The Prodigal Punk

It’s been more than a decade. I’ve been addicted to punk rock since I was 15 years old, constantly on the prowl for my next auditory fix, trying to recapture the intense high of discovering a new band.

It’s like a first kiss. Your heart beats impossibly fast, your skin tingles, and you step lightly, like you’ve grown wings. Everything glows as if life has been dipped in a radioactive haze.

The more time you spend chasing this intoxicating euphoria, the easier it is to fall into the trap of cynicism, and I was worried that I was crawling down that path. Eventually the same power chords and songs about girls just didn’t cut it. Everything sounded the same. I was spoiled on music.

Then I found myself in a developing rural Chinese town.

Folks still haul buckets hanging from a sloping pole across their shoulders, like the old man who comes by every morning hollering, ‘Toe-fah!’ He sells tofu out of two small dangling wooden shelves. His deep and scruffy voice carries in between the buildings and up into my third-story window, toe-fah, and it’s the only live music I hear daily.

Daniel called.

‘You’re coming to Changsha and we’re gonna go to a punk bar,’ he said.

That was all I needed to hear.

I made the five-hour trek on buses and motorbike taxis without even knowing what band was playing, or even if a band was playing. Just the prospect of live music was enough for me to endure the ass-numbing trip. When you’re starved, you’ll go to great lengths to eat.

Changsha is a developing city mired in old-school Chinese dilapidation. The well-known bars in town blast Top 40 songs from five years ago, and many people go to the clubs only to get shit-faced on cheap liquor. I had never heard of a place to catch live music. Daniel knew the owner of the club, Fang Yao, because both had day jobs at the same school.

Remember when punk rock was dangerous, when you were worried about your welfare and your livelihood because of the music you listened to?

Nope, me neither. I haven’t been around that long. I wasn’t even born yet when mohawks were sprouting across the heads of the socially disenfranchised.

Being called a weirdo and a freak because you had green hair in high school doesn’t count, especially since punk rock has been dolled up, commodified by tattooed rockers on MTV’s TRL, and sold back to us by clerks with heavy eyeliner at Hot Topic.

Dangerous? Not unless you fear choking on your own vomit after a long night of chugging Sparks and eating shrooms.

But the Four Six Bar felt like a secret, with dim lights, clouds of cigarette smoke, and a couple dozen punk kids who were seeking the same escape. It overwhelmed me, and I felt like I was 15 years old again, touched for the very first time.

‘This is a shit show!’ Daniel hollered at me over the choppy drone of buzzing guitars. We watched a group of shirtless dudes flail at each other while the hardcore band, Last Chance of Youth, blasted through their set. I had never been so stoked to see a pack of sweaty yellow bodies running into each other, as if their sanity depended on how hard they could jerk around. It was punk-rock poetry in motion.

I had to talk to Fang Yao about how this came to be.

Setting up a punk club
in China isn’t like collecting stamps or flying a kite. It is an endeavor not to be taken lightly in a country with state-controlled media.

Even though we had just watched a band calling for revolution with a record titled Kill or Be Killed, we were still in a communist country where you watch what you say and to whom. As I interviewed Fang Yao on the dry lawn across from his club, he answered with an undertone of reticence that I could sense even through a translator.

Fang Yao, unassuming and eager, opened the Four Six Bar a year ago. His love of punk began when he was an 18-year-old university student. He discovered Nirvana, which was a gateway band to Green Day, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols. He and his friends delved into the underground scene that was seeping out of Beijing.

The Chinese students I teach are singularly obsessed with contemporary pop. Chinese kids have been born and bred to think alike, so how did he deviate from this?

‘Pop music is shit,’ Fang Yao replied, adding, ‘There are many Chinese students who will listen to different music but they don’t talk about it.’

Running the club, he said, ‘is difficult. It’s expensive. But I like it. It’s my passion.’ We were surrounded by a small group of showgoers who spilled onto the lawn, nursing warm beers as an elderly woman waited nearby to collect the empty Tsingtao bottles. ‘Only a few people like punk music, so it’s hard to get people to come. It’s too underground.’

Punk in China will continue to grow, he said, ‘because the music belongs to the world. Because they will be more free to listen to it. The Chinese people will get to know more music.’

Lots of Americans enjoy punk rock for its message. What about him?

‘I like good music and the message of peace and love. I’m against war.’ I pried a bit more, mentioning that most punk music is anti-establishment. ‘I know there are a lot of punk bands that are against the government, but there are many types of punk music,’ he said.

I scribbled notes beneath the orange glow of the street lamp while Fang Yao struggled to express the attitude and essence of punk music in English. It was and is about survival, but for me the message wore thin, like a threadbare band T-shirt, as I grew older and more content with my discontent. But punk rock is still a threat. Trust Fang Yao.

‘Punk’s not dead,’ he declared.

Amy Adoyzie blogs at From the punk zine Razorcake (#38), the first nonprofit music magazine in America dedicated primarily to supporting independent music culture. Subscriptions: $15/yr. (6 issues) from Box 42129, Los Angeles, CA 90042; www.razor

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