The Strange Business Of Being A Touring Band In China
Posted on February 27, 2015
February 27, 2015 | by Chachy and Pete
(Editor’s Note: Round Eye are a punk band of Western expats based in Shanghai. They recently brought first-wave UK punk legends The Boys to China for what was supposed to be a 12-date tour. The tour didn’t happen. Round Eye vocalist/guitarist Chachy and saxophonist Pete [no last names] offered to tell the story of how and why the tour didn’t happen, and explain what makes China so difficult and dangerous to navigate for punk bands. This is the story in their own words.)
Pete, saxophone: It’s safe to say that The Boys did not receive the warm welcome in China we hoped they would. In fact, the band hadn’t been in town for more than 24 hours before we started to have text conversations like this:
Venue owner: “Don’t worry man, we’ve paid off the right people. Don’t worry about it [smiley face].”
Us: “OK, cool. We seem to be catching heat for this, so be careful.”
Venue: “Er, yeah, actually, we just got this letter from Beijing. It says you can’t play. Sorry, man.”
After this conversation repeated itself in various forms numerous times over the evening, it was apparent that The Boys were not going to play any of their twelve arranged gigs. Even the meet ‘n’ greet acoustic show at the primary school where one of our members worked was deemed far too threatening to China’s delicate social order.
As this piece explains, touring in China is a strange business. Independently organized tours exist in a very grey area, where as long as the right policemen are taken to the right dinners at the right time, everything goes smoothly. This is how the circuit works – if everyone went by the book, there would be no circuit.
Throwing a tragic wrench in the works were the events of New Year’s Eve 2014, when poor crowd control led to the deaths of 36 people in Shanghai. This led to an unprecedented crackdown on live music of all sorts. Large outdoor festivals were shut down with no notice, and major venues were closed indefinitely. It would be cynical to suggest that the stampede enabled the police to clamp down on some easy targets, so we will not suggest that here.
So there we were. One venue after another, hundreds of miles away from the stampede, got in touch with us with the news that the tour was off. Various venue owners told us that it might be best if we go to meet the men from the Culture Bureau who had contacted us.
So we did. Chachy donned a tie and went for a polite cup of tea with the ministry at 9 p.m., when we should have been at the Boys’ first show. In no uncertain terms, they told us that the need for “crowd control” was so paramount that no such shows as we were planning could be allowed. So that was that.
To be honest, it could have been a lot of things. Take (ed. note: poster is NSFW and probably offensive to most people) this poster, for example. The spray of blood emanating from the Young Pioneers’ (a movement similar to a nationalist Boy Scouts) vaginal region spells out the characters for “China loses its virginity.” This poster was laid out on the desk at the Culture Bureau, and later, we were told it was rumoured that The Boys were a sex show.
This wasn’t the only thing that they pulled on us. To let us know they were watching, they referenced various onstage antics involving Santa suits and dildos that we have thought nothing of when we did them. I mean, no one in the audience looked like a cop, and surely the authorities have better things to do than to check our douban page, right?
Yet check they did and so the tour was off. Luckily for us, The Boys were among the more chilled out bands that we’ve brought out to the Middle Kingdom. Honest John Plain, Casino Steel and Matt Dangerfield jokingly chalked this up to “The Curse of The Boys,” the same curse that saw their first album pulled when Elvis died in 1977 and their label started pressing The King’s reissues instead.
After a morning of Chinese food, Tsingtao and commiseration, a plan began to emerge. I mean, if we had a practice, and a few extra friends and well-wishers turned up to say hi, how could anyone have a problem with that? So, with the collaboration of a certain practice studio (to whom we are incredibly grateful for their involvement; they were taking a big risk in doing this) we staged an open rehearsal. The Boys played their first “performance” (not a show, definitely not a show) on Chinese soil.
The next few days were spent, quite literally, underground. Shanghai is liberally supplied with bomb shelters (weirdly enough, they date from a time when they worried that the Russians would be nuking them) that many have repurposed as practice spaces, studios, and museums of old-school propaganda. Again, we are incredibly grateful for the cooperation of our friend and producer who gave The Boys studio time. Liberally supplied with dumplings and huangjiu, (think sherry, but a dollar a bottle and the favourite tipple of Chinese pensioners) they bashed out an album full of raw, live takes. At a Q & A at an unusually swanky bar, our friend DJ B.O. put the band on the spot and took them further down memory lane than they had been in a while.
After huddling underground in Shanghai, the Boys headed to the frozen, smog-choked north.
Chachy, guitar and vocals: We arrived in snowy, smoggy Beijing on the last scheduled weekend of the Boys tour and had a full schedule of illegal and unregistered appearances for the two days. Our first appearance was a performance for LeTV, a nationally syndicated online broadcasting company. They heard of the cancellations and requested a live in-studio performance of two songs, but we came back with a request for them to film an entire set with invited “guests” to take part in the performance and this is how the Beijing “secret” show was developed. “Secret” in this case that 1) there was no ticket system for this show 2) it wasn’t registered or listed in any online or print media and 3) like Shanghai, it was promoted entirely through word of mouth. Though very tense, the show went down without a hitch!
The Boys fucking killed it and it was such a relief that after all of this shit, at least the Boys got to grace the nation’s capital city in true punk rock fashion. Bam, bam, bam, hit after hit; “First Time,” “Cop Cars,” “Brickfield Nights,” “Weekend,” and under the ever present threat of national security coming down and deporting our asses. In attendance was some of Beijing’s elite and vet punks from bands like Bedstars, Subs, Joyside, …, and by the end it was smiles all around. After the “gig,” the owner of the original bar we were supposed to play (SCHOOL BAR) offered us and The Boys a chance to celebrate while the bar was ‘“officially” closed. It was a blast. At one point of the night, Honest John and I discussed playing another impromptu gig right there at that moment but the owner snapped out of the party and held up his hand. “No, no, no. They’re watching.” So that put a quick end to that. He later explained to me what the officers of the Chinese Ministry of Culture, while shutting his bar down and inspecting his records, believed The Boys to be. Apparently, while inspecting the poster, band name, and previous sexual exploits of Round Eye, thought it was going to be a sort of “sex act” or “pornographic live performance.” I shit you not.
The next day we did two more radio interviews. The Boys did a two-song performance of “I’m a Believer” and “Brickfield Nights” with no studio audience. The day after that was dedicated to visiting the Great Wall and getting to the train back to Shanghai on time. No interference from the MOC. No dildos, no Boys porn gig.
So, all in all, we learned a few things, which we are happy to pass on to the readers of this fine publication:
1. Keep the vaginal blood to a minimum when making a poster for China, especially if it combines with an insult to the nation’s pride.
2. Bomb shelters, of any kind, are your friend.
3. Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. They are probably just as paranoid as you are.
4. Even if none of your fans give a shit about the photos you post, the police do.
5. Huangjiu is delicious.