He Yong -- are now worshiped as saints of a bygone era and a more fashionable reason, namely having style, has sprung up and overtaken what the old rockers stood for -- freedom of speech and liberalization. Bands now sing about material things, observing people's opinions on money and the need for affluent lives. Not only this, increasingly more people on the scene need to have an outfit first -- an outfit that befits the lifestyle.

For He Yong, allegedly China's first punk (debuting in '89), the legacy that he left was actually his dress code: a white and blue striped T-Shirt, sailor-like, coupled with a synthetic-looking red scarf originally seen on the necks of schoolchildren who were Young Pioneers (for school kids, this is the first time they pledge allegiance to the Communist Party). The symbolism of the red scarf has now disappeared, as adults walk around looking clownish. The fabric isn't worn; instead, it looks mass produced and brand new.

Items of clothing spotted at the festival included lacey dresses, neon colors, Converse shoes, large-framed black glasses with no lenses, checkered trousers in different colors and puzzling patterns, skinny jeans, trilby hats, miniskirts and pink tights. But surprise: no hard drugs, and almost no hard liquor. Sex? Behind closed doors and nothing out in the open.

At the festival, oftentimes girls are the center of attention. Their presence provokes stares as skimpily clad beauties in colorful combinations rise from the little bits of carpet, blanket, headscarf or linoleum that they have placed on the grass. They're in tiny sixties skirts and white-lace tights, or otherwise a see-through scarf wrapped around as a skirt, their high suspenders peeking through, and on their feet, some four-inch heels of a bright, hard color, often red. During the folk act Dongzi's set at the Midi Festival, a microblog message from a member of the audience announced across the big screen: "Look at the handsome beautiful girls."

At the Strawberry Festival in the Tongzhou suburb of Beijing, I saw crowds that were too easily excited: red balloons floated around during the Pet Conspiracy set, whose blend of electro and rock gave off a raw stage power, its mainly female vocalists gave a flailing, wild show. There was a copycattish feel to these bands: Re-TROs, another Beijing circuit regular, were described thus by my companion: "A bit of Joy Division (literally) perhaps..." The festival itself were becoming less about the music, and more about what we were seeing, staring at, and whispering to each other.

The Midi Festival, happening at the same time on the other side of town in Haidian Park, is in its 10th year. The labels of what was being sold in its "flea market" made more impression on me than the music. It seemed that labels such as Converse were equally as popular as Chinese domestic brands, such as Feiyue or Meihua, which produce sneakers and other retro-looking clothing. Many Adidas inspired jackets say "中国," China, are actually domestically branded. Like the hipsters who congregate around Brooklyn, Chinese hipsters wear outdated things, conceived by the older generation as cheap, ugly, or simply sportswear for semi-professionals or soccer-flaying boys. The flea market also sold colorful tights, big glasses, and leather camera bags for old mechanical cameras.

Helen Feng, the American-Chinese lead singer of the band Free the Birds and a member of Pet Conspiracy, has been on the Chinese music scene since 2002. She told me two days after her performance at the Strawberry Festival that image often comes first, then the music: "Their [Chinese alternative youth's] understanding of the music is not very deep. Fashion spreads faster than music because it's more accessible... I think the music is not strong enough yet. It's generally a little less mature than what's going on in the West... but they look cool."

She set this in stone: "It's a maturity process, [having] unique sound, pushing barriers... requires pushing beyond imitation. A lot of hardware is just beginning: more live-houses are opening, the touring process is beginning..." The imitation process is deeply routed: "Culturally this idea that you have to have someone else do it first, then you do it. 99.99% of bands are stuck in the pure form of imitation."

Bright moments do occur when renowned outfits that have been the staple of rock 'n' roll in the PRC come on stage, such as the band Second Hand Roses, mixes China's northeast dramatic culture into their brutal storytelling songs. But these bands are just a part of that small percentage.

The closing act of Midi day one was He Yong. It was common knowledge that the punk-child of the late 80s and early 90s had now become a bit crazy, fuzzy-minded, and fat. It was common knowledge that he had released nothing since than that one album in 1994, despite constantly talking about a "come-back." Instead of being able to rally great inspiration in the crowd, what he instilled in people was a tiresome and overpowering sense of nostalgia -- that rock with a spiritual purpose belonged to an era that had long passed.

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