Underground music alive in Shanghai, despite watchful government

McClatchy NewspapersJune 24, 2010 

Mushrooms lead guitarist Xiao Zhang, 28.

ALEX WEISLER/PSU/MCT

SHANGHAI — Some places don't want to be found. Just past the commuters at the Caoyang Road railway station and around the corner from the cafes, banks and clothing stores of Lanxi road, there's a hidden alley neighborhood with a dusty sign identifying it as one of Shanghai's model communities.

The address of the rehearsal space called Red Rock is straightforward enough — 21 Lanxi Lu, Nong No. 12 — but getting there isn't easy It's underneath a high-rise with laundry hanging from its windows, down a dimly lit staircase into a basement that stinks of toilets.

On a cold night in Shanghai, that was where to find The Mushrooms, a ragtag bunch of 20-somethings who might be the first Shanghai that's band good enough to force this city of nearly 20 million to take underground music seriously.

"It's a really, really good thing to play music," said Yu Xuhao, 25, the band's lead singer. "It's nothing about politics. It's nothing about the government. It's about the love of it."

The Mushrooms' struggle is twofold: against a government that's at best ambivalent about their style of music, and, perhaps worse for them, against a public that's indifferent, even in a city that celebrates an aging jazz band that's long been playing decadent pre-revolutionary tunes at the Peace Hotel.

The authorities seem to regard punk as a greater counterrevolutionary threat than Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman are: When the legendary Shanghai punk band Top Floor Circus wrote a song ripping into the city's world expo, suspicious Chinese authorities demanded that the group stop performing the song and removed videos and MP3s posted online. The group now is banned from performing in the city until the expo concludes in late October.

Then there are the fickle tastes of Chinese youth.

"Unless your name is Beyonce, you can't get a gig in China," said Maxime Lenik, a Parisian transplant who serves as the artistic director for LOgO, a hipster hot spot in the French Concession, formerly a trade area for French businesspeople in Shanghai.

For now, being a musician isn't a viable career choice for young Shanghainese such as Yu and his fellow Mushrooms. The band has a bassist, a drummer, a singer and two guitarists, but its members also call themselves a chef, a laborer, a student and two graphic designers.

The band members make more than half their money from their outside jobs, Yu said, but music is his primary focus and his passion.

"It's our dream," Yu said. "We will not be too hungry."

The Mushrooms' situation — Beijing gigs and parents who heartily support their children's musicianship — is far from the norm. In Shanghai, bands often come and go, marked with an expiration date: a time to settle down, get "real" jobs and start families.

That has some in the Shanghai scene worried about how China will deal with competition for expo performers.

Policing venues and canceling concerts for six months could prove disastrous to Shanghai's musicians, said Jake Newby, the associate editor of the weekend guide Time Out Shanghai and half of the team behind the Shanghai music blog Kungfuology.

Though it might not prove to be the death knell for popular Shanghai venues such as Yuyintang, Live Bar and MAO Livehouse, a drop in the number of places to perform could shorten the shelf life of Shanghai bands that already are lucky to last more than a few years.

"If you shut down for six months, bands are going to break up, because if they're not going to be playing gigs, it's not worth their while," Newby said. "If (the venues) could hold out, then they'll still be the center . . . of the live music scene when it comes back. But how many bands will be left standing to play there?"

Newby and his Kungfuology colleague, Andy Best, British expatriates, say they were troubled by a string of incidents in the buildup to May 1 — the expo's opening day — in which the Chinese authorities appeared to be flexing their muscle, but both men agreed that the government fracas surrounding Top Floor Circus' song "Shanghai Doesn't Welcome You" was the most disturbing.

The group is known for its wild stage antics. MAO Livehouse manager Yang Yan, 27, recalls a time when the band's lead singer "took off his pants and showed people his ass." However, even an avant-garde group such as Top Floor Circus rarely enters the realm of the political; it's just not done in China.

"Shanghai Doesn't Welcome You," a parody of the 2008 Beijing Olympics anthem that skewers the expo as too commercial and global-minded, is one of those rare times, however. The song gained popularity in a string of Top Floor Circus gigs last fall, but it didn't catch the government's eye until a fan posted a video on Youku, the Chinese equivalent of Youtube, that went viral.

Best said the government canceled the next round of Top Floor Circus appearances and told the band to remove the song from its website and from Youku. When a few months had passed and the band inquired about playing a special Yuyintang show, the government told the group that the ban had been extended through the end of the expo.

For the musicians involved, the next step was an easy choice.

"We will never perform this song again," Top Floor Circus drummer Ling Jiaqin, 25, said matter-of-factly.

For others, the incident is more evidence that China's communist government can't decide where it stands on underground music, with its undertones of rebellion and independence.

Yang said Shanghai authorities had asked MAO Livehouse to write an informational report on live music, tracing its history through Europe, the United States, Japan, Beijing and Shanghai.

"China has a big population and only has one party in charge. They are afraid of their authority threatened by the people or other parties or other societies," said Yang, a slight 27-year-old. "They just want the people to know what they should know. It's easy to control the people to make the society more stable. This is what they think."

Not everyone in the scene supports Top Floor Circus, though. Folk musician Liu Jian, 31, criticized the band for focusing only on "protesting something . . . knocking something down."

Accepting government intervention is par for the course of being an artist in China, said Liu, who runs Shanghai East District Power, a folk collective. However distasteful he finds the idea of the government shutting venues and canceling concerts during the expo, he said, the city's musicians will find a way to survive.

"The government is using a gun to shoot a mosquito. If it happens, we'll just sing in our homes or in the subway," he said. "If they're spending that much energy on music, the music must be really good."

Some of the scene's most prominent players aren't worried about the expo.

Archie Hamilton, the managing director of a music promoter called Split Works that's based in Shanghai and Beijing, believes in putting things in context. For starters, that means recognizing that the Chinese music scene has experienced massive growth in the last decade.

"We're all aware of the restrictions that we're working within. We live in China," he said. "It's come on phenomenally. Sure, the government's shaky and gets stressed from time to time . . . but largely they leave it alone."

The problem, as Newby sees it, is that there's no road map for how the expo will affect the city's fledgling underground scene. The best anyone can do, he said, is to keep playing and hope for the best.

"If the government wants to shut you down, they'll shut you down regardless of what license you've got. And if they want to turn a blind eye, they'll turn a blind eye," he said. "You just have to keep going until you're told to stop."

(Weisler, a student at Penn State University, reported this article from Shanghai for a class in international journalism.)

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