Trove of Discarded Cassette Tapes Brings Back a Lost Shanghai
Social media and streaming services have come to dominate the way people around the world consume music over the past few years. So, when I moved to Shanghai, I was delighted to find a small, but thriving cassette tape market in the local indie music scene.
As a musician growing up in Taiwan, my music experience had mainly revolved around CDs and downloading tracks onto an iPod Mini — cassettes seemed quaint and outmoded in comparison. I loved the idea of making “throwback” mixtapes using my existing digital music library. When I told a fellow musician about this project last year, he pointed me to the pages of several Beijing-based analog publishers on the social app WeChat.
I began buying up dozens of secondhand tapes, planning to record my own music onto them. But when the cassettes arrived, I found that they were already filled with music — mostly tracks from the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. I was captivated.
The tapes offered an audio snapshot of another era. One tape from a voice recorder contained rehearsal notes for a Chinese opera; others were filled with ’80s disco and dance hall tunes, which had apparently been recorded in college audiovisual rooms. Still more featured albums from a host of mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan artists from the 1970s onward, most of whom I knew little about.
Friends who collect rare music advised me that the tapes themselves — particularly the unmarked ones — wouldn’t generally sell for much, unless their provenance could be confirmed. But I didn’t mind. I was more interested in the fact all these artifacts — and the music recorded onto them — had survived. Cassettes appear to have had remarkable staying power in China, even more so than MP3, CDs, and vinyl records.
Quite a lot of music failed to make it through to Chinese audiences during the 2000s. Due to the disruption caused by Napster and other pirate music download services at the time, the major CD labels had to be strategic about what music to release in China and when. Music published in China was also limited due to ideas about what was appropriate for audiences: yes to Britney Spears, no to her cover of “Santa Baby;” yes to NSYNC, but no to saucy Justin Timberlake.
Cassettes from earlier eras, though, keep popping up. In some ways, I felt that these tapes were like an audio version of the Beijing Silvermine — a giant archive of discarded film negatives from the Chinese capital. They were a cross-generational link for Chinese music across a broad spectrum of societal tastes and interests, which fans and musicians alike could rediscover and redefine.
To share this trove of material with the world, I am now digitizing my collection of cassettes and uploading them to an open-access file-sharing account (which can be accessed by clicking here). Anyone can browse the collection, listen to the tapes, and download the files free of charge. They can also upload digital versions of their own cassettes directly into the folder.
I’ve named this project the zusi Tape History Project, after the name of my music technology company. Over time, I hope that it’ll evolve into a collective effort, with people all over China sharing their own cassettes. Tape History doesn’t collect any data about usage, doesn’t monetize, and doesn’t track user activity; it just provides straightforward functionality and access — a near-endless stream of point-and-click music.
There are currently more than 100 cassettes in the collection — most of them unmarked — and the number is growing all the time. Most were purchased from secondhand markets, where the tape collections of aging parents or children who have moved out of the family home finally end up. People sometimes ask me whether there’s a curation process beyond listening and converting everything in real time using a trusty conversion recorder. The answer is: sort of.
The Shanghai lockdown gave me a head start. I began cataloging music based on artist, genre, language and dialect, and whether the tapes were marked or unmarked. This allows listeners to start by checking out artists of relative renown before diving into the unmarked tapes. Having said that, many of the unmarked mixtapes — which I’ve nicknamed “blind boxes” — outperform the official retail cassettes musically, in my opinion. Their novelty, plus the level of care their original creators took when mixing them, make them a real joy.
Many of China’s consumer market cassette tapes were likely distributed underground during this era. The cassettes in the collection often contain snippets of live radio or TV broadcasts of performances from Cantopop stars. In many cases, they were originally language-learning tapes filled with stock English or Mandarin phrases, but were taped over by their previous owners decades ago.
As far as my personal preferences go, I’m partial to Teresa Teng — or Deng Lijun — Taiwan’s first international music superstar of the postwar era. However, my favorite tapes from the collection are two bootleg mixtapes, which are titled solely “Lone Star” and “I Finally Lost You.” Both feature gorgeous vocals and mixing. Opening the cassette boxes and reading through the names of the songwriters, lyricists, and composers allows you to really understand the love people put into these tapes, and this music. It’s a far cry from the throwaway, candy culture that later materialized in some genres.
The blind boxes are also full of groovy surprises. As a millennial, I’ve rarely heard the name Paula Abdul mentioned except in relation to U.S. TV talent shows; to hear her, Cyndi Lauper, and Bon Jovi light up a disco playlist made back in 1980s Shanghai really opened my eyes to the cross-generational and cross-cultural power of music.
Some tapes also contain handwritten notes or hand-drawn scribbles, which often provide fascinating little insights into life in China during the period. A tape marked “1981” contains a hoppin’ dance music compilation to accompany a company’s annual dinner, where — the creator notes — “a motorcycle was gifted.” An American English language tape is partially overridden with proper British English lessons, but both only manage to educate in between songs by Xiaohudui (Little Tiger Team) — a Taiwanese boy band from the late ’80s. And after reviewing one collection of unmarked tapes, I decided to categorize them as “Happy Go Lucky” — they appeared to be precursors to today’s LGBT-friendly dance music mixes.
These 1980s mixtapes reflected a Shanghai still in the exuberant throes of economic opening. Sadly, a much darker mood pervades the independent music scene in today’s China, due to the prolonged pandemic measures. Nevertheless, Tape History is helping people find solace in music between time periods. All are welcome to add their music, retro or contemporary, to the project.
LiveChinaMusic, China’s longest-running English-language magazine covering independent music, has already contributed a digital mixtape of signature Chinese indie music to Tape History. LiveCN’s Will G., who previously worked for a Beijing-based cassette label named Nasty Wizard Recordings, had this to say about the Tape History Project:
“Despite making digital mixtapes for over six years, there’s something inherently satisfying about solidifying our love of music into a physical format; a timestamp of what our ears were grooving to at any given moment. In a sense, it’s a way to bridge the past and future, a chance for us analog lovers out there to capture a piece of our youths, reformatted to our musical tastes of today.
“We must also note the role that mixtapes played in the music industry. Whether a gateway … to a punk rocker’s education or a remedy for a lovelorn bachelor, mixtapes have changed the way we digest music. And to be able to capture, revive, and archive those mixtapes can help us appreciate and maybe tap into the intimacy and connection cassette tapes provided for a generation.”
Tape History is also helping me gain a deeper understanding of how musical styles and composition have developed in China. Those like myself who are largely familiar with Jay Chou, Yanzi and other Chinese pop megastars from the 2000s may not realize how creative the works of Karen Mok, Wang Fei, Jason Lau, and earlier Canto crooners were. Indeed, before starting this project, I never knew my dad — who was a musician himself during his college years — had so much to say about Hong Kong boy bands from the 1970s.
As the project grows with more tapes old and new, Tape History plans to “release” retro tapes on WeChat twice a month on top of contemporary fan submissions. Here’s hoping that the time-honored tradition of just putting a tape on and listening (until the B side) will also make a comeback, in contrast to our highly fragmented media landscape today.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Visual elements from smartboy10/VCG and Philip Hsu, reedited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)