Beijing, China – Up on the stage, hidden from Beijing’s hazy, gridlocked avenues, Gou Zhaozhao cranks up his guitar amplifier for a Saturday night show at the MAO Livehouse music venue.
Gou, 27, is the rhythm guitarist and frontman of Residence A, a four-piece band made up of Chinese youths who have been gigging and gaining recognition in China’s capital for the past few years.
He hardly speaks a word of English and never went to college, yet his raucous music and earnest, feverish performances prove he has a PhD in rock and roll.
“I didn’t know what ‘rock music’ was when I first heard it, I just knew it was great and something that my ears needed. Not until later when I was performing did someone tell me it was called ‘rock,'” says Gou.
“I didn’t know what rock music was when I first heard it, I just knew it was great and something that my ears needed.“
– Gou Zhaozhao, Residence A singer
Enthralled with English rock band Pink Floyd’s 1973 album “The Dark Side of the Moon”, a teenaged Gou left his hometown of Baoding, Hebei province – the origin of Chinese stress balls – and moved to Beijing with the sole purpose of becoming a rockstar.
At 18, he lost part of his index finger on his left hand in a worksite accident in a paper factory. Already a skilled guitar player, the accident nearly drove him to suicide.
Incredibly, he retaught himself guitar in reverse – using his right hand to form chords and his left hand to strum. He also taught Xiao Bing, Residence A’s lead guitarist, how to play guitar.
Bing moved to Beijing at age 15 from Shandong province. Despite good grades, he dropped out of high school in order to work to support his brother’s college education.
A minor, he worked illegally as a security guard and a waiter before meeting Gou and forming the nascent band.
Chen Shao, the bassist, left a coal town in Shanxi province for Beijing to study IT and computer programming.
A self-described terrible student, he was unable to write even one piece of software. He and his instructor played music together, and after graduation, he threw all of his textbooks away.
Cheng Bo, the band’s only native Beijinger, is a classically trained marching band drummer who used to perform for soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army.
Finding the drills and flag ceremonies tiresome, he switched to rock music and joined the band – together with Chen – by answering an online ad.
The kids are alright
Residence A, named after a modest lodging in the neighbourhood that Gou and Bing once dreamed of having the means to live in, is one of the hundreds of bands that have sprung up in Beijing, and across the country, over the past decade at a speed equal to China’s economic development.
|Gou Zhaozhao, Residence A singer [Jonathan Alpart/Al Jazeera]|
A city that not too long ago had only a smattering of dive bars, mostly for expatriates and the odd Chinese aficionado, has seen an explosion of music venues to meet the growing demand for live rock performances.
The titular MAO Livehouse, whose logo is the iconic bald head of China’s former autocrat Mao Zedong, is one of these venues in Beijing where young people gather to hear Chinese bands and the occasional foreign act touring through.
Inside, it is loud and smoky, with graffiti scratched into the walls alongside band posters and beer specials.
Attendance of rock shows in China has dramatically increased up to a dozen fold in some cities over the past few years, according to Li Chi, manager of MAO Livehouse.
Walking down the street past the bar through Gulou, the hip, half-refurbished Old Beijing district that has embraced Western style cafés, bars and restaurants, may bring a shock to those who still picture Mao suits and Little Red Books when envisioning China.
The rise of rock
When Mao instigated the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, all cultural output was subjected to extreme scrutiny, so naturally foreign music, including rock, was completely out of the question.
After Mao’s death and the subsequent rise to power of Deng Xiaoping, Chinese society relaxed and opened up following the economic liberalisation policies of 1978.
During the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, young Chinese people cheered along to the music of Cui Jian, known as the godfather of Chinese rock – a true and original innovator of Chinese traditional styles mixed with Western music.
“He introduced people not only to a new sound, but to a new idea: That there were alternatives out there; that you could be an individual, that maybe, just maybe, we didn’t have all the things we were supposed to have,” writes author Jonathan Campbell in his book, “Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll”.
In the following decade and through the early 21st century, so-called “hole-punched” CDs were smuggled into China as damaged goods, unfit for resale, and were turned around for a profit on the Chinese black market.
“There is clearly a sense that we are among the most important cities in the world for new music, and are doing stuff here that people around the world are watching.“
– Michael Pettis, Maybe Mars music label
These dakoudai CDs were many Chinese people’s first exposure to the likes of Nirvana, Metallica, and Guns and Roses.
Gou himself even once sold them. Being caught could’ve meant jail time and heavy fines.
Despite its patchy history, rock music has been allowed to blossom in recent years, and as long as bands do not directly implicate the government in their music, there is no evidence for an end to this trend.
“There is clearly a sense that we are among the most important cities in the world for new music, and are doing stuff here that people around the world are watching,” says Michael Pettis, owner of the indie Chinese record label Maybe Mars.
Long way to the top
When watching Residence A play, you get the feeling they are a true band in the sense that The Rolling Stones is a band – all members indispensable to the whole.
Turnout for shows varies widely, and they sometimes must endure being doused with beer by rowdy concert-goers.
CD and mp3 sales are dismal, too, as internet piracy in China is so rampant that it is practically accepted as the norm.
Typically after a performance, Residence A will receive less than $100, which they must then split into four.
They are happy to get it, as they recall their first few gigs paid only about $1.50. In order to supplement this meagre income, they teach private music lessons on the side.
When asked the one thing people need to know about Chinese rock music, the answer arises from Gou without a thought: hexie, a government platitude used in the context of a “harmonious” society, which is also used mockingly in the internet age to mean “censorship”.
But for Gou, it has even more meanings.
“Hexie is really weird, sometimes shocking. Sometimes it is completely illogical, sometimes completely debilitating. Sometimes it is full of love. Sometimes it is terrifying. Hexie comes from nowhere. But most of all, it is funny and ridiculous. Everyone should come to China to see it for themselves. If you don’t, you will regret it your entire life.”