Punks and Posers in China

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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

BEIJING -- Shortly after midnight, in a smoky bar in a western Beijing neighborhood, a lanky 33-year-old in blue jeans and thick, black-rimmed glasses took the stage, looking every bit like an engineering student.

But as the guitarists on either side of Yang Haisong began thrashing out minor chords, he left little doubt about his credentials. He contorted his face, uttered an anguished cry and jerked his head to the frenetic rhythm that is universally recognizable to fans of punk rock.

"At the moment when blood flows out," Yang sang, "make a V sign, and scream loud!"

For Chinese punks today, it might take screaming to be heard. They make up a small slice of the music industry here, and they play to a largely underground scene. But their struggle to gain attention provides a glimpse of what it's like to be a rebel in a country that suppresses dissent and individuality, and an artist in a culture that worships money and Western fads.

"Most bands are into punk because it's fashionable. They are more like copy bands, cover bands that copy the lifestyle. Punk rock should be more dangerous, more deep. You should establish your own style," said Yang, the lead singer of P.K. 14, which has a sizable following and performed Saturday night at a bar in Beijing's Wudaokou district.

"We want to be a dangerous band, like Fugazi or The Clash or Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie's folk music influenced me a lot," Yang said. "But because the government doesn't care about us, we are not forbidden from playing. Maybe we are not dangerous. It's sad."

In the West, punk rock is about annoying your parents and confronting the establishment at every turn. In theory, it's the same in China.

Punks here believe they can say whatever they want. They are pierced and sullen, with spiderweb tattoos on their elbows and cheap dye in their hair. Band slogans include "No future" and "Revolution for your life." Their lyrics urge fans to "never forget the lessons from Orwell" and to fight the police "until dead."

But in China, bands can't publicly turn the national anthem into a rock statement, as Jimi Hendrix did at Woodstock. Artists can't publish anti-government songs in Chinese. Just last month, the Culture Ministry announced a plan to help prevent the spread in karaoke bars of "unhealthy or obscene" music, or songs that have inappropriate sexual or political content.

As a result of these limitations, would-be anarchists in China have to be flexible. Chinese punks may admire Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, but their methods are different.

One popular band sings sarcastically about its destructive need for Zhongnanhai cigarettes, a brand that happens to share its name with the residential compound for China's top leaders. Another band sings about "the square of hopelessness," without ever mentioning Tiananmen.

Still, some punk rockers say they don't shy away from making a statement.


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