P.K.14's Vital & Dynamic March Forward: A Chinese Tour Diary
Ask any Chinese born P.K.14 fan what the band means to them, and watch their pupils dilate. After nearly twenty years, they still have more to say. What is our identity? Who are we? How do we define ourself in a fast-changing world? This is what Yang Haisong says he'll be singing about on their new record. To say P.K.14's outlook on these topics are necessary or important, in the current state of Chinese society, would be a vast understatement. There are deep layers here, and the band always finds a way to say exactly what they want, without alarming censors of the P.R.C. Haisong says his inspirations are but a sparkle. Alongside his bandmates, they don't know where they come from, or when they'll disappear.
Four years ago, these men changed my life, and took me on tour with them. Flashes of Chengdu and Wuhan still flow freely in my mind. I doubt they'll ever disappear. It was my first visit to China. Since then, I've written Yang Haisong every few months, to see when, or if, they'd trek out again. Part of me worried it'd never happen. After years of bothering, I'm told a tour has been planned. A trek south, as far down as Macau. That I can come, if I want to. They'll try to get a bigger van. I spend the next few months worrying it would be cancelled. It wasn't. These new songs, I don't ask for the lyrics. I just want raw emotion to carry me. To be a fly on the wall. Sound and color, bleeding out. The camera as my eyes, staying silent and letting it all roll over me. Now, how do I sleep?
Early morning in Heilongjiang. 6 A.M. My flight was over three hours out, but I like to be early. It's about an hour at most to the Harbin airport. I fumble around, triple check everything, worry about my monopod being accepted as check-in, and take off. We're sitting on the bridge outside of Harbin proper. Crawling. An hour passes. I start to get worried. My companion, she's reassuring. “It'll be fine”, she says. Another hour passes. We're still 45 kilometers away. My brain swaps to panic. I have thirty minutes to grab my tickets and get through security. I'm toast, I thought. I jump on Wechat and start looking at alternatives. I could fly to Beijing and take a train. I could do this. Do that. Minimal cost, I reason with myself, to just get there on time. Nine shows. Nine cities. Nine days, and it all goes to hell if I can't make it to Ningbo on time, as they're letting me in their van again. Nothing to do now but gulp it down, and see what happens.
We hit the airport gates. I jump out, grab my bags. Run up to the counter. The lady smiles. “You're late.” I laugh. I tell her, I know, I'm sorry. She points at the times, and says “Go.” We run to the side of the security check, my friend spouts quickly in Mandarin, points at the ticket time, and the first class check-in rope gets pulled aside. To be clear, I hate this. I get through the checks in 5 minutes, and to my gate before boarding even begins. I light a cigarette in the smoking room. Laugh. Hell of a start to it all.
I land in Ningbo to waves of relief. This whole trek, aside from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, is all new territory for me. It's raining. Grey. The taxi driver doesn't know the place, and I can tell. He drops me, and I wander a bit trying to find Beacon Livehouse. I do a few circles. Ask a few locals, but don't understand their responses, aside from a few grunts and points to nudge me in the right direction. Goddamn, it's good to be out of Harbin. I have a strange suspicion Dongbei people think I'm Russian. Gone are the warm smiles, the “Where you from?”, the random and ever present “Ganbei” (dry cup). Cold stares and quick answers for me, but that's a different story altogether.
I get pushed in the right direction a few times, and finally happen across a small room bar behind a graffiti splashed wall. I message the band of my arrival. The staff are beams of light. They all seem excited as hell. A fellow photographer grabs me for some selfies. She's got a tripod set up. They order me lunch. It's cheap and delicious. I devour it like it's my first meal all week. I try not to think about food on the tour. Resist the urge to start looking up these cities. I try not to think about P.K.14's impending arrival. I'm, honestly, still a bit nervous. My goal this time, is to go in blind. No plan. No interviews. Try to film mood and energy. How this makes me feel. It's a low-impact trip for me. I'm already in China. I know these people, and have spent hours in cars with them. Yet, jitters remain. It all melts away when they start pouring into the venue. I give them all long, hard hugs. Nervousness melts away to glee, and I start blathering about how grateful I am to be here.
I try to reign it in. There are some long days ahead. There's time for it all. I joke about how they'll surely be happy to no longer get monthly e-mails from me, inquiring about when they will tour. It's been years. That's a lot of questions.
Eventually, someone surely will write a book on P.K.14's influence in modern Chinese musical culture. They firmed their place in this canon long ago. Very few bands, not just in Asia, but the world, can claim this. Yang Haisong long ago gained legendary status not only as a front-man, a poet, and a producer...but for helping raise up the younger generation of China's youth culture. Time and again, I hear it from younger kids in China. “No, look. You don't understand, man. P.K.14 are the best band in the world.” I like to think that after all this time, after all these stories, that I do understand. They've certainly change my life as well, and even thinking in a Western vacuum, I can only begin to understand the impact they have on young, impressionable Chinese kids. Kids who have been force fed what to think, and when to think it, their entire lives. These songs. These lyrics. These performances. They're staggering breaths of fresh air that are sorely needed, and I don't even know what's being said.
I did not forget how incredible P.K.14 are as a live act, but it's still a bucket of water to the face. Kids lock arms and circle jump the room. I've got a shit-eating grin on my face. Their new sounds are as clean and inventive as anything they've ever done. Each instrument giving space to the other, but crashing together in perfect harmony at just the right moment. Photographers buzz around and try to capture the frantic energy of it all. A friend from Montana, Josh Wagner, he's currently bouncing around Asia, ending in Chengdu. He decided to come and meet me. I'm so happy he got to see this. It's an incredible first night, that ends in a small noodle shop nearby. Their tour manager booked me a hotel, but they don't allow foreigners, so they had to sneak me in the back door. We slip down the hallway and enter without issue. It's still funny to me that this is a thing here.
In the hotel, pure silence, for the first time in as long as I can remember. I can't believe I get to do this again. I dump footage, write a quick daily post on social media, and jump into a comfortable bed. Tomorrow, a gig in a temple, in the mountains of Yiwu.
“Welcome to the center of the universe.” slurred an excited man into my lens, about Gebi Bar, in Yiwu. We pulled up to the place greeted by more rain. A pack of a half dozen mangy dogs growled at our exit to the van. My mind was still swirling with Zhejiang province's mountains whizzing by in the van. More new territory. It really was a goddamn temple, in the mountains! Up a small side road, to a reconstructed red building. Ten years ago, they rented, and began to renovate it, in an aim to make something unique. The performance room's ceiling, the banisters, much of it is still original from its partial demolition during the Cultural Revolution. They've made some changes, but that's to be expected, as it was dilapidated. Problems have arisen, but like many others in China, they “close when the problems come, open when they've passed.” The place was amazing. Great food. Friendly staff. Local kids were excited, and gushed about Gebi. One kid was particularly upset that across China, in his opinion, you're forced out of these venues at 10 or 11 at night, and “can't even drink a beer or make friends.” This space, he said, was a place you didn't have to leave when the gig was over. Where you could meet people who share the same mindset, and create with them. P.K.14 tear the place apart, and I laugh while filming, trying to keep my camera steady. The endless rain cleared as they finished performing, and as far as this man's claim goes, he has no idea how right on he was.
Wenzhou. Tonight's venue is called MangTang. We snake through stunning mountain passes. Incredible landscapes on these drives, and no doubt totally different than if I were taking the train. The venue is an old warehouse district, old powder factories, now converted into cafes and shitty restaurants. China likes to do this, and it reminds me of B10 in Shenzhen. Everybody I talk to seems to be all for this, as it would remain unused and rotting if they did nothing. Mediocre or not, the potential is there, and something is better than nothing, especially in smaller Chinese cities. There's a lot of money in Wenzhou, and Johnny tells me of people buying up large swathes of property in other cities, sight unseen. It's insanely pretty here. Chill vibes, and a low energy crowd. I sat in the middle with my monopod, giving my body a break. Cute girls amassed after the show, and my attempts to find something interesting in the after-hours department were thwarted by rain. It's a seven hour drive to Quanzhou, but only three by train, so I wished the band a safe drive, and in the morning, I head off to the station.
Quanzhou. It's been a while since I've taken a fast train in China. They remain extremely comfortable. I set up shop at a large table in the food car, and nearly two dozen people begin to fill around me as I work. This is always fun, if you can remain relaxed and roll with the punches. More striking mountainous landscapes from Fujian province, as dozens of temples, and churches fly by. I wonder why there are so many Christian style crosses mixed with the temples, but nobody seems to have a clear answer for me. More pouring rain. Our venue is called the Animal World Music Commune. Strangely fitting as the area is filled with sculptures like Batman riding a bike with Ronald McDonald. I find it all super weird, shake my head, and seek food. The venue is a small bar with an enthusiastic owner, and the more I walk around, the more wildly confusing my surroundings become. The owner feeds us great stuff all night, including the largest bowls of noodles I've ever seen. Excellent hosts. The openers, Rejian Bei Shashou, are noise drenched shoe-gaze. Refreshing. They came from Xiamen, which is our next city. I tell them, bring a USB stick to the gig tomorrow, if you can, and I'll get you the video and a recording. A slick purple love hotel style room is booked for me, a short walk down the strange side-street. I sleep like a baby.
It's an hour drive to Xiamen. I'm twitching with excitement by a mere glimpse of the place when we roll in. Old meets new crush together on the riverside, and tourists have surely began to gulp down this city in masses. Years ago, on the first day I met P.K.14, Johnny told me of this venue. Real Live. Their friend had just opened it, and the band played the second ever show to be held there. Now, they were back, and I was in tow. Another warehouse area, converted out. The building that housed Real Live used to be an ice factory, and Johnny pointed upward at the old cooling coils, still in tact. Xiamen was amazing, and I wish I had more time. The most intense crowd of the tour so far. They even freaked out at the new songs, which made me so happy. I sat in the middle again, resting my shoulders and arms, but this was a different endeavor. Now I had to dodge the circle-pits, side stepping and picking up the camera when kids flung themselves toward me. Incredible to stand in one place and watch it all unfold. I had to run behind Xu Bo's amp for the encore. Xiamen, I'll definitely be back. The day ended and I found myself getting excited for my return to Guangzhou. It's been four years. The drive takes 10 hours, so I again decide to take a train. It's only a three hour train ride to Shenzhen, and a quick 45 minute jump to Guangzhou from there. That's what it was supposed to be, anyway. How wrong I ended up being.
Sometimes, despite all your best efforts, things don't work out exactly as you'd planned. I exit Xiamen in pouring rain, and it's very far to the train station. I make it with much time to spare, and am excited to be on pace to arrive in Guangzhou early. Then, the train doesn't leave the station. What should be a 3 hour ride to Shenzhen, becomes more than two hours of waiting at the station, only to swap to a slower train. We leave at 4:00 PM instead of 1. My brain does the math, and I'll still be early. It's still rainy, but we're going 200 kilometers per hour, so I largely don't even think about it. Around 6 P.M., I notice on the map we're still not even close. I ask the attendant, what's our arrival time? 9 P.M. I shake my head. No. This can't be... it's a 3 hour ride! She makes a motion of rain and clouds above her head. Fuck. I'm screwed. Knowing China, and transfer times, I'll never, ever make it. I accept the fact that I'm going to miss it all, including my most anticipated opener, a female-fronted grind-core band called Die, Chiwawa, Die! Despite this, I was still determined as hell. I jump off the train and hustle to the ticket office. My muscles scream, but I push on. I make a motion with my phone about a flight to some other city, and cut in front of the insanely long line. I never fucking do this. However, that line would have taken at least an hour, and I've only got an hour to spare, if I even want to try and film a single song from P.K.14. Nobody puts up much of a fuss, my feeling bad lasts about 4 seconds, and I run to the train. I'm in. 45 minutes to Guangzhou, and it's nearing half past nine. I hop in a taxi, tell the guy I'm late, and he scream off into the humid Guangdong night. I throw fifty kuai at the driver for getting me there so fast, and am in the venue in seconds, jumping to set up my camera.
P.K.14 are about half-way through their set. I spot old friends Song and Howie, and give them a knowing smirk. My camera turns on, and I'm plagued with shutter issues. Hard, footage-ruining, rolling shutter bars stream down the screen, and awful flashing lights, that you see in so many careless videos these days. I spend 80% of the remainder of their set trying to figure out how to fix it. It's either that, or don't film at all, and that's not what I'm here for. Finally, it dials in, and all is clear. I jump on stage and capture the final three songs, again behind Xu Bo's amp. Before the encore, I slide out and snap a photo of the audience. When it was all over, I tried to let the singer of “Chiwawa” know how sad I was to have missed her play. How hard I tried to make it in time. She understands, and pours me a double whiskey. At the end of it all, an impossible day turned into catching a handful of songs, meeting old friends, and we end the day with an insanely good Cantonese meal. It could have gone down much worse. Smiling, I think of my first time meeting Howie and Song, and again it feels like mere months ago, rather than years. I dump footage while trying to keep myself awake, keep myself aware enough to not make any major mistakes, and drift off to intense dreams of rain, mountains, and Guangdong humidity.
It's smooth sailing to Shenzhen, a 45 minute drive from Guangzhou. Man, I've really missed Canton. Guangdong province is a haven for BBQ pork and all sorts of delicious food. I've been to the venue, B10, twice before. Once with P.K.14, and again on the way back down with Haisong's other band, After Argument. Another converted factory space. The humidity hits me as we stand in the hotel's lobby. B10 moved to a different building in the same area, and it looks exactly the same. Some of the staff remember me, and comment on my camera upgrade. Hell of a memory. They were always so wonderful to me, and this time is no different. My on camera mic is beat to shit, all proper support bands are nearly torn off, causing the mic to slump onto the side of its holster. That's not good. They grab me rubber bands to ghetto-rig the thing from falling apart. Just a few more shows to go. You can make it, little buddy. You may recognize the woman in the photo below. Sijiang from Chengdu's Hiperson. She and Li Yinan came to see the show, and my heart just about exploded.
I tried to tell them just how big of an impact they had on me, seeing Sichuan through their eyes for the first time. In Chengdu, she told me you "have to find the difference between grays", and made me look at life in a different way. I tried to not lay it on too thick, but I meant every word, even the ones I couldn't quite articulate then. Last October, I missed them because they were in Europe. I am so endlessly proud of them. Sijiang, she gets it. She told me they would come play in Harbin, and to not worry much about payment, because we are trying to build a scene. They want to help us do that. I wish everyone saw things the way Sijiang does. See you in Sichuan, in a few months, dear friends.
I walk around, get coffee. An old friend, Jia Jia, messages me, asking where I am. We met in the forest in Indonesia, years ago, behind Wangi Artroom. She messaged the project's Facebook account, asking what to do in Indonesia, and I told her about this experimental series called Kombo. Jia Jia loved the idea, flew into Jogja, and headed straight there, with no break whatsoever. Now that's dedication. A truly glorious night, filled with a mixture of friends made throughout the years. I start trying to wrap my brain around finishing this all. It just won't stick, so I focus on just getting through the final show in Mainland China before we head to Macau.
Dongguan. They've never played So What Livehouse, so we didn't really know what to expect. It's a nice, small bar, with a short stage. The place reminded me of The Empty Bottle, in Chicago. There's a 5 year old in attendance. Upstairs, a fancy wine and tea room with a large, out of tune Chinese string instrument. Johnny immediately starts dicking around with it all. Haisong tries to relax. His back has been hurting for a while. He's laying on the floor again.
I get heavy on Johnny and Haisong and told them how much the last four years has meant to me. How much they mean to so many people. What the kids have told me over the years. The wide-eyed discussions. I'd like to think they understand. I try not to lay it on too thick, but I want them to know, in person, how much it's all meant to me. They tear apart a mixed up setlist to a small but eager crowd. I stay behind in Dongguan to rest, and they make the trek back to Zhuhai for an easier exit to Macau.
I'm more than satisfied, but I don't want to leave. My favorite moments are the ones that unexpectedly smack you in the face, in the best way. The ones that make you stop dead in your tracks, take a breath, and laugh. Their tour manager got me a final hotel, so I hit the streets for b-roll. I wave in a taxi at 2AM, ask where to get 叉燒, or BBQ pork. I ask him to take me where the drunk people eat. He brought me here, a goose and pork spot. I rock up and order while the half dozen women grin. They're genuinely, super nice people. I always eye how they treat the local guests. I kill one, then two bowls of freshly pulled noodles. Their grinning intensifies. Finally, I order one more plate of just pork. They howl. It was a perfect moment, and one that'll stick for a long time.
Macau was intense. It's not a difficult city by any means, it's just a bit rich for my blood. I'm sure if I had more time I could find some hits on the cheap, but I only had one day. The venue's up a rickety elevator, and the owner feeds me pork from a giant bowl. Goddamn I've missed the south, but whiskey and cokes are the equivalent of 100 RMB, or $15 U.S.D. I feel money seeping out of me, even just having been here a few hours. Xiao Long Bao joints circled my hotel, so I had to partake. The different money, the fact that you can use RMB and HKD everywhere. The endless casinos, mix of Portuguese and Chinese. I can't say it's a priority to be back any time soon, but I would like to return for a deeper trek.
So it ends. If music leaves a mark on you, P.K.14 have carved deeply into me, with transformative experiences that gave me a new outlook on life. A side of China I surely never would've seen otherwise. It's a lot to unpack. Doing this again was a dream come true. More places, foods, people, and stories that never would have been on my radar, without them. I am forever grateful.
It's going to be a bit before I wrap my brain around what this film will be, but it's going to be different, dark, and beautiful. Until then, thanks again, for everything.