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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

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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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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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Idol Survival Shows – The Start of a New ‘Idol Era’

Idol reality survival shows are riding a new wave of popularity in China.

Yin Lin Tan

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China has a vibrant online popular culture media environment, where new trends and genres come and go every single day. Chinese idol survival shows, however, have seen continued success and now seem to go through another major peak in popularity. What’s on Weibo’s Yin Lin explains.

On May 30, the finale of Chinese online video platform iQIYI’s Youth With You 2 (青春有你2) broke the Internet. Official videos on iQIYI’s Youtube channel garnered over 300 million views. At the time of writing, the hashtag “Youth With You 2 Finale” (#青春有你2总决赛#) has 3.15 billion views; the hashtag “Youth With You 2” (#青春有你2#) has 14.5 billion views. 

In recent years, China has produced a slew of so-called ‘idol survival shows.’ They have enjoyed much popularity among local audiences, as well as overseas—more than 393 hashtags related to Youth With You 2 trended in Asia, Europe, South America, and North America. In this overview, we explore the background, status quo, and future of China’s idol survival shows.

 

The Start of The ‘Idol Wave’ in China 

 

In China’s idol survival reality shows, so-called ‘trainees’, or aspiring idols, participate in a series of different challenges to compete for a chance to debut.

The ‘idol culture’ (偶像文化) has been dominating popular culture in Japan and South Korea for many years. An idol is, in short, a heavily commercialized multi-talented entertainer that is marketed – sometimes as a product – for image, attractiveness, and personality, either alone or with a group.

Especially K-pop and the Korean entertainment industry have since long been extremely popular among Chinese youth, heavily influencing pop culture in China today (more about Korean and Japanese idols here and here, and also read our article “Why Korean Idol Groups Got So Big in China and are Conquering the World“).

These kinds of shows are ubiquitous in South Korea’s popular culture, with Produce 101 (2016) becoming one of the most popular and successful South Korean reality series ever. 

The concept is simple. Every week, viewers vote for their favorite contestant. Trainees with insufficient votes during elimination rounds are eliminated from the competition. 

Nine Percent, the group formed from Idol Producer (Source).

The group formed from the final trainees then goes on to ‘promote’ for a period of time, usually one to two years.

This method of creating an idol group, in which the members are basically selected by their own fans, is a major way to bridge existing distances between fans and their idols. Fan participation is a key factor in the success of idol reality shows.

While China has had several idol survival shows, iQIYI’s Idol Producer (青春有你, 2018) was the first to reach levels of popularity similar to that of South Korea’s Produce 101

Idol Producer premiered in January 2018 with Zhang Yixing as the host and Li Ronghao, MC Jin, Cheng Xiao, Zhou Jieqiong, and Jackson Wang serving as mentors.

This first season of Idol Producer brought together a total of hundred trainees. Though most trainees were from China, there were a few from overseas, such as You Zhangjing from Malaysia and Huang Shuhao from Thailand. The younger brother of Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, Fan Chengcheng, also participated in the show.

The first episode of Idol Producer attracted more than 100 million views within the first hour of broadcasting. In the final episode, more than 180 million votes were cast, with first-place winner Cai Xukun raking in more than 47 million votes.  

Trainees performing on Produce 101 China (Source).

Two months after Idol Producer, Tencent launched Produce 101 China (创造101) in March 2018. Both shows marked the start of the ‘idol wave’ in China. 

In the next two years, more idol survival shows would dominate the Chinese entertainment scene. iQIYI released Youth With You 1 (青春有你) and Youth With You 2 (青春有你2) in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Tencent, too, released Produce Camp 2019 (创造营2019) and Produce Camp 2020 (创造营2020), the latter of which is currently airing. 

 

China’s New Idol Survival Show Era 

 

In 2018, both Produce 101 China and Idol Producer enjoyed overwhelming popularity, accumulating more than 4.73 billion views and 3 billion views respectively. Their sequels, however, have failed to achieve the same level of success.

At the time of writing, 150,000 viewers have completed Youth With You 1 on Chinese community site Douban, versus 470,000 viewers for its predecessor, Idol Producer. Additionally, the number of votes cast for the first episode of Youth With You 1 was much lower compared to its Idol Producer equivalent. 

The number of votes for the top 19 trainees on Idol Producer (left) versus Youth With You 1 (right) in the first episode (Source).

As for Produce 101 China, 510,000 viewers have completed the show on Douban, but only 340,000 viewers have finished watching its sequel. 

Groups formed from these shows have met with varying amounts of success and have run into problems regarding scheduling conflicts. 

Nine Percent, the boy group formed from Idol Producer in 2018, was known as a group that rarely met. Their second album was a compilation of tracks from solo members. Members had existing contracts with their own companies while simultaneously promoting with Nine Percent; hence, due to scheduling conflicts, members would often forgo Nine Percent activities for those of their own company. 

Rocket Girls from Produce 101 China. (Source)

Rocket Girls, formed from Produce 101 China, also faced problems after debuting. Due to conflicts between Tencent and their management company, Yuehua Entertainment, Meng Meiqi and Wu Xuanyi, who placed first and second respectively, left the group two months after debut.

Despite the problems faced by groups formed from such shows, some idols were able to ride on the momentum they gained from participating.

For instance, Cai Xukun, first-place winner of Idol Producer, swiftly rose to become one of the most popular trainees on the show, consistently ranking first place in every round of elimination. He was also the host of the recently concluded Youth With You 2.

Liu Yuxin obtained first place in the last episode of Youth With You 2. (Source)

Other trainees have also seen individual success. Liu Yuxin, the first-place winner of Youth With You 2, gained attention for her androgynous look: short hair, a cool personality, and wearing shorts instead of a skirt. Her hashtag “Liu Yuxin” (#刘雨昕#) has been viewed more than 550 million times on Weibo. In the final episode, she received more than 17 million votes.

Despite the lowering audience ratings for other recent idol shows, the success of Youth With You 2 might mark the start of a new ‘idol era’. Even Chinese netizens wondered why the show is so popular compared to Youth With You 1.

Just one day after the finale premiered, the hashtag “Youth With You 2 Finale” had already been viewed more than 2.2 billion times on Weibo. On Douban, 580,000 viewers have finished the show—more than any of the previous idol survival shows by iQIYI and Tencent.

 

The Future of Idol Survival Shows 

 

Chinese idol survival shows were received with much fanfare when they first entered mainstream popular culture in 2018. But the ensuing conflicts that the resulting groups ran into resulted in netizens doubting the success and effectiveness of these shows. 

Trainees from Produce Camp 2020 practicing for the theme song. Source

This year, however, the popularity of both Youth With You 2 and Produce Camp 2020 might signal a comeback for the idol era in China.

And this time around, Chinese idol survival shows are also gaining more traction outside of the PRC, becoming more and more popular among global audiences. Both Youth With You 2 and Produce Camp 2020 have been well-received by viewers from many different countries.

On social media, online commenters praise the two shows – and Chinese idol survival shows in general – for having a more “laid-back atmosphere” between the trainees and mentors. Web users also comment that they enjoy how the shows highlight the friendship between the trainees, rather than the feuds.

It seems that what sets Chinese idol survival shows apart from the South Korean ones is precisely why some viewers prefer them. The longer running times, for example, makes it possible to give more screen time to the different trainees and to give a deeper understanding of the relations between them.

Youtube comment on Episode 1 of Produce Camp 2020. Source

Youtube comment on Episode 1 of Produce Camp 2020. Source

Reddit comment on Episode 9 of Idol Producer. Source

With the popularity of idols like Liu Yuxin and Wang Ju who challenge conventional beauty standards, shows can also look into moving away from the cookie-cutter aesthetic that idols usually adhere to. 

Furthermore, management companies and broadcasting companies have to come to an agreement regarding what scheduling arrangement would benefit all parties and be conducive towards the idols’ physical and mental health. 

Selected trainees from Produce Camp 2020 took part in a photoshoot with Elle. Source

It remains to be seen whether THE9, the newly formed group from Youth With You 2, will be able to flourish in the time to come and avoid the troubles that other groups ran into. 

As for Produce Camp 2020, it seems set to enjoy just as much success as Youth With You 2 did – if not more. Only five episodes have been released, but the show’s hashtag already has 16.1 billion views.

A reviewer on Douban writes: “The trainees are all confident, taking opportunities to express themselves and actively showcase their talents. So much youthful and positive energy!” 

The latest newcomers to the idol reality show genre further consolidate the success of the format. Recently, Mango TV released Sisters Who Make Waves (乘风波浪的姐姐们, 2020), where female celebrities above 30 years old compete to make it into the final five-member girl group. The first episode was viewed more than 370 million times within the first three days of release and immediately became top trending on Weibo.

The number of survival shows in China right now and their growing popularity shows that audiences seemingly can’t get enough of the genre. It is an indication that, despite setbacks in the past, China’s idol survival reality show genre is still going strong and might be here to stay.

You can watch the currently airing Produce Camp 2020 and Sisters Who Make Waves here and here.

By Yin Lin Tan

 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.

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

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