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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.

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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

CAPA Controversy Continued: Li Xuezheng Won’t Be Silenced

Despite being censored and threatened, Li Xuezheng believes the force of law is with him.

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It has been a stormy week on Weibo following the ‘warning list’ issued by China’s Association of Performing Arts (CAPA) on Tuesday, November 23rd.

It was the ninth time since 2018 for CAPA’s livestreaming branch to issue a list of names of people with a ‘bad record.’ Different from previous lists, its most recent list also included the names of Chinese celebrities who are not necessarily active within the livestreaming industry but should be barred from entering the industry based on their track records.

One of these names is that of Chinese actor Zhang Zhehan (张哲瀚), whose online photos from him visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Japan in 2018 were one of the major reasons for him to get into trouble in the summer of 2021.

This is one of the photos that Zhang Zhehan posted of himself, posing at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, that got him into trouble.

Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine is a particularly sensitive location when it comes to memories of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The shrine is dedicated to the Japanese soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the emperor, including those who committed war crimes in China. It is generally seen as a symbol of Japanese military aggression and as a painful reminder of the numerous atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in China and other Asian countries.

Despite apologizing for his supposed lack of historical understanding of the places where he took photos, Zhang saw his career shattered when his social media account was suspended and his brand partnerships were canceled.

Following the inclusion of Zhang’s name on the recent CAPA blacklist, famous producer/distributor/actor Li Xuezheng (李学政), director of the Golden Shield Film and Television Center, started posting about the issue on his Weibo account, where he now has over 1.1 million followers.

On November 25th, What’s on Weibo reported how Li criticized the blacklist of CAPA, questioning the criteria of the names that are included and how an association or business entity such as CAPA would have the legal power to enforce disciplinary measures over Chinese celebrities beyond the realm of their own association membership circles.

When Li Xuezheng stated he would be willing to help Zhang Zhehan file a lawsuit against CAPA, he received nearly 100,000 likes on his post within 24 hours.

Li Xuezheng in one of his videos posted on Weibo.

Since Li Xuezheng first posted about the ‘warning list’ of China’s Association of Performing Arts, he published at least twenty posts from November 23 to November 26, including a few videos. His posts have been gaining more traction, and some have received over 140,000 likes within a day.

Li’s main stance is that, although he says he supports the general initiative of making blacklists, he wants to know how, why, and if CAPA has the legal authority to ban Chinese celebrities from the industry. Li stresses that China is a law-based society and that these kinds of punitive measures should have a legal basis.

Since Li has worked in anti-corruption-related positions before, he says it is very important to know who oversees the process of compiling celebrity blacklists and which methods are used. Since China’s livestreaming industry and the commercial activities of celebrities are of great economic value, people would do anything they can to be removed from such a list. When these kinds of power dynamics play a role, Li argues, the risk of corruption is always there – which is why it is all the more important to know who compiles these kinds of lists and which legal authority they have.

Li argues that China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism have the authority to ‘blacklist’ people in the industry. But when people such as Zhang Zhehan are not listed anywhere according to these authorities, it should be questioned why they are still included in lists such as the one issued by CAPA. Going by law is one of the main principles Li stands by.

Although there are also people criticizing Li, saying he is “saving bad performers” to gain clout, there are many who praise him for his courage and perseverance, reiterating the necessity for Chinese organizations to abide by the law. Others are just following the trend for entertainment, writing: “I’m enjoying the spectacle of this, there’s the CAPA, there’s capital, money laundering, platforms, hiding the truth from the masses…”

Zhang Zhehan still has a loyal group of fans, who support Li in raising awareness for what they believe is the wrongful punishment of their idol.

What is also noteworthy about Li’s posts, is how he refuses to be silenced by outside forces. When Weibo censors his posts, he makes it public by posting screenshots. When he is told by people claiming to have authority to delete his Weibo accounts, he reports back to his readers about what has happened to him.

Although there are many Weibo users who worry about Li’s safety for speaking out about these matters, Li himself does not seem to be anxious at all. “I am legally responsible for every word I publish,” Li writes on November 25th, arguing that nothing he posts is illegal and that he only tries to adhere to the ruling standards and to keep China’s online (entertainment) industry healthy by questioning those claiming to have authority.

One of the points raised by Li is that Zhang Zhehan has never really done anything illegal. By visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, he surely caused a social media storm and was criticized, but he did not do anything illegal and did not spread rumors. If visiting Yasukuni Shrine in itself would be a crime, Li argues, many Chinese media reporters would surely need to be punished as well.

By now, Li has started a storm that does not seem to be lying down any time soon. On November 26, the official site of the China Association of Performing Arts removed its list of leaders from its official site. As of now, it is unclear why this has been done.

At the same time, Li writes that there are more people trying to threaten and smear him. Li still says he will not be silenced: “The great power of justice is surrounding us.”

To read more on this issue, check out our other related articles here.

By Manya Koetse

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©2021 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

Li Xuezheng Defies Online Celebrity ‘Blacklist,’ Says He’ll Help Zhang Zhehan File Lawsuit

China’s Association of Performing Arts has issued a blacklist, but Li Xuezheng questions their legal authority to do so.

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As an important voice within the industry, Li Xuezheng has spoken out against the recent blacklist of Chinese (online) performers issued by the China Association of Performing Arts. Li is willing to help one of the prominent names on the list, Chinese actor Zhang Zhehan, to file a lawsuit against the Association.

Li Xuezheng (李学政), Vice Chairman of the China TV Artists Association and Director of the Golden Shield Television Center, has published a video that has caught the attention of many on Weibo. In his video, Li questions the authority of China’s Association of Performing Arts (CAPA/中国演出行业协会), which released a black list of online celebrities earlier this week.

The list went trending on Weibo and contains 88 names of internet personalities who have been reported and registered for their supposedly bad behavior. The people on the list have either violated the law or their actions have allegedly negatively impacted society and public order (more about the list here).

The consequences for the people included in the list are potentially huge, since it not only bans livestreamers from continuing their work but also prohibits performers who were previously ‘canceled’ from entering China’s livestreaming industry to generate an income there. Through the list, CAPA gives an overview of people that should be boycotted and disciplined in the industry.

One of the people on the list is Zhang Zhehan, an actor who got caught up in a Chinese social media storm in August of 2021 over attending a wedding at a controversial Japanese shrine and taking pictures at Yasukuni, a shrine that is seen as representing Japanese militarism and aggression.

Zhang Zhehan got into trouble for posting photos of himself at Japanese shrines deemed historically controversial.

Although Zhang apologized, Zhang’s account and an affiliated work account were suspended by Weibo and the brand partnerships he was involved in were canceled.

Chinese celebrities who have fallen out of favor with authorities or audiences will sometimes turn to livestreaming. Singer Li Daimo (李代沫), for example, became a livestreamer after his successful singing career ended due to a drugs scandal. But now, even such an alternative career would no longer be possible for someone like Zhang, although he was never legally convicted for anything.

News of CAPA’s blacklist was widely published, also by People’s Daily, and the measures were presented as a way to tidy up the chaotic online entertainment industry and to create a “healthy and positive” internet environment.

In his video and other recent posts, Li Xuezheng wonders how the so-called ‘warning list’ was compiled, according to which criteria, by whom it was created, and whether or not the CAPA actually has the legal power to shut people out of China’s live streaming industry.

He also raises the issue that CAPA’s live streaming branch, that issued the blacklist, is actually a business entity; so how does it have the legal disciplinary powers to impose sanctions against Chinese online influencers and performers?

Li Xuezheng in his video.

Li’s video, posted on his Weibo account on November 24, has received over 90,000 likes and was shared over 8500 times at the time of writing.

“What I don’t understand,” one popular comment says: “- are these online influencers [on the list] all members of the Association? Can the Association also punish non-members? Does the authority of the Association cover all media? On what legal basis is their regulatory conduct based?”

The China Association of Performing Arts, founded in 1988, is a national-level organization that falls under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of China. It is a non-profit organization formed by performance operators and performers, according to its official website, which also states that members of the association include performance groups, performance venues and companies, ticketing companies, and more.

Since Li’s video was posted on November 24th, he received a lot of support from Chinese netizens but also faced some online censorship. Li himself posted screenshots showing that not all of his posts could be published.

It is noteworthy for someone like Li to speak out against CAPA’s blacklist. Li Xuezheng is a familiar face within the industry. Born in Shandong Province in 1965, Li has worked in China’s film and TV industry for a long time and has since built an impressive resume as a producer, supervisor, actor, and distributor. He has over a million followers on his Weibo account (@李学政).

On November 25th, Li added another post to his series of posts on the CAPA issue, saying that although his initial goal was just to make sure that CAPA sticks to the rules, he is now also prepared to help Zhang Zhehan in filing a lawsuit against the Association, since Zhang did not violate any laws in order for him to be ‘canceled’ like this. “I believe in the justice of the law,” Li writes.

Although Li received a lot of support on social media, there are also those who worry about Li himself: “You first take care of yourself,” some say, with others warning him: “Teacher Li, if you go on like this, you will lose your [Weibo] account tomorrow.”

Others are moved by Li’s courage: “I almost feel like crying reading your words.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone with this kind of overwhelming righteousness.”

For now, Li seems to be unstoppable in his goal to get to the bottom of this case; he seems to be determined to raise awareness within the industry on who is legally allowed to set the rules and who is not.

One popular comment says: “Looking at Teacher Li, I see he is fighting corruption and advocating honesty. Besides listening to the public’s opinion, I just hope law-based society will rule according to law.”

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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