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.
Some of the bands are still in awe of the reception they got in November when they arrived in New York at the beginning of a beyond-their-dreams tour of the U.S. East Coast. Singing in Chinese to an audience of seen-it-all-before American fans, they braced themselves for empty rooms and bad reviews.
Instead, Xiao He, Carsick Cars and fellow rockers PK-14 played 13 jam-packed shows, including a breakout performance at Washington, D.C.'s famed Velvet Lounge that was followed within days by the invitation to headline China Night in Austin.
"Before we went [to New York] we were nervous about the audiences because we were singing in Chinese, and American audiences don't know bands from China," said Yang Haisong, the impish and bespectacled front man of PK-14, a Talking Heads-influenced four-piece band that is one of the few veteran acts in China's otherwise too-young-to-shave rock-music scene.
"But in New York, the audiences were excited. Maybe they were surprised we were good."
And they are, unquestionably, good. PK-14 and Carsick Cars, in particular, play a brand of music that would be radio friendly in any language, though in China - where there are no stations that regularly play their music - the bands remain consigned to a semi-underground existence, playing the same clubs over and over again as they tour the country. There are four well-known rock music clubs in Beijing; Yugong Yishan, the club hidden behind the red curtain, is the biggest, holding upwards of 800 people at capacity.
The size of the crowds is the only real way to determine how fast Chinese rock music is growing. Pirated CDs and a host of free-download music websites mean the bands can only make money through at-the-door sales of tickets and merchandise.
Nonetheless, the scene has grown rapidly from a few years ago, when Beijing had only one small live-music club (with a capacity of about 100) that regularly featured live performances by rock bands. Many point to the 2006 opening of D-22, a dingy student hangout in the northwest of the Chinese capital that became the second home for many of China's would-be rock stars, as the moment the "Beijing scene" began to coalesce.
"China is a bit like the U.S. in the 1960s. In the sixties, U.S. pop culture was very conformist, very materialist. Intelligent young people were dropping out of the scene because they had no point in common with mainstream culture. When that happened, it drove the whole culture in a completely new direction," said Michael Pettis, an American living in Beijing who founded Maybe Mars records as well as D-22. In China now, as in the United States 50 years ago, "there's a massive social and cultural change taking place," Pettis believes.
Zhang, the Carsick Cars guitar prodigy, has a simpler explanation for why the audiences at the band's shows are suddenly much larger than they were a few years ago. "The Internet," he says simply. "For the past 10 years, people just got really bad stuff. Bad music, bad art, everything. But now people can find anything they want because of the Internet. The Internet is changing the whole youth culture."
Pettis, a finance professor at Beijing University by day, also ran a rock music club in New York in the early 1980s when that scene was erupting. He believes the Chinese capital is developing its own sound, just as New York, Manchester, Seattle and Montreal each did when they were emerging.
"No one [in Beijing]spends too much time thinking about crafting songs - it is almost a natural talent. The real focus is on exploring harmonic sounds. Beijing loves noise, feedback, mixing up instruments and genres, synthesizers and anything that allows them to play with harmony, and they attack it with an enthusiasm that is hard to find elsewhere."
The local scene gets the occasional boost from Western bands that come here - the Carsick Cars have toured Europe with the likes of Sonic Youth and opened for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at shows in Beijing and Shanghai - but still politics occasionally gets in the way.
The Carsick Cars were prevented by the Ministry of Culture from opening for Sonic Youth when they played in Beijing in 2007, and a show last year by the now-defunct Oasis was cancelled at the last minute when Chinese authorities discovered that members of the band had once played at a Tibet Freedom Concert in New York. It became much more difficult for foreign bands to play here after Bjork, the eclectic Icelandic singer, ended a 2008 concert in Shanghai by shouting "Tibet! Tibet!" over the final bars of her song Declare Independence.
Yang of PK-14 says high politics are less of a barrier for him than modern Chinese society, which defines success in very Western terms: a steady job and a house that you own outright. Yang says his band has only run afoul of the censors once in their 12-year career - they were warned before a Beijing music festival last year not to play a youth-rising-up song called "Red Bars." The 36-year-old has far more frequent run-ins with his parents, who regularly remind him that playing rock music for a living is not "a real job."
In China, it isn't yet. Nearly all the musicians who have come to Austin have day jobs that pay the bills that CD sales and proceeds from the shows don't.
"In China, life is about saving face. If you play rock 'n' roll music, you're kind of weird, you're kind of a freak," said Yang, who recently started a side career as a freelance record producer after years as writing reviews for the arts sections of local newspapers and magazines.
"Rock music in China is even more about rebellion than it is in the West. We live in a different system, so we define ourselves by our music, by our art, by doing something."