Anarchy in the PRC

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The Sex Pistols of China

Hip-hop, rock, and punk music aren't Western music -- they're urban music, says Matthew Niederhauser, a photographer who has spent the last two years backstage and on the road in China documenting the Middle Kingdom's emerging underground music scene. The three members of Hedgehog, pictured here, were obscure musicians until a series of high-voltage 2007 performances at Beijing's D-22 nightclub propelled them into the spotlight.



Notes from the Underground

The most familiar images of China's rapid transformation -- skyscrapers and highways seemingly built overnight -- show only one aspect of the experience of urbanization. Meanwhile, the social friction and emerging gap between the new haves and have-nots in China's largest cities recalls, in many ways, the cultural upheaval of London and Manchester in the 1960s and '70s. And just as Britain's urban growth pains produced the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and Joy Division, China's growth spurt is now giving rise to such restless bands as The Scoff, P.K. 14, Demerit, New Pants, and Snapline, pictured here.


Right to Assemble

But even in a country of 1.3 billion people, there are a limited number of venues where alternative music can be heard. In China, popular broadcast media, including TV and radio, are subject to state control and rarely showcase artistic discontent. Publishing anything, from a newspaper to a CD, requires the licensing approval of someone answerable to the Chinese Communist Party. That's one reason why new live music venues are essential to the growing music scene.



Sonic Youth Culture

Niederhauser has shot dozens of musicians' portraits against the distinctive red walls of a small upstairs room of Beijing's D-22 club, one of a handful of venues in the capital. Other Beijing music hotspots include Mao Livehouse and Yugong Yishan.



Boom and Backlash

The notion of "traditional" Chinese culture, across such a large and historically varied country, is largely a myth. Yet today modernization is bringing "a new core of homogeneity" to China, says Niederhauser, with shopping malls and parking lots built much the same from southern Changsha to northern Harbin. Reaction against, or confusion at, the pace of changes fuels a new urban angst.



Punk to the People

Taking the show on the road is no easy feat in China, where highways range from brand new to never paved. In 2008, Niederhauser traveled cross-country with the band Demerit, pictured above. Band members voyaged by overnight train, coach class, hauling all their gear. In each city of 10 million-plus residents, they then trekked to what was often the only club in town to play for a small, but devoted crowd. Demerit's "Bastards of the Nation" is a popular anthem about discontent: "Why the f--- am I loyal to you/ We don't wanna be your victim of greed/ Sick of you, no future for us/ How many people die in famine/ No way, no control ... Send me to work, send me to war/Send me to waste my life for you/ Hate for you, no future for us/ We are just bastards of the nation."



Sense and Censorship

As China's underground music scene gains more attention and followers, it also gains more notoriety. In 2006 and 2007, outdoor musical festivals on the outskirts of Beijing attracted thousands of fans. "That's when the cultural ministry started paying attention," Niederhauser says. Last year China's Culture Ministry intervened to prevent international acts from playing at Beijing's Big Sky Festival, as well as barring the Chinese band Rebuilding the Rights of Statues.



The Emperor Has Yellow Clothes

While some of China's underground musicians sing explicitly about urban blight and social distress, there's also an aspect of the scene that simply delights in spontaneity and rule-bending for its own sake, turning logic and social expectations upside down. Pictured above are two members of Second Hand Rose, a band that combines rock with traditional Chinese instrumentation.



You Can Never Go Home

The band P.K.-14, pictured left, occupies a special place in the pantheon of China's underground music scene. The group formed in 1999 in the eastern city of Tianjin. Lead singer Yang Haisong says that Tianjin reminds him of Britain's Manchester: "It's cold, grey, and depressing." But the reason it's painful for him to go back, says the Beijing resident, is more subtle: "The city is so different; it's so clear, the fact that life changes so fast ... I don't know if it's good or bad, it's just the way it is. For China, we have to spend this painful period to get somewhere -- it's extreme national growing pains."


They Might Be Mandarins

Ask musicians in China about their heroes, and you'll hear some names you recognize: Bob Dylan, the Clash, Woody Guthrie, AC/DC, Joy Division. Yang Haisong of P.K.-14, whose first U.S. tour brought him through Washington, D.C., last fall, raved about the opportunity to visit the hometown of post-hardcore band Fugazi: "It's not only the music, but the philosophy that's an inspiration. For us, D.C. is very special." And yet, what's happening in China is not simply an appropriation of Western musical tastes, he says, but an eclectic and original fusion of styles and traditions.



Poster Children of the Revolution

Beijing, not Shanghai, is the center of China's music universe. It has the best galleries and universities, says Niederhauser, but there's also a real grit to it. China's capital is also the home of Chairman Ca, an artist whose frantic illustrations adorn many of the most memorable club posters. 


Red River Crossing

Yang Haisong of P.K.-14 explains the inspiration for one of his most famous songs, "Red River": "It's a story about two people. One says that if we cross the river, it will be better. But the other says, 'I don't know -- I think it will be the same.'" The fans at Beijing's D-22 club, pictured above, may find that an apt metaphor for changes in China, as well.


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