A recent fascination of mine has been the spread of Western youth culture across the world. Subcultures that are considered totally past their best-by date, mundane and commodified to us are incredibly fresh and vivid in different contexts. It brings up a lot of ideas about how trends spread, evolve and adapt across geography and generations.
This line of inquiry brought me to Beijing Punk, a documentary by Shaun Jefford. When he noticed I posted the trailer to tumblr, he got in touch, hooked me up with a legit copy of the film and shared some of his own interesting insights on the punk scene in Beijing.
Beijing Punk is currently festival-hopping across the globe and will be released in North America soon. If you’re in Paris, you can see it at:
It’s a candid, intimate portrait of a burgeoning scene. Jefford has a light touch – he allows the charismatic subjects tell their own story with affection and without judgement. Punk documentaries can often seem impenetrable for non-punks – not so with this one, I found it to be refreshing and engaging.
While I watched I scribbled down a few ideas and questions, and sent them over to Shaun. His reactions follow.
Most of the bands and the audience in D-22 are dressed in a very ordinary way. It doesn’t strike me as such a heavily fashion-driven scene the same way as it was in London in the 70s and 80s. Is this because “punk style” has already been co-opted and de-fanged by international pop culture? Or is it because signalling visual allegiance to punk has social and legal consequences, as it does in Indonesia?
It looks like bands like Demerit and Mi San Dao and are using style signalling successfully, however it seems like all of the imagery is imported wholesale from Western culture. I was hoping to at least see at least one Mao version of the classic God-Save-The-Queen t-shirt. While some of the lyrics are China-specific, did you ever notice any punkifications of Chinese or Communist iconography? If not, is it because it’s a shade too subversive?
It may seem like they are just normally dressed teens to our eye but compared to their peers, these Chinese kids are having a serious cock out rock out. Tame to our eye but in terms of local visual cues these guys are positively raging against the machine. In China the average “12 hour a day working stiff” does not look like the NYU – inner-city-anywhere-irony-is-alive- hipster-set and dressing like them is marking a clear line in the sand. In China dressing in any way differently is a huge statement in itself. They have little popular culture to rebel against ( as compared to the west ) but a vast political one.
I think it is fitting that their rebellion takes shape in western forms as they discover and appropriate the whole history of western musical rebellion ALL AT ONCE instead of sequentially, over time as we did. But it is also fitting that they will rebel in a CHINESE WAY – that is to say, low key, modest, staid and restrained. But believe me, to Chinese eyes these kids are just as offensive and iconoclastic as Johnny Rotten was.
It’s not to say that there is a dire danger for them doing this – its not like that. Not like the police will throw them in jail for wearing hipster clothes. Its more a social death – as Leijun, skin head center of Beijing Punk, from the band Misandao once put it to me: “Look at me! I’m a fucking monster! No one will hire me, no one will look at me. They want me to be invisible!” I think that is the handle right there. Dressing differently equals a social death, a little silence associated with your name. More attention from authorities, a mark as trouble to watch.
Many of the characters in my movie seem to love the iconography and style of punk, rebellion as fashion, but they seem fixated on the latter days, where drink and drugs and excess took over and the ideals were lost. We touched on the controversy of the music in China, I think more of this would have been interesting but I felt I was treading a fine line between letting the world know about this movement and alerting the authorities and getting everyone into trouble. Because of this I chose to present the movie as a comedy, so as to swing in under the radar a bit more – I could see the Chinese censors looking at my movie and wondering if I was making fun of them or not. In some cased the Chinese punks have fallen into the Topshop punk aesthetic and don’t really want to make a difference with their music. But more often than not, the people I chose to be in the film were intelligent street smart kids who had something to say and had found this crack in the wall to say it.
Also, beer is cheaper than water in Beijing. When I realized that I wondered if that’s to keep people drunk and oppressed and happy without giving them the ability to change what’s around them. Some of the characters from my movie have all fallen into that trap certainly.
A lot of the lyrics and philosophies of the subjects have this really sincere, enthusiastic quality that couldn’t contrast more with Western punk’s sarcasm and nihilism. At one of the concerts in the film, the band (Demerit I think?) is singing a chorus of “fight your apathy” and I was wondering, is this where the knock-off culture ends and China’s own unique spin on punk begins? Do you think that punk philosophy stands for something different in Beijing than it does in London?
People still don’t know China is capable of any kind or dissent or resistance within. My questions come from being a music geek and a deep believer in the power of punk as it originally was, from Stooges and Ramones through Clash and Black Flag.
What I found so startling in this journey though was that there is a point where the weight of all of this accrued punk history ends and the Chinese take on things begins. There is hope and a wish for change in the younger generation that has been ignited by the internet and is fueled by the revelation of years of careful planning by the Chinese government, to now step into the center stage and take up its position as a world power. There is hope there now where before there maybe was a feeling of isolation and a locked in fate. Now there is a hope for change. The balance of just how far the kids are allowed to stray out into the light until the hammer falls is yet to be seen.
But it is exciting to watch and I know its going to be a surprise, what ever happens in the scene.
The scene is such a sausage-fest! I only noticed a few female supporting characters and they were exceptional – and not very talkative. As someone in a gender-imbalanced scene myself, I’m cool with the idea that some stuff just appeals more to one sex than another. But I’ve always wondered with male-dominated scenes, do the guys ever remark that there’s hardly any girls around, or even wonder why?
Regarding sausage to foofy ratio in the scene the female members of the Chinese punk scene are exceptional in that it takes a certain kind of person to gravitate to toward this scene to begin with – it’s not exactly the safest career move in China to become a punk. Now if you also happen to be a woman then you have the weight of gender inequality against you as well. You are certainly stepping out of the established comfort zone for women in your culture. Then the fact that they are actually loud, proud and GOOD is remarkable.
The women in the scene that interested me were
- Atom – the drummer from Hedgehog. (Above – Out of all the bands in the movie, I found Hedgehog’s music to be the most accessible, they have a fresh, universal pop sensibility. -D) She has a few scenes in the movie. I really wanted to do more with Atom but the opportunities never presented themselves.
- Bianbian – the fun / fiery vocalist from Candy Monster.
- The girls from “Ourselves Beside Me”.
I never heard anyone comment on it but I did ask a lot about the women in the scene and they were regarded as just as hard core as the men and serious about the experience. Atom by far is the most well known and quite loved. Always at screenings of Beijing Punk I get asked what the news is with Atom and Hedgehog, I tell them all I know, which is that they are still out there, still making music.
Thanks so much Shaun for sharing your film and a fascinating conversation!
If you see Beijing Punk on a marquee near you, I wholeheartedly recommend checking it out.