[UPDATED] Shijiazhuang, State-Approved “Rock Home Town”?

Lately, a decision by the Shijiazhuang municipal government to brand the city as the “Rock and Roll Home Town” (搖滾之城 also a clever [?] pun, as the “shi” 石 in “Shijiazhuang” literally means “rock”, 家 jia “home”, and 莊 zhuang “town”) has sparked some controversies online. The Twitter account @李老师不是你老师 (very active during the “A4 revolution” in 2022) reported that the Shijiazhuang municipality has been organizing meetings with Party committee members, company managers, and rock musicians (only 6 out of 21 people in a meeting, as seen in the screenshot below). So what’s going on with Shijiazhuang? Why do the Party municipal committee and the city government suddenly want to make the Hebei capital the center of Chinese rock and roll – or as they put it, “Let rock and roll enter the life of the masses”?

彈唱山水間 performing in the Shijiazhuang subway, see their rendition of “花房姑娘” on Douyin.

On July 17, the official Wechat account of the Hebei Provincial Department of Culture and Tourism released a video titled “The Unkilable Shijiazhuang” (殺不死的石家莊 see this article by The Paper), a gross reappropriation of Omnipotent Youth Society 萬能青年旅店 most well known song (also used by the Hebei Communist Youth League last year, see below). Apparently the Hebei Department of Culture and Tourism has not received the 2018 SAPPRFT’s notice about displaying people with tattoos on videos.

Shijiazhuang, an Unlikely Center of Chinese Rock and Roll

Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province in Northern China and home to 11 million people according to the 2020 census, is most well-known for being one of the most polluted cities in China and considered the most boring town in the country.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

However, Shijiazhuang is also known for its strong rock and roll tradition (see this article also). Already in 1984, 地平線 (Horizon), the earliest Shijiazhuang rock and roll band, was formed by the young Xing Di 邢迪, after attending a rock show performed by a foreign band. In 1986, the music magazine Popular Music or 通俗歌曲 was created in the city at the Hebei Provincial Art Research Institute 河北省藝術研究所 (the first issue’s cover featured Teresa Teng 鄧麗君🫶). It was (the publication unexpectedly stopped in 2018, see this article by The Paper) an important publication that introduced new music genres to the Chinese public and later specialized in rock music, providing a CD with each issue.

Popular Song was not the only magazine in Shijiazhuang focusing on rock and roll. The young Xiao Zhu 晓朱 opened a stall selling rock and roll dakou 打口 CDs and tapes near the headquarter of Popular Song. He went to work for the rock magazine, and interviewed a lot of Chinese rock bands, leading to his discovery of a band named “The Nico”. He wanted to promote the band and rock and roll in general, so he created in 1999 the fanzine So Rock! 我愛搖滾樂, which became a monthly magazine, introducing readers to new foreign music styles as well as other counter-(and sub-)cultural movements. So Rock! also included a CD with each issue, featuring Chinese indie rock bands who sent their demo tapes to the magazine. If you’re reading this, you must be familiar with my work of preserving the “So Rock!” CDs, which I called the “So Rock! CD Archive Project”. Other rock bands began to form in the late 1990s-early 2000s in Shijiazhuang, as 旺财 (Wang Cai) or 可食用尸体 (Edible Corpse), and The Nico changed their name to… Omnipotent Youth Society. Other well-known rock musicians came from Shijiazhuang, as the singer of Penicillin or Ricky, from Click 15, both participating to the first season of “The Big Band”.

Shijiazhuang is also home to one of China’s most well-known indie-rock bands, Omnipotent Youth Society 萬能青年旅店. In 2010, they released their first album, a mix of rock, free jazz, and urban poetry that defined Sinophone indie-rock sound for the decades to come (just look at the Taiwanese band No Party for Caodong 草東沒有派對). Omnipotent Youth Society received significant support from So Rock! magazine, which was the first to coin the term “Shijiazhuang Rock Home Town” in their publication. Ten years later, in 2020, Omnipotent Youth Society released their second album, “Inside the Cable Temple” 冀西南林路行, which achieved considerable success on NetEase (and even broke some kind of record). Despite their fame, Omnipotent Youth Society remained independent, never signing with major labels.

“Kill The One From Shijiazhuang” and its Legacy

Among Omnipotent Youth Society’s works, “Kill The One From Shijiazhuang” (殺死那個石家莊人) is undoubtedly their most well-known song and perhaps one of the most important songs in Chinese rock, alongside Cui Jian’s “Nothing To My Name” (一無所有). “Kill The One From Shijiazhuang” is a complex and poetic song, and many people have written about its different meanings. Taiwanese rock critic Ma Shifang has written about it, as several Sinophone YouTubers, who each give their own interpretation of the song. It’s a song about being bored in the city of Shijiazhuang, the reform era, urban transformation, blue-collar workers, Shijiazhuang youth, education, and boredom. Additionally, although the band never acknowledged it (and we understand why), it’s most likely about a tragedy that happened in Shijiazhuang in 2001, known as the Shijiazhuang bombings or 石家莊”3·16″特大爆炸案. A man named Jin Ruchao, who had been deaf since the age of 8 and subjected to constant bullying during his childhood, bombed several places in Shijiazhuang, including the Shijiazhuang Construction company dorm, where his ex-wife lived, whom he blamed for his misery. This act resulted in the death of a total of 108 people. Jin was later arrested after a manhunt and sentenced to death. Here’s a rough translation of the song:

傍晚六點下班
換掉藥廠的衣裳
妻子在熬粥
我去喝幾瓶啤酒

如此生活三十年
直到大廈崩塌
雲層深處的黑暗啊
淹沒心底的景觀

在八角櫃檯
瘋狂的人民商場
用一張假鈔
買一把假槍
保衛她的生活
直到大廈崩塌
夜幕覆蓋華北平原
憂傷浸透她的臉

河北師大附中
乒乓少年背向我
沉默地注視
無法離開的教室
生活在經驗裏
直到大廈崩塌
一萬匹脫韁的馬
在他腦海中奔跑
如此生活三十年
直到大廈崩塌
一萬匹脫韁的馬
在他腦海中奔跑

如此生活三十年
直到大廈崩塌
雲層深處的黑暗啊
淹沒心底的景觀
Getting home at six in the afternoon
I take off my uniform from the pharmaceutical factory
Wife is making porridge
I chunk down a couple bottles of beer

Living like this for thirty years
Until the building collapses
The darkness behind these clouds
Are submerging the view in my heart

Standing by the octagonal counter
Inside the crazy People’s Market
I use a fake bill
To buy a fake gun
Protecting her life
Until the building collapses
Night’s darkness are covering the North China Plain
Her face submerged in sorrow

The high-school attached to Hebei Normal University
The youth playing ping-pong are facing me
I stare in silence
Unable to leave these classrooms
Living in past experiences
Until the building collapses
Ten thousand wild horses off leash
Are racing in his mind
Living like this for thirty years
Until the building collapses
Ten thousand wild horses off leash
Are racing in his mind

Living like this for thirty years
Until the building collapses
The darkness behind these clouds
are submerging the view in my heart

It is evident that Omnipotent Youth Society does not depict the beauty of Shijiazhuang in “Kill The One From Shijiazhuang.” The collapsing buildings in the song symbolize the 2001 bombings, and the protagonist, in his late thirties, has “lived like this for thirty years.” Monotony and inevitable collapse are central themes in Omnipotent Youth Society’s song, which resonates with the life experiences of Chinese people in the 2010s.

Needless to say, “Kill The One From Shijiazhuang” is not a very “positive energy” (正能量) kind of song. For the majority of people, it truly represents Shijiazhuang and life in Chinese second/third-tier cities. As an example of the song pervasiveness inside Chinese society, the song’s title was even used on Weibo in order to evade censorship when talking about Shijiazhuang more lenient COVID policy in 2022. However, the band sometimes faces challenges due to the song’s popularity. In 2021, China Digital Times reported that “Kill The One From Shijiazhuang” was used by the Hebei Communist Youth League to promote the city by completely changing its meaning. The title became “The Unkillable One From Shijiazhuang” (殺不死的石家莊人), praising the city for its working-class spirit. According to CDT, Ji Geng, the bassist of the band, also became an “expert of the Shijiazhuang municipal government” for his role in promoting Shijiazhuang in his music.

The Hebei Communist Youth League cover of Omnipotent Youth Society

Lately, Omnipotent Youth Society performed a sold-out concert at the Shanghai Mercedez-Benz Arena (which can accommodate 18.000 people). As you might suspect, such performances are heavily controlled by the Municipal Bureau of Culture (if you want to know more about this, I wrote an article about different kind of music censorship in contemporary China). Naturally, the songs have to be pre-approved. When performing “Kill The One From Shijiazhuang,” Omnipotent Youth Society played an instrumental version. Many netizens assumed that the Bureau of Culture forbade them from singing the “negative energy” lyrics. While the instrumental version is superb, it signifies that “Kill The One From Shijiazhuang” remains a strong and powerful song, feared by local authorities.

Barbecue and Rock and Roll

This poses a classic dilemma for Chinese local authorities: a music genre becomes popular, and they want to use it as a propaganda tool, but they dislike the lyrics, attitude, or appearance (including tattoos) of the musicians. Following the infamous “hip-hop ban” of 2018, rappers began to be co-opted by the Party. In the case of rock and roll, as exemplified by Omnipotent Youth Society, and the broadcast of two seasons of “The Big Band” 樂隊的夏天, bands have had to modify their lyrics to perform on national television.

So, what happened in Shijiazhuang? A notice from the Shijiazhuang Party committee and its secretary, Zhang Hui, reveals their plan to label Shijiazhuang as the “Rock Home Town” (搖滾之城) and organize various events related to rock and roll, even including food events tied to rock and roll.

Several press articles have been published about the Shijiazhuang “Rock Home Town” plan, such as “Shijiazhuang takes a deeper dive into rock music” by the China Daily, “Rock going ‘home’ to Shijiazhuang” again by the China Daily (with a cover photo of Cui Jian, a very well known Shijiazhuang resident lol) two articles by our friends from the Global Times, “Chinese city anticipate creating unique culture and economic growth through building ‘City of Rock’” and “From bland industrial city to ‘hometown’ of rock’n’roll” (quite an offensive title for the city of Shijiazhuang), or even the South China Morning Post with “Chinese city plans months of rock ‘n’ roll events to crank economy to 11“.

From these articles, we learn that Shijiazhuang aims to organize various events, including big music festivals with well-known bands (although the band names are never mentioned) as well as smaller performances: “smaller rock music performances will take place free from time to time at other venues — city lawns, parks, scenic spots, commercial streets, shopping malls, bars, camping areas and other public places” according to the China Daily. Also, “According to the local government, rock musicians will be invited during the season to take local buses and subways randomly and improvise performances to enhance people’s sense of participation and interaction”. One way to “make rock and roll enter the lives of the masses”.

“Rock Hometown” concert in a Shijiazhuang subway: people singing Hong Kong rock band Beyond’s “Love You” 喜歡你 and 郝雲 Hao Yun’s song “To Live” 活着, with policemen nearby. Reminds me of the impromptu concerts during the “A4 Revolution”…

The plan to make Shijiazhuang a rock and roll city is similar to what happened in the city of Zibo 淄博 in Shandong province. The city organized a barbecue festival in May 2023, which suddenly gained immense popularity with the help of wanghong—internet celebrities who promoted the event on social media. According to a very interesting article in The New York Times, the city was quickly overwhelmed by tourists: “This city of 4.7 million received 4.8 million visitors in March, after it began attracting notice on social media. During a public holiday earlier this month, a Zibo vegetable market was more popular than the Great Wall, according to a mapping service. High-speed rail tickets from Beijing sold out one minute after their release”. It became a sensation. And an example to reproduce.

I am not an economist, but from my readings of news articles, I can gather that China has a significant debt problem, and so do many municipalities. Numerous cities are facing economic crises, falling behind on payments, and desperately need cash flow. The example of Zibo is reminiscent of the “learn from Dazhai in agriculture” (农业学大寨) campaign: municipalities should find a specialty, create a brand, and people will come, following wanghong and social media recommendations. Shijiazhuang, being an industrial city in crisis, not widely known except for its pollution, sees rock and roll as its version of the barbecue festival. Since the city is already a center for Chinese rock and roll (which is true), why not capitalize on that? Additionally, the two seasons of the iQiyi show “The Big Band” 樂隊的夏天 have popularized rock and roll “among the masses” (with the third season airing soon). But will it work? Can a rock and roll event promoted by the municipality and the Hebei Party secretary be “positive energy” enough? I recently gave a talk about the commercialization of Chinese rock and roll after “The Big Band.” I was skeptical about the co-optation of rock and roll by the Party, similar to “The Rap of China,” even after “The Big Band”. While it’s true that bands have self-censored their lyrics to participate in “The Big Band,” the “return of the repressed” in Chinese rock and roll—Tiananmen, politics, and the tradition of the underground—will always (?) prevent rock from becoming truly mainstream or co-opted. It remains a grenade with the pin pulled, and local bureaucrats are always cautious about rock performances. But as always, I may be wrong, and Shijiazhuang might pave the way for state-sponsored rock and roll—or it could be yet another failure.

To be honest, it seems like the Shijiazhuang Party committee wants to replicate the movie “City of Rock” (缝纫机乐队) directed by Da Peng in 2017, where a manager forms a rock band to save a park in Ji’an, the “Rock Hometown” in the movie (many Chinese rock musicians made cameo appearances in the film, for instance, can you spot Xie Tian Xiao in this video?). Can rock and roll save the park (i.e., the economy) of Shijiazhuang?

Some updates…

Here I will update this blog entry according to the events taking place in real time in Shijiazhuang… The China Project interviewed me here for comments on the Shijiazhuang “Rock Home Town” municipal project.

In other news, of course everything is not going according to plan. After the subway performances, the stage performances began in Shijiazhuang. And of course, bands will not perform as expected. The Shijiazhuang band 暴力香檳 or Police and Pea in English (but most of the time named “Violent Champagne” by foreign media) is an indie-rock band signed on Maybe Mars, with one album released in 2022 produced by Yang Haisong (the singer of P.K.14), entitled “我想要一條純正的尾巴” (“I Want an Authentic Tail”). A music style that I can only describe as a “Shijiazhuang Version of My Little Airport on Acid Trip”.

The guitarist of Police and Pea took his short off during a performance on July 22 (that was not part of the “Rock Home Town” official events), because, you know, that’s what rock bands usually do. The guitarist was detained by the police (see this article by CNN or this one by the Global Times), while the organizer and the venue (紅糖Livehouse) was fined by the Shijiazhuang Municipal Bureau of Culture, Radio, Television and Tourism (石家庄市文化广电和旅游局) 200.000 yuan and had to suspend their operations (they were notified by “the masses” who reported to the authorities what was described as an event “endangering social morality” 危害社会公德).

That’s the sort of things that happen when you want to promote a relatively discreet subculture using official channels… I hope that it can have some positive impact on the band, in terms of popularity at least. Here’s their very good MV, “松果體 Pineal Gland”:

As a conclusion…

As Maurice Thorez once famously said, “one should know when to end a strike”. One should also know when to end a rock festival, fun is indeed not for everyone. The Shijiazhuang rock home town festival experience has finally ended, not with a bang but with the complaint of Shijiazhuang residents. According to The Paper quoted by China Daily:

In response to complaints about noisy musical performances that disturb people’s rest, Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, will adjust the times and locations of the events

China Daily

Apparently, Shijiazhuang residents have been complaining about the noise, as the concerts located in the subways, on the streets, or during the festival “often lasted until 11 PM”. “According to the group in charge of the music season’s activities, the Rock Home Town music season has ended, but for recreational activities in the future, it said it will conduct a survey of people’s needs so it can better serve the community.”

What can we learn about the Rock Home Town experience in Shijiazhuang? First, not every city can be Zibo, and organize a festival that will bring a lot of people together to boost the economy of 2nd and 3rd tier cities. Residents will complain, because more often than not, cities economic development contradict people’s aspiration to live a quiet life. And finally, “Rock and Roll ain’t Noise Pollution”, as AC/DC taught us, but sometimes it is considered as 噪音.



Citer ce billet
Nathanel Amar (2023, 18 juillet). [UPDATED] Shijiazhuang, State-Approved “Rock Home Town”? Scream For Life. Consulté le 25 mai 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/twz6

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