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Chinese punk: rockin’around

By Jack Aldane (Global Times)

09:12, October 18, 2012

Liu Ruoxu, lead guitarist of SMZB, performs at the band's 15th anniversary concert on October 13 (Photo: Jack Aldane/GT)

Inside a dimly lit backstage room at the Yugong Yishan livehouse, four Chinese musicians are seated around a large table. One is noticeably older than his three other bandmates, sporting a flat cap with motley tattoos on both arms under a faded open shirt.

He is SMZB frontman Wu Wei, 34, who together with five other musicians forms one of China's first punk bands. SMZB, an acronym of "sheng ming zhi bing" ("Bread of Life"), marked their 15th anniversary with a live show played to hundreds of fans at Yugong Yishan on Saturday, October 13.

Lauded as pioneers of Chinese punk in their hometown of Wuhan, Hubei Province, SMZB offer a timeless outlet to fans burdened by modern sources of stress.

Asked of the appeal of Chinese punk, one audience member at the anniversary concert told Metro Beijing: "People here tonight have come to relieve themselves of daily pressures. It's really a necessity these days."

Attending Beijing's Midi Music School, Wu studied among a generation of musicians in the early 1990s influenced by The Clash, The Ramones and grunge gods Nirvana. Beijing's punk scene, he explains, emanated simply from fans' love for live, anti-establishment music.

"When punk began in Wuhan, bands from Beijing heard about us and we heard about them, so the scene just grew out of shared live gigs," Wu said.

"We played a show in Nanjing last year. The organizers thought we'd be just another nice pop band, but when they saw the audience become excited, they pulled the plug on us. Our manager, Deng Hua, insisted we be allowed to finish the song, for which he was slapped by a policeman."

Lei Jun, a 37-year-old restaurateur and vocalist for prominent Oi!-inspired Beijing punk band Meisandao, said trouble with the authorities is part and parcel of being a Chinese punk rocker.

"I organize punk festivals every year, but when I tried [to organize] an open-air event, police showed up demanding permits they knew I didn't have. They demanded from me 160,000 yuan ($25,575) to allow the show to go on, but I couldn't pay, so the festival collapsed," he said.

Lei now bases his live projects at Mao Livehouse, another Beijing mainstay venue located in the Drum and Bell Tower area.

Since the late 1990s, bands have emerged to continue China's punk legacy. Trash Cat, which formed in 2009, is one example. Trash Cat's 26-year-old guitarist, Guan Hai, told Metro Beijing what he learned from older bands was to "never to regret what I do."

Huang Chen, frontman for Hell City, shares this sentiment. "Whatever you cannot change, allow it to change you. That is punk," Huang, 25, mused.

Brain Failure, formed in the same year as SMZB, continues to this day as another veteran of the scene.

The band use rented rooms converted inside an underground car park in Dongzhimen to practice and perform. The rooms, combined with a bar simply named "Music Room," offer a shelter for punk rock to evolve.

Xiao Rong, Brain Failure's lead singer and guitarist, claims the rooms are affordable at 70 yuan ($11) per hour and embody punk rock's "'do-it-yourself' quality."

"It's really the idea of seizing an opportunity for commercial success, something that works. This is the difference between punk in China and in the US or UK." However, as Xiao Rong explains, remaining profitable is the biggest problem.

"The Internet means we have to play live in order to make a living," he sighed.

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