Back in May, I got a message from my friend Yixiao about coming to play in Chengdu and Chongqing with XI’ER, the predecessor punk band to electronic witch-synth trio South Acid MiMi.
When I first met Yixiao, Shishi and Weilin in 2015, I’d already been indoctrinated into the cult of South Acid Mimi, having experienced their intoxicated psychedelic dance masquerade at Kunming dive bar earlier that year. As one of the weirdest shows I’d seen so far in China, I was ecstatic when they agreed to play support for the mothership of acid freakery, Orchestra of Spheres during their China Tour.
我在2015年认识一笑、施施和魏琳，那年1月在昆明如痴如醉地体验了一次她们的迷幻化妆舞会，可以说已经成为了南方酸性咪咪的狂热追捧分子。那是我在中国看过最怪异的演出之一，当她们表示乐意为星迹乐团(Orchestra of Spheres)的中国巡演昆明站做嘉宾的时候，我简直欣喜若狂。
Upon meeting them in Kunming, it was immediately clear they were super badass. Arms covered with tattoos, they led us to their hangout in downtown Kunming – a bright yellow studio full of retro furniture, glitter, toy figurines and kooky decorations. Bowie and Sonic Youth adorned the walls. Paper umbrellas hung upside down from the ceiling. A MicroBrute synth sat next to a vintage telephone.
Meizijiu, cigarettes and conversation flowed freely. Incredibly lovely, generous and talented, everything about them was so different to the world outside – a bizarre amalgam of kitsch and kawaii, hard-edge and soft core, addiction and adolescence, juxtaposition and excess…
XI’ER is where it all started. Flashback ten years ago to an open mic night in Kunming: 16-year-old guitarist Shishi met Weilin, a girl who could sink liquor and scream like Karen O and Yang Yang, a long haired hottie who played the drums in high heels. They rented a practice space and kitted it out with pink lights, plastic beads, plush toys and homemade microphone racks, soon scoring gigs at local bars and music festivals. Shishi and Yixiao eventually dropped out of high school, Yang Yang moved to Dali, Weilin went back to Nujiang, and Xi’er was disbanded.
Later, they went on to form South Acid Mimi, a psychedelic electronic dance trio who have since been covered by VICE and i-D. Using a reverb soaked vocal harmonies, a laptop and keyboards, the band uploaded a bunch of tracks to Douban and have since performed in most major cities across the country, including large music festivals and underground parties. South Acid Mimi are in the mixing stage of releasing their highly anticipated debut record with Beijing based label Ruby Eyes.
Back in 2015, with nothing else better to do, they reformed the band XI’ER. With the original bassist in Shanghai, Xiaohei has joined as the only male band member, despite not knowing how to play bass. Since Weilin moved to Beijing, Yixiao took up lead vocals.
XI’ER aren’t interested in punk clichés or traditional understandings of the genre. Their music sounds as likely to take queues from The Stooges as it is from rockabilly or synth pop. Much like South Acid Mimi, XI’ER experiment by fusing influences from punk and electronica – synth noise emerges alongside oddball guitar riffs and pounding drum lines, while the vocals are full of grit and attitude, equal parts aggression and sensuality.
Always moving to their own beat, XI’ER tear down conventions and mix them into a highly potent cocktail – the kind your friend makes for you that has waaaay too much rum in it. Always down to party, XI’ER have been busy touring the southern provinces and are set to bring the ruckus to Chengdu and Chongqing this weekend.
Kiwese got to hang out with multi-media visual artist, designer and punk enthusiast Kerry Ann Lee at her cozy abode in Mount Victoria, for a rainy afternoon full of LPs, books, ornaments, coffee and fresh cream donuts.
Hey KAL! Tell us about the upcoming exhibition you are involved with in Auckland?
Its called Unstuck in Time, it’s a group show with a bunch of artists curated by Bruce E. Phillips at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts. The exhibition takes its name from Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and looks at the ideas of dislocation in time in space.
What was your childhood like, growing up in Welly?
Ahh, 1980s Wellington. Yeah. Pretty quiet. I’m the oldest of three, have two younger brothers. I lived in Hataitai most of my childhood and we went to St Mark’s. My parents had the Gold Coin Café takeaway at the top of Willis St, which was the focus of the project I did last year for Enjoy. It was a strange project, returning to that space before they tore it down – the back of the shop was a big extension of my home space growing up.
My Por Por and Gong Gong were involved with setting up a bunch of early Chinese restaurants in Wellington in the 40s and 50s, such as The Canton. My parents’ era was The Shanghai in the 70s. They were extremely minority; heads down working class, you will get that story from so many people and elders; it has shaped the way the community is in many ways.
What are your memories of growing up between school, home and the Gold Coin Cafe?
There was a diverse clientele that used to come to the Gold Coin. As my mum said – “Upper Willis St, Mongrel Mob, skin heads, white collar workers from the Government departments.” For me as a kid, it was more of a quiet observation of these interactions. It’s funny being back in Wellington now because it is heaving with food! Yet this quiet little legacy of original stakeholders remains in the city and Newtown, not just the Chinese community, but the coffee houses and takeaways run by Greek families as well.
“Throwing back the familiar, but with a twist. I like the idea of questioning comprehensions.“
The symbol of money comes up quite a lot in your collage. Kiwi bank notes, Queen Elizabeth’s face.
When I was a kid, I used to count the money at the end of the night. My uncle sent my a five pound note from England when he moved over when I was a kid – it had a picture of Queen Elizabeth and he had pencil sketched it with a big gang fist, spiky bracelet and a punk stud. And I thought “woah, you CAN do that with money!”
Where did you interest in paper cutting stem from?
Initially it came from a love and active interest in collage and punk poster graphics, record art, Dada and a lot of that historic use of montage. I learned the more elegant, craft aspect of Chinese paper cutting later on. I like that punk and Dada were more about upsetting popular imagery, a transformative reconfiguration of paper cutting to both reveal and take away.
“My mum was born and raised here. She still gets the ‘where are you from?’ She’s got a good way about it, ‘Made in New Zealand,with ingredients fromChina!'”
Your work often works to subvert expectations of local, familiar symbols and those of your own Chinese background.
People have different views on it. The ‘oh, it is such a shame’ view which puts the onus on the family to maintain and preserve a rich, heritage culture like pickles in a jar. Then there is also the pressure for a family to assimilate and normalise and do the best they can. But when you assimilate – only bring the desirable qualities into the mainstream space, the ones that could be creative and colourful to add flavour, but not too much tension or dynamic.
[K.A.L leaves the room and returns with a copy of Home Made: Picturing Chinese Settlement in New Zealand, the book she made for her Masters in Design at Massey]
Oh. My. God. I don’t even. Woah. *implodes*
Home Made and a written thesis were the product of that year. It was fifty hardbacks and 100 soft back editions. There are a few things in there that people found kind of useful for research in many respects. The Chinese legacy in New Zealand isn’t read and taught like the ‘colonial founders’ of the country, but credit to James Ng and all the incredible work he has done with Windows on a Chinese Past. It’s insanely cool. It’s hilarious cos it’s so hefty, but so underground.
Lake! Music in a similar way to art, it is so immediate and evocative, immediately transports you to other places and times. Punk, mix tapes, that sense of discovery. It is a form of communication, not just the music itself but the format. How music travels, how art and words move from one place to another, how they affect different people, how they are read, translated and misunderstood.
“I’ve always had music in my life – from always having the radio on and having a Gong Gong that could sing.”
You’ve been to your family’s village in Guangdong, how was that?
My uncle drove from the city and we went way out into the sticks… it was so rural. This place didn’t have roads. Or shoes. It was a total world culture clash. You feel like the prissiest, stupidest, foreign alien. Transplanting myself back into that space was probably the most quiet, reflective time of my life.
What an exciting time to be introduced to China and spat out the other end! The immenseness, the space, the ocean of black hair. This place with weird buildings, twenty million people moving really fast on motorcycles, smoking, ploughing into you drunk and peeing on the street. Wonderful, maddening, dirt covered chaos – that’s whats writhing under the skin of all this gorgeous, sparkly brand new mega city facade.
“In China, things are magnified. A lot of our understanding of Chinese heritage is completely different to what goes on over there.”
I found myself always writing journals and letters home, drawing and documenting to try and take it all in, but the definitions and descriptions don’t matter after a while. My neighbours used to sell illegal tofu jerky from a store in their house, I used to knock on their door and buy my weird snacks. One time my bus stop turned into a pile of rubble. I just went with the flow.
Check out KAL’s video work ‘Shanghai Shorts,’ filmed from her mobile office at the back of the Baoshan bus.
How did these perceptions influence the works in Da Shi Jie/ The Great World: Shanghai Works 2009-2010 [大世界：2009-2010 创作于上海] which you exhibited at Toi Pōneke upon your return?
Destruction, loss, fragility, the beautiful stuff that Westerners find fascinating because it is happening there on a local, day-to-day administrative level. It kind of oscillates between the two China narratives of doom and gloom vs. China is great! Modernise! This is 21st century Empire building!
Did living in the outskirts of a bustling mega city like Shanghai change your perceptions of your own ‘Chinese-ness’?
I’m not a very good Chinese [laughs]. I was actually terrified when I first got the WARE Residency – like, oh fuck – I have never been to China, I can’t speak Chinese, but I am Chinese, how the hell is this gonna work?! Being over here you in New Zealand you are visibly different, especially growing up. Over there I would be outed in a second if I was trying to mimic a bit of basic Chinese, it was an immediate fail. I felt really undercover over there. I feel it reinforced my other identities – of being into punk rock, sci-fi, the privileges and pitfalls of being a Westerner.
“Another analogy I heard from somebody over there was ‘same hardware, different software.‘“
Do you ever feel obliged to tell a Chinese story in your work?
Just my own. You cannot disconnect yourself from where you come from, your community, family and life – but in the end, your pursuit of truth and storytelling is what you’ve lived through. Your choice of fictions, dreams, truths. It’s all up for grabs. People often touch it with kid gloves, the idea of connecting with a heritage culture while not wanting step on anyones toes, or aiming for a sense of ‘authenticity.’ People should create new understandings of that, of what is real, what is authentic for you.
“Things aren’t always clearly defined, things are murky and weird and terrifying and messy and splendid and hard.”
Trust yourself! Don’t listen to anyone else. Be okay with the fact its hard going – it’s part of the delight and sweetness. It’s okay not knowing, but still doing. You are only answerable to yourself. Do the don’ts!
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.
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.
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…
From heading DIY record labels, playing in punk bands, averting lyrical censorship, booking dozens of tours and crowd surfing on them, to speaking on music panels, Nevin Domer is one of the most dedicated people in the Beijing underground today. Kiwese caught up with him to see if there’s anything in store for us over in New Zealand.
So Genjing Records initially started as a way for your band to get stuff out there, but what was the impetus for broadening out to the local/international scene? Just love?
I originally started the label as a vehicle for releasing music from my own band ahead of our European tour. I realized that vinyl never really went away in underground scenes abroad and was emerging again as the preferred physical medium for fans and collectors so if Chinese acts were planning to travel abroad they should have records to sell. It also became apparent to me that it functions as a bar for media publications who will take bands with vinyl releases more seriously then those with CD only. I was working with a lot of great bands in China that were starting to have more and more opportunities to play abroad and I decided this was a way I could help them. It definitely isn’t for money but out of a desire to have fun and see the scene here reach it’s full potential.
God Bows and Pairs! The 7″ split is intriguing. You check out a release from the band you like and are immediately introduced to another one, is that the general idea or does it have other merits than that?The concept of a split release is an old staple of the punk scene and something I grew up on. When deciding what sort of objectives I wanted to achieve with Genjing I was really interested in creating a bridge between the scene(s) in China and those abroad. For me a split release is a great way to connect two bands who can help introduce each other to their own fans and therefor gain from each others mutual support. The same is true for two labels doing a co-release. In the end our underground culture will only thrive if we help each other!
Can we expect any Genjing bands to come down to NZ this year or are we just too far away? What are the challenges for Chinese DIYs to tour Aus/NZ, it seems the only acts that come are state funded?
I hope so! I’m putting more energy now in producing, distributing and promoting releases. I want to create a platform and opportunities for bands but leave a lot of the logistics for touring up to them. Pairs has toured NZ and several Chinese bands have been to Australia — Alpine Decline is going there the end of January for several shows. Hopefully after the split release with Pairs and God Bows To Math more fans in NZ are aware of the Chinese scene and a foundation will start to be built for more Chinese bands to tour there and conversely for more NZ bands to come to China! It is expensive but I wouldn’t count on the state to fund anything interesting. It’s our culture we need to work and build it for ourselves.
Are Genjing releases available anywhere in NZ?
I am talking to several stores and distributors there and plan to have most of the Genjing releases available there by the spring. Things are going forward with Flying Out hopefully they will be able to get my stuff in all the stores you mentioned (Death Ray in Newtown, Slow Boat Records on Cuba Street)!
…and your current favourites in Beijing?
At the moment my favorite act in Beijing is the Molds, but they’ve been my favorite for a long time! I am also really into Alpine Decline whose new album is so so good. Besides that, expect to hear some new music from young bands both in Beijing and across China coming out on Genjing over the next few months.
…For venues I split my time pretty equally between School (for punk rock), XP (for experimental) and Temple (for getting wasted, haha!)
People can check the Genjing website, Facebook and Twitter pages for updates or , if you can’t wait – order directly from PayPal. Thanks for the support and don’t forget to also support your local scenes!
Xie xie Nevin!
Nevin is originally from Baltimore, USA, and has been helping Chinese bands with a variety of shit since 2009. He is the founder of Genjing Records [根茎唱片], Chief Operating Officer at Maybe Mars [兵马司] and the guitarist of Fanzui Xiangfa [犯罪想法]. Chur bol!