When settling into a new city, there are two scenes I regularly seek. Born, raised and educated Catholic, church has always been a familiar sanctuary, even in a city where you don’t speak the language, you don’t know the ways, you’re different from all the people and you don’t know which side of the street you should be standing on. When you’re part of the tribe, you know when to sit, stand, kneel, smile at strangers with gentle whispers of peace. You know the tunes of the hymns, even when they are sung in foreign tongues.
It is in this same spirit of sameness that we raise our fists to rock and to riot. For those who have been previously baptised in the mosh pit, there is method to the madness, there is calm in your own chaos, solidarity as you sweat. With punk rock, you are an ardent worshipper, a preacher of the faith, fired by the spirit and thirsty for more. As the congregation surges and swells, a restless mob fires up with rage against the system, dedication to the music or an ache and an anger, a quest to be part of a subculture.
When the mainstream has no room for you, the doctrine of punk declares: we all mosh in the same language.
This is how in China, a lost and confused Singaporean girl sought and found her true north. But it’s China, you might think: Commie China; consumer whore China; ‘does not play well with others’ China. China, full of loud, pushy people, people who brazenly disobey your own society’s norms, and who always want to get to the front. Read that last bit again; the Chinese rebel was made for the mosh pit. And like most things in China, you either don’t go for it at all, or you go for it hard.
I sought out Beijing’s punk scene before I even arrived in the capital, where I would live for two and a half years. My first stop was a sweaty dungeon of a place, a fire hazard like no other named School Bar.
To enter, shove your way between the mohawks and band t-shirts, quiet kids who stick to the corners, spikes and ink, boys and girls, boots and jackets, locals and lao wai. The suspicious beer that would lead to countless hangovers even if you only had one is half-splashed out of your cup by an overzealous rebel. It’s on your shoes, some guy’s sweat is dripping onto your head, someone’s lit cigarette loiters dangerously close to your skin and the man onstage is yelling at you in language you wouldn’t understand in the calmest of settings, let alone here. There you are – as you often are in China – standing in a cloud of smoke, surrounded by pushy, loud, rude, disobedient people. The music starts and incredibly, you can’t believe how much you love this; China’s school of punk has baptized you. Spraying what’s left of your beer over the heads ahead of you to the cheers of your new, fired up friends, you dive in yourself. There’s always room for one more believer.
Onstage, the lead singer rips off his shirt and the crowd goes wild. He stands shouting words you would only later learn were antiauthoritarian in a way an outsider wouldn’t have expected. Don’t you go to jail for saying that sort of thing in China? You wonder. But the crowd yells back, their main man holding on to his microphone stand and challenging the people beneath him with his gaze, his stance, his rage. Imagine a young Iggy Pop, all shirtless testosterone, and you remember: this is China. And because this is China, this is especially important. Perhaps, necessary.
In most of the First World, modern punk culture isn’t about resistance or rebellion anymore; punk is a fashion that you can buy a bit of for $19.99 at any H&M store. If punk in its unadulterated form is what you seek, seek it in China. Here, there is resistance, there is rage, and there are punk rockers unafraid to make themselves loud and clear within the very country they speak against. In a way that is no longer relevant to most of the world today, punk in China is a battle cry.
In the midst of the patriotic parades that are so extensive they shut the whole city down for a week, behind the flags flying high over streets dressed up for special occasions, away from the usual just-don’t-talk-about-it method of problem solving within a conservative society highly skilled in the art of avoidance, a tight group of sweaty youth have formed their own enclave – one that is the opposite of what the world thinks of China.
On the streets of Beijing one day, a car swerved out of nowhere and knocked me right off my bike. Fazed but unhurt, I collected my thoughts, expecting someone to come help me. It never happened; it honestly never does. In situations like these, people watch. It’s best not to get involved; you might be blamed yourself.
At Temple Bar, Beijing’s leading destination for punk and metal banks from China and the rest of the world, you’re as likely to be knocked off your feet as you are to be picked right back up by an unknown pair of arms and shoved right back into the chaos, fists raised, voices heard, beer splashing, rules broken.
It’s just the way of the tribe. China rebels against the rest of the world hard; the rebels of China rise against their own nation’s aversions harder.
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