38 degrees outside as the air conditioned bullet train flies on concrete bridges over pools of green still water on the way to Wuhan.We have just played one show in Guangzhou and a second in Shenzhen, China. It’s been an intense few days with little space to sit and collate thoughts. Several hours on a high speed train seems like a perfect opportunity.
After landing in Guangzhou we reconnect with Howie who we met last time we were here. Then he played guitar in the great Die Chiwawa Die, now he’s playing in a new intense band called People’s Square. The singer comes from Vladivostok. It seems there is quite a contingent here from across the Russian states working in areas such as engineering. The venue, Brasston, looks upmarket, serving craft beers inside the tidy space. It’s not an official livehouse so manages to slip under the radar of State authorities, for now. The aesthetic of this venue gives the music of People’s Square even greater contrast. Loud, fast grindcore with the singer in a hyperactive frenzy. It’s a lot of fun!
The following day we go to Shenzhen, a city close to the border with Hong Kong. It’s reported that Shenzhen is one of the fastest growing cities on Earth. 40 years ago there was nothing other than rural life and rice paddies. Now it’s a massive, and still expanding metropolis. Our show is at the Brown Sugar Jar, a venue located in the part of the city where shopping complexes full of musical instruments can be found. We play with a local garage punk group called Help. A three-piece comprised of two lads from Russia and Anne, a fantastic bass player with an eye patch from an injured eye. The evening starts a little slow but the bar has a decent crowd by the time the evening is done. We return to Guangzhou for a couple of rest days before heading inland to Wuhan.
One big learning curve has been working out how to get the most out of the tech we carry. Inside China, Facebook and Google are inaccessible. Google translate is a great tool, as well as maps, so learning to navigate without them is a solid process all of its own. WeChat is the powerful social media app in China, and it now contains a decent translation from text and basic but unhelpful and often comic translation from photos. Some apps like Happy Cow continue to work, making seeking out vegetarian and vegan food possible, but if you are traveling with an android phone make sure you install a good maps option to use instead of Google’s.
Staying in touch with world events is also a challenge. It’s also possible to read Chinese-based news articles inside WeChat, and so we read some of the Chinese media agencies reportage of Hong Kong. The slant was of foreign interference influencing the agitation, always called HK as Hong Kong Administrative Zone – making it seem a simple bureaucratic process rather than dealing with a state wanting self determination. We never saw any imagery of the massive protests that we had seen outside of China- it’s possible here have no idea how huge the demonstrations are. In addition we saw no reports of international advocacy or calls of restraint of those in power. In one conversation local opinion was that the rest of the world was ignoring the developing tensions, we were able to convey a different perspective.
What was totally obvious and ever-present in almost all discussions was the monitoring of communication from the State, and the very real repercussions that were swiftly meted out. We heard a story of a person who made a one worded criticism of the president that he added to 3 photos he shared with friends. It was shared digitally, found online and now they are now incarcerated for three years. Another was imprisoned for a decade. He was picked up in Hong Kong in an area away from the protests with 10 lazer pointers in his pocket. People knew tanks were gathering at the Hong Kong border. Friends in both regions have different opinions – one is pro-HK, the other says HK had always been a part of China and thinks it’s OK that it returns. There is worry on both sides, and a sense of pessimism of any notion of a positive outcome.
And we can feel this pervasive self-censorship take hold. There’s an open acknowledgement of the precariousness of being foreign here, stories of immediate deportation, of regular operations of police targeting bars and enforcing urine drug screening – to be caught with a positive test is instant five days in jail and then immediate deportation. These stories are everywhere, and we’re told it’s getting tougher. Historically there would be periods of clamp-downs but then it would loosen up. These current clamp-downs started about three years ago and have not eased.
We watch what we say. We watch what we write. We want to avoid trouble, but importantly we also want to avoid trouble for those that live here after we leave.
Some of the foreigners who live here are planning “it’s time to leave China” strategies, others do not have that option.
Our schedule changes so we have to cancel and rebook trains, make alterations to accommodation and juggle our self-management. Doing things like washing clothes needs to be scheduled to avoid become a toxic pong zone.
We arrive into Wuhan a day prior to our show. Wuhan is an Oven City, literally, it’s that hot. Every pore proves it’s porousness, a city is washed in sweat. There is a breeze which feels cooler, is it wind from the turbulent sky or the butterfly effect from one million hand fans fanning to cool one million people in unison? Wuhan is a beautiful city that seems to be built around a large lake at its heart. Moisture had to settle somewhere.
We make plans to go out into the day but after food exhaustion makes itself known, we pass the heat of the day in deep sleep prior to our show in the evening. As we leave, the weather turns wet. You could say the air smells like metal before the lightening strikes, but honestly it doesn’t. The air smells of many things in Wuhan – sweetness, heat, decay, and fruit. The thunder rolls, the air is close, the percussion of raindrops striking so many differing surfaces is beautiful. Wrapped in makeshift rainwear we flag down a taxi.
The traffic here moves differently, in massive contrast to the looseness of Yogyakarta. In Yogya there seems a fluidity to the mass of movement like scholl’s of fish. Here it’s less obvious, more angular, more assertive. It’s a unique kind of mayhem.
The venue we play is called Wuhan Prision, a below-pavement bar that has existed for 10 years and is known for its punk shows. The venue is dark and heavily stickered, and the people are wonderful and supportive. We play with PLC, a guitar/bass/drums trio who play spontaneous, instrumental and spaciously pulsing tunes. On drums is the guy who sings in the local band Panic Worm who we played with last time we were here.
The next day we rise extra early to get across the city to catch the fast train to Beijing.
Moving across the country towards Beijing on a bullet train, we view the ongoing expansion of China’s massive infrastructure. Hundreds, if not thousands, of tower cranes collect in gangs of a dozen or so over the foundations and rising nests of half-built apartment blocks in mind-bending numbers. Not only is so much of this countries population going to live in the sky, there is massive subterranean construction happening in parallel underground. Gargantuan machines eat away holes in the Earth to create connecting tunnels from Hong Kong to Shenzen to Guangzhou. Will the future of China be inhabited by sky people, people of the lands and people of the tunnels?
Deep into the journey we pass an agricultural region. Startling are mile upon mile of trees, saplings in the tens of thousands, seemingly planted into every available location. The sky is grey from smog and any blue is unable to penetrate. In all the contradictions an outsider might perceive about China one thing is that it certainly appears to have a proactive approach to climate collapse mitigation. We’re told all the public transport in Guangzhou is electric as well as all the scooters and taxis, and about 50% of personal cars are also electric.
In Beijing we stay close to the Yonghegong train line. This is an area of hutongs, maze-like neighborhoods that are intimately linked, alleys one car in width with a little extra room for bikes and pedestrians. The hutongs area are getting a uniform facelift in flat brick with occasional colorful details on the trim. There are many construction sites as the once ramshackle and aging exteriors are all receiving makeovers in preparation for the 2022 Olympic games. It had a aesthetically flattening effect.
We have three shows in the three main rock bars in Beijing: DDC, Temple Bar and School Bar. DDC is the youngest of the three, offers craft beer and has a strong hip aesthetic. This show was on the same day as we arrived from Yogyakarta so was a test of endurance and energy but we played a stonker. After the show we took all our gear to Temple Bar to store in anticipation of the second show. Temple is a thumping pub that caters to both locals and foreigners. We are told that the number of locals showing up has rapidly increased in response to TV show akin to Battle of thr Bands. Going up to see bands is now a hip thing to do. The night eventually ends with a ride home in the coolest chrome Tuktuk-like three wheeled enclosed vehicle, a service run by a bloke called Old Man.
Second show at Temple was as expected – raucous and enthusiastic. A little rest can certainly return a lot of steam to the motor. Played with two other local acts. The final performance was heavy dance music by the active manipulation of seven gameboys.
The final show for Beijing is at School Bar, the longest running venue for punk-styled shows. We finally get to see our friend’s band, a surf punk quartet, play. We are immensely grateful for the sterling job of organising done by these folk. Again three bands, a local punk trio, the surf rock group and us. It’s a hot and boisterous party. We love it when the audience feels right there with us, the division of stage and crowd disappears and it becomes a joyous hoot!
Our costumes have continued to generate interest and conversation. Orange is a important colour of warning and danger, of alerting you of impending hazards and pitfalls. In conversations here in China we’re told that the people who wear the orange, who are seen everywhere with brooms made of branches and grasses, collecting rubbish or other such tasks, who are identified by their hi-viz two-piece orange jacket and pants outfit, are considered by many to be the lowest-of-the-low. It’s very interesting that people have made those connections with our outfit, that it creates a symbolic confusion or challenge with these identifying markers.
All power to the Orange wearers!