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The Early Days of Rock in China – Interview with Sinologist & Hardrocker Jeroen den Hengst

From copied tapes to a unique rock scene – Jeroen den Hengst was part of the Beijing rock scene when it first awakened.

Manya Koetse

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Dutch Sinologist and musician Jeroen den Hengst was part of the Beijing rock scene when it awakened in the late 1980s. Nearly three decades later, Den Hengst looks back on the early days of rock in China – before, during and after the Tiananmen protests – and talks about the music scene in Beijing and his personal path from young Sinologist to serious hardrocker.

When I notice some glitters sparkling on Den Hengst’s face as I meet him in downtown Amsterdam in early Spring, he nonchalantly brushes them off. He was performing the night before, he tells me.

Den Hengst is the host and guitar player of Amsterdam’s Hardrock Karaoke, which has become quite a phenomenon in Amsterdam and beyond. We sit down, order a beer and talk about Den Hengst’s musical journey that started in the early days of China rock.

 

FIRST STEPS ON THE MAINLAND

“There was simply no access to pop music. I had brought forty cassette tapes with music to China; they were copied hundreds of times.”

cuijiantape

“I arrived in China in September 1987 when the famous Beijing musician Cui Jian (崔健) was just getting big. I came to China to study at Peking University as part of my Sinology studies at Leiden University, but soon ended up more in the Beijing music scene than I was in class,” Den Hengst tells:

“I never used to be a really good student – music was always my true passion. I had also played in bands throughout high school. But I was very interested in China. I had to learn its history for my final high school exams. The language intrigued me. So I started studying it at university and had already finished my third year when I arrived in Beijing. I soon discovered I couldn’t even properly order food, despite studying the language. It was my first time in China.”

“Singer Cui Jian got together at the time with Eddy [Randriamampionona] from Madagascar and drummer Zhang [Yongguang]. They would perform in Ritan Park with their band Ado. I would go there, and found out that there were quite some young people making music.”

cuijiantiananmen

THE ADO BAND IN 1989 WITH FROM LEFT TO RIGHT SANR (DRUMS), EDDIE FROM MADAGASCAR (GUITAR), BALASZ FROM HUNGARY (BASS), LIU YUANR (SAX) AND FRONTMAN CUI JIAN (IMAGE FROM REDIANWANG)

“Zang Tianshuo (臧天朔) would also play there, and I became acquainted with Chinese rock musician He Yong (何勇), who later became well-known with his album Garbage Dump (垃圾场). I knew all of them, it was just a small bunch of people in that scene. Especially the foreigners in Beijing knew each other at the time – there were not that many, and if there was something happening we just knew it through word of mouth.”

xin_0520307151412015265624Singer He Yong in early 1990s (Xinhua).

“I started frequenting these sort of performances and would join on stage every now and then, as I did with the band Mayday (五月天), in which He Yong also played. They had all just started playing and had zero background knowledge in pop music as there was simply no access to that kind of music. I had brought forty cassette tapes with me to China; they were copied hundreds of times. Before I knew it I was hanging out with these guys days on end, recording songs in the studio. They would also make cassette tapes with Toto music, for which I would do the singing. I would get 500 kuai [±80$] for it, which got me through another month. I lived on the campus anyway, and did not need much to get by.”

“I’ve always felt very welcome, and our interest was mutual. I wanted to play music with them, and they needed a guitar player. The fact that I was foreign didn’t matter – we were all equals. I stopped going to Chinese classes at university, but in the meantime, my Chinese was improving every day because I was talking to my new friends. I once went back to class in the second semester and discovered I was ahead of the others. By then I couldn’t just properly order food – I was talking Chinese the whole time.”

 

THE EARLY DAYS OF ROCK IN CHINA

“The years from 1986-1989 were the blossoming days for rock music – those were the days of liberation.”

heibaoHeibao band members (Zhihu).

“The years from 1986-1989 were the blossoming days for a new type of music in China, but it was more than that: those were the days of liberation. Everybody thought: we’re opening up, we’re becoming modern. It was the build-up to the student movement of ’89. Rock music was a big part of it.”

“The late ‘80s were not necessarily the beginning of pop music in China, as you also had music by Chinese pop queen Teresa Teng and others which was popular before that time. But the rock scene provided a different sound – it was not as sweet as Teresa Teng, and it was influenced by the cassettes that were passed around, which included sounds by Toto, The Police, Bob Marley, and other artists. The difference between pop and rock is lifestyle; it was no music for the millions, it was a hip and alternative scene.”

“The ‘rock scene’ maybe consisted of 30 to 40 people. Cui Jian played an important role in those early days of rock. For many young adults, he was that critical voice against the authorities. He was very good with language, and also used Chinese instruments in his music. He really knew how to do it. Nobody ever surpassed him in that way.”
cuijiandingingCui Jian in 1990.

“Many musicians of those days were part of danwei’s [work units] focused on dance and music. Most of them were able to play a traditional Chinese instrument. They all came from a musical environment, but their power was to give those Chinese musical influences a new twist and combine them with the music that came in via Europe or America. In the music from those days, you can clearly hear what they listened to. Part of it is coincidence; Cui Jian sometimes only sounds like The Police because that was the cassette tape that happened to be available to him, while others weren’t.”

hei baoThe Heibao band 黑豹乐队 (image from my.isself).

“Heibao (黑豹乐队, Black Panther) was a band that was also formed at the time. They later became the best-selling mainland Chinese rock band ever. More people started engaging with the rock scene. The simple core value in the beginning was that everyone just wanted to make music. Those were the free days. We would hang out together in the studio and if we went out we would hop on our bikes and cycle through the city. The streets were pretty empty. Looking back, I mainly remember that feeling of freedom and spontaneity. ”

 

THE TIANANMEN MOVEMENT

“The army had taken over the city. There was no more music, no more nothing.”

tiananmenaftermathThe aftermath: cleaning up Tiananmen Square, June 1989.

“I lived in Beijing throughout 1987-1988 and then went back in 1989. The liberal politician Hu Yaobang died in April 1989 and everyone mourned his death because he was a reformer who inspired people – he was, amongst others, against corruption. He was very popular amongst Chinese students. University students in Beijing went through the city in a procession to honour him and then the slogans started coming against corruption. It became political very quickly.”

“I arrived again in Beijing with a crew on the day Hu Yaobang died to make a documentary about youth culture in China for Dutch television and we recorded everything. For us, it was a coincidence that we arrived exactly at that moment, and we saw more and more international press arriving while we were filming all along. We only later realised how big this event actually was. It was one big roller coaster.”

19890515_hungerStrike1Picture of Tiananmen square protests, 15 May 1989 (source).

“We were staying at the Peking University campus, and saw more and more trucks coming and going with students hopping on to go to Tiananmen Square. If I had to compare it with anything, I’d say it was like Woodstock – a bizarre hopeful and loving vibe was capturing Beijing. I absolutely loved it, and I was one of the hundred-thousands of people standing on Tiananmen. We would go there all the time, also in the middle of night, and all my friends from the music scene would also be there to provide entertainment to the students who stayed there.”

“Cui Jian’s Tiananmen performance was legendary. His songs also made sense, singing about ‘I’ve got nothing to my name’ [see song translation]; he voiced the feelings many had the time. But there were a lot more people there who made music, there were many from the art and music scene. Students were even setting up a Statue of Liberty on Tiananmen. It was one big party.”

“At a certain point I realized that things were going the wrong way; things started to get dirty, literally, and I was too caught up – although I wasn’t politically involved at all. It was just that there were many cute girls and it was all so rock ’n roll, and I enjoyed it, but I got it all wrong. People started getting tired and not much was really happening. The height of the moment was gone. The same familiar faces were appearing in the media and the atmosphere changed. We decided to go to Shanghai by the end of May to further work on our documentary there.”

nytimes(Image by New York Times.)

“It was night in Shanghai, on June 4th, when there was a quiet procession throughout Nanjing Avenue with people carrying big posters. On the trees we saw stapled faxes with images that had gotten through via Hong Kong about what had happened in Beijing. We saw dead people and burnt soldiers. I almost couldn’t believe it – that such a peaceful and care-free time had turned into such a dark thing. We did not return to Beijing afterwards, as we had nothing to do there anymore. People from the Dutch embassy in Beijing went to the campus to collect our photos and films to make sure they were safe. The army had taken over the city. There was no more music, no more nothing.”

“In those last months of 1989 and in the early nineties I went back to Beijing, but things had changed a lot – especially in the music scene. There were a lot of wild parties, but everything had become more underground. Many musicians endured hard times during those days.”

 

AFTER THE EIGHTIES

“Many of the guys from those days have gone mad.”

funeralphoto Beijing musicians at funeral of bassist Zhang Ju of band Tang Dynasty (founded by Kaiser Kuo with Ding Wu and Zhang Ju in 1988). Zhang died in a motorcycle accident in 1995. From left: Zhang Ling (Mayday), Zhu Jia, Zhou Ren (Xiutie/Pork), Jin Hai, Li Ji (Budaoweng) and Li Jie. Photo by Gao Yuan).

“People living in a dictatorship develop techniques to know the margins within which they can operate. In the early nineties, I noticed that the guys in the music scene somehow always knew when their friends were getting out of prison. Or when they could organise a party. It was also the time when Ecstacy came up – it was called  yáotóuwán (摇头丸) in Chinese, literally: ‘shake-head-pill’, ’cause it made their heads shake.”

“It seems like not many people were able to pick up the music vibe where it had left off before those dark days in 1989. Some just couldn’t get on with the changing times, others were on drugs. Not many were arrested, but there were a lot of them who had to lay low for a long time after 1989. Zhang [Ado drummer] committed suicide last year. He Yong is now either imprisoned or in a mental hospital. Many of the guys from those days have gone mad or suffered a severe setback after their moment in those early flourishing days of rock had passed.”

“Now the music scene seems to be somewhat blooming again. Beijing really has got some good bands. Shanghai has got a nice jazz scene. But there is no solid base for these bands to build on. Japan and Korea are far ahead of China when it comes to the music scene. In China’s music scene, people are more individualistic – they are staring at the ground when you want to find the groove together. If everyone is only looking to do their own thing and don’t work together, you don’t get that music to the next level.”

“After living in China, I continued my own musical career in the Netherlands as a musician and producer. China never really influenced my career back home. But I did once produce a song in Chinese for Dutch singer Brigit Schuurman. I still go back to Beijing and get on stage every now and then. Last year I performed in Yugong Yishan together with Li Ji (Jige) from the band Budaoweng (不倒翁). I’m also working on recording a duet between Shanghai musician and friend Coco Zhao and my wife [Dutch singer Monique Klemann].”

denhengtbeijing Den Hengst in Beijing in 2015 with good friend and fellow musician Li Ji (aka Jige) on his right and two Taiwan friends from the rock scene.

“I will go back again this Summer and I will perform again. Somehow I always get that same nostalgic feeling I had in the Spring of 1989 when I walk on the streets of Beijing – that feeling of freedom, that anything’s possible.”

denhengst2Den Hengst dressed in full attire for Hardrock Karaoke (left) and on the right during live performance. In the featured image, Den Hengst is performing at Yugong Yishan in 2015.

This interview was conducted and condensed by Manya Koetse in Amsterdam.

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Arts & Entertainment

China’s New Hit Drama ‘Nothing But Thirty’ Thrives in the “She Era”

Chinese latest hit drama ‘Nothing but Thirty’ has 20 billion views on its Weibo hashtag page.

Yin Lin Tan

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China’s latest TV drama hit Nothing But Thirty is flooding Weibo discussions. With over 20 billion views on its hashtag page, the show is one of the most popular shows of the season and demonstrates that China’s ‘she era’ (ta shidai 她时代) dramas are all the rage. What’s on Weibo’s Yin Lin Tan explains.

“Have you heard of ‘independent at the age of thirty’ (sān shí ér lì 三十而立)?” Wang Manni asks, her hair pulled back neatly and white shirt cleanly pressed. “I hope that, before I’m thirty, I’ll be promoted to supervisor.”

Riding on the wave of female protagonist (‘heroine’ 大女主) shows that have been taking over China’s entertainment scene, Nothing But Thirty (三十而已) is a 43-episode drama by Dragon Television that follows the challenges of three different women who have reached the ever-important age of thirty.

In a society where women are often expected to be married by their late twenties, a show like this, which tackles women’s present-day struggles, both in their personal and professional lives, has resonated with many.

In fact, the show is so popular that at the time of writing, the show’s hashtag (“Nothing But Thirty”, #三十而已#) has over 20 billion (!) views on Weibo.

 

Depicting the struggles of China’s thirty-something women

 

Nothing But Thirty revolves around the lives of three female leads from different walks of life. Gu Jia (Tong Yao) is a capable businesswoman turned full-time housewife; Wang Manni (Jiang Shuying) is an independent, career-oriented sales assistant; and Zhong Xiaoqin (Mao Xiaotong) is your run-of-the-mill office lady.

For Gu Jia, the birth of her son was what truly transformed her into a full-fledged housewife. In many ways, she seems like a perfect wife and mother: well-educated, capable, and thoughtful. But, eventually, she too has to face life’s challenges.

Driven and hardworking, Wang Manni is confident in both her looks and abilities. Her immediate goal, at least at the start of the show, is to achieve professional success. Throughout the show, her resilience is put to the test, personally and professionally.

Zhong Xiaoqin is described by many netizens as the most “average” or “normal” character. She is kind-hearted -sometimes to the point of being a pushover -, and has spent years at the same company without rising the ranks. Though her story might seem mundane at first, this peace is disrupted when her marriage takes a turn for the worse.

 

A story that resonates with the masses

 

“The show attracted wide attention, and it strongly resonated with female audiences. Many thirty-something working women saw their own lives reflected in the show,” Xinhua recently wrote about the show.

Nothing but Thirty currently carries a 7.6 out of 10 rating on Douban, an online reviewing platform.

Though some reviewers criticized how the later episodes of the show were unnecessarily draggy, most praised it for its portrayal of strong female characters, good acting, and largely realistic depiction of women above the age of thirty.

“I saw myself, and also saw the friends beside me,” a reviewer notes.

In China, women are, more often than not, burdened with expectations of getting married and settling down by the time they are in their late twenties. If you’re single and thirty, that’s made even worse.

Those who fall into this category carry the derogatory label of “leftover women” (剩女), a term that reflects how single women above the age of thirty are seen as consolation prizes or even unwanted goods.

Thirty is thus an incredibly important number, especially for women — something that’s clearly reflected in the show’s concept trailer.

Aside from societal expectations of starting a family, some women now also take it upon themselves to build their careers. In fact, you can chase after professional success without burdening yourself with the idea that you must be married – a notion exemplified by the character of Wang Manni.

Nothing But Thirty also showcases the sheer diversity of experiences for women above thirty: you don’t have to be married, you don’t have to be super capable, and you don’t have to be thinking about having children. Each woman goes through her own unique struggles and isn’t necessarily endowed with the so-called “protagonist’s halo.”

Ultimately, the popularity of the show is driven by the three female leads and the actresses who bring these strong characters to life.

By telling a story that is relatable and touches on relevant social issues, namely on expectations of women in society, Nothing But Thirty was able to achieve widespread popularity and is adding another notch on the trend of China’s ta shidai (她时代) dramas. 

 

The rise of ta shidai shows

 

Ta shidai literally translates to “her era” or “the ‘she’ era.”

Ta shidai shows explore what it’s like to be a woman in China today. The female characters are diverse when it comes to both their backgrounds and character arcs; they might have different jobs, different levels of education, or different personalities. These shows mostly center around a strong female lead and/or a main cast that is primarily female.

More importantly, they often feature capable women and how these women overcame the odds to achieve success.

Recent shows like The Romance of Tiger and Rose (传闻中的陈芊芊) and Sisters Who Make Waves (乘风破浪的姐姐) also fall under this category, as do somewhat older hit shows such as Ode to Joy (欢乐颂) and Women in Beijing (北京女子图鉴).

The Romance of Tiger and Rose is set in a society in which women are in charge and men are subordinate, in a daring reversal of gender roles. Though the show has been criticized for using social issues to attract attention, it gained a decent following for tackling topics like gender inequality and women’s rights.

The Romance of Tiger and Rose (传闻中的陈芊芊)

A reality TV competition that swept the Chinese entertainment scene, Sisters Who Make Waves attempted to rebuke stereotypes of women over 30 as “leftover women.”

The show brought together female celebrities above the age of 30 (the oldest competitor was 52), and had them go through a series of challenges, culminating in a girl group formed by the final competitors.

Nothing But Thirty is just another example of a show that’s attempted to depict the realistic struggles of women in modern-day China.

More Chinese dramas that feature women — specifically, their struggles and the expectations that society places on them — are slated to be released in 2020.

Over the past few years, more attention has been focused on women’s rights in China. As feminism becomes an increasingly important topic of discussion in China, strongly facilitated by social media and not without controversy, companies are likely to hop on the bandwagon and continue producing shows that fall squarely in the ta shidai category, given the genre’s rising popularity.

Though we can’t expect every single show to perfectly, accurately, and realistically portray women’s struggles, the fact that more stories like these are being produced already helps bring such conversations into the mainstream. 

Hopefully, the trend of ta shidai shows is a sign that these issues won’t just be tackled on camera, but in real life as well. 

 
Read more about Chinese TV dramas here.
 

By Yin Lin Tan

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©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Two Hour Time Limit for KTV: China’s Latest Covid-19 Measures Draw Online Criticism

China’s latest COVID-19 infection prevention and control measures are drawing criticism from social media users.

Manya Koetse

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First published

No more never-ending nights filled with singing and drinking at the karaoke bar for now, as new pandemic containment measures put a time limit as to how long people can stay inside entertainment locations and wangba (internet cafes).

On June 22nd, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism (文旅部) issued an adjusted version to earlier published guidelines on Covid-19-related prevention and control measures for theaters, internet cafes, and other indoor entertainment venues.

Some of the added regulations have become big news on Chinese social media today.

According to the latest guidelines, it will not be allowed for Chinese consumers to stay at various entertainment locations and wangba for more than two hours.

Singing and dancing entertainment venues, such as KTV bars, can only operate at no greater than 50% maximum occupancy. This also means that private karaoke rooms will be much emptier, as they will also only be able to operate at 50% capacity.

On Weibo, the news drew wide attention today, with the hashtag “KTV, Internet Cafe Time Limit of Two Hours” (#KTV网吧消费时间不得超2小时#) receiving over 220 million views at the time of writing. One news post reporting on the latest measures published on the People’s Daily Weibo account received over 7000 comments and 108,000 likes.

One popular comment, receiving over 9000 likes, criticized the current anti-coronavirus measures for entertainment locations, suggesting that dining venues – that have reopened across the country – actually pose a much greater risk than karaoke rooms due to the groups of people gathering in one space without a mask and the “saliva [drops] flying around.”

The comment, that was posted by popular comic blogger Xuexi, further argues that cinemas – that have suffered greatly from nationwide closures – are much safer, as people could wear masks inside and the maximum amount of seats could be minimized by 50%. Karaoke rooms are even safer, Xuexi writes, as the private rooms are only shared by friends or colleagues – people who don’t wear face masks around each other anyway.

Many people agree with the criticism, arguing that the latest guidelines do not make sense at all and that two hours is not nearly enough for singing songs at the karaoke bar or for playing online games at the internet cafe. Some wonder why (regular) bars are not closed instead, or why there is no two-hour time limit for their work at the office.

Most comments are about China’s cinemas, with Weibo users wondering why a karaoke bar, where people open their mouths to sing and talk, would be allowed to open, while the cinemas, where people sit quietly and watch the screen, remain closed.

Others also suggest that a two-hour limit would actually increase the number of individuals visiting one place in one night, saying that this would only increase the risks of spreading the virus.

“Where’s the scientific evidence?”, some wonder: “What’s the difference between staying there for two hours or one day?”

“As a wangba owner, this really fills me with sorrow,” one commenter writes: “Nobody cares about the financial losses we suffered over the past six months. Our landlord can’t reduce our rent. During the epidemic we fully conformed to the disease prevention measures, we haven’t opened our doors at all, and now there’s this policy. We don’t know what to do anymore.”

Among the more serious worries and fears, there are also some who are concerned about more trivial things: “There’s just no way we can eat all our food at the KTV place within a two-hour time frame!”

By Manya Koetse

*” 餐饮其实才更严重,一群人聚在一起,而且不戴口罩,唾沫横飞的。开了空调一样也是密闭空间。电影院完全可以要求必须戴口罩,而且座位可以只出售一半。KTV其实更安全,都是同事朋友的,本身在一起都不戴口罩了,在包间也无所谓。最危险的餐饮反而都不在意了”

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©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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