What happens when a Wellingtonian photographer resides in Beijing for three months with a camera, no Mandarin and a passion for punk music?
Kiwese caught up with John Lake of Up the Punks down at his current BEIJING DAZE exhibition in Newtown.
Hey John! Favourite punk bands in Wellington at the moment?
The Johos, Johnny and the Felchers, Awkward Death.
Where did your interest in punk stem from?
I grew up listening to punk. Wellington had quite an active punk scene in the 90s that was all about participating – kids putting on gigs, starting their own bands, playing at a community halls instead of bars; people making their own magazines and releasing their own tapes. For me, that was always the main appeal of it, an act of community culture that you could participate in, not something you had to buy into.
How did Up the Punks first get started?
Up the Punks began during the end of the 90s, early 2000s. I was doing design at Wellington Polytech and was interested in how there was a whole different generation of kids coming through – which got me interested in how that generation interpreted different bands and ideas, so I started building an archive of my own photographs. There is a lot of documented material about overseas punk that we are familiar with, but there hadn’t been a published history of punk in Wellington, a scene that went back to the late 1970s. A lot of the music would be independently released on tapes, sit in people’s collections and eventually degrade and disappear. I just do it in my free time – I work full time in a dead end job.
Where did the idea come about to go to Beijing last year?
Asia New Zealand and the Wellington City Council were putting out proposals for the Wellington Asia Residency Exchange and they were interested in projects that interacted with the local community. So I chucked together a proposal and said this is what I’ve been doing for ten years, I want to see what the cross cultural interpretation of punk is and create a NZ interpretation of Chinese people interpreting a ‘Western’ cultural paradigm. I handed the proposal in on the last day and was quite surprised when they accepted it.
Beijing was your first foray into scenes outside of Wellington, how did you manage to get involved with it?
I went over and basically hung out for three months and followed the same model as Up The Punks by just going to gigs, meeting as many people as I could in that time with my limited ability to communicate with them. The thing I was interested in the Wellington punk scene is not to present it as a wacky subculture of people doing things, it is more of something to participate in and document and build it. So going over to Beijing I was very conscious of a number of documentaries that had come out since the 2000s like Beijing Bubbles, Beijing Punk and Wasted Orient – there is this dialogue which goes alongside them, where a Western reporter comes in and is like “Wow! Isn’t it crazy that they have punk in China?” For me it was more about meeting people and trying to set up a collaborative thing, rather than being a fly on the wall.
As capital cities, are Wellington and Beijing hubs for punk music to converge?
I guess Beijing and Wellington both have more established reputations as being centers of culture and politics together. People don’t talk about Shanghai or Auckland in ‘go check out the culture’ kind of way. Wellington is all a nice little compact city, and it also markets itself as a cultural center, which Beijing does as well. As political centers, I guess it attracts a lot of people who are interested in the arts.
What kind of approach do you have towards exhibiting?
A lot of the process over in Beijing was documenting and gathering information on things. The exhibitions I have in the past have tried to move away from the traditional frame of portraits and gallery space – so they have been done in community spaces as opposed to gallery spaces. Black Coffee, which is run by Johnny from Johnny and the Felchers, has a retro punk aesthetic and following, so it is a good space for this exhibition about Beijing punk. I wanted to mirror what I did down at Dirty Monsters Club in Tongzhou – where I exhibited a range of photos of the Wellington punk scene. They are still up on the walls there, a good four months later.
What interested you in taking Up the Punks to China?
I’d been following a lot of documentary photo essays and things like this about the rise of punk in Asia in general, from Burma, Indonesia and Thailand, with all of these punk scenes that did not exist more than ten years ago. They are all distinct in their own way and there is a lot of music coming out of there. It is not just a case of Asian cultures taking a Western cultural genre and copying it, the music is always getting its own dialect and its own spin.
How did you see those influences being reworked in China?
Its not just that they are getting the material, it is arriving in China in a different way than when first generation punk music turned up in New Zealand during the 70s, where it would take three months for records to be shipped over, or just a newspaper, to get over here. In China, they got a compressed thirty years worth of punk music all at once, so they are interpreting things in a different way.
You set up an Up the Punks kiosk at Changying BHG Mall, how did that go down?
The aim was to do nothing more than confuse people with random information about New Zealand, an obscure side of New Zealand that a lot of people wouldn’t either know or care about. I got Sochu Legion 烧酒军团 to come down and play – they were one of the first bands I saw in Beijing and they played all the time. They had a real sense of humour and a style of punk that is similar to what I like in Wellington. I’m not sure if they understood what was going on – we were coordinating through this big phone chain because I had no Mandarin and they had very little English. They were really nervous when they turned up and the set up was in a mall with a bunch of aunties and random mall-goers gathering round to watch.
Check out the GREAT MALL OF CHINA video here, where punk rock meets unsuspecting locals.
How did you feel the anti-establishment attitude associated with punk played out in Beijing?
There is a kind of chilling effect with the political censorship situation in China. Whereas in Wellington, we have a very active engagement with political ideas in punk. Over there, some of the bands are singing songs about various issues, but I didn’t experience the kind of hard-left anarcho punk scene that has existed in the West since the 80s. I was told there is a three-tier warning or demerit system they have, where if you are on the third tier you are basically one step away from getting into some serious shit. But punk is not the only voice of dissent in China, and maybe it’s an ineffectual or futile one. Punk provides a means by which people can complain, but is not the only place where people will say they are pissed off at the Government or pissed off at work or pissed off at whatever. It’s just one language.
How do you feel the scene there responds to the political situation in China?
The Chinese Government seems to have bigger things to worry about than teenagers singing songs about stuff. There are issues going on. I was over there during the attack on Tiananmen Square in October. A dude I was meant to be interviewing was like an hour late because all the traffic had shut down in the area – all he could tell me was there was a plume of smoke rising over the Forbidden City. It was all going up on Weibo but the posts were getting deleted straight away. At some point Chinese society is going to have to address these ideas because people are becoming more informed. There is more invested wealth in the country and people are going to want to have a voice. When you’ve got the latest corruption case with that dude from the military who has embezzled like six billion dollars, people are gonna see this stuff and say ‘we are being taken for a ride.’ That’s how you would feel in the West if you saw this stuff going on.
What did you enjoy about China?
The energy and the buzz of the place. Wellington is great and everything but it can get a bit sleepy if you’ve been here for a long time. It’s the first time I’ve been to anywhere in Asia, so it was interesting to go somewhere where I didn’t really speak the lingo. Everyone there seemed very friendly. The food was really awesome – I got really into hot pot. It was all pretty luxurious staying on a three month paid for holiday, where the whole thing you’re doing is just to go hang out in bars for three months.
You were spending a lot of time with the local bands and people at gigs, did you pick up any Mandarin?
Uhh.. “Wo bu hui shuo zhongwen.” [‘我不会说中文’ ‘I can’t speak Chinese.’] I said that a lot. “Ni hui shuo yingyu ma?” [你会说英语吗？ ‘Can you speak English?’] The guys from Unregenerate Blood gave me the name Hu Yuehan 胡约翰, which means John not of the Han.
How did you go about conducting the interviews?
You can always find somebody who has a limited amount of English. The interviews – were really difficult. In a lot of cases I’d find one person with a limited amount of English and get them to ask the questions in Mandarin, then I’d try get them to provide a basic idea of what was said. There was opportunity to take a translator out with me through the residency, but it was financially too much of a burden, and some weeks I’d be going to six gigs a week and staying out in town till stupid hours of the morning. I had a translator for the first day at the anarchy mall kiosk who was obviously not getting why any of this was going on.
How did you go about compiling the bilingual China issue of the Up the Punks zine?
I waited till I came back to Wellington to send all the audio from the interviews over to the translator, who then translated it from to English and produced the written Chinese transcriptions. I have no idea what the Chinese says, hopefully it wasn’t all just run through Google Translate. I’d like to get some copies over to some people in China who have been asking for some. I’m interested in doing one every three or four months with issues about the Up the Punks projects. The zine is a good opportunity to pile them together online as a PDF and in a print version. I’d like to curate the material into something a bit more cohesive like the China issue.
Is there more China on the cards at all?
I’m hoping to go over there later this year, this time with local band the All Seeing Hand. They are gonna be working with Tenzenmen and going through Australia, South East Asia and China around October, or maybe even as early as July. I want to go through and document it with them, with the idea of producing a touring guide for overseas and New Zealand bands in China. It could cover the costs for experimental or punk bands from China to come over and play some festivals or something. Touring would be a good way to make some contacts and get a decent grasp on what’s going on outside of Beijing. Hotpot Music seem to be very busy with promo for bands coming through China at the moment.
The UP THE PUNKS archive of Wellington punk music which stretches back to the 1970s is online here.
Check out the BEIJING DAZE exhibition down at Black Coffee in Newtown!
Many thanks to John for sharing some of his photos from Beijing and Newtown.
Verrrry much looking forward to seeing the All Seeing Hand buzz people the fuck out in China this year. To be continued…