Cultural Imperialism or Friendly Guidance?

by Jonathan Campbell

14 November 2005

The Foreign Devil swears he's trying to help, but when does 'help' become an imperialist action?

It was during one of the many &#151 many, many, many &#151 repetitions of the song “Hotel California” that it hit me, though it wasn’t the first time I’d gotten the feeling that I was doing something wrong. It wasn’t simply because my friend and I were performing a Beat poet-inspired version of the Eagles’ classic. After all, the point of the art installation at which we were “performing” was to kill the song: The artist decided that the best way to counteract the local obsession with “Hotel California” (its Unplugged version is played non-stop around town, as most pop songs tend to be played in this city), was to spend an entire 24 hours repeating the song endlessly, to encourage people to come up with their own interpretations, and, when performers were lacking, to play various versions of the song. Non-stop for 24 hours.

“What a great idea!” I thought, knowing full well that I could leave the performances at any time when the nausea overtook me. Others agreed. But then I started to wonder. At first we’d laughed off the hate mail that the artist had received, but now it was making sense. Who were we to judge the locals’ love for what is &#151 was, prior to the endless repetition Beijing residents are subject to &#151 a good pop song? Who do we think we are?

China has had a variety of relationships with foreigners over its history. Two imperial dynasties were founded by foreigners: Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes started out as invaders and ended as the Yuan Dynasty, another in the line of imperial Chinese dynasties; ditto for the Manchus, founders of the Qing Dynasty. While, historically speaking, these two foreign blips on the imperial radar were Sinocized dynasties, the rulers were never able to become completely Chinese, and bore the grudge of being outsiders.

There were the ancient Silk Road travelers, of whom Marco Polo emerges as the most famous; and the multitudes of missionaries hoping to save the heathen masses, men like Matteo Ricci. Both Italians were granted access to the highest reaches of power in their days (the late-12th and late-16th centuries, respectively), as were more contemporary foreigners like Dr. Norman Bethune and Edgar and Helen Foster Snow, all of whom believed in the Revolution and came to support the Cause. Journalist Israel Epstein, who died in late May, spent 83 of his 90 years in China: He was a Chinese citizen, a member of the Communist Party, and one of the most prominent and praised residents of the country.

The recently arrived foreigner, however, is a slightly different breed. Chances are that he’s come with dollar signs in his eyes rather than a Cause in his heart, following the Oriental Dream of the wealth potential waiting to be plucked from this ripe market. Those involved and/or interested in the local music scene (in most cases, it is both) are not of the same strain as the businessfolk, and I’d like to think we share more with the Bethune School &#151 the Good Doctor died in a field hospital where he was Serving the Revolution. Mao wrote an essay about him that became required reading for a generation &#151 than with the current crop of expats preaching the “1.3 billion customers” gospel.

The first generation of post-Mao foreigners &#151 students and diplomats, mostly &#151 were certainly instrumental in helping to breed fans of jazz and rock music. If it weren’t for the cassette collections of the foreigners of the 1980s, it’s difficult to imagine how the generation that became the first rock and jazz musicians (and fans) would have discovered music from the outside world, particularly non-mainstream music. (You can’t help but imagine if you’d been there back then: Your musical tastes might have literally created a completely different form of Chinese rock, like how the Taiwanese record label that secured Asian distribution rights to a host of Western indie labels was responsible for defining the tastes of &#151 or, at least, the selection of music available to &#151 a generation of rockers on the mainland.)

The first rock bands to appear in Beijing were composed of foreigners. A German was behind Beijing’s jazz festival, which, after a slow start, looked to be a regular stop on the global jazz circuit until its demise following 2002’s final installment. Cui Jian, the most famous rock musician in China, wrote, in a Time Magazine piece, that “Things began to change in 1985 . . . when the British group Wham! gave a concert at the Workers’ Stadium”. So add George Michael to the list, I suppose. Foreigners continue to play a major role in organizing the Beijing visits of DJs and musicians, as well as many other regular local events, from art exhibits to weekend parties. Locally based foreigners are also producing and performing: Visual artists, musicians, DJs, and actors are not uncommon.

I have never been the only non-Chinese at a rock show in Beijing, and while there’s nothing strange about foreigners taking in local music, there is certainly something strange about the inordinate foreign presence in the local music (and general arts) scene. Sure, there are a lot of foreigners who call Beijing home. I’ve seen the number “50,000” in the official press. They might be right, but they are likely on the conservative side. Then there are the 110,000-odd foreign students. But there are upwards of 15 million Beijingers that call Beijing home. So in a crowd of, perhaps, 200 people watching a rock show, having 10-20 non-Chinese in attendance is not exactly what you might call a representative population sample.

And the foreigners in attendance are not exactly observers, as I hinted at above. Show me a foreign fan of local rock, and I’ll show you a friend/girlfriend of the band. There is nothing wrong with that; it’s just that there are few, if any, “pure” unconnected audience members. But musicians make it difficult to be unconnected. They are incredibly approachable, for one &#151 which does have something to do with their desire to meet foreigners, a national pastime in this country where a bulk of the population seems to not be able to conceive of the fact that there are people who look different. But local rock musicians, in my experience, are genuinely nice people interested in meeting anyone who would actually turn up to a gig.

In its barely two-decade history, foreigners have never been completely removed from the rock world here. And as a non-local who is more than knee-deep in the music scene, I have to hope that this isn’t such a bad thing. I can’t help but think that the path to imperialist hell is lined with good intentions.

Adam, the American behind the site &#151 an indispensable source for up-to-the-minute info on bands and gigs in Beijing &#151 once posted the following:

When I saw Milk & Coffee, I wanted to tell the keyboardist that there was more beyond what he’d heard; I wanted to tell him that there was something beyond pop music ready for him. But as I think this, I wonder how much is musical goodwill, and how much is a form of imperialism? What do I know of these kids or their fans? Perhaps they genuinely like what I deride as KTV pop. And after all, this guy has some talent, and is actually playing music while I just drink beer and write about it.

I struggle in a similar way: To what extent is it OK for non-locals to affect the path of local music? As I mentioned above, foreign observers of the scene are rarely simply observers and many of us have established personal relationships with the musicians we come to watch. Many, myself included, also play in bands locally. Because of the small and nascent nature of the scene, we have a personal stake in the path of local music. And we also realize that we have the potential to affect change. So why not use our powers for good? (A reality check confirms that, speaking personally, I don’t have that much power to wield.)

There are foreigners playing every genre of music represented in Beijing: Folk, punk, metal, experimental, and more. And I must admit (as silly as it sounds) that when I see a non-Chinese take to the stage I have different expectations. And I think it’s safe to say that Chinese fans and musicians do as well. After all, rock music floated down from the skies in the early ‘80s here, and musicians raised in the West are surrounded and influenced by &#151 unconsciously, for the most part &#151 a half-century of rock ‘n’ roll evolution. To many young Chinese musicians, there doesn’t seem to be a sense that Linkin Park or Korn or Marilyn Manson actually grew out of a tradition.

People know the Beatles, Elvis, and Led Zeppelin, but there is no sense that there is a line that connects them to one another &#151 nor is there a sense that these three might be connected to the aforementioned triumvirate, which is composed of arguably the most popular overseas rock bands among Beijing’s rockers (the phenomenon that I hope to use my limited powers to combat). What local punks, for example, know all too well, is that to be a punk, you’ve got to disregard everything and just play. What many have yet to realize is that you have to compile a library before you can strike the match that will torch the place to the ground.

So isn’t it our job to help get folks up to speed? When do our good intentions become imperialist? Shouldn’t we just back off and let things go? I hope that the answers are “yes”, “never”, and “no”, and not just because I need validation for what I do. There is something driving us beyond simply the natural instinct to share one’s favorite bands with others, and it’s somewhere short of the egotistical drive to personally shape the scene.

We shouldn’t feel guilty, but we do. As I exert what little influence I have &#151 by introducing new bands I think (hope!) people will like, by playing in bands, by telling them honestly what I think of their latest direction because when they ask they expect me to a) be honest and b) be more knowledgeable about music in general (whether or not this is the case) &#151 there is a creeping sense that I’m doing something wrong.

The local English entertainment guide that’s Beijing did its third cover story on local rock in April, and a part of that issue was a Rock Talk I organized, bringing together a few local musicians, promoters, producers, and fans for a chat on the state of affairs. The idea was simply to see what these people, who were important players in the local scene, thought about the way things were going. But it occurred to me that maybe I’d overstepped my bounds, that a foreign-language magazine had no business calling this kind of meeting. The man in charge of the city’s best live venue said that while that’s Beijing distributes a fraction of the copies that a daily newspaper does (35,000 monthly; the Beijing Youth Daily, to give one example, claims circulation of 600,000 per day), more readers of the magazine are interested in local music than those of any newspaper. So it seems that we foreigners are blowing things out of proportion.

Of course we are. Despite the fact that 10,000-plus fans show up each year for the Midi Music Festival, that still leaves 14,990,000 Beijing residents who never heard of the festival, couldn’t have cared less if they did hear about it, or don’t really know what the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll” means. But same goes for any city: How many New Yorkers &#151 even back in the Day &#151 really care about the band headlining CBGB’s?

But shouldn’t foreigners have just as much of a right to shape the local scene as Chinese? We live here, too, after all. And besides, so many Chinese musicians are, like we are, waidi ren (“why-dee wren”), “outsiders”. A large number of Beijing-based musicians come from Gansu, Xinjiang, Shandong, Hebei, and elsewhere. And we, like everyone else, want our (adopted) hometown to rock hard and rock well.

We’ve gotta start somewhere, so it might as well be with “Hotel California”.

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