It's nearly midnight on a Saturday, in a club hidden behind a red curtain in the wall of an old Qing Dynasty fort, when alternative rockers the Carsick Cars take 800 of Beijing's bored-with-the-mainstream youth about as close to the edge as you're allowed to get in China.
As the band begins its set, the vast two-floor nightclub is packed sweaty shoulder-to-sweaty-spine with grungy students in their twenties and dressed-down professionals in their thirties. Turned off by both the Marxism that's still mandatory in China's schools and the rampant materialism that is modern China's real ethos, they hurl their bodies recklessly into an expanding mosh pit as guitars crash and angry young men yell into microphones.
"Zhong Nan Hai! Zhong Nan Hai!" Carsick Cars front man Zhang Shouwang shouts over a bouncy guitar rhythm. It's a dangerously clever play on words - Zhongnanhai is the name of the building in the heart of Beijing that is the power centre of the ruling Communist Party, but also the name of a popular brand of cigarettes.
Zhang, a shy and skinny 24-year-old hailed as the best rock guitarist this country of 1.3 billion people has ever produced, insists the song is about the latter, and as the thrashing audience sings along they hurl cigarettes onto the stage in ironic appreciation. (It's like shouting "the White House, the White House" over and over again, then claiming you were referring only to an ordinary domicile that happens to be painted white.) Welcome to rock 'n' roll, Beijing style, a scene generating acclaim abroad and steadily growing audiences of local fans sick of the diet of saccharine pop songs they're fed on Chinese radio and television.
But while Beijing's rock stars draw their inspiration from decades of counterculture Western acts, there's a ceiling to what even a rock star can say or sing about in China.
"It's very different to be in a Chinese rock band than to be in an American rock band. If you do the same things [American bands]do, you can't play music any more," Zhang says backstage before the show, speaking in careful English with his eyes fixed on the ground. The table in front of him and his two band mates is covered with dozens of unopened cans of beer and a pair of overstuffed ashtrays.
"They can say 'Fuck George Bush' all the time. We can't." Zhang laughs, his eyes still cast down. "Well, we can say "Fuck Bush,' but that's not the same thing."
That hasn't stopped the Carsick Cars and other Beijing-based bands from creating a buzz that the Chinese capital might just be alternative rock's next big scene. Despite language barriers and the scant history of Chinese rock music, Beijing in 2010 is drawing comparisons to Seattle in the early 1990s or Montreal a few years ago - a scene about to bubble over and produce a host of artists that the world will want to pay attention to.
China's emerging brood of rock stars may well get "discovered" abroad before they find anything approaching commercial success at home. The Carsick Cars, who draw their inspiration from American bands such as Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground, is taking over the main stage this week at the star-making South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. The festival hosts its first ever "China Night" tonight, featuring six staple acts of the Beijing alternative music scene.
The South by Southwest appearance kicks off a 10-city tour of the U.S. southwest that is inevitably being dubbed the "Chinese Invasion" as the bands and their Maybe Mars record label try to capitalize on the feeling that this is their Seattle moment. "Chinese music is developing. It is the time for us to go outside the gate, out of China, and to work together with the best Western bands," said Xiao He, an avant-garde solo artist who mixes improvised guitar licks, a haunting voice and mastery of the audio editing programs on the Apple laptop he brings onstage with him.