Foreigners in Foreign Lands, Part I: Exotic Orientals

Last year, in an attempt to at once appease and mock those who wanted to ensure people knew from whence they came, Beijing-based garage punk band Subs designed a European tour poster whose background was covered with traditional Chinese calligraphy. It was a striking bit of visual tension: The punk aesthetic of the foreground’s band image and typeface against the quietude of the brushstroked calligraphy. The calligraphy, though, spelled out a stream of invective, cursing the viewer as well as his family and ancestry. It was a nice touch, and a great way to simultaneously agree to and punk the conditions of their first overseas jaunt. Subs know that being from China helps them get gigs in the West. But it pisses them off.

Subs is the Beijing-based garage-punk act whose overseas affairs I manage. I am currently along for an eight-week ride as we tour through Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (read the on-the-road tour diary here). Subs is a band about whom I have written in these pages, a band whose members are, much like the foreign monkey acts with whom I have performed and about whom I have also written, seeing their citizenship as a major factor in their careers away from home, and hating it.

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Ilosaarirock is Finland’s biggest rock festival. For 35 years, the festival has played host to a wide range of acts from around the world. This year, the Darkness, Blackalicious, the Dammed, and many more played to a once-again sold-out crowd of 20,000. And so did Subs. While the band performed on the festival’s smallest stage, thousands of screaming Finns came to the far-flung corner of the festival grounds to take in the high-energy set from the visiting quartet. The people loved it: everyone from the pineapple-hoisting punk fan to the stage manager to the festival’s international artist coordinator. It didn’t take a crowd poll to know that people were genuinely moved by the performance: You could see it in the pumped fists, the banging heads and — what separates Subs’ crowds overseas from those of other acts — the big fat smiles.

What I couldn’t help wondering, though, was “what if these guys were from, well, anywhere else?” They are good, don’t get me wrong. But would they drive thousands of rock fans wild on their own? Would they have attracted such a huge chunk of the festival crowd? Would they have been invited to the festival in the first place? Or, to paraphrase a writer for the festival website: Would Subs be as interesting if they were Occidental? Seeing a quote like that upsets me, but mostly because there’s a sad truth to it.

This year, Subs designed a new poster that is arguably as controversial as it is light-hearted: a cartoon jab at those who see only China and not Subs. “Why must we say we are made in China?” is supposed to be a rhetorical question. But we all know the answer: You must say you’re from China because if you didn’t, you’d be just like everyone else. And you might not get any gigs.

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It is not news that the reason some bands make it and others don’t has very little to do with music. The abilities to write a press release, design a website, shoot a photo, and come up with a logo are all just as essential as musical craft. But in Subs’ case, their PR package includes, all-too-prominently, their home country. Their name will never be written without their country’s name in a prominent place nearby, no matter what they do. While the band hopes that the word “China” will eventually shrink into non-existence in their overseas promotions, the reality of the situation is that it will likely never fade away.

Subs have, in the last year, spent more time than most Chinese rock bands outside of the country (in fact, only two others that have spent a substantial amount of time in the West come to mind: Brain Failure, a Beijing-based old-school punk act that has cemented good links in the US; and SMZB, also an old-school punk band from Wuhan, who did an extensive European tour late last summer). This year’s two-month tour of Nordic Europe is Subs’ largest-scale tour of anywhere. They’ve spent a total of a few months over the past two years on the road throughout China. Within three months in 2005, they came to Europe twice, playing in five countries. They played 10 shows in Norway and Finland in August 2005, including gigs at Oslo’s Oya Festival as well as at Finland’s best rock club, Tavastia. In October, they played one of Amsterdam’s top clubs (Melkweg), as well as hitting four German cities and Paris. And while their music, if I may say so myself — as an obviously biased source — is great, it is not their music that is getting them gigs across Europe.

In the days leading up to our departure, one of our European contacts reminded us that this time around, Subs’ merchandise ought to have some Chinese letters on it somewhere. But the band had already designed t-shirts and CDs free of any Mandarin — indeed, their band name and their lyrics are in English. Sometimes a t-shirt is just a t-shirt, but when it comes to linguistic concerns, a t-shirt, it seems to me, isn’t just a t-shirt. The band sells the same shirts and CDs in China, but Subs is screwed on both sides of the planet, anyway. Today in China, English abounds in store signage, on billboards, in names for the newest/biggest/best condominium complexes, on products ranging from snack foods to hardware. Indeed, the mere presence of English — or, as is more often the case, letters strung together resembling English (aka Chinglish) — is seen to add value to a product or service, whether or not (and it is most likely not) the product or service provider can actually speak, understand, or even recognize the language.

Many see Subs as having fallen in with this basest of all marketing ploys. They could have chosen a Chinese name, even simply a translation (most bands in Beijing have both English and Chinese names). But that would entail narrowing in on a definition for “Subs”. The band still has no end of fun talking with English-speakers who want to know to which the name refers. “The sandwich?” “Yes, sure!” “The underwater vehicle?” “Why not!” “The UK Subs?” “We like them.” And so on. Additionally, there is value in having only one name, in one language, so that no matter where they appear, they appear the same way.

They could have chosen to write songs with Chinese lyrics, but didn’t, despite complaints that their Chinglish lyrics are ultimately more confusing to English-speaking listeners. This was not because they wanted to attract foreign attention. As vocalist Kang Mao has repeatedly told reporters and others, it is because English is today’s international language, and, at any rate, music is an even more international language. Besides, their high-energy live shows should speak for themselves.

This has, to a degree, cost them: They have taken their share of flak for sucking up to the West by sticking with English. Critics point to their heavily Western fan base at home — obviously the bulk of their fans are Chinese, but the Western attendance at their China gigs is, in relative terms, staggering — and their extended European time as exhibits A and B. (As for exhibit A, well, having a girl who screams like the Devil himself at the helm of a Chinese rock band is a surefire way for a band to gain notoriety on the local scene, in both foreign and Chinese circles. Exhibit B, well…that just sounds like someone wants to go to Europe but hasn’t been asked).

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The manager in me knows that sales of CDs and t-shirts at their shows will increase with the appearance of Chinese letters (even if the language they convey is directly insulting to the buyer). I also recognize that it’s easier to get an international festival (or a little rock club) to respond to an email if I’m writing about a band from China, just like I’ve gotten more phone calls from corporate gigs in China who know that I’m in a band of foreigners. There are zillions of bands wanting to play at the little clubs and major festivals to which Subs have been invited; anything that separates them from the pack is something we have to acknowledge and exploit (and, let’s face it: it’s worked so far).

Maybe it’s because I know all too well what it’s like to be a foreigner, but the bulk of me is siding with the band. They shouldn’t pander; instead, they should take advantage of the opportunities without focusing on what has brought them about. Like the ridiculous television shows and condominium-openings that I’ve performed at, the key is to use the access you’ve been granted for good: Give the real estate agents a kick-ass performance just like you’d give the rock club crowd, because in the end, a show is a show. In Subs’ case, they are trying to teach people that it’s not about citizenship, it’s about rock ‘n’ roll.