On Bohai Sea in Northern China there is a city called Qinhuangdao. It lies about two hours northeast of Beijing by train and is perhaps best known as being home to Beidaihe, the Chinese equivalent of Camp David, a summer resort for the country’s top politicians.
However, over the past few years a small cultural resort called Aranya has become increasingly entwined with the cultural life of China. Major Beijing art institution UCCA opened an outpost called UCCA Dune beneath Aranya’s sand dunes a few years ago, while legendary Beijing rock music venue DDC opened a sister venue in Aranya. The area is serene and dotted with gorgeous architecture.
More recently, Zhao Dai, a relatively new nightclub based in Beijing, held their first-ever music festival on the beaches of Aranya. Unable to open the doors of their club in the summer of 2020 due to the outbreak of Covid-19, Zhao Dai went “on leave” taking some of the country’s best DJs to Aranya and creating a music festival unlike any other that you’re likely to have seen in China in recent years.
Zhao Dai opened in 2017 in Beijing, aiming to create a different musical experience than what was available in the capital at the time, bringing high-end sound quality and an “open space for open minds” to the city. Since then, the club has quickly asserted itself as one of the top venues for electronic music in the country, becoming a main stop on the tour circuit for China-based musicians, while also becoming an internationally renowned space that has attracted talent from around the globe.
Image by 許雅筑 & Ivan Hrozny
But, with the outbreak of Covid-19 in China, nightlife venues felt the pressure of social distancing and lockdown measures, particularly in Beijing, where regulations were stricter than most cities around the country.
As Carmen Herold, one of the founding members of Zhao Dai, says, “To be frank, early last year, when the pandemic hit China hard, we didn’t even know if we could keep the club open. The situation was pretty bleak in the first six months, particularly because Beijing was, as per usual, especially cautious with safety regulations, which is why most clubs were only allowed to re-open around August.”
In the midst of the closures of nightlife venues came an opportunity for Zhao Dai, when organizers from Aranya approached the club about holding an electronic music festival on the beach. It was June 2020 and many in China were still wary about traveling within the country. And, to make things more difficult, the club had just six weeks to organize the festival.
For all intents and purposes, Zhao Dai on Leave was a success. It was the first electronic music festival to be held after the outbreak of Covid-19, and the response from attendees and performers alike seemed to be overwhelmingly positive, despite certain oddities with the set up at the Aranya Resort. For example, the event isn’t ticketed. In order to attend people have to rent houses, hotels or luxury tents within the beach resort, with prices ranging quite high. Additionally, for non-Chinese attendees, booking certain forms of accommodation is difficult, as Chinese ID cards are required.
With that being said, the festival brought Zhao Dai’s approach to nightlife to a natural setting in a few different and unique ways. As Herold expresses, there’s something a bit different about bringing the kind of party you might find in the club to a three-day festival: “Usually parties in China run from the night to the early morning hours. At a festival the experience of time is as if it was ’emptied out,’ it doesn’t follow a linear, unidirectional temporal logic anymore, but instead you can always choose if you’d like to stay the whole day, the whole night, all three days or take breaks in between. I believe the distinct temporal experience at festivals is what makes it so exciting, because it grants us a rare possibility to evade strict time regimes.”
Similarly, by placing the festival in a wide open natural setting, the organizers are, in a way, bringing the sense of togetherness that can be felt in the club to its own natural [pun not intended] conclusion. “Club music or, let’s say, electronic dance music is most commonly experienced in the setting of a group, it’s always a social setting per se. But more than that, its both individual (because you dance for yourself) and communal (because you dance in large groups),” Herold tells us, before elaborating more. “In other words, it’s a very self-expressive and at the same time engaging experience. Because of this focus on dance and social, it’s, in opposition to live band performances, less bipolar and less hierarchized.”
By inviting talent from the continually expanding Chinese club scene, Zhao Dai are purportedly attempting to make a festival that is by the scene, for the scene.
The festival returns to Aranya this weekend, from May 28-31, and features a who’s who of DJs and performers from around China. The emphasis is again on community and openness, an attitude that is maintained, Herold says, by Zhao Dai staying true to their team. “Everyone in our team knows exactly what language we speak, what identity we have. I think this trust and enthusiasm shows and is what attracts our following. It’s a team and audience sensitized for the arts and cultures.”
Cover image by Bing 病女
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