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


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)


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).


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.


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.


Is it a question of nature or nurture, as with La Loupe? Am I somehow predisposed to like Carsick Cars based on a felicitous confluence of certain conditions of my birth (i.e., ethnicity) and certain formative cultural stimuli (viz., high school friend Mark burning Modest Mouse, Belle & Sebastian, etc. for me)? Am I just the product of an unlikely punnet square, a cross between Chinese nature and indie kid (read: artsy suburban teenager) nurture?


Well, short answer: no. First of all, I think I can safely venture that Carsick Cars are a legitimately good indie rock band, Chinese or otherwise. In fact, there is absolutely no indication that they’re Chinese on the songs in which Zhang Shouwang sings in English. Yet he clearly feels strongly about his cultural identity, in a bizarro twist on my hybrid nature:

I would say my music is very Chinese, because I China is where I’m from. Because China doesn’t really have a history in rock ‘n’ roll, my generation has grown up on and been influenced by Western music. Thus, our process of making music has been very Western.

Zhang Shouwang

Of course, if we share two counts of difference—ethnicity and musical taste— he is the one who can truly call China his home (not to mention the fact that he’s a successful musician and not just a fan).

I think the songs I write are Chinese in style because I live in China, and no matter how I am influenced by the West my main concepts are based on my country.


This is not to say that there is not or will never be an Original Chinese Sound, though I stand by my thesis that it is still pubescent.

Nearly 60 years of rock and punk was suddenly dumped on Chinese youth about 10 years ago, and how they continue to pick it apart and digest the fragments manifests in many different ways [sic].

–Matthew Niederhauser, Scenes from the Beijing Rock Underground,
Wired, December 2009


So yes, there is a legitimate indie rock subculture in Beijing, whether you compare it to New York (or Portland, London, or wherever) in the 70′s (or 80′s, 90′s, 00′s, or whenever). But I don’t think that it has evolved into a full-fledged hipster culture (at least not of its own accord): that is what supposedly comes next. While the resurgence of, say, 80′s style is regarded as the surest symptom of hipsteria in American cities, Niederhauser (and Goodman, from Part 1, for that matter) seems amenable to Chinese hipsterwear as an overt identifier, at least to the extent that there is some level of risk in aligning oneself with an alternative subculture. If contemporary alt fashion in the Western world—be it punk, hip-hop, skater, whatever—simply lacks the significance that it did when it reflected an original subculture, it does represent an authentic one for Chinese youth.


Other commentators are less sympathetic:

[Kids at rock shows] 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 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.

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.

–Alice Xin Liu, Beijing Rock Scene Is Inspired by Hipster Chic,
Huffington Post, May 6 2010


Her commentary serves as a nice cliffhanger/segué into the forthcoming conclusion of this series of essays, but a few more notes on the FCH in Beijing Rock City:

  • Young people in Chinese are a secondary audience to Western mass media—i.e., outside observers to the media that caters to, shapes, and all but defines youth culture in the West. The one-time gold standard for that elusive demographic was MTV, since deposed by a series of tubes, which was (and perhaps still is) much a marketing machine as a media outlet, which understood its audience at least as much as its audience understood it. (This must be related, somehow.)

    Perhaps a misguided MTV approach inspired the latest series of grossly overbranded, highly disorganized, and regrettably underproduced music festivals that marked the May Holiday in Beijing.

Westerners working in marketing in China often spout forth that Chinese kids do not mind branding. In fact, our research actually shows that youth in China actually feel safer about an event if there is some level of branding involved. Strawberry Festival organizers are certainly taking this philosophy to the limit.

Art vs Commerce – A Review of Beijing Festival Weekend,
China Music Radar, May 4 2010

  • As with any buzzworthy creative movement, there is bound to be backlash: Max-Leonhard von Schaper of Rock in China, a wiki for rock in China, recently posted a couple of articles contesting the prevalence D-22/Maybe Mars’ media campaign (cf. Pitchfork backlash?) Call me biased, but Niederhauser singlehandedly dismantles these arguments in his intensely passionate riposte (I recommend reading it in full if you’re remotely interested).
  • More Niederhauser (between him and Zhang Shouwang: two more things I should just marry already).

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