Nu Underground : One week in Chengdu, Sichuan
It's been two years since I stepped foot in Sichuan province. The last time was a leaping point to follow a tour across Northeast China, Korea, and Japan. My next film. This trip, it's purely a noise and food endeavor. To get the hell out of the Harbin, Heilongjiang, where there's absolutely no underground culture to speak of. However...there's the ice festival, right? I've been told time and again it can be ill advised to travel during the October holiday. National Day. Otherwise known as "the week nearly every Chinese person travels somewhere", be it their hometown, or elsewhere. Flight prices go insane out of China, even from Dongbei to nearby Korea or Japan. The tourist hot spots get swarmed. So I figured I'd head back to one of my all time favorite cities. Chengdu. Nestled near Tibet in West China, the city captured me immediately upon rolling through with Beijing's P.K.14 back in 2013. This is Sichuan province. I'll spare you most of the redundant shit. Spicy food and cute girls, sure. It's important to note, you feel the change when you come here. It's pace, refreshingly eased. A great mixture of all the things you could want in a city, with a still reasonable cost of living.
These two very young local bands, Hiperson and Stolen, blew me away. In one short year, they both grew even better when I returned to book a show with them at Little Bar in 2014. They found their sounds and ran with it. Stolen finally released their intensely refreshing “Loop” LP. Hiperson were currently on tour in Europe. If you think back to 2013, in that interview via Episode 1 of this very project, that's a pretty amazing change in merely 3 years. Their first tour outside of China, it looked like it went smoothly, amazingly, with short snippets of video being posted of crowds reacting intensely positive. Their debut LP, “No Need For Another History”, was released shortly after being signed to Maybe Mars. I'm so proud of these Sichuan kids.
So there I was, dumped back into the humid, sweaty city I so deeply missed. A trip to see about capturing what's new. With China changing at the speed of light, it shifts and molds their scenes, for better or worse. There's a newer player in town, aptly named NU SPACE, and it began right after I last visited. It's a performance space, a separate gallery and store, a cafe. Impressively large in scope, and extremely well executed. Soundproof doors help keep noise complaints down on the live-house side. The weekend I booked my trip, they just so happen to be holding a three day music and art festival. I had no idea it would remind me so much of my favorite street ragers in Chicago.
A mere 3 hour flight from up north, I arrived mid day, bolted to my hotel, and jumped right into things. Arriving at the end of the first day, a hip-hop group, CDC, or 成都说唱会馆 Chengdu Rap House, that rapped in the local Sichuanese dialect closed out the kick-off day. The setup was DJ stages on one end, a street lined with arts and craft tables, merchandise, beer. It ended with a large main stage outside. The NU SPACE crew didn't stop there, as each day was peppered with electronic acts in the main venue's main performance room. It's basic, but potent. A rectangle outfitted with surprisingly great sound. My main objective was to scope the layout for tomorrow. So wonderful it was to meet the inspiring Kristen, an Australian born creative who runs a media outlet called Kiwese. We met and first spoke purely on the internet during that first run at China in 2013, so putting an actual face to the name 3 years later was really special. She was a big help in fundraising Episode One. Kristen curated the lineups for all stages at this years festival. No easy feat.
Day two, I woke up exhausted. It seems my body has atrophied a bit on the festival running end, despite intense exercise. It's a different muscle group and layer of activity, really. Never underestimate humidity, as well. Though it's October, Chengdu is still quite warm and sticky. I'm being accompanied all week by a friend from Shenyang who now lives on the outskirts of Chengdu. We eat some Sichuan dumplings, Hue Guo Rou, and Mapo Dofu for lunch. A pretty classic first meal. The flavors kick my mouth even though I had been waiting to embrace them. I welcome it.
I was most excited to see a band called Chinese Football, from Wuhan. A blatant nod to 1990's Mid-Western American emo, they even brazenly aped American Football's name. It's an homage, and the music follows suit. You can hear hints of Braid, Cap'n Jazz. In all my years following various music scenes in China, I've still yet to find a band that so closely models those scenes I grew up in near Wisconsin and Chicago. It was a trip to see and hear. After connecting with the band, they remarked on how they've never really seen anything like this in China. The staff of Nu Space should be seriously applauded for all their hard work, and making something of this caliber in Sichuan Province. Again, keep in mind, not only do they run this festival each year, they're deeply embedded in the scene, running multiple things at once. From what I see, it's not just their venue, either. They are wholly concerned with fostering a positive, driven creative community. That's special.
China has changed immensely since my circular trip, three years ago. Beijing especially, taking hard hits on both venue closures, but also tour cancellations for no good reason. One always has to keep this type of shit in mind, almost expect it, but it always hurts when it goes down. Venues are one thing, but after a stampede in Shanghai on Chinese New Year, things got especially touchy with any festival performances or public events. A notable example would be NYC's The Boys. Further pressing their luck with a really, super fucked up poster via the spectacular Tony Cheung, they arrived in China only to have their entire tour cancelled by higher-ups with only hours to go. Every venue in every city got a letter saying there'd be trouble if these events went on. So, mostly, they didn't. Even as I write this, the continual and ever-morphing changes keep rolling. For example, in little over one month, Shanghai's storied venue The Shelter, will close on the last day of 2016, after the “boring reason” of failure to get its license renewed. There's a long piece written here about what it has meant for Shanghai.
I caught my first electronic act in Nu Space proper. Sulumi, who currently lives in Beijing and runs Shanshui Records. We mulled around the cafe area a bit, watched little kids paint umbrellas. Got beer from the many Beijing micro-breweries like Jing A. Grandmothers who live in the nearby houses sitting on their porches, either wholly indifferent to the whole thing, or up bobbing their heads taking selfies. Garbage filled platform bikes with seemingly nothing to do but split the crowd gathered at the end main stage. A little girl hands almost dangerously hangs off the sound booths side, turning to me, I point my camera up, and she gives me the rock horns. It was really a site to see sometimes.
NUART Festival's final day, reeling a bit from peppercorns and booze, we again rolled in mid-day, after a long lunch of Thai food. I remember back in 2013, being so enamored with the immense diversity of Chinese food, laughing at people's suggestions in Beijing, to get pizza or burgers. Having not been too well traveled at that point, I wondered why anyone would bother. “Just wait...” was a response often gotten. Indeed, today, despite having only scratched the surface of the cuisine of these regions, I'd do terrible things for a proper taco. The switch has been flipped, and here and there, sometimes you just want that itch scratched. That said, for its size, Chengdu has a really great spread of restaurants that can do just that. It's safe to say, Dongbei does not have a “Mike Pizza Kitchen” or “Red Beard Burger”. There's a Western BBQ spot in Harbin that is pretty good, but it's no “Iron Pug”. There was little embarrassment involved in rocking up to these places, especially when my guide to Chengdu for the week, Shi Hong, had never really been exposed to these things. Teaching her to make the “New York” pizza fold was a dark moment of pride for me. Chengdu's train system remains spectacular, and it was insanely easy to jump and transfer to the area where Nu Space was holding it all.
That said, to have the whole damn thing go smoothly, is an amazing feat for Chengdu, and China in general, amidst constant crack-down. There were no police shut downs. Kristen told me, “NUART Festival is supported by the local government body, they provide some funding, and allow us to close the street for three days, which is epic.” To hold such a festival, with little to no problems whatsoever, is an amazing feat. In a country where impossible red tape and bureaucracy can kill best laid plans that were executed perfectly, over night, it's a huge step forward, so much so that many of the Chinese touring bands left hugely impressed.
Every day, we were on time, and for the most part, so was the festival. IIMMUNE, a Beijing based electronic artist who also runs the collective Prajnasonic. Deep, layered pulses with beautiful visuals accompanied by the boards in the back room. My body was still adjusting, having basically gone through four seasons of weather shift by now, the colder temperatures finally making their way south.. We sat on an elevated platform, awaiting Vladivostok, Russia's Starcardigan to take the stage. More old people bewilderingly bopping their heads, taking super shitty selfies, some just sitting in their doorways, no doubt pondering a healthy mix of amusement and confusion. I saw more older locals enjoying themselves and very little to no flustered pushback. To me, that's amazing, as even in my years of hitting hundreds of Chicago street festivals, upsetting people's daily routine meant some seriously sour faces. Perhaps, the whole thing is a testament to Chengdu's vibe.
Starcardigan rally the crowd into hand-claps over electronic beats, and I start planning a a foray into the best hotpot Stolen and these old friends can come up with, for the next day. It's something I'd been salivating over since even deciding to come back to Sichuan. Having some of these people back with me, it really was spectacular. Xiaobin, who I originally met in Guangzhou, has a particularly wonderful habit of showing up wherever I am in the south, without notice. She lives in Chengdu now, and over a quick beer in the cafe, she told me how Anthony Bourdain was just in town filming a new episode of Parts Unknown. She was on staff to help with the piece, and told me about one day, when they were mulling around in the office, their Facebook messenger was being scrolled through. She saw a message I'd sent Bourdain. Basically, I was yelling at him to please check out Stolen and Hiperson. I yelped at that mention. Sure, i'm just one of millions following his pieces, screaming at him to check out this and that, come to wherever, go see whoever. I think I'd be a pretty damn solid music advisor, though. Either way, funny to hear how things get on the radar, even if nothing will ever come from it.
Beijing based WHAI closed out the festival. I got distracted from seeing Xiaobin and the crew in the cafe, and my brain started to go fuzzy after too much stimulation. Being so far removed from art and music up on Dongbei, it amazed me how long it took to get back into simply holding a longer conversation, in English, about these types of things. Talking to them about what's happening. This foray into Asia has really been a roller-coaster in terms of leaping in and out of it all, building up a work ethic. Learning how to calm down and do things that are totally unrelated to what I love, for the good of the next half of my life. The age-old adage of “it'll all still be here” can be a tough pill to swallow when you're juggling ten things at once. However, solid amounts of effort, no matter how small, multiplied over time, is going to get me where I need to be by the end of 2017. There's an end in sight. I just have to keep going.
In an instant, clean-up crews seemingly had half the garbage off the street. Formol jumped on his motorbike and we headed around a few corners to find food. They mentioned last year, how afterwards, finding most restaurants had sold out of whatever they were selling for the day, it gave me one last nod of approval for the whole damn thing. I'm sure it's insanely stressful, having this behemoth event thrust upon your normal business operation, but to have everyone get cleaned out by nine at night, three days in a row, is surely a damn fine sight to see. We roll up to a wholly empty, but well lit small shop that has less than ten tables. The owner is sleeping at one of them. Formol wakes him, and asks about dinner. The guy doesn't skip a beat, breaths in, and jumps into getting us some rigorously refreshing, clear-stocked tripe and beef soups. Chengdu's ubiquitous red chili broth is well represented across the city, but things like this can go a long way to curb the rumble in your stomach if you've over-indulged, or are over-cooked with it all. We make plans go head a ways outside the city the next day, and I sleep like a baby.
In the morning, Formol picks me up on his motorbike, and we trek ten kilometers outside the city center. Stolen are rehearsing for an upcoming festival gig. Out here, was the old Morning House space. Realistically, this was a different world. I've been here before. You drop down a few feet into a side road, and it feels like you're in the jungle. Weather shifts. We grip a quick snack of noodles and bread from a street-side cart. Though it's near what seems to be a busy area for couples and locals to walk, there is very little happening, compared to the city proper. As with many places in China, it got built out of its old home, and now moved down the road a bit, to a new spot where creators like atmen hold events. Large stages, one with a pool. Practice rooms, and all sorts of open, breathable areas to create in. Even still, having these things out here seem like a blessing and a curse, on a noise complain level. Formol telling me briefly of last year's Aus-atmen festival, which was held nearby in an area called "Flower Town". Someone coming and unplugging the power, and later returning with a group of people holding metal pipes, when they'd just gone and plugged it all back in. Not quite a great position to find yourself in, considering the police's lack of activity with such situations. Stolen have new songs that continue their exploration into electronic, sonic guitar space, and visual experimentation. It's amazing to watch them grow. They don't want to move to Beijing or sign to any sort of regular contract. Now under management by a guy in France, he's going to bring them to Europe in December, with more plans to set down roots and go back a few more times. At least, that's the plan. I told them they no doubt have to align with Agostino from UZEDA and Bellini, and get themselves a goddamn show in Catania, Sicily. I should send them e-mail now. The band left to the festival grounds to sound-check, and I roll back to the hotel and get Chuan Chuan with Shi Hong. This is another thing I deeply missed, and haven't really gone properly in years, if at all.
In the morning, back on Formol's motorbike, and out to the festival, in the middle of nowhere, “It's just for money”, they tell me. A one-off event for the opening of some new high-rise sprawl, mini mega-city, that they continue to build. Billed as a sort of oasis, I see plugs for them even in Harbin. A particularly dark advertisement currently up in one of my buildings elevators touts one of their builds as “a new city, outside the dust.” Bleak. We get settled in the back stage area, and go out to the open grass to sit with the regular festival attendees. A security guard walks up and starts speaking to the band. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose, and they begin screaming back and forth. Apparently, the security guard told the band they can't watch the acts perform, and can only sit backstage. The entire band rip off their lanyards and throw them at the poor bastard, rightly ultra pissed. They go back and grab their gear, as if to leave, and the whole crew comes up and trying to calm the situation. Heated, it takes a good hour for it all to calm down. Eventually, they perform as the sun sets, and all is well. I notice there's a small cluster of girls screaming as each song begins, and they know all the words. Later, I'm told my Formol that they have a small group of people who show up to every single show they put on in the area, regardless of how far outside Chengdu proper it may be. Superfans! Stolen have really come into their own. In 2014, I was extremely impressed hearing a few new songs that would be released on a record at some point. They were intensely refreshing. The release of their first LP, “Loop”, puts all those new burners on a thing you can own, and I highly suggest you consider supporting them.
The next day Shi Hong brings me to an extremely packed Jinli Street and the I-Box art area, where cool kids were taking selfies, skateboarding, and getting pro photo shoots done around rusty art pieces. Our plan was to basically mull around and soak in as much of the city as we could, before heading to what is supposedly the best Hot Pot (火鍋) Chengdu has to offer.
Turns out they weren't kidding. Honestly, I never even bother with the thing outside Sichuan. This may be a mistake, but for me, it makes the trip south all the more special. As with many debates between the neighboring Chongqing and Chengdu, like who has the hottest girls, they each prefer their own. I think it's just preference. Either way, this shit is the nectar of the Gods. We rolled into everyone's favorite spot, 青年火锅, which is ran by first-generation Chengdu musician who was in bands 20 years ago. If you go into the bathroom, a decades old photo of him screaming into a microphone sits besides the toilet. He's still into music, and still involved with it all. Super nice guy. The wait was 90 minutes, a bit of which could have been National Day crowd, but it's definitely popular on any given night. Totally worth the wait. Hot Pot, logistically, is a simple concept. Dip your meat, veggies, innards, or whatever you have, into the insane broth. Cool it down in the other self-made mixture of oil, sauce, garlic, and tidbits of your choice. Continue. The best, but man...as others have echoed in articles on what NOT to do... Definitely hold off from partaking in this if you're about to play a gig, or do anything super important in a public space. You never know how your body will react to it. I was happy to find myself having no issue whatsoever the next day, but I'll never forget the hellish morning after of my first deep dive into the chili pool. Your mileage may vary. You are warned.
My final day had me wholly excited. We jump back onto Formol's motorbike one last time, and meet up with Xiang and Su of atmen. The ladies of atmen run a label, perform, run electronic event promotion. Host partied. Form a vision “looking for strongly contrasting elements” for a “mental and physical experience.” It began in 2015, and has been gaining speed ever since. I try to keep my eye on Chengdu, and Atment first caught it from an interview with who else but Josh Feola, which you can read here. We headed over to the infamous Poly Center, which houses underground venues TAG and Here We Go, near the top floors of a high-rise. Tonight, the atmen party closed out with SHAO. Another tip from Feola, who's been pushing him as the forefront of electronic artists in China, alongside IIMMUNE. That said, I was quite pleased to be able to catch all of this in one short week. Shao puts on a hell of a show. I won't pretend to be particularly well-versed in electronic music, but it's always been something I've found myself deeply curious about. This was certainly refreshing, and it reminded me of dark warehouses in Chicago, simply getting lost in the waves. I'll also note that, whoever the hell is bartending at their small, separate off-shoot bar...I forget the name. The guy spent a lot of time in Japan bartending, learning how to do things, and came back to Chengdu to make good drinks. It shows. He was extremely nice, and made the best goddamn cocktails I've had in China, outside of Xiao Hai's “Bar Trochilus” in Changchun. Really something. The staff at TAG were really nice, and the whole damn thing wrapped up one of the best weeks in China that I can remember.
If you find yourself coming to the PRC, you need to make this city, and seeking out these people and places, a priority. I guarantee you it'll bring you a sense of warmth in a foreign land that you've never quite experienced. Chengdu always has a knack for making you remember why you fell in love with this country in the first place. To that, I'll forever tip my hat.