June 17, 2010

The Fabled Chinese Hipster – Part 2: Reprise

“I guess I am deeply embedded in the ‘myth-making’ process…” –Matthew Niederhauser

A long-delayed (if not long-awaited) follow-up to Part 1. I would also suggest (re)reading my first impressions of the Beijing indie rock scene, and I strongly advise you to listen to the following track while you read this post (and, hopefully, while you do other things in the future):

» Carsick Cars – 中南海 (6:45) – 11.22MB mp3 @ 232kbps

sound_kapital_4a-matthew-niederhauser-via-wired

All photos by the amazing Matthew Niederhauser, who offers an insider’s perspective on the Chinese rock underground, specifically D-22/Maybe Mars:

Wired.com: As an indie rock fan in the United States, I don’t feel like a similar scene could exist here anymore without the bands being marginalized as posers and hipsters. But in your photos there seems to be an authenticity in the subjects that can’t be faked. Is this just my perception as a Westerner looking in, or do you think there’s something about really tough circumstances in China leading to more authentic rock and attitude?

Niederhauser: The socioeconomic circumstances of China cannot be divorced from the music scene.

[These musicians] are repelled by and don’t wish to participate in a largely vacuous and inherently unsustainable consumer culture taking hold of China. While they might not brazenly attack the government, their embrace of such a fringe lifestyle along with the music they produce is a powerful statement in and of itself. This choice comes with a social stigma that is hard to imagine outside of China.

–Matthew Niederhauser, Scenes from the Beijing Rock Underground,
Wired, December 2009 (highly recommended)

sound_kapital_1b-matthew-niederhauser-via-wired

During my second month in Beijing, I continued to explore the indie rock scene, to the extent that this lengthy postscript to my initial thoughts on ‘Beijing Rock City‘ is a felicitous introduction to this second look at the Fabled Chinese Hipster.

With no idea how to go about pirating music, I went out of my way to catch hyped bands such as ReTROS and Pet Conspiracy at their concerts. Meanwhile, I came to enjoy the likes of Carsick Cars and B6—probably my two favorite Chinese acts, at this point—by purchasing their albums (in retrospect, I should have gone pre-teen rock-virgin style and bought every CD I could get my hands on).

carsick-cars-2-by-matthew-niederhauser

In fact, in many ways, it was like going back a decade in time, to those glorious teenage days when every five minutes on Napster yielded a new rock ‘n’ roll gem. In a particularly portentous coincidence, I happened to discover the likes of the Velvet Underground, early Red Hot Chili Peppers and Radiohead in Chinese bootleg form on the relatively lawless streets of Beijing in the early days of cheap CD-burners—as did many of my fellow countrymen (the rebellious teens of my generation, at least), including Zhang Shouwang of Carsick Cars:

The generation before us didn’t have as many chances to get to know the rock music of Western countries, but nowadays we listen to music from many other countries. I believe that when my bands write songs, we might be influenced some elements of Western culture. I think the next generation of bands will be much different than ours.

Carsick Cars is China’s answer to New York’s (/NJ) holy trinity of feedback-drenched songcraft: Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo; in keeping with the fuzz aesthetic, a couple of their songs from the first album are deadringers for Jesus & Mary Chain. Say what you want about influences and imitation, it’s pure rock ‘n’ roll: guitar tones that are simultaneously warm and bright, backed by thick slabs of bass and unfussy drums—and Carsick Cars a damn good band for it.

zhang-shouwang-by-matthew-niederhauser

I’ve been hooked on their hit single (for lack of a better term) “中南海” since I first heard it last fall, after buying their albums directly from Maybe Mars’ headquarters near where I was staying. It’s a fairly simple song: the lyrics consist mostly of one phrase (“中南海”; literally “Middle South Sea” [Zhōng nánhǎi; sounds vaguely like "drunk not high"]) repeated over a catchy riff; the album version disintegrates into a pleasantly noisy breakdown—just to prove that they can—where the song would normally be truncated for radio, before cutting back for one last uplifting refrain.

And before you know, it’s over.

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May 25, 2010

Part One Point Five

The China beat goes on:

Ines Brunn after Li Wei

Ines Brunn after Li Wei

Some notes on the People’s Republic before the second chapter on the Fabled C[hinese]hipster

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Wu Yulu’s amazing mechanical men:

After suffering a series of life changing set backs such as a burnt down home, spraying himself with battery acid, and experiencing great financial debt—all in the name of art—Chinese farmer Wu Yulu is finally gaining some recognition for his homemade robots.

Designboom

DB also has a gallery of Wu Yulu’s ‘Peasant Da Vincis’ for Cai Guo-Qiang’s inaugural exhibition at the newly restored Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai; some images interpolated below (cue egregiously ironic juxtaposition of images + text):

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wu-luyu-for-cai-guoqiang-pollockbot-via-designboom

Click image to see Robo-Pollock in action at DB

Chinese news site Southern Weekend recently sent intern Liu Zhiyi undercover at the Shenzhen site of Foxconn, “the world’s biggest contract electronics maker and a major supplier to Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and other companies,” which has been under scrutiny for the suicides of nine workers this year (more background info at NYT):

I know of two groups of young people.

One group consists of university students like myself, who live in ivory towers and kept company by libraries and lake views. The other group works alongside steel machineries and large containers, all inside a factory of high-precision manufacturing environment.

–Liu Zhiyi, Southern Weekend via Engadget

The translated article is definitely worth reading, though the Apple connection clearly raises the profile of these otherwise-overlooked incidents.

Skeptics (or fans of Apple) have taken to pointing out that this suicide rate, in a plant with four hundred and twenty thousand workers, is no higher than that in a Chinese city of comparable size.

–Evan Osnos, Items of Interest, Letter from China blog on the New Yorker, May 25 2010

Again, clickthrough for sweet vids...

Again, clickthrough for sweet vids on DB...

On a lighter note:

“I hear that Americans can buy anything they want, and I believe it, judging from the things I’ve made for them,” Chen said. “And I also hear that, when they no longer want an item, they simply throw it away. So wasteful and contemptible.”

Chinese Factory Worker Can’t Believe The Shit He Makes For Americans, The Onion

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Essay Question (10 pts): To what degree does electronic music reflect the alienation of technology and hyperindustrialization?

Let me take this opportunity to explain my music. At first I liked drums, they were fast and noisy and that’s what I first produced. After a while I listened to more electronic, quieter music. I like fast music, but it’s more melodic as a general rule. I added more melody into my music, more baritone. My latest work has slowed down in comparison to my older music. In the past it’s always been very young, punkish, full of joy. Now, I like slower, blacker, darker music. Also, I like the Chinese influence. I cant explain it, I just like it. I add a little bit of Chinese music in everything.

Sulumi, via Intel×Vice’s Creators Project

via Wired

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A few more for good flavor:

mickey-christ

  • Wild Wild Westernization: “16 Items They Only Sell at Chinese Walmarts” (Buzzfeed)
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Shanghai, 1948

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Shanghai, 1948

  • A glimpse into a Chinese toy factory.
Li Wei via the Guardian

Li Wei via the Guardian

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January 15, 2010

Recapitulation

This detailed account of my Thursday is intended as a window into the life of someone who is currently “between jobs” (i.e. jobless—which is why I have all the time in the world to spend on my blog).

It’s pretty stupid and boring.

Honestly though, I don’t really know why I’m doing this—especially without photos, which might somehow justify the tedious and grossly underdeveloped prose. (It reads like something I would’ve written for a 9th-grade English class.) The closest approximation of a rationalization I can come up with is that I’d like to have some really terrible, shameful writing on the record to spite the rest of the content on my blog.

It’s also littered with hip NYC namedroppings and a cast of ancillary characters who barely qualify as devices. There is no symbolism or allegorical value to speak of. I’ve done my best to minimize foreshadowing… but that’s asking a lot and I’m not that good of a writer.

At best, it’s an exercise, an uncharacteristically intimate portrait of contemporary bohemia, largely unembellished albeit esoteric to the point of being skewed. At worst, it may be remembered as the first symptom of an otherwise untold descent into madness.

We’ll see how long it says online before I decide to delete it. (I’m tracking stats now so I’ll know exactly how many people clickthrough and read it.)

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December 4, 2009

Erase Errata

13club

I retract my initial characterization of D-22: it could pass for a “Lower East Side hotspot.” It turns out that my previous warehouse-turned-clubhouse description is far more appropriate for neighboring metal venue 13 Club, with its spacious main floor, multiple side rooms and pentagonal windows. I stopped by 13 Club last Saturday for the first (and possibly last) time before heading over to a show (pictured below) at D-22, and I must say that my musical allegiance lies squarely with the latter venue. [Footnote: D-22's address is listed as 242 Chengfu Road and 13 Club is supposedly at 161 Chengfu Road, yet in reality they're two doors down from each other, a perfect example of the irrational street numbering here.]

Also, Weezer’s “In the Garage” is probably a more accurate description of this DIY practice space. I might have to go with Carsick Cars’ 中南海 as the D-22 theme song (more on this in a future post).

But hopefully, I wasn’t too far off the mark… and I have pictures now, to prove that it actually exists (as opposed to just being on other blogs.)

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November 25, 2009

Beijing Electro City

Well that didn’t take long.

I found the new Chinese sound…

…or at least a sound that I was new to me, by way of a Chinese artist.

But first the requisite tedium of time, place, overanalysis and a dozen other tangents:

After catching La Loupe last Thursday, I opted not to see Au Revoir Simone or Rahzel (playing separate concerts—Chinese people are crazy but they’re not that crazy) and take it easy on Friday because 1.) the shows were relatively expensive—150RMB [$22] and 100RMB [$15]) respectively, which sounds cheap but taking drinks and cab fare into account, would have made a relatively expensive night out; 2.) I was afraid I would go through another pack of smokes (a health concern, not a financial one; more on this shortly); and 3.) I was saving my energy, money and health for Saturday’s cryptically-titled “Great Beer, Bad City” concert, showcasing China’s finest electronic music talent, at 2 Kolegas, “Beijing’s Hottest Dive Bar & Live Music Venue” (according to their website).

gbbc01

You'll have to excuse the poor quality of my photos; low light, strobes, movement, inebriation and ineptitude are to blame.

You'll have to excuse the poor quality of my photos; low light, strobes, movement, inebriation and ineptitude are to blame.

Like D-22, 2 Kolegas has established itself as a legit venue since its founding by two expats a few years back, attracting indie acts from near and far (I regret missing YACHT’s Halloween show there). Also like D-22, it happens to be off the beaten path, but (unlike D-22) this does not work in my favor: 2 Kolegas is a 15 km / 25 minute / 45RMB taxi-ride away, in the northeastern reaches of Beijing… in the parking lot of a sketchy drive-in movie theater that I might have mistook for a carnival (further explanation is clearly necessary, but will not be provided.) As with most places I’ve tried to find in Beijing, I found it on the second try, after a 15-minute detour down a shady side street lined with empty cabs—I had hoped they were ferrying passengers to nightlife off the main road, but this was not the case.

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November 21, 2009

Beijing Rock City

or, Music Teaches Me How to Live My Life

One of my primary concerns about leaving Brooklyn, indie rock epicenter of the world, for the relatively conservative environs of Beijing was that I would be subjecting myself to the padded walls of my existing mp3 collection while the Western world partook in the likes of new Jay-Z remixes, Lil Wayne mixtapes, Yeasayer singles, etc., etc. This, clearly, has not been the case: while Piratebay, Blogspot and WordPress are strictly off-limits, any number of other services can more or less fill this void with the mellifluous sounds of The xx and Au Revoir Simone. (I even picked up Chinese copies of the new Basement Jaxx and Calvin Harris albums at a record store.)

niederhau-pk

P.K.14 by Matthew Niederhauser via NY Times; click to see the whole slideshow.

About three weeks ago, an errant search on Hype Machine led to a fateful click on a link to the subtly-named blog “Fuck Bad Music”. I didn’t find the track I was looking for, but I did discover that one of FBM’s contributors, as far as I can tell, shares my situation: an American (from Portland, OR) who recently landed in Beijing. In her quest to conquer the Beijing rock scene, she finds her way to its latest, greatest outpost: D-22. The name was somewhat familiar from nightlife listings, but I finally got around to checking it out only after reading her review.

While Angel takes comfort in the familiarity of the small-ish venue, I am at a loss for an analog in New York: D-22 is slightly too big to fit the bill as a Lower East Side hotspot and slightly too nice—in that tacky Chinese way—to come off as a word-of-mouth Brooklyn ‘space’. To be fair, D-22 could definitely pass for an East Atlanta haunt: the venue attracts a regular (if somewhat scant) mix of bona fide Beijing hipsters, Azn bros, fangirls and a fair proportion of curious expats, despite (or due to?) the fact that the unassuming storefront is tucked away in a strip mall several miles from the city center.

As for the music itself, Chinese rock music is highly (and inevitably) derivative of Western rock music. Still, increasing recognition has substantiated the emergence of a Chinese sound. I had actually downloaded a couple of Hang On The Box and P.K.14 albums a few years back, when I first heard that the Chinese had taken to rock ‘n’ roll, but (if you’ll excuse the forthcoming pretension), as an amateur anthropologist, I believe in collecting ethnographic data before passing judgment—in other words, actually experiencing the subculture.

Matthew Niederhauser again; I will echo Angel's praise for his work.

Matthew Niederhauser again; I will echo Angel's praise for his work.

An initial survey of D-22 suggested that the nascent scene might better be described as pubescent, given the prevalent 90′s alt-rock influence. Any given song might—at best—sound like the band had just discovered Weezer; uninspired Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots or Red Hot Chili Peppers imitations were more common. In retrospect, this was actually a good sign, as it suggested that every subgenre of guitar-based music might see some play in Beijing.

Indeed, subsequent visits have attested the breadth of the Beijing’s punk rock underbelly, and I must admit, to Angel’s point, that I’m about ready to call D-22 home. (Almost literally: the venue happens to be just under a kilometer from where I’m staying. At an average of 30RMB [$4.50] per show, I really have no excuse not to become a fixture at the end of D-22′s bar.)

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