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China Faces A Sudden Case Of Rock & Roll Fever

As they develop a passion for pop gatherings, Chinese music enthusiasts are creating new market opportunities for organizers and sponsors. Authorities are allowing the shows to go on, but with a discrete presence of state police. And state censors.

Midi Festival in Shanghai, May 2011
Midi Festival in Shanghai, May 2011
Brice Pedroletti

In Tonzhou, a fashionable new suburb southeast of Beijing, Canal Park is getting ready to host one hell of a party: a rock festival called Caomei (pronounced "tzaomai"). Surprisingly perhaps, the festival's organizer, Shen Lihui, had no trouble securing access to the public space. In fact, the local government approached him. "We came to see and found that the place had potential," says Lihui, who also heads a music label called Modern Sky.

Sporting trendy sunglasses and squeezed into a long, fitted jacket and leather boots despite the heat, curly-haired Shen is running a booming business. Tens of thousands of rock fans are expected to come. A long list of companies have eagerly agreed to sponsor the event, from Ray-Ban to Dell to Yili, a Chinese yogurt producer.

But the prized Beijing-area land offered by the Tongzhou municipality did not come for free. Instead it had to be rented – at quite a pretty penny. Instead, in more distant corners of the country, local governments shower the Caomei festival and its competitor, Midi with hefty subsidies.

China, it's fair to say, has rock and roll fever. More than 50 cities welcomed rock festivals in 2010, with that number growing to nearly 100 this year. Among them are large provincial capitals such as Chengdu and Hangzhou, as well as some lesser-known cities such as Zhenjiang, in the Jiangsu province, which is the first to have offered a small fortune to bring the Midi festival in October 2009. Last year's edition drew nearly 100,000 fans. This year, Shunde in Guangdong is one of the cities paying the highest fees to musicians.

The Chinese festival frenzy may seem surprising given the regime's wariness of any gatherings involving young people. The scent of subversion usually emanating from the spirit of rock music is mostly diluted in Chinese festivals that usually feature a grab bag of mandopop (Chinese pop), folk or funk music. Miserable Faith, one of the more popular bands, is a case in point. A decade ago they sang about rebellion. The group now prefers nostalgic pop rock.

Inside Tongzhou's Canal Park, rock lovers – who had to pay 80 yuan (9 euros) for a ticket – are gathered around the five stages where Chinese and foreign bands perform. During some of the more lively shows, a spectator will bounce off the arms of the crowd as if on a trampoline. Caomei, which means "strawberry" in Chinese, is for "people who want to have fun in life," says organizer Shen Lihui.

When Chinese-style rock festivals first started taking place about 10 years ago, organizers had a rough time. China's largest rock festival, the Midi festival, was first hosted in 2000 by the rock school with the same name, driven by a young fan of Chinese rock icon Cui Jian. Starting in 2004, the festivals moved to the Beijing parks with the blessing of the city's authorities. Back then, the negotiations were long, and the cancellations frequent.

Then, things suddenly got better, explains Léo de Boisgisson from a Beijing event-organizing company called 8633link. "In the mid-2000s, there was a real enthusiasm for musicians. And the brands looking to reach young people began using them," she says.

But the real turning point came in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, when sports-footwear giant Converse sponsored the bus tour of two independent bands, P-14 and Queen Sea Big Shark, in five provincial cities. Heavy advertising and marketing did the rest: thanks to publicity, Chinese rock was now profitable.

In Tongahou, the feeling of freedom is only relative: all song lyrics must first be approved by the censors. Both uniformed and plainclothes police survey the crowd everywhere. When wild slam dancing erupts in front of the stage where the Mongolian group Hanggai performs, a man in a white shirt places himself in front of one of the most rowdy spectators and calms him down.

Despite these precautions, Shen Lihui, the head of the Modern Sky label, was unable to prevent the city of Suzhou, in Jiangsu, from canceling this year's Caomei festival. The gathering was supposed to take place at the same time as the one in Beijing, but the authorities cancelled it without providing an explanation.

The organizer suspects it was because the slogan "Free Ai Weiwei" appeared in English on a giant screen during a festival Modern Sky organized the previous week in a neighboring city. Ai Weiwei, a well-known artist and activist, was arrested last month. The provocative message appeared just as Zuoxiaozuzhou – a sort of Chinese Tom Waits who is also a friend of Ai Weiwei – began singing.

Who was responsible for the subversive slip? Shen Lihui blames the sponsor in charge of the computer system relaying messages from Internet users. Either way, it was a chance for the spirit of rock to flash through – albeit only momentarily.

Photo - JSolomon

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