New Sound of Beijing: A Sonic China
Project Documents the Emergence of Beijing's Home-Grown
Hipster Culture nourished on a Diet of Sumggled CDs
Marked For Destruction
The head of an oversized baby stares
out from the cover of New Sound of Beijing (Beijing
Xin Sheng), a creative collection of photographs, illustrations,
and reportage published by the pioneering Hunan Art
and Culture Press. The cover, a detail from an oil painting
by enfant terrible artist Ma Liuming, sets the tone
for the entire book: hip, slick, and slightly disturbing
if you think young people should be in night school
instead of smoky bars.
New Sound of Beijing documents the
development of the capital's rock-and-roll scene in
the lead-up to the new millennium. Designed with careful
attention to detail, and printed immaculately in vivid
colors, the book is a visual feast whether you read
Chinese or not. It is presented as a scrapbook of text
and images that attempts to capture the Beijing fin-de-siecle
zeitgeist, and particularly the spirit of what the book's
dedication dubs the "da kou" generation.
Da kou is the Chinese term for catalog
cut-out CDs and cassettes that have been gashed with
a saw to prevent resale. Record companies in the West
can save money by destroying surplus stock, but the
law only requires that a small gash be sawed into the
disk or cassette (and packaging), which renders the
product "destroyed," in a legal sense. The music is
still listenable: sawn cassettes are easy to repair,
and on CDs the gash only ruins the last song or two
of an average-length LP. Cunning middlemen then sell
the gash-sawed items as "scrap" to poorer countries
where copyright laws are lax, such as the People's Republic
Informal shops purveying saw-gash
CDs and tapes sprout up in areas with big student populations
such as Beijing's university (Haidian) district. Both
CDs and tapes usually sell for a bargain-basement RMB10.
At that price, saw-gash offerings have broadened the
musical horizons of a generation of urban Chinese youths
who might otherwise never hear the spiritually-polluted
alternatives to the sappy pop music that most mainstream
capitalists and communists prefer.
In addition to its irresistible price,
saw-gash music encounters no scrutiny from censorious
customs authorities because it doesn't pass through
orthodox import channels.
New Sound of Beijing is an ode to
this shady music distribution system, and to 10 saw-gash
generation bands that emerged out of the synthesis.
A stylized collage of photographs, images from albums,
drawings, music videos and homemade zines documents
two years in the lives of the saw-gash generation. Much
of the text and some of the images in the book - paintings
and black and white photographs of quintessential Beijing
scenes - have no particular connection to music, but
are intended to evoke the atmosphere and wider cultural
milieu of the last few years: the unique melancholy
of a Beijing winter, the carnivalesque energy of live
gigs, and the difficulties of thriving in the capital
without a residence permit.
The bands in New Sound of Beijing
include many of the usual suspects familiar to the capital's
barflies and live music fans: punk popsters Catcher
in the Rye, New Pants and Flowers; ambient electronica
band Supermarket; funk pop bands Sober and 43 Baojiajie;
bass-heavy linguistic tricksters Zi Yue; first generation
Peking punks Underbaby; the mercurial alternative singer
Zhang Qianqian; and would-be-horror rockers Fall Insex.
Although the selection is quite broad,
it is not entirely representative of the current scene:
Catcher in the Rye and Underbaby have disbanded; Zi
Yue have changed their name to Yao Shi and noisier bands
like NO and Fly are conspicuously omitted.
Nevertheless, New Sound of Beijing
is a visually attractive and accurate snapshot of a
particular moment in the cultural life of one of the
fastest-changing capitals in the world.
The book was conceived and designed
by 30-year-old Ou Ning, a graphic designer and music
promoter based in the south China capitalist enclave
of Shenzhen. Ou started compiling material for the book
in 1997, and soon hooked up with 27 year-old music critic
and poet Yan Jun. Yan wrote most of the text while Ou
chose the bands and oversaw layout. Nie Zheng, 30, took
the majority of the photographs. Throughout 1997 they
gathered images and wrote essays but were prevented
from publishing because of a lack of funds. Ou's attention
to details of design and an unwillingness to print the
book on cheap paper meant that the book's publishing
date was kept on hold.
However, in 1998 Ou began working
with the Hunan Art and Culture Press (Hunan Wenyi Chubanshe)
revamping the design of the critically-acclaimed literary
magazine Lotus (Furong). Ou persuaded the editorial
board to depart from the previous staid format, and
print excerpts from his as-yet-unpublished rock book.
The editors liked the material so much that they agreed
to publish the book according to Ou's budget-straining
paper and print quality specifications. Ou and Yan immediately
resumed work on their opus, updating the book to include
recent photos, illustrations and stories.
An initial print run of 5000 copies
has begun distribution on the Mainland and in Hong Kong.
Retailing at RMB150, the book is outside the price range
of most students and slackers who are the foremost consumers
of rock-and-roll culture. Nevertheless, a six-part serialization
in Lotus will ensure that the book is exposed to a nationwide
New Sound of Beijing may not appeal
to all readers. The tone is literary, tending toward
lyrical abstraction. But some of the reportage, particularly
excerpts touching on social problems like homelessness
and drug addiction, are hard-hitting and revelatory.
Above all, it is the design of New
Sound of Beijing that makes it stand out from the paperback
pack. Large, well-placed, vividly-colored photographs,
inventive but functional juxtaposition of typefaces,
pages of both glossy and matte paper and a spare design
style provide enough eye-candy for several hours of
ocular pleasure. The simple yet elegant waxy card cover
embossed with four shiny black characters (Beijing New
Sound) is a welcome and much-needed relief from the
cluttered mess that is a common feature of publication
layout in China.
This groundbreaking style is fitting
for the generation of "saw-gash youth" documented in
the book's pages. And the color of the menacing baby
face staring out from the book's cover captures this
attitude perfectly: a combined pink-red hue that seems
simultaneously a healthy glow and a high fever.
New Sound of Beijing by Ou Ning,
Yan Jun, Nie Zheng
Both New Sound of Beijing and Lotus magazine are carried
the New Ark Bookstore
1 A, 1/F, Building 24, Zhanlan Lu, Xicheng District
Tel: 6835-0801, 6832-8997;
Opening hours: 9 am-8 pm