Chinese Underground Club Scene
By Chris Parkin for Red Bull on Sep 13, 2017
China is famous for super clubs where the drinks are expensive and a night out is more about showing off than cutting-edge music. But there is another side to the country’s club scene.
You’ll hear the word “potential” dropped a lot when talking to clubbers, promoters and musicians about their experiences of China’s nightlife and electronic music scenes. After all, nightclubs of any sort are relatively new to China. Before Deng Xiaoping’s reformist Open Door Policy at the tail end of the ’70s, western pop culture wasn’t exactly welcome.
“Thirty five years ago there were no clubs, period,” explains NEU Future Festival director and music manager, Philipp Grefer, who’s also involved with Shanghai’s much-loved Electric City night. “China slowly opened up after the reforms. In the ’80s, the hotel bars of western chains were where the parties happened. And then in the second half of the ’90s the first real clubs opened.”
Since Wham!’s historic performance in 1985, everyone from Béyonce and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Nine Inch Nails have performed in China. These days, even once-forbidden hip-hop is tolerated and the main sounds emerging from China’s underground are rap, trap and a variety of EDM sub-genres. Alongside this, the country’s underground club scene is also evolving. It still has a long way to go, though.
“When I arrived, I found the [now-defunct] Acupuncture crew playing minimal techno,” says Grefer, who moved to Beijing from Germany in 2007. “It was interesting to see how that kind of music could travel all the way to China. But apart from techno, commercial club music, and a little bit of house and drum ’n’ bass, there wasn’t much going on. There were maybe two underground clubs in Beijing and two or three in Shanghai. The hip-hop scene, which is getting bigger, was still very small. I brought Holy Ghost over in 2010 and I couldn’t find a DJ who would be a good enough warm-up for them so I did it myself.”
What there are plenty of, however, are big commercial clubs. China’s super clubs have soundsystems to make Berghain and Fabric wince with envy, ensuring the country is represented heavily in all those 100 Best Clubs Around The World features. But they’re not really about cutting-edge music. Big commercial clubs such as Modo Ultra Club, M1nt and VICS are about high-end experiences and expensive drinks, not the latest dub-techno abstractions. It’s the same everywhere, from London to Las Vegas. But outside of China they usually exist alongside clubs offering an alternative, music-focused night out.
“Some of the clubs are ridiculously over the top,” admits Reggie Ba-Pe, who arrived in Shanghai in 2006 and opened the city’s Arkham club. “Guys show up and buy a 100 bottles of champagne just to furnish their table with. I think the reputation China gets is fair. I guess after a while you just have to laugh about it.”
Shanghai’s Red Bull Music Academy alumni ChaCha, who’s worked with Kode9, Adrian Sherwood, Jimi Tenor and The Bug, adds, “People go there, but not for music. We don’t have a real club culture in China, but things are changing.”
Inspired by now shut underground clubs Shelter, Logo and White Rabbit, which trail-blazed new, boundary-pushing ways of doing things, there are contemporary clubs offering a more satisfying clubbing experience. It’s an increasingly diverse landscape, too. Says ChaCha: “Shanghai is the best city, no doubt. It has a long history of open minds and fast information exchanges. People here are always open to new things. Beijing is cool, too. But as the political centre, it doesn’t make things easy like in Shanghai.”
Chengdu is another exciting city to be: “Rent is still affordable,” Grefer explains. “People are laidback there and like to go out; and politically it’s less restricted than, say, Beijing, so there’s room for experimentation. There are also decent scenes in Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Chongqing.”
“Chengdu has a booming hip-hop scene,” Reggie Ba-Pe says. “Hip-hop and rap are making huge waves. The Higher Brothers have taken over the country and kids are embracing a new wave of Chinese rappers. Hopefully it'll steer towards an interesting direction and not just a watered-down, overtly commercial vibe.”
As well as ChaCha and the Higher Brothers, artists that Grefer and Ba-Pe recommend that we keep an ear out for include bass music producer Howie Lee, techno producer SHAO – the first Chinese artist to release music on Berlin's Tresor Records – plus CHACE, Genome 6.66 and Do Hits. But how do the country’s notorious restrictions affect these artists? Promoters still have to submit track lists to the authorities before events and China’s online censorship remains rigorous.
“Chinese kids have less access to western internet, so they also have less access to education,” Grefer says. “In China, electronic music is still a new thing and there’s hardly anyone that can teach how to produce. On the flip side, more and more music can be listened to on streaming services – the Spotifys and SoundClouds of China. It’s harder for Chinese artists to export, though.”
“Most kids that are into electronic music are savvy enough to use VPNs to get on SoundCloud and YouTube,” claims Ba-Pe. “If they are blocked, we’ll find a way,” ChaCha adds. “It’s just a way to communicate and share and we can always find a way to do that. We also have Chinese social media, like Weibo and WeChat. We’re learning and creating a new thing here. We’re still blank paper. We have a big space to test to create, and also a big chance to train our audiences. The future is positive.”
If you’re in China, here’s where you should head for a real clubbing experience.
Located in the Sanlitun area of east Beijing, this club is home to the city’s hip-hop heads as well as an electronic scene that, says Grefer, tends towards the “funkier side of things”. Veteran hip-hop promoter Nasty Ray is one of Migas’s regular promoters and has been putting on his Natural Flavour nights there since 2012. Back in 2011, the club opened its rooftop terrace and it remains a favourite for clubbers who rave for the music. The much-loved Lantern club is nearby, too.
Chinese clubbers cite Shanghai’s Shelter, opened by DMC China champion Gary Wang and British expat Gaz Williams in an old World War II bomb shelter, as the country’s ultimate underground club. ChaCha says it’s the template for any forward-thinking club: “It must have its own core, it’s own attitude, a faith to support locals, balls to challenge the scene and audiences, the guts to say no and create something from zero.” It’s closed now but Williams has opened a new place called ALL, which promises a similar experience.
Australian-in-China Reggie Ba-Pe co-founded Arkham alongside his long-running promotions agency STD to cultivate young underground talent and bring adventurous artists such as Anderson.Paak and Squarepusher to the country. His labyrinthine, 500-capacity Shanghai club is a small, cramped, smartly designed underground space with eclectic, killer line-ups.
Hip-hop is big in Chengdu, but the city’s TAG venue on the 21st floor of the Polycenter building specialises in deep house and techno. Inspired by clubs in Berlin and Amsterdam, western clubbers will feel right at home surrounded by concrete walls and a floor-juddering sound system. Its homegrown resident DJs are among the best in China, which is due, in part, to the influence of Dutch DJ Marco Duits who’s been playing in the city for over a decade.
There’s a comment on Elevator’s Facebook page that says this is not a high-end place. Quite right. The club is dominated by thumping electronic music blasted out on a crazy soundsystem. Alongside fellow Shanghai clubs Reel To Reel and the much raved about Celia, this is the real deal.
Michael Ohlsson’s Shanghai and Beijing Dada club targets a young Chinese crowd and shies away from the typical techno and house sound found in the country’s other underground clubs. Instead, Dada’s raison d’etre is experimental electronic music, from abstract hip-hop to weird electro funk. Ohlsson’s small basement clubs are an agreeably grungy alternative with cheap drinks, no VIP area, and a heavy focus on local acts.