Over half a century ago, Mao Zedong famously said “women hold up half the sky.” Yet over 50 years later, not one woman has been appointed to China’s top political body, a situation not unique to China.
I’m an American-born Chinese woman who grew up in the liberal safe haven of San Francisco and spent the last ten years in NYC DJ’ing and working various jobs in the music industry. In typical New York fashion, I felt I had seen it all. I had booked tours and shows for big artists at some of the best-known talent agencies, spent several years in media, DJ’ed all over the city and jumped between a few artist relations gigs. And many think pieces and women’s marches later, after shuffling around both the shadiest and shiniest corners of the music industry, my expectations of gender equality in music were pretty low.
On a whim earlier this summer, I quit my first-ever kushy NYC job, sold all my crap and moved to China to continue my work in the music industry on a new frontier — the wild wild East, whose developing music market I felt would present a breadth of opportunities no longer possible in the West. I began my move to China with a two-and-a-half-month-long tour managing and DJ’ing for Bohan Phoenix, a fiery multi-lingual Chinese-American rapper whose music represents a unique cross-section of East and West. Together we traveled to 15 cities across Mainland China, where I got to see China’s budding underground music scene firsthand.
After shuffling around both the shadiest and shiniest corners of the music industry, my expectations of gender equality in music were pretty low
The first thing I noticed was that the audiences were predominantly female; the front rows of all our shows were chock-full of girls singing Bohan’s lyrics and clamoring to take photos with him after the show. What’s more is I saw this reflected in the back office, too, encountering a handful of bold and passionate female promoters. Eager to learn more, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with a few of the amazing women I met along the way.
I started each conversation by saying that in the US, the vast majority of promoters are men. While every woman I spoke to agreed this was the case in China, each seemed more optimistic about it than I.
My first conversation was with Kristen Ng of Kiwese, a New Zealand-born, Chengdu-based promoter and artist who goes by Kaishandao. Chengdu is located in southwest China and is known across the nation for its delicious spicy food, relaxed mindset, and now for its flourishing music scene, which had been steadily producing the nation’s most regarded rappers, from OG’s like Fat Shady to a new generation of A-listers like Higher Brothers. For several years, Kristen had been the dominant booking force at NU Space, one of my favorite livehouses in Chengdu, as well as their affiliated NUART Festival, a free, three-day, outdoor arts and music festival with a knack for bringing together the best of China’s rock, left-field electronic, and rap music.
Kristen was quick to combat my pessimism, saying, “I think being a promoter requires a really wide set of interpersonal, marketing and management skills, which is why several women on the scene are killing it right now — Wang Miao from INTRO and Acupuncture, who basically brought Boiler Room to China; Yvonne from Say Yes who is doing some of the best international techno bookings in the country; Helen Feng, the singer of Nova Heart who also co-runs FAKE Music Media, and so on.”
I was happy to find that each of the women Kristen named were promoting shows on their own terms — starting something from the ground up, doing something different, or at the very least, not acting as booking robots reporting to some male boss like I’ve seen in the States too many times.
Kristen Ng (photo by Colin 四四)
In Hangzhou, a stunningly beautiful city in eastern China not far from Shanghai, I spoke with Xiaolong, whose name “little dragon” was fitting for her spry, magnetic personality. Xiaolong, who had been booking a well-known livehouse in Hangzhou called Loopy for over a year, told me that while female promoters are still a minority, more like her were popping up everywhere at a rapidly accelerating rate.
“I think there are quite a lot of advantages to being a female promoter! When women talk to women, communication is easier and more relaxed. And when there are more women around, the guys will come around too!” she said, a cheeky and truthful response whose lightheartedness I appreciated. For promoters both male and female, it’s a sentiment universally acknowledged that the more women at your oft dude-heavy show, the better, right?
In the southern metropole of Guangzhou, the heart of China’s garment manufacturing industry, I spoke with Nora Wong, an incredibly talented local-born DJ who is a resident at the city’s popular after-hours hang, IN.SIDE. The club attracts one of the most diverse crowds I’ve seen in China, drawing from the city’s African, Indian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern migrant merchant communities. According to Nora, “in China, more and more women love music and have joined the industry… This is partially because women feel more independent today and have more autonomy. We feel freer to pursue what we’re passionate about.”
As a DJ myself, I felt an instant connection with Nora, and agreed fully with her when she said that “there will always be difficulties and advantages [to being a woman in music]. The difficulty is that the term ‘female DJ’ already has a stereotype or expectations around it. Lots of female DJs in shitty clubs wear bikinis and just show their skin, feeling like that’s all they have to do. Because of this, I feel determined to make the quality of my performance stronger and more persistent, and I love to prove to those who underestimate the ‘female DJ’ that they’re wrong.”
Nora and I had a chance to play a back-to-back set together at IN.SIDE on a rowdy Wednesday night this August. It was the first time either of us had played a back-to-back set with another girl, and we assured each other it would be one of many.
“I love to prove to those who underestimate the ‘female DJ’ that they’re wrong” — Nora Wong
Kristen Ng, who is optimistic about women promoters in the industry, still experiences frustration on the artist side — both on and off the stage. Kristen notes that “most shows and festival lineups are still dominated by male artists. Women tend to be involved in a lot of behind-the-scenes work, but it would be great to see more visible role models on stage. This definitely isn’t unique to just China.”
Fortunately, behind-the-scenes women like Kristen, who are more cognizant of on-stage gender imbalances, are doing their part to change things. “In my own work, I make a conscious effort to support and promote female artists,” Kristen says. “When I did the bookings for NUART Festival last year, I aimed for a gender balance across all three stages and achieved a lineup that was about 40 percent female. I’m really proud of that.”
Kristen Ng (left) performing an atmen event in Chengdu
From my own experience in the US, I knew how much of a challenge this could be: drawing from an often smaller pool of options while being careful not to book someone “just because they’re a girl,” a sentiment I loathed as a DJ. But for women like Kristen, the extra effort is well worth it. “Having visible role models on stage is really important and will lead to more women getting involved in all elements of the industry, making it a more open and enriching place for everyone,” she notes. Amen.
Always a skeptic, I wondered to what extent Nora and Kristen’s perspectives hinged on the international mindsets we shared. I was happy to find both women’s sentiments echoed by Xiaoxiao, a Chongqing local who had been booking and promoting shows for over three years at the city’s famous Nuts Livehouse. Chongqing, a massive city of 30 million people in China’s southwest, is much less visited by foreigners like myself than nearby Chengdu. Despite the sprawling buildings signifying China’s rapid urbanization, I felt Chongqing retained many traditional Chinese characteristics that are hard to capture in words.
When I posed my questions to Xiaoxiao, she responded with a matter-of-fact disposition. “China right now has more and more independent women; promoters being female is pretty common now,” she told me, hardly batting an eyelash. When asked if she ever felt unwelcome simply for being a woman, her answer was a resounding and unhesitant “no,” adding that she felt it was actually an advantage to be a female promoter since “the female personality is more detail-oriented, thorough and considerate.” I can’t say I disagree.
Though each woman I’d spoken to at this point had given me a very similar perspective on women in music, I wondered why I had been most surprised by Xiaoxiao’s response. After mulling it over, I finally realized one thing: I had simply assumed the West was more progressive. I assumed that a more traditional (i.e., less Western) part of China like Chongqing would surely be less forward-thinking about gender equality. I had equated Kristen’s perspective to her Western upbringing, Nora’s viewpoints to the diversity of Guangzhou, and the success of other female promoters to their proximity to international influence.
I’d assumed gender equality was better in the West, that any hint of progressive thinking in China must surely have been influenced by us — this simply wasn’t true
Despite all my griping about sexism in the States, all along I had still assumed gender equality was better in the West, that any hint of progressive thinking in China must surely have been influenced by us. This simply wasn’t true, and I felt ashamed of my own supremacist assumptions. All in all, I’m grateful to have been proven wrong, and I consider myself lucky to be a woman in music on this side of the globe.
Cover photo: Vinkwan