China Syndrome

[27 February 2006]

By Jonathan Campbell

Subs are an angry band, but not in the way that anyone who has seen their live set or heard their self-produced and distributed EP might think. With ferocious riffs, pounding rhythms and hell-bent screaming vocals, the band seems to take out its frustrations on its instruments. But what has the Beijing-based garage-punk band particularly pissed off lately has to do with why it is also one of the happiest rock acts in the Middle Kingdom.

The members of what would become Subs first met in Wuhan, a city on the banks of the Yangtze River, known mainly for its oppressive summer heat, and the spicy cuisine it produces - not coincidentally, perhaps, it is called the ‘hot pot’ of the country. Also, perhaps not coincidentally, it has produced a large amount of punk rock, including that which Subs singer Kang Mao, guitarist Wu Hao, drummer Shi Xudong and bassist Shen Xia played in various local bands. By February 2002, they had all moved to Beijing and formed Subs. In June 2002 Shen suffered a brain aneurysm (from which she has since recovered) and was replaced by Zhu Lei. In February 2003, the band played their first gig, but the SARS scare abruptly brought their career to a standstill along with much of the country. Still, within a year of their live debut, their energetic performances generated enough buzz to earn them chances to play alongside bands visiting from Europe, including the Norwegian band Bonk, who played in China in the fall of 2004. Bonk’s manager, who also books acts for the Øya festival, was impressed with what he saw and invited the band to Norway to perform at the three-day event.

Now Subs are fresh from nearly three late-summer weeks in Scandinavia, where they played ten shows in all for Norwegian and Finnish crowds ranging from dozens to thousands, as well as from another seven-show tour of Amsterdam and Germany that wrapped up at the beginning of November. And though they return knowing they have earned a new fan base and future opportunities, a bad taste is still in their mouths from their first European trip. Not used to Western media attention, the band sat through interview after interview in which reporters were more curious about the band’s homeland than their music. “Reporters only asked questions about China,” said Kang, lamenting the off-stage reaction to the band. In Bergen, Norway, a frustrated Kang told the host of a local punk radio show that he needn’t have bothered to interview the band: “The questions you asked us,” said the vocalist, slipping into her onstage punk persona from her usually amicable off-stage self, “you could’ve asked any Chinese person.”

Not that having the China label works against them: It certainly helped them attract crowds across Northern Europe. The ‘China’ label may help get people to shows, but the band laments that people might be attracted only by the exotic allure of their home country. “Now, we’re China Subs,” observed Kang. “Soon, we’ll be China Subs. Then, eventually, we’ll be Subs China, and then just plain Subs.” But if their first trip outside of the country as a band—for three out of four of the members, it was their first trip outside of the country period—revealed anything, it’s that they had a long way to go before the ‘China’ might get dropped.

But while curiosity first brings people out—Chinese punk is for much of the world still an oxymoron—it doesn’t take long before they forget that the band isn’t local. Until, that is, the band members start to speak to the crowd during song breaks. Their English isn’t up to the task of communicating much to an audience, but according to a local paper reviewing the band’s show in Os, Norway, it didn’t much matter. Subs were better than anyone in the crowd imagined a Chinese band could be.

Such is the lot of a Chinese punk band in the West. Wherever they went, fans were won over, but reporters continued to search for potential political activists. “We are not a political band,” the members of Subs said repeatedly. “We talk about our lives; sometimes we talk about the things we are dissatisfied with, and sometimes that means talking about political things.” Indeed, their lives are a political statement in and of themselves: These musicians have chosen a path that their society does not condone, which is something they recognize and acknowledge. “Rock is about freedom and talking about things that are more important than money,” said Kang. “That’s threatening to the government,” because the government is focused on promoting economic success.

Regardless what the band says about being apolitical, one glimpse at a Subs concert and it becomes eminently clear that Kang has extremely urgent things to say, regardless of one’s Chinglish listening skills. At one point she tried to tell the crowd about how her friend’s brother disappeared in the spring of 1989, when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square. The crowd that witnessed the band’s first gig outside of China may have missed Kang’s opening lines: “My mother told me I have four ‘no’s,” she told the crowd. “No money, no job, no family, no future.” The crowd cheered, programmed to expect a visiting artist speak the name of their hometown and utter a “Hello” or “Thank you” in the local language. It was just as well. “Live, we felt that the audience, when they were jumping around and pogoing, they didn’t see us as Chinese or Japanese or whatever. They saw us as a punk band. And even more, they liked us. That made us so happy.”

“The band’s energy onstage is amazing,” said one Norwegian fan after a show in Askøy. “It’s like 20 years ago in Norway. You really don’t see this kind of energy any more.” Indeed, just as Nordic audiences didn’t seem to treat the band any differently from one of their own, Kang believes that the audiences in Norway and Finland were quite similar to their Chinese counterparts. “China has crazy audiences that do strange stuff, too. There were shows on our China tour that looked a lot like that last gig in Finland,” she said, referring to the Turku crowd that tried to drag her off the stage, grab her microphone and smack around the guitar and bass.

But Subs are in a strange position, because just as the Chinese angle is used abroad, to a Chinese audience, the band is using the foreign angle to their benefit. They lack a Chinese band name—a conscious decision that the band says was because they liked the word and its ambiguity in English. And Kang sings in English, with the exception of a couple of songs. “I sing in English not because English is the language of the US,” she explained, “but because English is the language of the world.” But with the emphasis on screaming rather than careful annunciation, the source language isn’t clear on record or live. But Kang’s not too fussed about the language issue. “Most of the Chinese audience doesn’t understand the English lyrics. But then again, they wouldn’t get it if it was in Chinese either.”

Their experiences outside of the country certainly affected the band’s attitude and vision, more so than even their gruelling 17-city one-month tour of China. “I remember that after the last show of the China tour, I said something,” said Kang in the band’s final hours in Scandinavia in early September. “I said, ‘We’ve got on the road.’ Basically, that we’d gotten started. At first, we were worried and thought that we couldn’t get moving. We started by taking it one step at a time. Now, the feeling is… I don’t know. Because now, we have to go back (to China).” To which guitarist Wu Hao quickly added: “We’re waiting for the next time we can get out and tour.”

The next time came quickly: Along with several other Chinese rock, experimental and DJ acts—including Wang Lei, Muma and more—Subs played at the Amsterdam China Festival in October and six shows in Germany and France. Plans are in the works for a return to northern Europe in 2006.

Despite Subs’ aversion to the focus on their Chineseness, though, they still managed to become somewhat PR-savvy during their first trip abroad. Their poster, specially designed for their Nordic tour, featured a backdrop of traditional calligraphy in addition to the big “Punk From China” stamp across the middle, both obvious hot-buttons designed to attract curious onlookers. It was only in the hours before they boarded a plane back to Beijing that they divulged the meaning of the calligraphy: “It’s pretty much just random cursing: ‘Fuck your mom, asshole, jackass,’ that kind of thing,” said Kang. For this band who is getting a taste of life above the Beijing underground, it’s the small victories that count.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/060227-subschina/