Lessons from the Underground: China’s Indie Music Scene

The blog for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN, published an interesting article about the film series “The People’s Republic of Cinema: 60 Years of China on Film” we mentioned before. Rather than a regular film review, the article tries to summarize “New China’s” turbulent history, the “intense economic, political, and cultural growing pains” that led to today’s emerging global power, and rightly points out that “Chinese filmmakers (those both inside and outside of the border) are in a unique position to process and reflect their current cultural moment.” The author further alludes to her own encounter, from a study trip, with some Shanghai boys who strongly identified with American hip-hop culture and formed their own band 021 Crew to travel throughout southern China and rap in Mandarin, Japanese, and English. Hip-hop offers them a sense of freedom and participation in global culture. The author notes, “To them, it is a platform of revolution.”

This reminds me of some other recent reports about China’s burgeoning alternative music scene. An article in Telegraph, entitled “Western Companies Use Rock Music to Tap into China’s Youth Market,” cites “China’s Creative Voice,” a report by the London and Hong Kong-based brand consultancy Hunt Haggarty, noting that a unique Chinese voice in popular culture is “the voice of an only child who grew up free from the hangovers of China’s Cultural Revolution; a young person who perhaps finds greater solidarity with his friends than family and whose rising self-confidence, tinged with a new cultural nationalism, is mirrored by that of the nation as a whole.”

Another article in The New York Times earlier this year, entitled “Now Hip-Hop, Too, Is Made in China,” offers a more detailed report on China’s underground hip-hop scene. It notices that although avoided by broadcast media as subversive, hip-hop groups like Yin Ts’ang (or Yin Cang, “hidden”) and Yin Tsar (or Yin Sanr, “the three shadows”) and nightclubs are growing rapidly in cities across the country, while thousand of raps and music videos by Chinese M.C.’s are spreading over the Internet. Taking the freedom offered by this new form of expression, some Chinese rappers “address what they see as the country’s most glaring injustices.” For Wang Li, a 24-year-old who became interested in hip-hop upon hearing Public Enemy in the mid-‘90s, rapping “helps him deal with bitterness that comes with realizing he is one of the millions left out of China’s economic boom.”

Many Chinese independent filmmakers, too, belong to the post-Cultural Revolution generation and share similar bitterness and confusion. In the series at Walker Art Center, Ying Liang’s new film Good Cats (Hao Mao, 2008) is a unique articulation of these sentiments inspired by the alternative music movement. Featuring the music and performance of the punk-rock band Lamb’s Funeral, the film challenges the dominant neo-neorealist mode in most Chinese indies to adapt a style similar to Japanese cult film Expressionism. (The ugly, dilapidated suburban landscape, the absurdity taken too seriously by people, and the ennui and aimless anger of the young generation quite remind me of Crazy Thunder Road (Kuruizaki sanda rodo, dir. Sogo Ishii), a 1980 cult hit featuring a Tokyo biker gang and garage punk band, although Good Cats is much bleaker and more socially-conscious.) The most striking sequence in Ying’s film comes when the scene shifts from the protagonist’s own shabby neighborhood to black-and-white documentary footage of the demolition of the city. A song accompanies the sudden transition:

Is human degenerating,
Or is the world too lonely?
In a city like this,
I find no emancipation.

This is a cry for freedom shared by both Chinese underground musicians and independent filmmakers.

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