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As China Cracks Down On Cultural Fringe, Indie Rock Finds A Home In Beijing

Musician Wu Qiong performs with Chui Wan. The Chinese band is one of several to have found support in Michael Pettis, an American economist based in Beijing, who runs nightclubs and a record label in his spare time.
Fang Zhou
Musician Wu Qiong performs with Chui Wan. The Chinese band is one of several to have found support in Michael Pettis, an American economist based in Beijing, who runs nightclubs and a record label in his spare time.

"Some guys have sports cars — I have this."

That's how Michael Pettis, an American economist based in Beijing, has always explained his rather extravagant hobby: running his very own corner of the Chinese music scene via his record label, Maybe Mars, and a couple of gritty rock dives.

As a label- and club-owner, Pettis has been key in curating a specific, traditionally American sound aligned with his own background in the noisy, avant-garde, punk-aligned no wave scene of 1980s New York. He's assembled a stable of Chinese bands similar in sound to American and British groups from that era, like Sonic Youth, Television and The Fall.

Pettis's dual identity started while he was in business school and, later, working as an investment banker. He ran a rock club in lower Manhattan, at the same time that bands like Blondie, Talking Heads and the Ramones were rocking CBGB on the Bowery.

"When I was in New York, I wanted to hang out with all these amazing musicians that I really admired," Pettis says. "But I wasn't cool enough. So I figured, well, if I create a club and they all play there, then I get to hang out with them."

The same idea led Pettis to delve into Beijing's underground music scene, which runs the gamut from hip-hop to grunge to noise. Four years after arriving in China in 2002, Pettis opened a rock club called D-22. In 2012, he started an experimental music venue called XP. Most nights, when he wasn't busy working, Pettis spent much of his time behind the bar at one of the two clubs, wearing flannel and sensible sandals and offering a bit of levity as he soaked in the latest sounds.

Pettis opened D-22 in the capital's far-flung student district, where he works as a finance professor at Beijing University. The club became a seminal force in Beijing's nascent indie music scene, helping to nurture a new generation of bands including Carsick Cars, Snapline, Hedgehog and The Gar.

Beijing has had punk bands before, but not enough to coalesce into a scene like the one centered on D-22. Besides straight-up punk, these bands incorporate quite a bit of post-punk dissonance and avant-garde noise into their sound, which clashes violently with the anodyne pop that dominates China's musical mainstream.

"We were the first generation to hear so much different music via the Internet, and to be influenced so much by Western music," says Zhang Shouwang of Carsick Cars. "At the time, all these Chinese bands started coming out and doing what they liked, and a primal sort of energy just exploded."

When the D-22 club closed in 2012, apparently over a dispute with the landlord, Pettis wasted no time in opening a replacement closer to the center of the city.

Tucked away in an alley near the Forbidden City, XP, Pettis' other club, represented a changing of the guard in Beijing's fast-moving music scene from the Olympic-era (the time before and after the 2008 Beijing Olympics) rock bands to a new generation of artists. Pettis signed several of these, including Birdstriking and Chui Wan — bands that showed more sophistication in songwriting, musicianship and recording quality than their predecessors. They also tend to defy easy categorization.

"They don't sound like anything else I've ever heard. It's very hard to try to figure out where their influences come from," Pettis says of Chui Wan.

XP's upstairs served as the office both for Maybe Mars and for Pettis himself. He basically split his time between downstairs at the bar and concert stage and upstairs, in his office and that of his record label.

But usually, his two lives — as economics pundit and music impresario — don't intersect. "It's never seemed to me that there's a connection, or that there needs to be a connection," Pettis says. "Just two things I love doing. Fortunately, one pays for the other."

Pettis's earnings from books, consulting and public talks have helped fund Maybe Mars and the two clubs and his role as an international economic authority has offered his label's bands foreign media access beyond what most could imagine. Some of the musicians who signed with Maybe Mars even tour overseas.

This has created some resentment among other sectors of the Chinese music scene which see Maybe Mars's foreign media coverage as unfairly obscuring other bright spots, including the punk and metal scenes in Beijing and other cities such as Chengdu, Guangzhou and Wuhan.

"All these cities have emerging scenes, local bands, live venues, their own festivals," says Shanghai-based music and festival promoter Archie Hamilton. "It's been a very positive decade, I suppose. That said, the last 12 months have been pretty harrowing."

Harrowing, he says, because police have shut down many concerts this year, apparently for safety reasons. But for years, Chinese officials have railed against rock music as bourgeois, decadent and subversive.

Pettis's own XP club was shut down in June. In its final days, audience members thought the place was legendary enough to take a piece of it home with them. "The kids sort of reverently took down every single piece of memorabilia they could find in XP," Pettis says. "All the posters were gone, guitar picks, set lists. They sort of took down the entire club."

The closing coincided with a rash of shutdowns across Beijing of venues, music festivals and gigs, resulting from a wider crackdown on fringe cultural elements under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Though XP's closing was apparently unrelated — Pettis maintains that the reason he closed the club was because its identity was not well-defined — it nonetheless yanked the rug out from local musicians and fans, who've seen half-a-dozen rock clubs close in the past year.

The official antipathy toward rock music worries Pettis, who sees China's indie bands as one of its great cultural assets. He predicts that they will make China's cities more creative and appealing to the outside world.

"This is not really sort of an unnecessary luxury," he says. "This is really part of the process of China's development. We need these young artists and we need them to do things that are going to be unexpected."

Of course, the recent shutdowns may also have to do with something Pettis knows a great deal about: plain old economics. Like China's economy, the Beijing music scene has shifted from a period of explosive growth to relative stability.

Over a period of 10 years, Beijing's rock venues quadrupled from three or four to almost 20, a rate of growth that couldn't be sustained indefinitely — especially considering rising rents and rock venues' notorious inability to turn a profit. Though rock music is continuing to gain traction among the wider population, it remains a niche form in a country where traditional culture has produced more sedate rhythms and melodies, and there simply aren't enough fans (or bands) to fill up scores of clubs every week.

Not that that's deterring local artists. This fall, a weekly experimental series that started at D-22 — and helped inspire the opening of XP — began a new tradition, holding shows in public spaces across Beijing. The latest one took place in an echoey underpass far from the city center, near an expressway that shoots northeast to the airport. It may have been far out, but it was free for anyone who could find it.

-- Liz Tung contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.