ROCK & ROLL IN CHINA – On the cusp of going commercial

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Jam at a Beijing Bar, 1995

Sure, Fazi had played his High School gym and various weddings from what I could see in the photos he showed me, but he had never been in a position to put together a professional career playing with Western instruments and with an english folk or rock tone.

He might have done better learning the Gu Zheng.

Remember, when I arrived in Beijing it was only about 5 years after the TianAnMen protests changed everything.   In the short term, the result was to effectively shut down the idea of  Chinese youth openly adopting polluted American mores and rebelling with statues of mother liberty in the town square.

Chinese Democracy ala Guns and Roses was going to take about as long to develop as that album once took to get released.  That is, about twenty years of slogging into the studio and showing up to play small gigs in bars (even if you were Cui Jian, though he was eventually able to cross over to what might be considered mega-stardom in China).

But back then, even Cui Jian was still underground,  not often playing the stadiums he is now famous for.

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Cui Jian                                credit: Time magazine

In fact, I saw him play at the only Jazz bar in town in 1994 (Maxims), and again there was perhaps thirty or forty people there.  Famous as he was, the students I knew who talked about him and who took me to the jazz bar still whispered hesitantly about his import (as if he might still be being watched by the authorities.)

Underground, though, the same forces that inspired Bei Da students and their teachers to estimate that the West was ready to shine the big spotlight on China (and that the kids were ready for their closeup) in 1989 were still percolating at Yuan Ming Yuan.

The influences that started slipping across an ever-more porous border from Hong Kong, Korea, Russia and Japan in the 1980’s were a product of the great opening up China did under the off-again, on-again leadership of Deng Xiao Peng, the post-Mao modernizer of the Middle Kingdom.  He embraced a market-based economy and pronounced “To get rich is glorious”.   One way to make money was to import or bootleg western media.

So by the late 70s and through the 80s more and more western media finally started washing up on Chinese shores.  Fazi was able to soak up as much as he could pell-mell.  That meant old tapes of the Bee Gees as well as Lionel Richie (“Say you, say me” Fazi would often grin) when he couldn’t get REM.

Then, he said, only about three years after Tien An Men,  a thousand blankets selling sunglasses, books, CDs, and fake YSL purses started springing up around every Chinese city bus-stop.  People opened up their own dumpling shops at will.  There was more than one brand (the State brand) in the local stores.

Under Deng, special economic zones such as in ShenZhen and Shanghai were born, and the incredible expansion was underway.

The next thing you knew,  by 1994, western media was being pirated and distributed deep along every silk market hutong from Harbin to Hai Nan.  And Fa Zi’s style of music was born.

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Peaches for sale


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One thought on “ROCK & ROLL IN CHINA – On the cusp of going commercial”

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Fazi (the Chinese Fat Elvis) + Rock and Roll + 1 American Expat = entertaining music