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From Wuhan to the World: SMZB, China’s Most Outspoken Punks, Return with a New Album

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Four years after their last album, The Chinese Are Coming, legendary Wuhan punk band SMZB are back with a new LP, Once Upon A Time in the East. Released in the aftermath of a worldwide pandemic that emerged in the hometown of the band’s lead singer, Wu Wei, the record is a typically strident statement from a band whose punk credentials are beyond reproach. 

SMZB has a special place in the history of Chinese punk-rock. Founded in 1996, the group is one of the oldest, most innovative — and provocative — punk bands in China. After two street-punk albums (Damn You! in 1999 and 50.000 in 2001), their music took a Celtic-punk turn with the addition of a bagpiper, Tang Leicheng. That style was embodied in their now-classic 2008 album, Ten Years Rebellion and further enshrined on 2014’s A Letter From China.

Once Upon A Time in the East ought to be a 13-track record, but only 9 songs will show up on Chinese streaming platforms, the others deemed too sensitive. The full album covers a diverse set of eras and places; from “Man Jiang Hong” (“A River of Blossoms”), a reinterpretation of a classical Chinese poem attributed to the Song dynasty general Yue Fei, to “A Pearl in the Orient,” written in 1986 by Lo Ta-yu, a Taiwanese folk-rock singer, about the future of Hong Kong.

 

“I was also planning to cover the song ‘Sailor by Zheng Zhihua [a Taiwanese singer very popular in the 1990s] in the new album,” Wu Wei says. “However, after what happened in Hong Kong since June, as the situation became worse, I decided to first cover ‘A Pearl in the Orient’ to show my support for the Hong Kong people. I will cover ‘Sailor’ on the next album.”

It’s an approach to Sinophone musical tradition that’s rare in Chinese punk. In part, this is down to the fact that Wu began his rock and roll education with pirated copies of music by the Hong Kong rock band Beyond in the early 1990s, even though he says he “didn’t listen to any other Hong Kong bands besides Beyond.” But it’s also partly thanks to SMZB’s proactive efforts to become a truly Sinophone punk band in recent years, reaching out to various parts of the Chinese-speaking world.

Their songs have been covered by the likes of Hong Kong hardcore band King Ly-Chee and in 2018, SMZB performed in several Taiwanese cities at the invitation of the local punk community. In March of this year, that same punk community organized a show in Taipei to support Wuhan Prison, which was rocked by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The group has been integral in building the punk community in Wuhan, summed up excellently in the 2015 documentary Never Release My Fist (绝不松开我的拳头) by independent filmmaker Wang Shuibo. That community was created around Wu Wei and his bar on the city’s Lumo Road, Wuhan Prison, as well as SMZB’s former drummer Zhu Ning, who is now the manager of the celebrated Wuhan live music venue VOX Livehouse. Wuhan punks regularly gather at the Wuhan Prison or around Wuhan’s East Lake, two places often featured in the band’s music, and the city’s rebel soul is best described in SMZB’s songs — from “Wuhan Prison” to “Great Wuhan,” and now “Lumo Road” on the new album. 

Speaking on his preoccupation with the city, and its frequent appearance in SMZB songs, Wu tells us: “I didn’t do that on purpose, it’s a coincidence. In fact, I wrote those songs because of my own life experiences and feelings.”

So is there a song that he feels best embodies Wuhan? “Many people would like us to sing ‘Great Wuhan,’” he says. The song praises the punk history of the city, with Wu optimistically delivering lines such as, “she will be beautiful, she will get freedom / It won’t be a prison here forever.” It’s a feeling that resonates deeply with the situation in the capital of Hubei province during 2020 — Wuhan is, of course, now famous (or infamous) worldwide, thanks to Covid-19. 

At the time of the pandemic’s outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020, Wu was overseas. “I came to Portugal in mid-January,” he tells us. He is still there now, despite the epidemic reaching Europe. “I am at home every day, reading books, watching movies and growing vegetables in the yard,” he says. “I go out to the supermarket once a week to buy daily necessities”.

While he was away, his hometown was heavily affected by the virus, with the city locked down for more than two and a half months. Fortunately, life in Wuhan has now largely returned to normality. “They are all fine now,” says Wu. “They are slowly going back to work and to a more normal life.”

Both Wuhan Prison and VOX Livehouse have reopened, despite suffering heavy financial losses during the pandemic, as with a number of music venues around China. Wuhan Prison has even been able to organize its annual punk fest at VOX Livehouse, set for October 5.

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True to his punk roots, Wu Wei doesn’t shy away from political comments in his songs or during interviews. From its beginnings, SMZB has strived to build an alternative history of the People’s Republic of China with their music, questioning official narratives and authority figures (as in “Smash His Statue”). They’ve also become known for perpetuating the memory of forgotten individuals, such as the grandfather of Xu Bi (SMZB’s guitarist), a Nationalist aviator killed during the Sino-Japanese war in “A Song for Chen Huaimin,” or Lin Zhao, a Chinese poet and intellectual executed in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, with a beautiful cover of one of her poems, “The Song of the Seagull.”

Once Upon A Time in the East delves into Chinese history, with lyrics about what Wu terms “disastrous events which occurred in China,” as well as its present, looking at “parts of China in remote areas that are still very poor today.” Similarly, the new album also links Chinese history to more personal and intimate stories. “There’s a song about the life of my own family, called ‘Three Women,’” Wu explains, “about my mother, my grandmother and my sister.”

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Of course, the political aspect of SMZB’s songs and Wu’s overt social criticism come with many constraints. While the new album was ready last year, SMZB had to postpone its release. “Because of the new album’s cover [which features a fallen Mao statue], no record manufacturer in mainland China would dare print it. So, it might be made in Taiwan, then shipped back to the mainland to be sold.” Moreover, Wu was recently suspended from the messaging app WeChat. “I posted too much articles on politics and Hong Kong, so they banned me for a while,” he says.

 

The singer is not sure when he will be able to return to China, and has put plans to tour the country with SMZB’s new songs on hold indefinitely. “The Covid epidemic in Portugal is not over yet. And now plane tickets are very expensive, I don’t have enough money to buy one. When the epidemic is over, I will be able to arrange some performances, so I’ll be able to go back to China.”

He then catches himself, sounding a note of caution that perhaps sums up the mood both inside of China and around the world in 2020: “I also hope we can tour next year, but now who can be sure of anything?”

Once Upon A Time in the East is available in full here.

Header image courtesy of XVIGOROUS

Nathanel Amar
    Nathanel Amar is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong working on Chinese popular culture and trying to reconcile his passion for Chow Yun-fat, SMZB, and Master Gao's Baby IPA.