Artists Make Noise on Beijing's Fringe China's capital is now home to a thriving community of rock 'n' roll rebels and subversive artists. Despite censorship and other obstacles, Beijing has a livelier alternative cultural scene than in any other Chinese city.
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Artists Make Noise on Beijing's Fringe

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Artists Make Noise on Beijing's Fringe

Artists Make Noise on Beijing's Fringe

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We're not sure if they can Grandmaster Flash among their influences, but in China young punk rockers are wailing away and they're doing it alongside artists and other members of a growing counter-culture.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn filed this report from the fringes of the Chinese capital.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

ANTHONY KUHN: Beijing's suburban Tongzhou district attracts a lot of artists. It's cheap and it has a certain grungy cache. There's a row of brick hovels here where you might expect to find migrant laborers weaving baskets or something. But step inside and there's a soundproofed room where the local punk band Subs is rehearsing for a show.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KANG MAO (Musician): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Subs' lead singer Kang Mao recently traded in her puffy Afro for a just-got-out-of-bed hairdo. She's got blue contact lenses on her brown eyes. Underneath her friendly exterior lurks a ferocious set of vocal cords.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MAO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Kang is 27 and a native of northwest China's Lanzhou City. She says she moved here to pursue her rock and roll dreams.

Ms. MAO: (Through translator) Most big cities in China have rock bands but they don't have supportive environments. Beijing is like Seattle; it's a good place for rock bands to test themselves. If you're gold, you'll shine here.

KUHN: But there's plenty in Beijing for young rockers to rebel against, too. For example, says Kang Mao, there are the old ladies of the neighborhood watch patrol.

Ms. MAO: (Through translator) When I walk past them, they silently fix their gazes on me. As soon as I pass, they all huddle together. Why does it have to be like that? Most people have a different aesthetic than I do. They can't look at me with an open mind. They look at me like I'm a freak.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MAO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: In China, popular music and state-owned media dominate the cultural mainstream. Kang and her band mates inhabit the fringes of the cultural world where a growing array of electronic music clubs, heavy metal clothing shops and other businesses cater to urban subcultures.

At the Assassin Tattoo studio in central Beijing, Yang Pang(ph) is tattooing an elaborate phoenix on a customer's chest. The phoenix's feathers drape over the man's shoulders and onto his back. Yang says the whole tattoo will take several days of work to complete.

Mr. YANG PANG (Owner, Assassin Tattoo): (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: I always wanted to be the Cui Jian of the tattoo world, he says. Many people see Cui Jian as the godfather of Chinese rock and roll, someone who took the art to a new level. I've worked hard to do just that for tattooing.

Tattooing has centuries of history in China but it's only become fashionable in the past six or seven years, Yang says, mostly among white-collar professionals and the rock and roll crowd. He admits that he faces an uphill battle in winning wider acceptance for his form of art.

Avant-garde artists in Beijing also face a battle against government censorship.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

Back in Tongzhou, a dozen performance artists gather at a former duck farm that has been turned into an exhibition space. It is part of an artists' colony called Songzhuang.

In one work titled “For the World's Persecuted Peoples,” an artist stacks piles of mannequins' body parts bound in burlap bags. He rolls naked on the floor, shouting in anguish.

(Soundbite of shouting)

KUHN: Another artist has members of the audience write their comments on firecrackers before setting them off.

(Soundbite of explosions)

KUHN: Artist Kuang Laowu(ph) carves a u-turn sign on a slab of ice and then smashes it on the ground.

(Soundbite of crumbling ice)

KUHN: Kuang says that today's exhibition is an artistic protest against censorship by local authorities.

Mr. KUANG LAOWU (Artist): (Through translator) Every time there's an exhibition here, art associations, government departments and police all come and censor works of art, saying this one won't do, that one's no good. Some artists have to work under pseudonyms because the authorities have banned them from participating in any exhibitions.

KUHN: In another performance, a young artist in red underwear lies on a black box surrounded by red candles. He holds a knife in his mouth. Members of the audience drip hot candle wax on the artist's face, sealing his mouth shut. The artist stands up, cuts off his clothes with another knife and lacerates his chest and legs, smearing the blood over his body.

The artist who goes by the stage name of Guazi explains his performance.

GUAZI (Artist): (Through translator) The knife has silenced me. But I still want to speak out. So I use another knife to tell people what I want to say through my blood and the destruction of my body.

Artists here say that Beijing's art scene is lively because the capital has a critical mass of other artists and cultural influences. It's not because Beijing is China's most freewheeling city. The government allows these artists to create as long as their influence is limited to the periphery of the cultural world. And that, the artists say, is a place they're content to be.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MAO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

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