COVID-19: Uncertainty for the Music Scene As China Reawakens

As China’s new reported COVID-19 cases begin to flatline, cities are finally reawakening after state enforced lockdown since Chinese New Year. But as restrictions lift and the country returns to its usual programming, the future remains uncertain for artists, venues, organizers and audiences alike.

“Aren’t you scared?” asked the check-in staff at Auckland Airport. It was the eve of Chinese New Year, the largest annual human migration in the world, and news about the coronavirus had been intensifying for weeks. Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, had been placed into lockdown over the past 24 hours.

“Far out, it is so scary,” she continued, answering her own question as she slotted a boarding pass into my passport, “the flight is half empty.”

I shrugged, nervously fiddling with the hand sanitizer carabiner Mum had clipped to my bag. “It’s Chinese New Year,” I mumbled, hearing a diminuendo of doubt in my own voice. As nightmarish as things were, I felt compelled to return to Chengdu, where I have lived, worked and played within the local music scene for the past five years.

As a kid in the early 2000s, the closest I ever came to SARS was outside the Hataitai Road Dairy, when my friends and I would sneak out before school to buy lollies and torment 0800 hotlines with prank calls from the payphone. One morning, we spotted a black can in the fridge emblazoned with the letters: SARS. Tactless to a tee, we bought a can and proceeded to throw it at each other on the street, the deadly acronym from the 6 o’clock news manifest in our immediate world as sticky malt streams of sarsaparilla.

True to form, my first port of call upon arriving in Chengdu was to have a Corona with my friends. Yes, low-hanging fruit, a joke that has no doubt been shared by millions worldwide with the mollifying effects of alcohol. The city was deserted for the New Year and we clinked bottles with an uneasy cheers beneath the grey winter sky. Compound entrances were festooned with a red bricolage of festive lanterns, propaganda banners and security tape, with masks and temperature checks already required at every gate.

While the situation had changed dramatically during my 12-hour flight, I was not mentally prepared for what would happen next. Over the next week, Chengdu was among the hundreds of cities in China that would enter full lockdown to contain the spread of SARS-COV-2, the coronavirus causing COVID-19.

Obligatory coronas. Deserted Second Ring Road, 26 January 2020. Photo: Gurl

The city had emptied ahead of the holidays and TAG were geared up for their biggest event of the year, a seven-day Spring Festival dance marathon at the top of the once notorious Poly Centre building. Amidst the unfolding chaos, international guests Mama Snake, Roza Terenzi and A.Brehme were already in town and prepared to play together in a condensed line-up following the first night of the festival with Shanghai heavy hitter MIIIA. Upon my arrival, the whole festival had been called off – the first local casualty in a domino effect of event cancellations that will plague the music world for months to come. Welcome to the Year of the Rat.

For weeks after, everything remained closed except supermarkets, pharmacies and hospitals. The city quickly enforced sweeping quarantine measures that confined millions to their homes. From late January, all areas were restricted to single entry points and many buildings bulked up security with guards in hazmat suits and tanks of disinfectant sprays. By early February, all compounds required tenants to register an entry / exit card (通行证) with their ID and rental agreement, with only one member from each household allowed to exit each day. Without the usual din of traffic and construction, the streets were silent, save for the echoes of a distant voice repeating “combat the epidemic, wear a mask, don’t leave the house,” that reverberated into our lonely apartments like a modern-day megaphone mantra.

Restlessness and frustration grew day by day. Foot patrol began monitoring the streets to shut down any ‘non-essential’ businesses that had tried to open. I witnessed one such encounter in a neighborhood alley where police ordered a shop owner to close her plastic homewares supply store or face the consequences. A barking argument ensued, exasperation muffled by masks.

“You close too!”(你也关了!) the police yelled at a nearby noodle shop laoban.
“I’m not even open!” (开啥子开!)he retaliated, lighting a cigarette with his mask strung under his chin, “I’m just letting in some air!”
“Close it!”(关!)

Meanwhile, a few hundred meters up the road in Taikoo Li, international chains and luxury brand stores were open for business beyond assigned security checkpoints, the stomping ground for police in AI temperature scanning helmets. With no swarms of bubble-tea-slurping shoppers to sweep up after, sanitation workers had resorted to plucking cigarette butts out of cracks in the footpath with chopsticks, as CCTV videos about the heroics of Hubei medical workers were looped on the enormous LED billboards above Chunxi Lu. The streets were immaculate. I bought vegetables from a nearby street vendor and hurried back to my apartment, the sound of my breath amplified by my mask. I was privileged to be able to stay home and wait it out.

“To survive at sea, it was important to appoint tasks for yourself – scrubbing your raft, marking the days passed, counting clouds, all to give yourself the illusion that you had control over your destiny.”
– Sharon Lam, Lonely Asian Woman

It requires an immense amount of self-control to retain any sense of normal routine in quarantine and *spoiler alert* self-control is not exactly my forte. With nowhere to go and nowhere to be, quarantine literally leaves you to your own devices.

You know you’ve been in lockdown for a month when you go to disable f.lux on your laptop, realize it’s 5am and you’ve been watching YouTube cooking videos since midnight. It’s funny the places we seek comfort in quarantine, for me, it has often been the soothing instruction and swift vegetable chopping of Xiaoying, Marion, Chinese Cooking Demystified and Maangchi, the Wi-Fi router and projector dragged to my bedside retreat. 101 Rainy Day activities aside, this is 2020 – circadian rhythms are easily seduced by algorithms.

Anxiety has never had a more abundant diet than the infinite scrolls of 24/7 media feeds in self-isolation, fueled by deprivation of outdoor activity and face-to-face social contact, exacerbated by hyper-normalized screen time and real-time virus updates. Online accessibility is both a blessing and a curse.

Chengdu musician Wu Zhuoling was based in Beijing during the SARS outbreak in 2003. “The atmosphere was terrifying,” she says, “there was no WeChat or social media, so we would hear all kinds of horrific stories from friends and neighbours,” she explains, “like which compounds had carts coming in to pull out the dead, or a local hospital where all the doctors and nurses were infected.” While aspects of the COVID-19 discovery was dealt with deplorably by authorities at the beginning – rest in peace Li Wenliang – modern technology has saved many from the same fate.

While most of us have managed to avoid physical symptoms of the virus, the mental impact of the fallout has been immense. For me, sure I’ve made some music, read books and learned some new skills (cooking, yoga, music production), but I have also cried a lot and experienced long bouts of feeling completely and utterly useless. I know I’m not alone. Calls and cuddles make a huge difference. Times like these remind us of the importance of reaching out to each other, exercising our collective capacity for empathy as humans.

With gatherings prohibited, workplaces and education providers have swiftly shifted their operations online. Life goes on, waimai (food deliveries) and kuaidi (package deliveries) are still operating, albeit dropped to your compound gate rather than your doorstep. With all these modern-day conveniences, life in the city has retained a remarkable level of comfort.

Indeed, the ever-resourceful Chinese music scene has also found ways of staying connected through livestreaming on user-driven platforms such as Bilibili and “云” cloud parties on music streaming sites like Xiami, keeping people company into the early hours. Bright lights in the darkness, online music initiatives have helped raise funds for those on the frontline of the crisis. On 29 February, Another Language 另一种语言 hosted ‘Hubei Calling,’ a livestream of home sessions from artists from across the globe including Wuhan-based songstress Shii, Josh Love of Proximity Butterfly in the US and Cosmyte from France, attracting thousands of viewers and raising more than 30,000RMB for the independent mask charity 口罩快跑 in a single night.

Musicians have pooled together on special releases such as the Home Fitness 家庭保健 compilation, raising coin for the Firefly Plan sanitary product drive for frontline medical staff, organized by Beijing-via-Leeds DJ/organizer Slowcook [check out her Club Management interview with Chongqing-via-NYC DJ Shannon Dawson]. Beijing-based cassette label Nugget Records have handcrafted a Tapes for Charity handmade cassette split – [Side A: indie pop, Side B: electronic] – to assist the Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association, an organization that has rescued pets trapped amidst the lockdown.

Such ventures have brought out the best in people, especially in a country where charity is not widely accepted. Despite the passionate outpourings of support and flurries of ‘加油!’ everywhere from livestream comments to commercial elevator advertisements, it continues to be an incredibly difficult time for people in the creative industry, both emotionally and financially.

Cancellations have caused huge disruptions to artists who rely on live performance. Perhaps no one feels it more than Chengdu’s own Stolen 秘密行动, who first cancelled their Japan tour with New Order, followed by the postponement of their 10 Year Anniversary China Tour scheduled for February and March – a frustrating set back not least for the now defunct tour poster art which was meticulously cut, measured and sprayed on an abandoned factory wall in South Chengdu by the band’s visual artist Formol.

“For a time, we all fell into a strange mix of panic, disappointment and confusion,” says frontman Liang Yi over WeChat, “we’d done a lot of work for the tour including the release of our new EP, rehearsals, stage planning, promotion… the pre-sales were the best we’ve ever had and most cities were almost sold out.” On Monday, the band performed a studio livestream, donating proceeds from their new Remanufactured EP released on Netease.

Sichuan Music Conservatory contemporaries Hiperson and The Hormones also had their international stage ops extinguished from the Damnably showcase at SXSW.

“When we were informed it was just bands from China,” Hiperson vocalist Chen Sijiang told me from London via WeChat, noting the news did not come as a shock to them. As the virus spread to the United States, SXSW announced the cancellation of the entire festival a bit over a week later.

Back home, perhaps the biggest dagger to the heart of the indie scene has been the cancellation of beloved outdoor music festival Chun You, which annually takes place in the last weekend of spring in April, as close to 420 as possible. Fans across the city wept. While most spring events are still unconfirmed, Chun You organizer and Morning 早上好 boss Zhang Xin may have hinted at a condensed version of the festival in a smaller camping location, notice pending.

I recently bumped into Jef Vreys, founder of New Noise at the supermarket (where else). Known for presenting some of the biggest names in indie rock across China over the past twelve years, New Noise have been hit hard, forced to postpone and cancel all events until August, including tours with Men I Trust, Big Thief, Alcest, Mouse on the Keys and an indoor festival featuring Godspeed You! Black Emperor, MONO, Envy, World’s End Girlfriend and This Will Destroy You.

“We are still doing are best to get other dates locked in in the future, since all deposits had been paid already,” he elaborates later over WeChat, “with the crisis taking over Europe and America, it has not been easy for us to reschedule, since it’s very uncertain what the future will bring.”

The sentiment is echoed by venue owners like Ellen Zhang of .TAG. Following the shotgun cancellation of their Spring Festival, the club has been dealing with the burdens of closure for several months, battling rent, wages and the further cancellation of their sixth anniversary scheduled for this weekend, not to mention long-anticipated bookings for UK artists Pearson Sound, Ben UFO and more.

“It’s been a huge battle,” says Ellen over WeChat, “long-term impacts mean we might not be able to book artists from overseas for a long time. We’ve also had to shelve our TAG Anniversary Tour plans in Asia and Europe which has been in the works since last summer.”

“The entertainment industry works by bringing crowds together,” she says, “even if businesses can open before the epidemic is over, our punters will have been hit hard economically too.”

Run by a multi-talented team of designers and artists, the alternative club and arts space CUE finally opened last November after months of renovation. Co-owner Shai Dou, aka DJ Postunk of the Syncopation crew, says CUE were among the first clubs to take the initiative and close following the outbreak in January. With a focus on less traditional forms of music and art exchange, they were not expecting to be immediately profitable, so closure has seen them undertaking other graphic design and freelancing work to get by ahead of their re-opening.

The aftershocks have been felt across the board, venues 13Lounge, Steam, Little Bar, Funky Town and Jah Bar haven’t had put on shows since early January, while the people who document those places – including local video producers Havoc Studio and photography collective PH7 – are flat out of work and locked out of their studios in Yulin. Others have been making the most of the lockdown, with skaters like Gennady of Chengdudes taking the opportunity to carve up previously prohibited sweet spots. Movement restrictions lifted and public spaces abound, are testing the waters with outdoor broadcasts.

Today, the situation has relaxed since the height of emergency measures last month. Masks, checks and entry registration are still standard across most areas, but at least plastic temperature guns are now pointed at the wrist rather than the forehead, which takes the edge off this initially unsettling, now routine procedure. Paper entry cards have been replaced by digital ‘health cards’ (健康证) through WeChat QRs at compound gates, a vague, barely implemented system that currently only supports Chinese ID. As travelers returning from abroad are quarantined for two weeks to curb returning infections, those bleak supermarket trips eerily reminiscent of a zombie apocalypse meets Handmaid’s Tale dystopia – heads bent, faces covered and trolleys pushed wordlessly past empty shelves – are hopefully a thing of the past. Under His Eye.

So with tens of thousands of events, festivals and tours cancelled or postponed, what does it mean when an international line up sounds more like an perilous danger than an exciting drawcard? How and when will the scene revive and under what current conditions, given the already difficult challenges for small venues and increasing restrictions facing live music in China? As clubs in Shanghai reopen and the rest of the country looks to follow, what lies in wait for an industry whose success relies on the premise that people gather and do not stay home? How bad is it gonna get abroad?

Uncertainty lingers, belts are tightened, instruments are pawned. Beyond the checkpoints, we eagerly await what lies on the other side.

Crew after a x Small Projects streaming event in the park. The banner reads: ‘Fight the virus, wear a mask, do not gather.’ 15 March 2020. Photo: Aymen

Spring is here and the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Fruit vendors have re-emerged with pineapple skewer carts and trucks full of kiwifruits, oranges and strawberries repopulating street corners. Boomboxes of 广场舞 square dancing ayis can be heard blasting in the evening with the blessed regularity we are used to. Sunshine brings hope.

“A lot of pollution has disappeared lately,” reflects Liang Yi on the past two months, “I think this huge, sudden halt has led people to really feel the benefits for the environment. We have too much energy. Maybe we should take a rest sometimes.”

While construction machinery returns to the grind and the Chengdu government work to complete the city’s ambitious greenbelt (绿道) initiative this year promising 100 new green scenic spots throughout the inner city, perhaps greater fundamental change about environmental awareness and over consumption will come too.

As other countries, including New Zealand, begin their battle against the crowned virus contagion with quarantines and social distancing measures, China looks to reconfigure amidst the social and economic turmoil caused by this completely unprecedented shitfest that has formed the preface to the new decade.

“Hibernation is a covert preparation for more overt action”
– Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Since I was a teen, I’ve believed that a live show can change your life. Live music has a rawness, an unspoken, spiritual bond between the people that gives birth to unfiltered expression. It can make you want to jump off stage, cry tears of sadness or joy, scream, shout or dance like a maniac. Not just a willingness to go with the flow, but to create, connect and take part in something bigger than oneself.

As we emerge from our homes, pallid, overweight and socially stilted, we wait with baited breath for the next show, wearing our masks, and washing our hands. ❊