This post comes to us from “China’s Venice,” Suzhou. Written by one observer of the local music scene who believes he is witnessing a “Renaissance” in the city by the river. A vibrant expat scene anchored by local cultural hubs The Bookworm and Wave Livehouse along with the odd stopover by touring bands are conspiring, successfully, to put Suzhou on the rock map of China. P.K.14 are even coming to town in September.
Suzhou: Bridge and Tunnel
by Mikhail Podoliak
The idea of Suzhou Renaissance came to me in late May, 2013 at Suzhoubury Music Festival organized by The Bookworm, a local café/bar/library, or as its manager, Ben Potter, likes to call it, a cultural hub. Suzhoubury (guess where the name comes from), a traditionally quiet, but more or less successful annual all-day event, turned into something incredible this year. Hundreds of people, both laowais and laoneis (Ed.: Laonei as used by the author meaning local or Chinese) packed the venue and the patio, spilling over onto the steps of neighboring buildings. Quality music and good vibes prompted amazing things to happen. I was in the crowd during a Pyroglyphics show when a girl next to me started playing the trumpet along with the band. Pyro-maniacs immediately invited her to the improvised stage, and the crowd went wild. It was a sight to behold. Many passers-by would stop and see what was going on. I saw a lady on an e-bike with her 5-year-old son stop by, when all of a sudden the kid ran into the crowd, and the lady rushed after him, like, where are you going, young man? The kid was just fighting his way to the front to be as close to the band as possible. I’d like to think that I witnessed the birth of the next Jimi Hendrix.
Suzhoubury gathered people from all around Suzhou: Jiaxing, Wuxi, Kunshan, even Nanjing. It was in the air—the Suzhou Renaissance. Everyone who was there felt it. Horse Horse Tiger Tiger kept people excited in more ways than just non-sexual, with most band members half-naked and covered in body paint. Suzhou favorite, Idle Hands, permeated hazy air with howling harmonica solos and heavy blues riffs. The Surging Waves kept the crowd rocking with their psychedelic tunes. One song that caught my attention in particular was written by the band’s front man, Dave Matthews (not to be confused with Michael Bolton), and is sung from a perspective of a baby inside his mother’s womb, a sentimental tribute to the excitement and anxiety of parenthood. The level of maturity of Dave’s lyrics impressed me, mostly because things were very different a few years ago.
In 2007 I found myself sitting at my neighbor’s place next to a guy with a guitar, wearing a Lei Feng-style hat, green flaps carefully tied under his chin. The three of us were escaping the realness of China through known natural remedies. At some point the guy on the couch picked up a guitar and started playing what he introduced in his slow, signature accent as a love song, singing the following lyrics completely straight-faced: “Why did I come all over her fa-a-a-ace? She said I could come all over her bre-e-e-e-a-ast, but why did I…” You get the idea. I didn’t know what to think then, it was actually a well-written song, but how utterly disturbing. I was 21 at the time, wide-eyed and idealistic. That was the first time I ever hung out with Dave.
Now, those days could be called the good ol’ days of the Suzhou downtown mainly for those who view the world through the spyglass of a beer bottle. This was before the Suzhou Industrial Park stopped being a ghost town and more and more windows of its tall, pseudo-European style buildings would light up at night.
Before the exodus to the SIP, most English-teaching, beer-slamming laowais lived downtown and hung out on Shi Quan and adjacent streets. Several notable places were Q’s Club, Shamrock, Harry’s Bar, Backstreet Bar and Drunken Chef. Those were great party days, but certainly not the days of quality music. Back then, you could hardly find any original music: most were Filipino bands with spot-on covers to dance to with your Chinese girlfriend, but not much to offer for the soul.
One common theme I found in my conversations with different bands is that everyone agrees The Bookworm is the place where most, if not all, Suzhou bands started. When Bookworm opened in Suzhou (October, 2007), regular open mic started to draw local talents on Wednesday nights to play in exchange for free booze. Over the years, open mic attendance fluctuated greatly, and the event has often been taken over by better-than-average musicians who might use it to showcase their skills with a solo performance (arguably undermining the original idea behind the event). However, even with intermittent nature of its success, open mic is still on-going in 2013, providing a platform for musicians to meet, perform and create new bands. The Worm’s manager, Ben Potter, is well-known for his passion for quality music and making Suzhou a better, homier place. When I talked to him in June, he mentioned a possibility of joining forces with another notable venue, Wave Livehouse, which has operated in Suzhou for the last few turbulent years, changing locations several times before finally settling near Baitadong Lu earlier this year.
The Surging Waves played a birthday gig at Wave in late May, drawing a huge crowd. People, fueled by unreasonably cheap beers, were mingling, chatting, freestyle-rapping and laughing in a cloud of cigarette smoke. That show was followed by a Friend or Foe gig a week later, supported by Pyroglyphics and Jackson Davis. China Bank employee by day and Wave’s owner, Xiao Pan is well known in Suzhou for his passion for music and “refreshing innocence” when it comes to his approach to business. Xiao Pan’s band, Yi Hong Yuan has been one of the few local bands that still call Suzhou their home. Other notable Suzhou bands Xiao Pan told me about are: Grace Latecomer and Moye.
Now, one criticism that I anticipate is the absence of local (non-laowai) bands. I’ve mentioned the key bands that I got from Xiao Pan, but I feel like digging up more obscure bands would create an impression that there is a much larger presence of local bands than there actually is. In my 6 years in Suzhou, I’ve never seen Grace Latecomer or Xiao Pan’s band (Yi Hong Yuan) perform. Maybe it’s my fuckup, but to be fair I don’t know many people who have seen them, nor have I met a single Chinese person who’s heard of them, except for a guy at work, who wrote the following during a string of email correspondence, and which I think sums up the laonei Suzhou music scene:
I know the Grace Latecomer, but their music really sucks!
I know another band named Moye, the same name with Moye Road. But it is trash metal band, I am not sure if you will like it.
Actually there are many bandsmen in Suzhou, but most of them are working in KTVs and bars, you know, just playing the accompany melody. They seldom have their original musical works or even a band.
Yi Hong Yuan is better than Grace Latecomer!
The impression I got from interviewing Xiao Pan is that most Chinese bands that aspire to be professional move to Beijing, and college bands don’t last very long, succumbing to the pressures to meet their parents’ expectations or the stress of Chinese college experience.
I spent the last few weeks talking to musicians, crashing on their couches, interviewing in the studio or outside venues after gigs, and having a great time. I left Suzhou once to see Shabazz Palaces in Shanghai and witnessed something that I had never seen before: one half of the hip hop duo, Ishmael Butler, asking a chatty group next to the stage to move their conversation to the back. So, yeah, that’s my take on Shanghai: pearls are definitely being trampled. A lot of great things are going on in the city, but local hubris is a certain impediment. I’m personally quite happy to be in Suzhou in 2013, despite the bridge and tunnel crowd attitude I get from Shanghai residents when the topic is brought up.