For eight whole months, I scanned the airwaves, scoured the record store shelves, tore the Nanchong bar district asunder - and for my efforts, I found naught but Chinese bubblegum pop. But I refused to believe that China's 1.3 billion inhabitants had never once spawned a decent punk scene. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I didn't try the internet in the first place - but I suppose I had my reasons, and we won't go into those here. Anyhow, a couple months ago, I finally set out on my first Chinese punk rock internet excavation, hoping to find the merest scrap of evidence, the scantiest lo-fi sound bite to confirm my suspicion that the fu-man-mohawk had once flourished in the streets of Beijing, or what is more probable, Shanghai.
It didn't take long. I found what I was looking for in .68 seconds flat. Such is the beauty of the internet, such is why it is so addictive and obnoxious and enlightening: you can Google the Holy Grail, El Dorado, Atlantis, and at the end of an instant, they are yours. In exactly .68 seconds, I had cut through the vast garbage dump of Chinese pop and found two albums that gave me hope, or at least, the hope that there remains some hope to be hoped for.
The first, and the more readily accessible of the two, was Carsick Cars by none other than Carsick Cars. Let's give it a listen. You bust out your Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook and don your Koss brand stoner headphones. You notice lots of feedback, straight on-the-beat guitars, amelodic melodies - it takes you back to the mid-90's, back to when MTV played music videos. It all sounds very familiar, and you don't have to be an intern at Pitchfork to draw the parallel: Carsick Cars are the Sonic Youth of China. And you're probably right. But unlike China's faux-Beyonces and pseudo-Timberlakes, Carsick Cars ain't just plagiarizin'. In fact, Sonic Youth themselves are admirers. A couple years ago, Carsick Cars were invited to open for Sonic Youth in Beijing, but unspecified complications got in the way.
I listened to the album for a week straight and still couldn't make out a word of it, which was reassuring to me. Elementary though my Chinese is, I can understand enough of most Chinese pop songs to know that I wouldn't want to listen to them anyway. But here were sixty minutes of relentless feedback and off-key vocals that made no mention of love, no mention of hearts or feelings or cultural harmony or national pride - which led me to suspect that the lyrics dealt with ... something else. And then one evening I returned home from my Mandarin class to find that I could suddenly understand an entire chorus: zhe shi yi ge meiyou xiwang de guang chang - this is a hopeless square. I listened again and again in disbelief. This is a hopeless square, this is a hopeless square. Something lurked there in those words, though I am not at liberty to say exactly what.
I chased the Carsick thread back to the godfather of Chinese punk, He Yong, who made a name for himself in the 1980's, then attained Chinese Bowie status with the release of Garbage Dump in 1994, only to vanish from the scene completely, resurfacing once or twice a decade to play a lackluster reunion show, or to set himself on fire.
If Garbage Dump isn't schizophrenic, it is at least bipolar. He Yong is Iggy Pop one track and Ziggy Marley the next. Much of the album is too synthetically Latin for my liking, too chintzy, too cheeky. But if you must listen to one Chinese rock song before you die, or any Chinese song period - it is the opening track, "Garbage Dump." Garbage Dump is a jarring experience whether you can understand the words or not. At first, of course, I could not - but the more I listened, the more I understood, and the more the track floored me. Remarkably, it was recorded in the People's Republic of China, in the Year of Our Lord 1994.
The opening line goes something like this: the world we live in is a garbage dump/the people are insects. If you have lived in China longer than two months, Garbage Dump, one minute in, is already Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall, Hendrix at Woodstock, Nirvana unplugged. In a word, Garbage Dump is unimaginably ballsy. Dylan rebelled against the folk scene, Hendrix against the war in Vietnam, Nirvana against existence - but He Yong takes on something far more frightening, far more real and pressing than all those things combined. And perhaps by now, dear reader, having faithfully downloaded Garbage Dump from some shady Russian file sharing website, having donned your Koss brand stoner headphones, having navigated several key changes and countless shifts in tempo and genre, perhaps by now you have arrived at the end of the song, and are wondering what this man, this He Yong, is screaming so maniacally into the microphone.
"You meiyou xiwang? You meiyou xiwang?" he screams. "Is there hope? Is there hope?"
An eerie enough question in English, but even eerier in Chinese.
You meiyou xiwang? Have/not have hope?
This is the same question you might ask a shopkeeper when inquiring about toilet paper, or Marlboros. You meiyou toilet paper? Have/not have Marlboros?
Is there toilet paper? Are there Marlboros? Is there hope? Wonderfully, He Yong leaves the question hanging. Four times he asks: is there hope? You meiyou xiwang? Then he drags it out, slurs it like Jim Morrison singing from his deathbed toilet seat: you meiyou xiwaaaaang? The answer is there in the question. It is a challenge, a call to arms. It's up to you, he says.
Is there hope? It is a question that haunts me yet. I want to ask every shopkeeper I meet: is there toilet paper? is there hope? are there Marlboros? I want to ask my friends back home: you meiyou xiwang? But I don't suppose there is an easy answer to that question - just the hope that there remains some hope to be hoped for.