In Wuhan, Punk’s Not Dead
Two decades of sticking it to the establishment have made Wu Wei a cautious man. The 41-year-old punk rocker always carries with him two phones: a smartphone with no SIM card and an old Nokia brick that is only switched on for six hours of the day.
Wu traces this particular habit to 2010, when a protest he was planning to take part in against an aggressive housing development was foiled before it could even begin. During questioning by local police, Wu was presented with printouts of private conversations he’d had on messaging platforms.
That incident took place in Wu’s native Wuhan, the capital of central China’s Hubei province. To many, Wuhan stands for stifling heat, spicy duck neck, and national tennis superstar Li Na. To others, it is known as “Punk City” because its vibrant underground music scene gave birth to a number of punk bands throughout the ’90s.
One of those bands is SMZB, an acronym for a Chinese phrase meaning “bread of life.” Founded in 1996 by Wu and two friends, the now six-piece outfit is China’s oldest surviving punk band, going strong over the past two decades even as others have fallen by the wayside. Given Wu’s penchant for writing undisguised critiques of the authorities into his lyrics — not to mention his own run-ins with officials — this is a feat worth celebrating. To mark two decades in the business, SMZB released an album in September titled “The Chinese Are Coming” and have embarked on a three-month tour of 25 cities around China.
Known in punk circles as “Boss Wu,” the front man’s heavy build and sprawling tattoos belie his gentle and polite manner. “Some people think punks are just people who don’t give a damn,” he tells Sixth Tone, “but the kind of person I want to be is quiet, kind-hearted, honest, and brave, someone who observes public order. To me, there’s more punk in that.”
But the next day, at a small live house on the Shanghai leg of SMZB’s tour, kind-hearted and quiet have been left at the door. Wu screams into his microphone as sweat-drenched limbs flail in the mosh pit before him. “The Chinese are coming; occupying the whole world is their mission!” he half sings, half shouts in English. “Their job is to destroy civilization!”
Hyperbole seems to be one of Wu’s favorite currencies, which he doles out by the handful between songs. At a gig in Nanjing three years ago, he says, the band’s manager Zhang Hua was slapped by a local official backstage because Wu had broken an unwritten agreement when he began chatting with the audience. Wu had been told he could only sing — no talking between songs.
Wu is clearly energized by rebellion, but his first foray into music 20 years ago was actually born of a desire to escape the debauchery of his high school circles in Wuhan. “All my friends were using drugs,” he says. “I felt bored. I didn’t want to use drugs; I just wanted to run away from the city for a while.” In 1995, after spotting an ad at a newsstand, he set out for the country’s capital to study bass guitar at China’s first music-education institute dedicated to modern genres: the Beijing Midi School of Music.
There, in the company of like-minded music lovers and under the spell of cassette tapes by Western bands, Wu found his calling. “They were totally different from the street gangs I knew,” he says of his peers at the school. “They were so pure. They just loved music.” The following year, two of them joined Wu in setting up SMZB.
In 1996, the concept of punk was almost as new to China as SMZB itself. There were no professional live-music venues, and when the band members were lucky enough to find a bar willing to let them play, they would never be invited back a second time. “The bar owners thought we were too loud,” Wu says, “and so did the audiences.”
By the late ’90s, however, live houses had begun to spring up, and the members of SMZB found themselves with a stage from which to spread their music and an audience hungry to hear their message, a demand that has stayed with the band until the present day.
Despite the undercurrent of anger and resentment toward the establishment that has coursed through SMZB’s music since the beginning, Wu maintains that the band’s message has always been an apolitical one. “I don’t know a lot about politics,” he says. Rather, much of the inspiration for his lyrics comes from the stories of people around him: “I’ve just seen so many things happen in society,” Wu explains.
Several years ago, a friend working at a state-owned steel company told Wu of his moral dilemma when tasked with preventing an elderly colleague from traveling to Beijing to petition the government. A month later, the friend was replaced by a relative of the company’s manager. “I should petition,” the friend joked. The irony and futility of the story left its mark on Wu and inspired one of the tracks in the band’s latest album, a song called “Road to Petition”:
Your home is torn down, you’re beaten,
When you protect your family in self-defense but are seen as breaking the law.
You cannot get help; you can only cry, full of tears as you step onto the road that only China has.
There’s no way out from the road to petition; walking toward death on the road to petition.
Music has brought little in the way of wealth to Wu and his bandmates. Since 2009, Wu has run a music bar in Wuhan, which brings him a modest 3,000 yuan (around $430) a month. Tours and albums barely break even. Due to the overt social critique within the band’s music, only two of their eight albums have ever been given the stamp of approval by China’s music regulators. The remaining albums, without official classification numbers, cannot be distributed through regular channels, which limits the amount of income the band can expect from each release.
In the face of such financial gloom, the band’s dogged resolve has won admirers in China’s punk scene. “In the dog-shit music market of today, their existence is an uncompromising one,” says young punk singer and guitarist Yu Ziyang. Yu started punk band D-Crash in his native Beijing four years ago, at the age of 19. In his eyes, SMZB is a rarity in that they have not been swayed by the pull of the commercial world.
“Many punks of our generation wear new leather coats and pants,” Yu tells Sixth Tone, “so shiny, so proper, as if it’s a fashion show. They have evolved from proletariats to middle class — the people they should have hated most.”
For Nevin Domer of Maybe Mars, the indie record label that has produced four of SMZB’s eight albums, the rise of consumerism means that the existence of grassroots bands like SMZB is growing ever more crucial to the sustainability of punk. “In the ’90s, when everyone was poor, you didn’t really have a choice,” he says. “It makes a difference now that you can choose to be commercialized or not.”
Nathanel Amar, a recent doctoral graduate of Paris’ Sciences Po university where he specialized in Chinese underground culture, says the trajectory of China’s punk scene over the past two decades is closely tied to the country’s drastic socio-economic pivot. In the ’80s, a decade marked by the growing exposure of China’s economy and society to Western cultures, Chinese youngsters fixated on a brighter future turned to rock music. Flagbearers of the genre were generally musically trained: Before his distorted guitar became the call to arms of a disillusioned generation, “godfather of Chinese rock” Cui Jian was a classically trained trumpet player.
However, says Amar, the ’90s brought about a widening income gap and, with it, a new generation of disillusioned youth: economically disadvantaged urban youngsters who did not necessarily share the musical tastes of their forebears from the previous decade. Punk, driven not by musical complexity but guttural emotion, was their weapon of choice. “If you knew three chords, you could start a band,” says Amar. Indeed, fiddles and tin whistles come and go, tempos change, but those very chords — the root, fourth, and fifth — are a constant throughout many of SMZB’s songs.
In fact, Wu believes that his music has changed very little over the past 20 years. “There’s no big change for myself,” he reflects. “Maybe the only difference is that the lyrics are heavier and more serious, as so many things have happened in society.”
Despite what SMZB’s admirers say of the group’s tenacity, Wu rejects the idea that the band clings to the prototype of punk. “Punk,” he says, “is a way to help me keep my mind fresh.”
(Header image: Wu Wei performs onstage at Yuyintang Livehouse in Shanghai, Nov. 18, 2016. Beatrice Di Caro/Sixth Tone)