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Scene Report: Chengdu’s Underground Music Scene Flourishes in the Cracks and Shadows of a Construction Boom

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The ancients who proclaimed “the young never come to Sichuan, the old never leave” (“少不入川老不出蜀”) clearly predated an era of all-night raves and high-rise buildings. The proud, open-minded capital Chengdu is both spicy and sincere, and now, in an era of immense mobility and connectivity, the city has become a bubbling hotbed of creative music culture.

Partygoers at .TAG Chengdu, 2018 (photo by 陶韵
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With inner-city development sweeping away the dank vestiges of the past, Chengdu remains rough around the edges. It confidently grows more sassy and refined, following her instinctive passion for shuǎ (耍; Sichuanese for “fun”) — widely accepted to mean good times, good food, and good company. When the bulldozers rolled in, Chengdu set up a mahjong table next to the rubble.

VENUES

Evolving from an original test venue — a narrow concrete box in a coffee shop courtyard — performance venue NU SPACE is now well settled into its up-sized 450-capacity space on Kuixinglou Road, a bustling internet celebrity food street (“网红美食街”). With a slick, minimal design and arguably the best live sound in the city, paired with a large-scale screen and HD projector, NU SPACE is a chameleon-like, multi-purpose alternative to the standard live house or club, which tend to attract specific, niche audiences. Attached to the venue is a cafe co-working space and bookstore which attracts a mix of caffeinated freelancers and chatty resident aunties.

Generally speaking, the face of Chengdu is changing faster than a Sichuan opera Bian Lian, and no one has had a closer view of this process than local subterranean crew Morning (早上好), a longstanding name on the scene that’s been through more venues that you can shake a chuan stick at. Originally established in 2009, Morning is now a multi-dimensional music collective that continues to throw some of the most daring live events in the city, drawing on their punk/reggae roots and pushing forward into electronic art forms.

With a reverence for old customs, an eagerness to set new trends, and a strong DIY ethic, the Morning aesthetic is distinctly Sichuan in flavor. Since parting ways with its idyllic swimming pool location, Morning has formed plans to open a new bar in a reconverted vegetable market just up from where their last bar was demolished in 2016. Once a quiet web of old alleys, the area is now a fully fledged concert hall development zone. Despite this construction boom, the area’s underground cultural clout looks set to rise again.

Construction outside Funky Town (photo by Kristen Ng)

Rather than lamenting the loss of the old, Chengdu hangs up a disco ball. Taking ownership of their doorstep construction site is Funky Town, a raucous, ‘80s-inspired party den on the corner of Kehua Bei Road and Jinxiu Road. This corner sits at the center of action between Soho, Poly Centre and Blue Caribbean, three major nodes of Chengdu nightlife. Following Funky Town’s fortuitous obfuscation by construction barriers last summer, the venue has flourished into a clandestine sub-city hidden down a narrow passageway of graffiti walls and defaced propaganda campaigns.

The bar has broadened its original funk and disco palette into a diverse mix of DJ nights, from rockabilly to synth-pop, and featuring local party labels, hip-hop MCs, and visiting DJs attracted by the dual turntables and CDJs. No longer hounded by street cops, Funky Town is now packed with punters almost every night, even completing cosmetic renovations last month in true rebel girl style.

Just another Tuesday night: DJ B·AI at Funky Town, February 2019 (photo by Kristen Ng)

Weave past the construction barriers and you will reach the Poly Centre, an inner-city commercial building that became a central tower of clubs and bars, filled with a global twist of partygoers across multiple floors and genres. One of the best is .TAG, a floating dance floor shrouded in mist high above the city.

.TAG (which stands for “To Another Galaxy”) serves a hearty diet of local and international house and techno DJs to a loyal and growing following of clubbers — dancers, gays, hipsters, wasters, fashionistas, and outcasts, local and expat alike. The club, which just celebrated its Aries birthday, was originally founded by a group of Dutch and Chinese DJs and business people, joining OG dive club Here We Go on the 21st floor of Poly Centre and heralding the start a monumental era of Chengdu club culture. While the original energy of the early Poly Centre years might be missed, the reckless inebriation, human mess and violence — not to mention the plummeting elevator horror — are not. .TAG is the only club left in Poly, a position they maintain with ineffable cool.

Day 2 of .TAG’s 5th Anniversary, March 2019 (photo by 陶韵)

Accessible from the Poly Centre via a back-alley car yard is Soho, where a melange of nail salons and cheap eateries lead up to an open air balcony of bars. Looking to reinvent itself after a recent police raid, the area’s long-running Hakka Bar is now offering daytime coffee instead of Nos balloons, and chill evening DJ sets instead of loiterers on the fringes.

Independent DJ school 33 Studio recently built a glass studio attached to the now inactive Hakka Kitchen, though by the looks of their podcast radio and oft-closed doors, it appears the BPM has slowed as of late. Next door to that is the expat-owned and operated bar Berlin Haus, which ticks over as a co-working space in the day and casual venue for the Chengdu Film Society, Chengdu Gaming Federation, and other miscellaneous English-speaking events in the evening.

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Across an overbridge lies the Blue Caribbean Plaza, which is much less tropical than the name suggests. This somewhat rundown, dirty old building is inhabited by scores of hotpot joints, barbecue restaurants, and shisha bars that hum away every night of the week. Taiga Club is tucked away in the Plaza’s top corner. Having never achieved the same level of popularity as the club’s original tenants Xiong Mao (Panda Club) over a decade ago, Taiga has just undertaken extensive renovations, sweeping away discarded mannequins and cobweb-covered tree installations (the club’s name refers to a type of snow forest) in an attempt to update its image. As the go-to venue for psytrance promoters, perhaps this year will be the year Taiga can expand its audience base and start something new.

Elsewhere in town, longstanding riverside hangout Jah Bar continues to host all kinds of jams and beatbox nights throughout the week. Kitted out with haggard old amplifiers and broken cymbal stands, Jah welcomes bookings of everything from speed punk to ambient psy — artists who either can’t afford the overheads at larger venues, or are attracted to the offbeat, Rasta charm of Jah’s central mini stage. As one of the longest-running bars in Chengdu, what Jah lacks in backline it makes up for in chill, friendly vibes and a close-quarters live experience.

Stolen vocalist Liang Yi DJs at Steam, 2018 (photo by 陈粒的身份证)

Located near Chengdu’s Tibetan Quarter, Steam Hostel (蒸汽旅舍) is the 24/7 hub at the heart of the community, assuming a unique hybrid identity as a popular bar, music venue, and hostel. Covered in graffiti and tattoos, the well-loved, grungy dive spot hosts the occasional DIY party and hardware show. Much of Steam’s character is owed to the propulsion of owner Mao Mao (aka HeLing), a former rock guitarist turned modular acid techno producer. With live-in staff and studio spaces, there is a certain homeliness about Steam that — alongside having the best foosball table in town — makes it an essential meeting point for musicians, creatives, and travelers alike.

Coming up on its ten-year anniversary, Chengdu-based touring label and promoter New Noise has had a killer year of tours, selling over 1,200 tickets for Japanese outfit Mono last month at another stalwart Chengdu music venue, Little Bar Space — proof that rock is not dead in this increasingly electronic city. As the longest-running live music venue in Chengdu, Little Bar has a devout following of rock fans across multiple venues: the cavernous Little Bar Space located beneath Mix-C Mall, a smaller, more intimate venue in Yulin, and the original location, which now primarily operates as a tourist destination. The venue has also developed Littles, an art gallery next to Little Bar Space.

While the live music scene thrives, outlets for physical merchandise and vinyl are also beginning to crop up in greater numbers. Nestled within Chengdu’s supremely fancy Buddhist temple-cum-luxury shopping zone Taikooli, The Hang (得行) has emerged to offer cocktails and gourmet cuisine on the rooftop, with a selection of mostly secondhand Japanese imported vinyl below. Newly opened boutique vinyl and clothing store BURNer recently opened near the Sichuan Music Conservatory’s city campus, importing stock from fRUITYSHOP in Beijing. Meanwhile, Streaming Records (不快进唱片) is looking to move out of its apartment block and into a proper location.

FESTIVALS

Now in its seventh year, the well-loved indie music fest Chun You is set to evolve into a lakeside camping festival near Mount Emei, south of Chengdu from April 19-21. It’s organized by the team behind Morning, who draw on years of DIY festival experience that started in the early 2010s alongside one of Chengdu’s earliest underground clubs, Xiong Mao. For this year’s Chun You Festival, Morning will bring together a community of rock fans, punks, hippies, psytrance ravers, and DJs from around southwest China, presenting a mammoth lineup across four stages formed in collaboration with dozens of party labels and promoters, as well as independent designers, visual artists, studios, food and beverage retailers and market vendors.

In true Chun You fashion, the line up will feature mostly local bands and producers from previous years, including Stolen and JahWahZoo (who are managed by Morning), return slots from Yunnan reggae legends Kawa, Xi’an post-punk outfit FAZI, Beijing techno label Prajnasonic and a Chun You debut from Beijing’s Birdstriking. On the electronic stage, Bangkok-based producer DOTT is set to close the festival, demonstrating Chengdu’s increasing connectivity with Southeast Asia.

Another annual festival of note is October street event NUART Festival, which is run by NU SPACE. Last year saw the fourth NUART Festival, a three-day affair that involved two ticketed indoor stages featuring artists from some of the most reputable indie labels in China: Maybe Mars, D-Force, RAN Music, and Qiii Snacks from Guangzhou. The event also showcased several prominent audiovisual duos, including the industrial techno stylings of Shao and Wang Meng and the futuristic cyber-world of Do Hits co-founder Jason Hou and Miao Jing.

With a focus on emerging artists, last year’s NUART sought to feature a balance of gender identities in the lineup, inviting many of the city’s female, non-binary and queer DJs to perform on an outdoor DJ booth stage. The free street-side DJ booths were a hit with club kids, aunties and children alike — NUART once again providing an accessible platform for all music lovers.

NUART Festival, October 2018 (photo: John Yingling)

Never one to miss a party opportunity, .TAG religiously hosts marathon raves during China’s national holidays. With the club’s Main Room, which often pushes past breakfast time, and its upstairs, house-based counterpart Hidden Bar, the 250-capacity club hosts parties every weekend, with frequent special events for most dates on the Chinese Lunar calendar. This year’s Chinese New Year Festival saw the intergalactic dance floor raving for a staggering seven-day bender of hard-hitting techno and uplifting acid house, trusted promoters booking local acts alongside artists from Germany, the US and Taipei podcast/label Smoke Machine.

Fostering a friendly and open-minded — yet close-knit — dance floor community, .TAG is an unparalleled dance establishment in Chengdu, and even China. With Herrensauna and Bassiani resident Hector Oaks releasing a track called “Just a Chengdu Dog” and international DJs Instagramming the breathtaking view from the Poly Centre’s 21st floor, Chengdu is putting itself on the map as an exciting new destination on the Asian club circuit.

On a different level, label and festival brand Modern Sky have plans for a “Super Strawberry” festival in Chengdu later this month. The music giant has selected only two cities for this expanded version of its annual, cross-country festival series — another indication of Beijing/Shanghai-based companies looking to Chengdu as a key, emerging music market.

EVENT SERIES

NU SPACE has been host to a range of event series since opening in 2016. Inspired by the clashing juxtapositions of modern Chengdu, NU SPACE’s ongoing experimental series Blah Blah bills a misfit collection of one-off performances into a night of random entertainment that can veer from harsh industrial noise to a Hong Kong disco set. Annual gathering SYNC unites members of the local hardware community via a shared love of drum machines, synthesizers and controllers, while the new monthly DJ series Faux Club features an emerging party label or studio each month, allowing punters to enjoy an evening of DJs without going home reeking of cigarettes (one of the pitfalls of partying due to Chengdu’s lack of smoking regulations in bars and clubs).

The limbo of construction has made way for Rooftop Music (天台发声), a new open-air, afternoon gig series at CH8 in East Music Park (东郊记忆). The park is a former industrial factory zone reminiscent of Beijing’s famous 798 Art Zone, with a similar smattering of cafés and galleries.

Deep Water performing at Rooftop Music, March 2019 (photo by Kristen Ng)

The series is a collaboration between music ticketing platform Muslog (门内音乐) and JC of the skate-punk collective Big Fight Chengdu (which held a punk show in a McDonald’s last year). It’s set to present monthly lineups of indie artists until the nearby apartments are complete in 2020. With the first show attracting 100 people on a Saturday afternoon against a freshly painted yellow backdrop, Rooftop Music’s temporary future appears to be bright.

ORGANIZERS & PARTY LABELS

At an age of sharp growing pains, local Chengdu party promoters have found ways around closures and regulations to keep the music playing, a tenacity that has grown from the renegade shopping trolley street parties of DJ Marco Duits in the early 2010s to full-blown raves in repurposed city spaces last year. Nightlife is so cherished in Chengdu that aerospace scientists are developing an artificial moon to illuminate the sky.

Some of the most exciting pop-up events of the last year were held by LAB Music, formerly known as Warming Up — the label responsible for legendary Wangfujing rooftop parties atop an a inner city shopping mall, located on a busy intersection just down from Soho. Several ambitious promoters were attracted to the large, open air garden space and the ability to play without noise complaints. After several booming, large-scale events from organizers including Walk On Air and Break the Wall, the proprietors pulled the plug and the party was over by mid-2017, destined to become part of Chengdu rave folklore.

Headed by DJ Wu, LAB Music established a new benchmark event last year with Basi Rave, whose mission is to excavate and re-purpose large, unusual spaces into party locations. Early examples include a creepy former KTV building called Allizilla, and a monstrous concrete basement that was kitted out for the boss of Berlin label Stroboscopic Artefacts last October, and later had a studio developed at the back in a refurbished noodle kitchen.

Lucy of Stroboscopic Artefacts at Basi Rave II, October 2018 (photo by LABMUSIC)

While dance crowds are drawn to acts from foreign labels such as Giegling and Ostgut Ton, locally-produced nights are also flourishing. Key examples include the queer-friendly techno stomp Seafood Party with its beautiful, gyrating origami sea creature installations, and the cosmic gathering XII orchestrated by Su, one of .TAG’s original founders. The city is heaving with distinctive party labels and DJ nights such as Blue Night, Pure Dark, A Dose of Joy, Syncopation, and 蓉铁, each fostering its own sound, vibe and culture, organizing alongside Chengdu’s growing number of VJs, installation artists, tattooists, piercers, tarot readers, and independent merchandisers.

Tattoo artist/piercer 質變/Zoey with clients at a downtown party, 2018 (photo: by質變/Zoey)

On the more experimental end of things, Small Projects (小计划) fuses Chengdu’s growing culture of live sets and alternative performance. Run by multi-talented veteran musician Wu Zhuoling and her husband Till, Small Projects curates unique, themed gigs in lesser-known nooks around the city, building on like-minded events at NU SPACE and the monthly Shift A b2b hardware sessions run by former bar owner Hise at Berlin Haus. The noise and experimental scene remains small, with field recording label and event organizer Audible Area hosting a range of niche concerts and workshops each year.

ONLINE

In the online realm, locally-produced livestream performance series Another Language (另一种语言) stormed the airwaves last year, putting Chengdu talent front and center. Episodes to date have featured the icy techno pogo rock of Stolen in the Aba Mountains at sundown, Hiperson thrashing it out in the rubble of an abandoned factory, and the endearing ayi square dance takeover of hybrid folk artist Moxizishi at Chengdu’s People’s Park. Another Language’s epic 2018 season finale featured OG Chengdu audiovisual duo Noise Temple, comprised of VJ Mian — head honcho of visual arts collective PuZaoSi (普造司) — and human drum machine Huang Jin.

The brainchild of Steam Hostel boss Mao Mao (aka modular acid techno powerhouse HeLing), Another Language captures the spectacle of live music in contrasting environments around Sichuan. Executed by an indefatigable team including PuZaoSi, video workhouse Havoc Studio, and with backing from Caotai Music (草台回声), Another Language is gearing up for a second, eight-episode season this year. Stay tuned.

Following the collapse of the short-lived house music club Nomad, associated minimal tech house label Dusk Till Dawn has recently resurfaced as an outdoor live video stream and podcast series for DJ sets. A work in progress, the team hope to upload more content soon, both within and outside the firewall.

THE FUTURE?

Coming into the Year of the Pig, the BPM is hot. Bedroom producers and enthusiasts are gathering in numbers as the city breeds a cross-fertilization of music in clubs and studios, centralized around meet-ups and concerts at Steam Hostel, NU SPACE and .TAG. With all eyes on this growing center, music production company Ableton Asia is even visiting to scope out the city as a foothold for new creation.

Crater Records, a Techno/IDM-focused sub-label of Caotai, has plans for several compilations this year, as well as a forthcoming album from HeLing, while the next wave of talented, tech-savvy bands from the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, such as Angry Navel (愤怒的肚脐儿), Long Travel (浪旅) and Annaki (安娜其的故事) are pumping new energy into the scene.

Angry Navel performing at Square Wave, NU SPACE, May 2018 (photo by Kristen Ng)

However, with increasing regulations to register performance permits in the city, venues and concert promoters have faced challenges with balancing promotion versus risk of cancellation. Major ticketing platform Showstart (秀动) now hides all unregistered events across the country, and event calendars on its site are empty. In order to register a permit — a cost of 2,000RMB (~ 300USD) for local artists, and a staggering 6,000RMB (~ 900USD) for internationals — a venue needs to be licensed by passing stringent fire and safety measures, unachievable for the majority of venues. While tickets are still being sold on platforms such as Zaomengshe (造梦社) and Musikid (乐童) — the latter of which opened a venue called YUE Space in Chengdu’s far-flung Fanmu Art Zone last year, to muted fanfare — unlicensed shows are still happening, but it is unknown for how long this can be sustained.

The tightening grip on the independent arts scene is especially hard to swallow when actual public safety issues are swept under the carpet: mainstream megaclub Playhouse in Chengdu’s Shuinianhe area is still open for business, despite the fact that three people were crushed to death by a gigantic falling light fixture last month. Money talks — the circus continues.

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While gargantuan, earth-moving machines carve deep into the veins of Chengdu, the band plays on. You can see it in the daytime din of auntie boomboxes or the sprawl of packed late-night barbecue joints — Chengdu holds leisure dear to her heart.

An innate ability to adapt means it has never been a better time for young creatives and freelancers in Chengdu. Tourist numbers are only set to increase as the newly completed fast train network links Chengdu with neighboring cities Chongqing, Kunming and Xi’an, and the city’s central-western location within China makes it an ideal stopover when flying into Asia. Despite recent bureaucratic challenges threatening to suffocate the scene, the community of independent venues, promoters, labels, and their audiences keep working to ensure the city stays alive with music.

Cover photo: Basi Rave (photo by LABMUSIC)

More on the Chengdu music underground:

B-Side China Podcast: Chengdu Underground with Kristen Ng

Kristen Ng
Kristen Ng is a Chengdu-based promoter and musician who runs the offbeat touring label Kiwese, facilitates live music programming at NU SPACE Chengdu and performs electronic music as Kaishandao.

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