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The Thriving Dreampop Music Scene in “China’s Los Angeles”

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“It is the city that chose our style. If we were not in Xiamen, we might not have pursued this music genre,” says guitarist Chen Zhenchao, who was born and raised in Xiamen, a seaside city in Southeast China that is best known for its beaches and slow pace of life. He notes that an American shoegaze band once came to perform in Xiamen, and they said the city is the Los Angeles of China — a comparison we suppose has some merit.

Currently a founding member of dreampop and surf rock band Kirin Trio, Chen, 28, has been at the center of some of the city’s best music over the past decade, founding five bands in his hometown since 2010.

 

Though not every band of his falls precisely within a specific genre, Chen tends to be drawn towards dreamy, ethereal, and navel-gazing sounds in his songwriting. He says that this type of music best reflects his relaxed approach to life.

Dreampop as a genre came to prominence in the 1980s through the work of bands like Cocteau Twins, who took inspiration from the fuzzy, guitar-driven rock music of shoegaze acts like My Bloody Valentine.

Where shoegaze is driven by distortion and guitar reverb to create a wall-of-sound atmosphere, dreampop is softer, more ethereal, and, as the name suggests, often attempts to create a dreamy vibe. In musical parlance, however, shoegaze and dreampop music are inextricably linked and often confused with one another.

Emerging in the U.K. in the late 1980s, dreampop and shoegaze made their way to China in the ’90s — mainly to the southern part of the country.

You can hear traces of this style of music in Hong Kong singer Faye Wong’s early albums and Uyghur singer Xerinay Malik’s 1996 album.

As a city, Xiamen has become a center for underground music since China began opening up to the world in the ’80s. Lying just across the Taiwan Strait, Xiamen was one of the first cities in the Chinese mainland to be influenced by Taiwanese campus folk music. The music genre was born in Taiwan universities during the ’70s and became popular in the mainland during the ’90s as cultural exchanges increased between both sides.

Indie musicians in Xiamen started to gather around the once-rural fishing port on the south side of the island, Tsan-tshù-uann, for the quietness and cheap rent. But the area soon became too commercial and unaffordable.

In 2013, Xiamen’s first live house venue, Real Live, opened in Shapowei, about a 15-minute drive west of Tsan-tshù-uann. Young artists gradually migrated there and established it as a new arts hub.

Today, the city is a common stop on music tours and has developed a robust alternative rock scene.

Dreampop in China

Chen says he draws inspiration from successful British groups like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Cocteau Twins, and Mazzy Star. These early groups are also cultural touchpoints for other Chinese shoegaze and dreampop musicians, with some Chinese artists posting recruitment messages in fan groups on Douban, seeking musicians who like these bands.

Faye Wong, the ‘Diva of Asia’, is often mentioned in these group discussions. She was one of the first mainstream Chinese artists to embrace dreampop in her work.

On her 1994 album Random Thoughts, the title track and the song “Know Oneself And Each Other” were adapted from “Bluebeard” and “Know Who You Are at Every Age,” respectively, two songs from Cocteau Twins’s 1993 album Four-Calendar Café.

Wong’s fascination with the Scottish group continued for the next few years, as she collaborated with them on a pair of tracks on her 1996 album, Fuzao, before the band wrote “Amusement Park” on her 1997 self-titled album, specifically for the pop star.

Thanks to digital platforms such as the internet forum Douban and music app NetEase, dreampop and shoegaze music from all over the world have become more accessible to listeners in China over the past decade.

Vinyl and dakou CDs (cut CDs illegally imported from the West) have also been attributed to the genre’s rising popularity in the country. Chen tells RADII that collectors were likely to find dreampop and shoegaze records from the ’80 and ’90s at markets.

A breakout moment for the scene came in 2013, when the first East Asia Shoegaze Festival was held in Shanghai. Lu Jialing, also known as Britlulu, has been running the event annually ever since.

Two years earlier, in 2011, he founded one of the city’s first shoegaze bands, Forsaken Autumn, alongside singer-songwriter Ecke, and later created the music label Luuv Label.

“Many shoegaze fans and bands always tell me that the 2013 festival is the most memorable milestone in Chinese indie scene history,” Lu says. “Nowadays, it’s not only our label; many other labels like Letter Records and M-LAB have also organized these kinds of events.”

Also in 2013, Sinogaze Vol. 1, a digital-only compilation of Chinese shoegaze, was distributed online by music label Bootgaze. This compilation spotlighted the Chinese shoegaze scene at the time, though most musicians featured on the album have disbanded, taken a hiatus, or moved away from the genre.

“From 2013, I have seen a lot of young dreampop or shoegaze bands coming from many cities of China,” Lu tells RADII. “Some long-time players may disband or rest for several years then release some new songs or play just one show. Whatever they choose for their music life, at least the shoegaze scene in China is always existing and attracting new indie youth to join in.”

Now, you can find bands that play shoegaze and dreampop music all across China, such as SummerVapour and Sense Print Shop. Still, you can’t discuss the dreampop genre in South China without mentioning Chen and his bands.

A Guitarist and His Five Bands

Chen first discovered the genre at 18 after buying an album by Mazzy Star. He was fascinated by the music because it was different from anything he had heard before.

“It’s gentle, beautiful, and romantic,” Chen tells RADII, as he reminisces on that first encounter with Mazzy Star. He adds that dreampop always reminds him of his favorite childhood memories.

“This musical style is all about romance,” he says. “You see the word ‘honey’ quite often in the lyrics. The melody is generally sentimental, but also a bit noisy. What it tries to express is a romantic, dreamy, and glorious feeling.”

Chen founded two bands, Cheesemind and The White Tulips, with different friends in 2012. Cheesemind hugs closer to a dreampop style, while The White Tulips are a widely influential shoegaze band. He had two bands even earlier on, but disbanded them within a year.

The White Tulips and Cheesemind are now both on hold, as some members got married and others moved away.

Chen founded a new group, Kirin Trio, with two friends in the summer of 2017. The trio would hang out and drink Japanese beer brand Kirin by the beach, and joked about forming a band named after the beer brand and their love of jazz.

“You joke about doing something, but when you actually do it, it becomes serious,” Chen says.

Now the five-member band Kirin Trio is more of a surf rock and Hokkien pop band, but you can still find traces of dreampop — or rather, the sound of Xiamen — in their songs.

“Xiamen is a cozy city where you can easily find mountain and sea views within the urban scenes,” says Liu Jialu, 27, Kirin Trio’s rhythm guitarist.

Liu went to college in Shanghai but later returned to her hometown and joined the band. She remembers how Wrapped in the Waves, The White Tulips’ first EP, brought tears to her eyes when she listened in her college dorm.

 

“Their music made me homesick,” Liu recalls. “It just sounds like you’re wrapped in the sea. Now Kirin’s music still keeps that feeling.”

A Growing Community

Real Live moved to the city’s north side two years ago and added a bookstore to the venue. Now it’s called RealLive and Books.

Originally from Anhui province, NJ, 34, arrived in Xiamen in 2011. Two years later, he began running the venue and is still in charge today.

“Young people in Xiamen are quite open to other music genres and cultures,” he says. “Because Xiamen is geographically close to Taiwan and Japan, people here have a higher sensitivity to Western music.”

Though the dreampop and shoegaze community is still relatively small in the city, indie music from Xiamen tends to revolve around this music genre like Xiamen-formed band Hotkey Killer.

“Xiamen is comfortable and laid back, so the music made in Xiamen has a dreamy vibe as well,” says Qingjiao, a 20-year-old college student who works part-time as a bartender at Chill & Company in Xiamen.

He started to listen to Kirin Trio after meeting the band’s drummer, Huang Da, at the bar. Qingjiao says their music really fits the Xiamen vibe.

He adds, “Young people love this kind of music that is sweet sadness. I’m sure there’ll be more people who make this kind of music.”

xiamen dreampop shoegaze bar

Huang Da (left) and Qingjiao (right) are chatting at Chill & Company

The majority of Kirin Trio’s fans are actually based in larger cities, because, as Chen tells us, urbanites tend to have more stressful lives and thus appreciate the laidback vibes of their dreamy rock music.

Chen says people who like shoegaze and dreampop music — including himself — are often quiet introverts and do not fit into the mainstream. That perhaps explains why one of the Chinese translations of ‘shoegaze’ is zishang (自赏), which literally means ‘self-appreciation.’

“Shoegaze has deep meanings. It’s human and in touch with emotions,” Chen says.

xiamen dreampop shoegaze chen zhenchao guitar

Chen Zhenchao performing on stage

However, Chen points out that this is the opposite of the current music industry in China, which he describes as a market of “fast food music,” where bands with high social media followings and output tend to get more followers.

While the number of music fans in Xiamen is increasing, musicians are actually moving out to bigger cities in hopes of better financial opportunities. But NJ argues that this may not be a bad thing.

“You’re more likely to find that people who stay in Xiamen aren’t trying to make a lot of money, but just doing what they want to do and living life.”

If Bands Can Make Money

That’s the future the members of Kirin Trio see for themselves. They’ll continue to live in the coastal city, but also plan to tour northern parts of the country that they haven’t been to.

As for crafting new music, they also hope to break boundaries and do something new.

“As a musician, if you keep listening to one kind of music, you may get stuck there,” Liu says. “I think we have to be open-minded and listen to different things. Bands don’t have to fall under just one genre. Though Kirin’s songs are still under the pop genre, we’re experimenting.”

xiamen dreampop shoegaze jialu liu

Liu Jialu is rehearsing with the other members of Kirin Trio

NJ shares a similar view. He regards shoegaze and dreampop as a music-making method rather than a music genre.

“More broadly speaking, it’s an aesthetic,” NJ tells RADII. “It’s an atmosphere and state of mind.”

He has high hopes for Chen and his band.

“Chen has found his own tone, this is what I like most about him,” NJ says. “He turned his favorite music genre into his own technique and integrated it into his bands. This is the most successful part of his creativity.”

xiamen dreampop shoegaze chen zhenchao mcn

Chen Zhenchao at his workplace

In China, finding financial stability in making music is a rarity. According to a 2020 study, 52% of Chinese musicians couldn’t make money from music, and the average income of musicians in China is only 9% of that of the world.

Chen says he got into debt early during the Covid-19 pandemic while making music full-time. Now he works at a multi-channel network (MCN) company and writes hard rock songs for an influencer on Douyin, China’s equivalent of TikTok.

In China, short-form videos are a significant part of engagement with music, according to a recent study from IFPI, with 45% of Chinese people’s music listening time spent on short video apps.

“I have to force myself to write those songs, and that makes me think I have dissociative identity disorder sometimes,” Chen jokingly says. “If bands can make money, who would want to work at an MCN?”

His favorite moment of the day is listening to music on his commute to and from work.

One day, when he earns enough money from his music, Chen says he’ll purchase a convertible and drive along the seaside into the sunset while blaring his favorite dreampop music.

Additional reporting by Bryan Grogan. All photos courtesy of Thanakrit Gu

Lu Zhao
Lu Zhao is a bilingual and multimedia journalist with a focus on human interest and social issues. Her work has appeared in USA Today, UPI, SupChina, Pandaily, Chicago Reporter, and other publications.
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