A week of peace and music

This week is a holiday in China, the equivalent of the American Labor Day. The official holidays are May 1-3, and since that falls in the middle of the week this year, most Chinese people worked on Saturday and Sunday last weekend, trading those days for Monday and Friday to get a whole week off. I went into the office on Sunday as a trade for Friday, but ended up going in on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday anyway in addition to working from home on Wednesday. I’ve got some projects with looming deadlines.

For the first time since I moved in, the water features around the Seasons Park grounds actually have water in them. I haven’t seen the fountains turned on yet, but I did see some of the waterfalls running. It’s very nice, though in Beijing it’s pretty hard to keep them clean enough to be attractive. I haven’t got round to taking any pictures yet.

One of the big events for the week is the annual Midi Festival, China’s longest running rock event. It’s put on by the Midi School, which is apparently a music school focused on rock. Last week several of my Chinese coworkers asked me if I had plans for the holidays, and when I told them I was going to Midi, not a single one of them had any idea what it was. Rock music has never reached the attention of the general public here. They could all probably tell you about dozens of Chinese pop stars and even sing their songs, but rock? There’s Chinese rock?

Anyway, given the large population, even if only a small portion listen to rock, you end up with thousands of people. In past years the festival has drawn ten to fifteen thousand spectators, and this year was expected to be even bigger. It’s held at Haidian Park, a large park in the northwest part of the city, very near to the Summer Palace. I was told that the city authorities will allow the festival to take place but severely limit the amount of promotion that can be done, for fear of large unruly crowds. So information about the schedule and performers was hard to come by. But the tickets weren’t expensive, so I figured it would be worth it just for the experience.

In addition to the festival itself, many of the bands play gigs around town, notably at a club called Star Live, in a series called Apres Midi. Star Live is not far from my office, and is a walkable distance from home. On Tuesday, RR and I walked over there to catch some of the local bands along with a band from Iceland called Wulfgang and Denmark’s Rock Hard Power Spray. We got there and discovered that Wulfgang had not been able to make it to China, but we were curious about the local bands, so we went in. Star Live is a large, very nicely set up place, easily able to accommodate several hundred people, and has an extensive and professional light and sound system.
It was well after 9 pm before the first band took the stage. The schedules I have translate their name (声音碎片) as “Sound Fragment” or “Break Sound” (edit - Sound Fragment is the one used on their CDs). They have a definite influence from British popular rock of the 80s and 90s, reminding me of something like a more rock-oriented Simple Minds with Edge of U2 on guitar. While they did get loud at times, they stayed quite melodic, mainly due to the keyboards and the lead vocals. The official description calls them “Radiohead meets jam band.” I suppose the jam band part is mostly because their set included a drum solo.
The second band is not listed on the schedule, and must have been called in to make up for Wulfgang’s absence. I don’t know their name, but they were a very tight, very tricky post-punk trio, kind of like Dead Kennedys crossed with something like Hella or Ahleuchatistas. RR said they reminded him of Primus only with the guitar rather than bass dominating. The vocals are where I get the DK connection, and the dizzying tempo and time signature changes are the Ahleuchatistas part. I was constantly fascinated and entertained even without understanding a word. Honestly, I doubt event being fluent in Chinese would have helped me understand those vocals.
The third band, Beijing longtimers Subs, came on at about midnight. They are a loud, snotty garage rock band with a very energetic female singer. I’d call them pop-punk if there had been much in the way of melody, but all I heard from her was screaming and growling in between bouncing all around the stage like a squirrel on speed. If it hadn’t been so late I might have hung around for the rest of the evening, but we were both very tired and ducked out after about three songs. Sorry, Rock Hard Power Spray, us aging rock fans can’t handle the hours you keep.

I didn’t take my camera, so maybe I’ll borrow some of RR’s pictures. Check back for updates.
On Friday I joind RR, CL, BG, and BG’s friend DD to go out to the Midi Festival proper on its final day. I had to surrender my bottle of water at the gate, but luckily concessions inside were inexpensive. We got there before the music started, so we wandered around the legendary flea market, which features a very different sort of goods than I’ve seen at all the other events, markets, and sidewalks around town.
Much of the artwork involved modifying or defacing commercial or pop culture images from the West.
Midi takes its rock pretty seriously, and there’s definitely a focus on the harder, heavier side of music, with many metal and punk bands. They also had stages devoted to electronic, folk and hip hop music, but the two biggest stages were mosh-pit heaven almost all day. By the time we got out of the flea market, a band called 641 was thrashing away on the second stage, with much death-metal growling and flinging of hair. I did like the paint job on one of the guitars – a Brazilian flag.
Over on the main stage, there was a young band getting ready to play. Quite a contrast in style: they were all wearing white shirts, several of them with black ties, including the female keyboard player. I can’t vouch for the accuracy here, but the schedule lists 自画像 (Self-Portrait). There were definitely Britpop influences, with a few touches of 80s pop thrown in with the keyboard parts. Aside from the ragged vocals (maybe due to nervousness or the live setting), they were pretty decent.
Over on another stage, there was a Chinese band attempting a hybrid of heavy rock and rap with Chinese traditional elements courtesy of the keyboard parts. Interesting idea, but it didn’t really work. I’m trying to be open-minded, but rapping in Chinese just sounds strange, especially when it’s trying to be in a Korn/Limp Bizkit mold.

On the small folk stage, there was a guy playing around with an accordion. I didn’t really hear much in the way of songs. He got out an acoustic guitar at times as well. Maybe it was supposed to be avant-garde or something.
More wandering. Another thrash metal band on the second stage.
A flash of color in the corner of my eye drew my attention back to the main stage. Here was a band that was very interesting visually. The music was very tightly arranged heavy rock, with some sections of death metal, some spaced out instrumental parts, some industrial crunch, and more, with many quick changes and unusual rhythms. And you’ve got to love those outfits. While it’s not a kind of music I generally go for, they were obviously very talented and put a lot of work into their performance both musically and dramatically. I can’t make out anything on the schedule that seems like it could be them, unless they were 春秋 (Spring and Autumn). (edit - This is exactly who they are.)
After that I mostly just wandered around, got some food from some of the vendors, spent some time and money at the Free Sound Records booth, and discovered that they actually had something other than the wimpy Yanjing beer that was only ¥5 per glass. For ¥10, you could get a dark draft beer with some real flavor. Not sure what it was, but it came from a tap that said Yanjing on it.
One cool thing they had was the DIY T-shirt tent. I wanted to buy a T-shirt, but they only had mediums left.
The rest of the music I heard was either heavy metal or garage rock, none of it memorable. For a culture that values singing so much, and where karaoke is so popular, I was surprised to find such a low quality of vocals in the bands. I can be fairly forgiving of intonation and tone if there’s some character or emotion behind the sound, but mostly I heard shouting and shaky warbles. Still, it was a great experience, and well worth the cost of admission.

Here are some other pictures I took during the day.
Chances are, this is not the China you know. Heck, this is not the China I know either – you could say the rockers and punks came out of the woodwork for the occasion. But it’s encouraging to see that there is some diversity in style and taste in this country, and it’s not a nation of conformists and worker bees. For all I know, everyone I saw will put on their normal clothes on Monday and go back to the office or the restaurant or the store and be indistinguishable from millions of their countrymen and women. I know it happens that way in the US, and I don’t see why it should be different here.

As you can see from the pictures, the weather was very nice. It was probably around 80 degrees F and mostly sunny. It’s been pretty warm all week, to the point where I sometimes look forward to going to the office to get into the air conditioning. Of course, Beijing has a reputation for very hot summers, so I’m sure I should avoid complaining about the mild temps we’ve had so far.

[Edit 2007-05-25]

I'm adding a picture I got from one of my companions. Here you can see me with RR and BG.
I'm the one in the Astro Boy T-shirt.


  1. sounds fascinating! I didn't notice people with earphones on. I guess the mp3 player invasion hasn't quite caught up yet? did they have any cd's of the music for purchase? did you say hi to stitch for me?


  2. MP3 players are very common here. It must just be chance that there weren't any in the pictures I posted. There are little shops and stalls selling players all over the place, and vendors calling "MP3! MP4!" are almost as common as "CD! DVD!"