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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Foreign Desk
Anarchy in the PRC
By Joseph Gelfer ||
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Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!
Lee throttles the microphone stand while the rest of the band generate a sea of white noise and spit at the speakers. There's a seething mass of a mosh pit in front of the stage - battling Chinese students holding there own against a smattering of European and American faces. Everyone shouts back, Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Des, a hulking bald American who looks as if he's stepped straight outta Compton, is filming it all on a sparkling new digital video camera and can hardly hold it steady with excitement. The huge banner across the top of the stage, reading www.chineserock.com, is starting to fall down from the vibration of the amp and two hundred feet jumping up and down in a small bar on Beijing Lu, Kunming.

* * *

Things hadn't turned out quite as I expected. Everyone I'd met in Hong Kong, whilst securing my Chinese visa, who had just come from the mainland had a look of vague trauma about them. More than the usual travelers' tales, which parade hardships with some valor, these stories were a more understated affair transmitting truths in the kind of way someone might discuss the unfortunate technicalities of an embarrassing disease. I had been slightly unsettled.
     Things were not made any easier by the fact that, at the time, you couldn't just get on a train in Hong Kong and get off it again at some distant destination. No, you had to get a train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, the first city you come to in the mainland and then another to your desired destination. A brief look at one or two of your more famous travel guides on the subject of Guangzhou will instill in anyone a certain amount of alarm. It is described in the most unpleasant terms and it is suggested that you get out of it as quickly as possible. For this reason, I broke one of my cardinal rules and purchased my train tickets from an agent so I wouldn't have to stay in Guangzhou, with the intention of hopping from one train to another. The foundation for many of the stories I had heard concerning communication break-downs and scams became apparent when I received my tickets. The ticket from Hong Kong to Guangzhou was fine. It was a credit card-sized piece of laminated loveliness with a high-tech mix of oriental script and English characters giving something of the impression of Bladerunner. The ticket for the leg from Guangzhou to Kunming, my first port of call, was a far more mysterious affair, written totally in Chinese, and it looked as if it had been torn out of the back of a Victorian ledger.
     The next day I was on my way. The short ride into the mainland passed without incident, as did the rather solomn progression through customs, bar the confiscation of an apple. Various officials looked at my Chinese ticket and pointed me down several escalators and corridors until I finally reached the station exit where I found someone with a smattering of English who told me the train was, 'another place,' jabbing at my map to a train station on the other side of the city. My plan of not having to deal with Guangzhou at all had been foiled.
     Another scare story some guides propagate is that of scheming cab drivers. You're advised to settle on a price in advance, write it on a bit of paper and get the driver to sign it so that he can't attempt to extort any more cash out of you. This seemed a bit extreme to me. I selected an old guy sat on the floor and asked him in crippled Mandarin - ignoring the fact that he probably spoke Cantonese - 'how much taxi station,' pointing to my map, to which he replied, '30 kuai.' I hailed a cab and pointed to the map again. As we pulled off. the driver turned on his meter, everything was fine. Guangzhou was nowhere near as bad as I was lead to believe. Driving down its wide precincts there seemed to be all the facilities and comforts you could hope for out of a city and before I knew it I had arrived at the correct station. The fare came in at 23 kuai. I tried to give the driver a tip for not messing me about, but he would have none of it and just waved me off with a smile.
     While I attracted a fair amount of attention at the station, it was all good-willed. I bought my first real Chinese food and found my train with ease. I had spent the previous few months in India and in comparison the train I was confronted with was positively palatial. Indeed it was grand by any standards I was aware of. The carriages were scrupulously clean and in the windows hung the daintiest of net-curtains. The beds came with blankets, a volumous pillow and crisp, white, sheets. I smiled at my fellow passengers, exchanged greetings and settled myself in for the two day and two night journey, thinking of all the scare stories I had heard over the previous week.
     All of China could be seen from that train. There were the paddy fields, the pointy hats, the bicycles and the fishermen fishing with herons on precarious boats on glass-flat lakes, green under moss-covered hills. I ate strange foods in disposable clay pots that cost next to nothing and winced at the taste of the local firewater, bijou, which made my plastic cup stink for two weeks. In the mornings, I was woken at six by marching music intended to buoy up the good folk of the Peoples' Republic for an honest day's chin-wagging and the floor sweeper, complete in almost military-parade uniform, cleaned every crumb from under my feet once an hour. When the train finally arrived in Kunming, I had never felt so rested. I wondered what China would have in store for me.

* * *

I met Des whilst sprawled out on my bed in a hotel dormitory. He lived in Beijing under the pretence of study and was in town with a group of Chinese friends who had a punk band called Anarchy Jerks. They were in Kunming to do a few gigs. Des threw me a flyer with the times and venues and suggested I come along. I said, 'sure,' not really intending to do any such thing. That afternoon, walking down Dongfeng Donglu, I saw Des and his pals lounging outside the Camel Bar. They could not have been more punkish if they tried. A couple had shaved heads, a couple had pink Mohawkss. All wore ripped clothing held together by safety pins and a snarl. It was like a time warp. I decided to make the effort to go to the first gig, which was later that night.
     It was quiet walking up the length of Beijing Lu in the evening sun. Were that broad street in America or Australia you might be able to imagine sweaty red-neck contingents going bananas behind the closed doors of dark bars, but this was China and seemed a far quieter and more conservative place. I was, however, wrong. I heard the bar before I saw it. By the time I reached the door it was deafening. Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!
     It took only a few Tsing Taos to get in the mood and join the throbbing mass of people in front of the stage. It seemed to be the done thing to get as drunk as possible and throw yourself around without any consideration for your own, or anyone else's, safety. Who was I to argue? By 11:30 I wasn't feeling the pain anymore and things began to wind down. I thought it was probably just as well or I'd be in trouble.
     The night, though, was not over. Des informed me that everyone was moving on to somewhere else, but he wasn't quite sure where. Taxis began to arrive out of nowhere and people where piling into them and roaring off. Des, the singer Lee and myself got in another cab and followed the convoy. We drove for what seemed like miles through the long streets of Kunming in the dead of the night and finally arrived at some huge anonymous building at the edge of town. Many of the people who had been at the bar were already waiting there in the street. No one seemed to know what was going on but we followed the band into the building which turned out to be an amazingly plush hotel. The bewildered guests at some function or other looked on without question at the vast troupe of punks, students and westerners.
     We were directed into a glitzy bar with a stage. It looked like Las Vegas with deep sofas and walls lined with lengths of pink and silver shiny material. The band began to set their stuff up and the rest of us decided to sit back and see what would happen. Music came on out of nowhere and in came a couple of waiters wearing smart white suits, carrying boxes of imported Beck's beer from Germany. No one had asked for them but Des saw nothing strange in this and proceeded to crack open beers for everyone. A few minutes later as the band were almost ready to 'play' some old guy came in and started talking to Des, who spoke pretty good Mandarin. It turned out he owned the hotel and was the Mr. Big of Kunming. The beers were with his compliments and he thanked us for visiting Kunming and accompanying this fine bunch of young musicians to his hotel. The band started playing. Everyone began throwing themselves around again, fuelled by endless bottles of good beer. This carried on for several more hours until most people began to show serious signs of wear and tear.
     It was starting to get light by the time Des and I were once more in a taxi, making our way back to our dorm beds. As we sped through the dawn-deserted streets I thought once again about all the people I had met in Hong Kong who had warned me about the mainland and I wondered to myself which was the real China -- the one they had experienced or the one I had passed through that night. Of course, the answer is both.
     I felt like death when I woke five hours later. I sat up and went about the complicated business of straightening my vision. Des hauled himself up on the opposite side of the room, looking under his bed to see if he had remembered to keep hold of his video camera in the mêlée. He had and was pleased. Des said, 'They're playing at the Camel Bar tonight -- you coming?' Again, who was I to argue?

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