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  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 9, December 10 - 16

by Guo Jieming and Su Fei

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 of China.

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 readership.

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 by
the New Ark Bookstore
1 A, 1/F, Building 24, Zhanlan Lu, Xicheng District 100037
Tel: 6835-0801, 6832-8997;
Opening hours: 9 am-8 pm

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