“Financing, Resources, and a Bigger System”: Shooting with American Crews, Selling the House, and the Future of Taiwanese Filmmaking

Talking with filmmakers Nelson and Gisele Yeh about production lockdowns, Netflix partnerships, and the flourishing film industry in Taiwan.

Gabriel Kuo September 30 2021

Sibling filmmaking duo Nelson and Gisele Yeh’s feature Night Market Hero topped the domestic box office in 2011, drawing praise from critics and putting them at the forefront of Taiwan cinema. Over the past decade, they have been producing and creating features and numerous television serials. Their 2018 series with Netflix, A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities, drew them closer to a global audience and pushed Taiwan further towards recognition. Now, as they set out on their next production, a host of new challenges and expectations await.

Hi Nelson and Gisele! I’m excited to talk with you guys a bit about filmmaking. But before we get into it, I’m curious how the pandemic has affected the film industry in Taiwan?

NELSON: There were not many positive cases in Taiwan last year, so not much changed. Our productions went pretty well. We just needed to follow the government’s protocol to have the entire crew wear masks at all times while shooting. Taiwan’s number system for COVID is 1 to 4, with Level 1 being normal with the lowest risk level, and Level 4 is a citywide shutdown. During all of 2020, Taiwan was at Level 1, the lowest. I went to concerts, ate in restaurants with friends — everything was normal.

GISELE: We were doing a TV production with HBO Asia called Adventure Of The Ring, and we needed some pick-up shots. They were very worried about our shoot, because the COVID situation around the globe was really serious, while in Taiwan, we’d had zero local cases for weeks. Last year was all fine. But the beginning of this May, we started to have one or two hundred local cases a day, which is quite high if you consider how small Taipei’s population is. We were about to begin production on our new film, and a week before our shoot date, we suddenly had twenty local cases in a day. We immediately stopped training classes and rehearsals for talent, and postponed meetings. We thought the suspension would only be about two weeks. Then around May 15th, the government announced that Taiwan moved up to Level 3 alert, so then we had to shut down our production. We were very happy with our decision, because we took it seriously beforehand. Our line-producer was working with another crew and one of their extras tested positive, so it was very scary to us, since it could have easily spread to our crew. We knew that in Hollywood, they were starting to build their own bubbles on each production, so we learned a little from that.

Several of your films and TV series focus around Taiwan in the 1920s (La Grande Chaumière Violette, Twa Tiu Tiann), an era when Taiwan was still under Japanese occupation. It was also a period of rapid growth and industrialization for Taiwan. Can you talk a bit as to why this period is significant for you guys to include in your projects? And why it is significant for Taiwan in general?

NELSON: Our first period movie was March of Happiness, which was produced by our parents. It was selected to be included in the Cannes Film Festival in 1999. I was around 24 around that time. I was doing all this research for the movie, and I realized that I really had no clue of our own country’s history. When the February 28th incident happened, my father was just 8 years old. This was a part of history that they didn’t teach us in school, so I had no idea what the 228 Incident was. In 2013, I made Twa Tiu Tiann. I wanted to include a certain painting in the story — a painting that I’ve always seen around everywhere in Taiwan, but never knowing the history behind it. I started doing more research and learned about the artist Kuo Hsueh-Hu (郭雪湖), his painting “Festival On South Street”, and its place in Taiwan art history. At that time, many artists and activists were living in a district called Dadaocheng (大稻埕) in Taipei. We later we made a TV series called La Grande Chaumiere Violette, where the painting was featured as part of the show’s story that is set in that district in the 1920s.

La Grande Chaumiere Violette (2016)

This period in Taiwan history is a part of our life, and it’s important to us. Dadaocheng is also our parents’ hometown. But more than that, if it weren’t for these artists and activists, we wouldn’t be the creatives we are today. It’s very important for us to pass on these stories to future generations.

GISELE: I think it’s about a specific time and place and how Taiwan becomes Taiwan today. Diversity was a new thing in that era, and it’s shown in that painting, where everyone is wearing something different — some are wearing suits, some are wearing kimonos, some are more casual. There’s several cultures being represented, whether it’s from the West, or China, or Japan. After the Japanese occupation, what the KMT brought from China to Taiwan were mostly restrictions, like you couldn’t even speak Taiwanese anymore. They didn’t bring in any art or culture, so there wasn’t any attention given to the creative community. Even though we were colonized by the Japanese with their occupation and government, Japan brought us into the modern age with systems and construction and diversity. Our grandmother was married to a Japanese businessman during this period, so this period of Taiwan history is especially important and dear to us.

NELSON: Before the Japan occupation, Taiwan was ruled under the Qing dynasty, where things like foot binding were common. When the Japanese came in, they started building up Taiwan, with water irrigation systems for tap water, and the railways across the country. The culture changed. And even though Taiwanese people were still regarded as second-class citizens at the time, what the Qing dynasty did before the Japanese occupation, and what the KMT did after — both were far worse!

With A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities, you guys partnered with Netflix. Tell me how that materialized.

GISELE: We felt like it was time for us to challenge ourselves!

NELSON: When I discovered Netflix for the first time, I was blown away by this new system of movie and TV programming. As I started using it more, I felt that the content and business model of their programming would start to change the industry, and so I really wanted to work with them. A friend of mine had a meeting set up with some of their people, and I asked if we could join them — we just wanted to introduce ourselves and exchange business cards.

GISELE: The original people we met with were just the internal business relations team of Netflix US/Europe, not execs or content producers. We showed them our show reel, they were amazed by how much diversity we had in our work. In one of our trailers that we showed them, we had characters speaking in English, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese. And that was kind of what they were looking for. They were expanding at that time, and they were trying out new things, looking for something fresh. For them, Narcos was doing really great for them, and they were proud of that title’s diversity — produced by a French television production company, with a Brazilian director, working on a Colombian story, released by an American studio. They didn’t want to be limited to one culture or one language. In the end, they handed us to their content team and then we started working together.

A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities (2018)

Talk a little bit about the process of working with a studio like Netflix versus how you would traditionally do a production.

NELSON: I think the different part about working with them was that they asked us to do exactly we wanted. Not to think about what they might want. They were really just interested in our original stories. I was astonished by this idea.

GISELE: They are much more technical than we usually are in Taiwan with our productions. They have a quality control system and a set of guidelines that we never had to deal with in Taiwan. In Taiwan, we have our quality control as well but theirs is on a completely different level, like their post-production audio mastering and things like that. They didn’t ask us to use a specific camera — they wanted us to use cameras that we felt would be the most suitable. They had thick handbooks for every camera, to fit their quality standard.

NELSON: We were the first production company to work with Netflix in Taiwan, so we had no one to ask or get advice from when we started. Technically, we learned a lot. The funny thing is, the theme of A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities is culture shock. But for us in real life, during production, that was the culture shock, since we were shooting in the U.S. I remember on our first day of shooting in California, in Napa, we started at 5am. And I saw the breakfast they had out — it was only hot coffee and donuts. Normally, in Taiwan, we would have a huge spread for breakfast if we have to start working at 5 am. That was an awkward moment with our crew, to tell them that there really wasn’t any breakfast!

GISELE: And also the working habits are quite different. We don’t feel that we are subpar to any American crews — they just have more financing, resources, and a bigger system. But the American crew we worked with were surprised to see our Taiwanese crew running around on set with everyone doing double or triple coverage. To them, they don’t run, and they only do what’s within their job requirement. And also in Taiwan, there are a lot more women in the crew. On the American crew, there was only one female member.

Twa Tiu Tiann (2014)

Is Taiwan currently doing anything to progress its own cinema industry, or will Taiwanese filmmakers need to rely on more universal platforms like Netflix in order for their work to be shown?

NELSON: Last year was interesting because there were no new Hollywood films shown in Taiwan, since American productions were all postponed. But the theaters in Taiwan were still open until this May when Taiwan went into Level 3 alert, and so last year the domestic Taiwanese films did very well in theaters, because we had no other foreign films to watch or compete with. It was only Taiwanese films. And international platforms like HBO and Netflix have also been putting lots of financing into developing local productions, so lately we have many Taiwanese films and shows on different international platforms. And these platforms have elevated Taiwan’s film industry and its quality level, with bigger budgets and bigger markets. Before the platforms, we relied a lot on the Ministry of Culture and their funding, so projects were quite limited in budget and scale.

I know that sometimes you guys have grant assistance from the Ministry Of Culture in Taiwan for some of your projects. Can you talk a little about that process? I imagine that part of their goal is to help finance projects that showcase Taiwan’s culture and history. How aligned are you guys with some of their needs?

GISELE: We still rely a lot on MOC’s subsidies, because they can still invest quite a bit to your budget. And many local productions and platforms are now also working with international platforms. In Taiwan, we have a company called CatchPlay, which started as a video on-demand and streaming service. But they also invest in foreign and American productions like The Revenant, Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and Disney productions. They then handle the distribution of these foreign films into Taiwan. They know the necessity of working globally — a region like Singapore is small and limited by itself, so they had to work with international business. It’s all joint funding, funding from South Korea, Japan, and other regions, because these shows will also be distributed and shown there. And so I think now, for Taiwan and people in the film industry here, and even the government, they all know we have to collaborate with these global companies and platforms. And they also know that this will help Taiwan’s creative leverage and show our content to the rest of the world.

NELSON: Traditionally, if you couldn’t get a grant from the MOC, financing would come mostly from family and friends. For our first feature, we had to sell our house and get a loan — we didn’t know a better way to gather funds. But things are different now, and we know how to do better with finding financing.

GISELE: Recently there is another state-funded association called TAICA (Taiwan Creative Content Agency). It’s actually funded by the MOC. Where the MOC has to play it safe, since they’re the government, TAICA can help much more, since they have actual film industry people working for them, so it’s a good start.

NELSON: They have a vision. They know that the entertainment industry, with film, TV series, comics, novels — these things are all very important to a country and its identity. They understand that something like K-Pop can define South Korea to a global audience.

Much of the success of Taiwan’s New Wave era in the 80s and 90s was a response to rapid urban growth and issues of identity in a new, modern Taiwan. Looking back, what are your thoughts now on the New Wave era?

NELSON: That was of course a very important period of Taiwanese film history. But I think the movies from the New Wave are not as important to the new generation as they were to my generation. This new generation of filmmakers have more international vision than we used to have, because of the internet. They have access to European films, Indian, Chinese, Korean films, and that’s to their advantage.

Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s A City of Sadness (1989)

GISELE: Also the new generation has less of a problem of self-identification, which is a big theme of the New Wave films. When we were in middle school, we were taught that we were Chinese. Today, in school, you are taught that you are Taiwanese. The films of the New Wave era dealt a lot with this issue of displacement and identity at the time. In the 80s, a film like A City Of Sadness dealt with the political context of identity, due to the KMT’s authoritarianism on the Taiwanese. But now, in this moment, most young Taiwanese will say “I am Taiwanese, and China is just different from us”.

NELSON: But we also have been losing a lot of talent to China. China’s market is so large, and everyone wants a piece of that market. And China pays better than Taiwan, so many younger Taiwanese filmmakers decide to earn their pay in China, which is a shame.

Given what we are now seeing with platform distribution and streaming culture, what do you think the future of Taiwan cinema will look like?

GISELE: Now, many people will ask us if we would like to change our movie into a TV series, or launch them on Over-the-Top (OTT) platforms because they are the trend now. And last year, Taiwan’s top box office movies are mostly in Taiwanese (Hokkien). I think it’s very interesting to look into and to take consideration into our future works.  

NELSON: The internet influencers and online filmmakers are also the future. Maybe their videos or films won’t be shot with such great production value but there will be all different kinds of videos. Some ideas are good for long form, and some ideas are good for short form. It doesn’t have to always be in 90-minute feature film format — we know now you can capture an audience with a 2 or 3 minute short clip or less. The possibilities with new technology and the diversity of stories are the future of filmmaking.

Gabriel Kuo is the founder and editor of Atmota.
Production stills courtesy of Green Film Productions.

This Plastic Life

In the middle of Japan’s economic dominance in the ’80s, city pop emerged as a paean to consumerism. Four decades later, the vapor trail of nostalgia and that era’s lost promises have found new life. Just don’t blame it on the algorithms.

Gabriel Kuo May 25, 2021

The YouTube view counter on Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” has surpassed 60 million, a staggering number for an almost forty year-old song. It won’t eclipse the 2 billion views of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” anytime soon, but considering that the song has had no hypnotic video (only a still photograph of Takeuchi accompanies the video link), no label backing, and no mainstream press, speaks to the resurgence of early ’80s-era Japanese city pop.

Even more curious is the evergreen nature of the comment board, with a new entry appearing almost every few hours. There have been numerous subreddits devoted to the singer and the single. Pre-Covid, Mariya parties were held in cities as distanced as Los Angeles and Berlin. The original vinyl pressing of “Plastic Love” goes for a grailed price of no less than 350USD on Discogs. In 2018, Vice declared Takeuchi’s single “the best pop song in the world”. How did this relatively obscure track grow to relevance after all this time?

In 2017, user ‘Plastic Lover’ uploaded an extended fan-made remix of “Plastic Love” to YouTube. As the algorithms churned, the view counter and likability meter started revving up, no doubt due to the robotic recommendation engine cranking away behind the screen. Buoyed by meme momentum and subreddit chat threads, the video quickly went viral and surged in popularity. A lawsuit over the video’s accompanying image copyright led to the link being taken down at 24 million views, but was then re-uploaded in 2019 after a settlement was agreed upon with the photographer Alan Levenson for his then uncredited photograph used on the video.

Detractors point to the machinations of algorithmic curation and big tech’s manipulation and control of your digital footprint, but that doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon. Speaking to The Japan Times, Kevin Allocca, head of YouTube’s Trends division, explained, “YouTube’s recommendation systems try to match each viewer to the videos that they are most likely to watch and enjoy, providing a real-time feedback loop that cater to each viewer’s varying interests.” But, Allocca doesn’t believe the enormous success of “Plastic Love” is entirely due to cold code. “In reality, music fans who are exposed to the song listen to it and ‘like’ it, and YouTube’s recommendation systems simply incorporate such positive signals,” he states.

Analytics aside, “Plastic Love” has survived its initial irony and meme half-life to ascend to something more remarkable – emotional sincerity and an imagined nostalgia for a forgotten era. The comment section routinely casts axioms such as “False ’80s memories are better than true 2010s memories” and “Remember, the algorithm only learns from you — do not thank the algorithm — you are here because you are you.”

Takeuchi had established herself as a bankable recording artist by 1981, releasing five successful full length albums to that point, at times working with American collaborators David Foster and members of Toto. Thereafter, she took a break to start a family with Tatsuro Yamashita, who is widely credited as the dominant architect of city pop. She returned in 1984 with Variety, which was produced by Yamashita. The album debuted at #1 on the domestic Oricon album charts, and though “Plastic Love” was released as a single, it only reached a modest #86 on the chart.

That year, Japan was in the midst of an expansive economic run. Driven by manufacturing, automobile exports, and the technology boom, Japan was funneling plenty of capital into the music industry, with a nation of middle class consumers ready to enjoy the new leisure class. This age of prosperity created watershed cultural industries like the video game revolution, anime and manga, and J-Pop, a precursor to K-Pop.

In the late ’40s and early ’50s, as Japan was rising from the ashes of World War II, its emphasis on the industrialization of raw materials like steel and cotton, combined with massive education reform, created a growth model that, by the mid ’60s, resulted in an era of unparalleled opulence. The Western fear of Japan turning to Communism propelled a stream of global trade-friendly policies and fiscal protections that Japan utilized to mount massive economic and cultural revitalization. Japan repaired and developed their national infrastructure at a rapid pace, creating highways, high speed railways, underground subways, and sophisticated urban architecture. A complete overhaul of its lending and debt policies led to enormous industrial growth, with heavy assistance from lenient deregulation laws for corporations.

At the heart of this “economic miracle” was the Foreign Exchange Allocation Policy, a framework which dictated exports over imports, further shaping its markets for domestic dominance. The first automated teller machine (ATM) debuted in Japan in 1966, enabling cash withdrawals and automated bank loans with credit cards. The streets were paved and cash was flush. Japan had industrialized faster than even they had anticipated, and consumption flourished.

Japan’s efforts in infrastructure paved the way for technology to enter in the ’70s and amplify sectors of society, as apartments needed color televisions, and offices needed xerograph and fax machines. Subverting the German Krautrock sound, the pioneering electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra was experimenting with a new computer-based soundscape and began to influence an array of Western artists and genres to come, everyone from Duran Duran to Afrika Bambaataa. The contemporary sound of Western ’80s popular music owed much of its character to an emergent wave of sophisticated electronic instruments, as Roland drum machines and Yamaha keyboards were exported from Japan.

During this time, leisure-driven AOR-rock began to dominate mainstream radio airwaves, captured by artists like Steely Dan, Toto, and Supertramp. Japanese producers quickly appropriated the airy, breezy song structures and fortified their version of the genre with messaging reflective of the newfound social privilege, professional ambition, and casual love that defined much of the capitalist middle class in Japan.

City pop can best be described as a Japanese amalgamation of post-war American musical genres: ’50s surf rock sensibilities, ’60s folk sincerity, ’70s funk bass, and ’80s disco buoyancy. But most of all, it simultaneously mirrored the American AOR airwaves during the early ’80s. Heavily integrated into city pop was the accompanying visual element, an aspirational landscape with leisure and indulgence at the core of its messaging. The new autonomy and mobility for this emerging middle class translated to enormously successful commercial markets, and as young Japanese professionals bought more cars, took more high-speed rail rides, and flew more intercontinental miles, so came the need for high fidelity car stereos and portable cassette and compact disc players, all of which were quickly exported to the West in massive volumes.

These new technologies differed from traditional high-fidelity audio components in terms of portability and proximity to the speakers, either in your car or directly on your ears with headphones. The recording industry embraced digital audio and pivoted to the new near-field sound experience by using increased and generous amounts of overdubbing and echo, recording vocals front and center, and pushing bass signals a bit further back in the soundstage.

New machine instruments lent crisper and cleaner tonal sequencing, while everything was mastered with enough reverb to glue the mix together. These audio recordings worked in tandem with a modernist design language and advertising-level photography of geometric swimming pools, pristine sports cars, crisp loungewear or eveningwear, and fantastical city skylines. All of which infused momentum and vitality to a powerful new genre that was not only reflective of Japan’s post-war economic resilience, but gave shape to an imagined future of cars, cocktails, and social success.

This turned out to be the big bubble. Thereafter, beginning in the early ’90s, Japan’s GDP steadily declined, and by 2000 they had sold back to New York most of the midtown skyscrapers they had triumphantly bought in the ’80s. Japanese real estate and stock market inflation between the mid ’80s and early ’90s signaled the demise of a once booming economy, much as a result of the 1985 Plaza Accord which inflated the Yen against the US dollar and German Deutsche Mark.

As the ’90s further unfolded, Japan nose-dived into decline due to massive inflation and loss of export market share. South Korea was emerging as a forceful manufacturing and trade competitor, and similar to Japan, it was aided by several American economic and trade policies implemented after the Korean War to stave off its draw to Communism. And as the new century began, J-Pop ceded its popularity to the now towering K-Pop industry, as South Korea began to increase its tech and auto market share and grow its GDP with sizeable Western exports, similar to Japan’s economic strategy. City pop didn’t age very well, as the next generation of young Japanese viewed the genre as tacky and pretentious, often referring it to ‘shitty pop’.

Culturally, much of the ’90s felt like a reaction to the previous decade’s unfettered consumption, and in the West, the music industry as a whole pivoted hard towards the counterculture and emo ethos of grunge, hip-hop, and identity pop. That cynicism spliced into the anxiety of globalization and false wars of the early 2000s, and by the time the 2008 financial crash landed, a new internet generation started to question many of these artifacts of economic hierarchy and outdated power structures.

New ideas were taking shape in bedrooms and dorm rooms, as disruptive companies like Amazon and Facebook began to gain significant market share against blue chip ’80s corporate stalwarts like IBM and Walmart. In the music scene, vaporwave emerged as an anti-capitalist sentiment that aligned with the seismic shift of corporate culture bowing to the upstart nature of an adroit and emerging online sector.

Vaporwave first arrived as an online microgenre with mostly meme-level attention and tumblr recognition. An electronic hybrid genre consisting of detuned, chopped and screwed smooth jazz, pop, and lounge R&B, all hovering around 80-100 bpm, vaporwave derives much of its source material from signature ’80s big production heavy pop and R&B, and of course, Japanese city pop. Anonymity is pervasive, as a single artist will commonly publish under several aliases, further emphasizing the wraith-like ownership of the content. Geography has no bearing, as artists create sounds and produce albums from Chile to Hong Kong to Holland.

Given its inherent nature as a pure digital construct, it grew at a rapid pace, with feverish pockets of the internet taking root on 4chan, last.fm, and bandcamp, where limited cassettes are self-produced and distributed. Laptops and home recording gear could now assemble and perform with striking exactitude what multi-thousand dollar recording studios and hi-end graphic agencies produced a couple of decades prior.

Aesthetics are central to the genre, with much of the imagery ripped from aspirational ’80s consumerist Japan (neon cyber-cities, pristine shopping malls, business hotel suite interiors, video game riffs, and jubilant anime motifs), which in turn are photoshopped alongside spartan computer graphics extracted from the visual language of early desktop publishing. Occasionally there is a Greek column or Roman bust, a wry nod to European neo-classicism and its re-contextualized role in ’80s plaza architecture. Song and album titles are frequently typeset in Japanese, and the sounds of lushness derive mostly from Asian mega-mall nostalgia (hissing water fountain sculptures and soft-toned hostess greetings), with all the phantom tones verging on subliminal. It is the uncanny valley of a memory from a forgotten modernist and opulent past: a nostalgic phantom limb, an unreliable narrator.

Regardless of form, a basic keystone of vaporwave seems to be the sonic betrayal of capitalism. “Vaporwave is the musical product of a culture plagued by trauma and regression in late capitalism,” states author Grafton Tanner, adding that vaporwave artists are “skeptical of capitalism’s promise to redeem us in the name of material goods and of the nostalgia that hangs over an era obsessed with the clichés of history.”

The genre peaked around 2017, right around the same time ‘Plastic Lover’ uploaded his iteration of “Plastic Love” to YouTube. The trending arc of vaporwave that originated from chat room hysterical cynicism had, in a few short years, evolved to a communal sincerity, a submission to its source material and its original allegory of economic prosperity and class mobility. “Plastic Love” uncloaks the colossal collective melancholy of a now distant era defined by the hope of consumerism and the birth of incredible and universal digital tools, tools and language that now dominate our normalized reality: the artificial intelligence of the home computer, the fantastical orgy of visual special effects, the idealized human within the reflecting pool of branding and advertising.

The goal of city pop was never to solve an emotional need, but rather to give consumer flatness a dimensionality that would inhabit the sounds of a sanguine, simulated future and sell as many records as possible. For a while it did just that, and the genre served well as an anthemic fulfillment of Japan’s national success, reflective of the economic miracle it had just pulled off.

It’s clear why vaporwave chose to mine city pop and ’80s Japanese iconography — the old economic and legacy corporate ideology was now weak and defanged. What better proclamation of disenchantment than the appropriation of sounds and visions from that era? The mere gesture of taking a city pop sample and tuning it down to 80 beats per minute speaks to the decline and sobriety of a society waking up thirty years after the boom. Only in retrospect do we see the vapor trail of the imagined landscape of our idealized self. What “Plastic Love” has managed to achieve is noteworthy if only for its ability to reveal the unvarnished emotional core of this idealism, the hope for some imagined future and the promise of intimacy, however synthetic.

Gabriel Kuo is the founder and editor of Atmota. He is the editor of The Strokes: The First Ten Years and A Vulgar Display Of Pantera.

Welcome To Chengdu: Mark Reeder On Unearthing The Sounds of Modern China

Atmota’s Gabriel Kuo talks with Mark Reeder about Asian megacities, theories of music transgression, and surveillance capitalism in Chengdu.

April 20, 2021

In a career that has spanned over four decades, musical zelig Mark Reeder has carved a body of work steeped in defiance and subversion. As a musician, he’s played in no less than four bands (Die Unbekannten, Shark Vegas, Frantic Elevators, Ten Forward). After moving from Manchester to Berlin, he was the German representative for Factory Records, bringing Joy Division to the Deutschland masses. Defying the Stasi, he smuggled illegal tapes into East Germany during a time when the GDR considered any form of popular music as anti-state. Following his uncanny nose for talent, he founded the influential trance label MFS (Masterminded For Success) in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and promptly signed Paul Van Dyk. He’s the narrator in the definitive chronicle of Berlin’s underground music scene in the 1980s, B-Movie: Lust and Sound in West Berlin. Now, as he pivots his projects toward the East, Reeder seeks to find new traces of contemporary music in a rapidly modernizing China.

Hi Mark, I’m thrilled that you have time to chat with me about what’s been going on in China. In recent years there seems to be quite a rising music scene in Chengdu. I know you’ve been spending some time there the past few years. What’s your take?

Most people have no real concept of modern-day China, except for the images portrayed off of CCTV cameras, or on newsfeeds. Even on a positive note, it is usually seen as a place that has rapidly developing mega-cities, with huge manpower resources to manufacture your clothes or smartphones for next to nothing, or that it’s a threatening military power. Whatever China is, it is certainly not known for its music, or indeed, any kind of music scene. That is, up until recently. Music plays a crucial role in China, and thanks to affordable technology and present-day digital distribution platforms, everyone now has unprecedented access to all forms of music, both foreign and domestic.

Indeed, over the past ten years or so, young Chinese have (gradually) been given the opportunity to discover Western music, since new ‘indie’ label providers like Modern Sky appeared on the digital download landscape. First, starting out with the basic, sanitized sounds of contemporary, squeaky-clean US pop music, such as Bon Jovi, Green Day or Mariah Carey, to which most Chinese kids believed that was what Western music was all about. But meanwhile, music accessibility has evolved so much, that practically everything is now available, especially if you have a VPN to circumvent the “Great Firewall” of China. Although most of the music that is currently consumed may not be entirely Party [CCP] approved, it has been an inspiring adventure to many young bands and musicians, who now have access to music which had hitherto been denied to their parents and grandparents.

Can you talk a bit about the changing landscape of modern music in Chengdu, specifically in the context of the last ten years or so, since China developed its high-speed rail system and overall urban development?

Chengdu is an ancient city in Sichuan province, surrounded by mountains, lakes and beautiful, flowery countryside. Once a provincial backwater, the recent development of a high-speed inter-continental rail system has brought all these previously inaccessible cities together, and once the ultra-high-speed inter-city magnetic railways are completed, it will undoubtedly transform these cities further.

As a result of the development and expansion of transportation networks, the cities have come closer together. Chengdu is just one of those cities – it attracts more and more people every year. Initially attractive for its spicy Sichuan food, pandas, or the pretty flowery rural outskirts, it is now being swallowed up by property developers. The new additions to the city crave entertainment and this demand reflects onto the city’s music scene. It appears that Chengdu is evolving as the musical beating heart of China.

Arguably, this has something to do with its location, as Chengdu is far enough away from the usual conservative restrictions of the national capital, Beijing, which for promoters and musicians alike, can sometimes be quite frustrating especially when it comes to planning events and concerts, because at a moment’s notice, any event can be suddenly cancelled. By comparison, Chengdu is left more or less alone.

The city has both traditional roots, but it is now a hyper-modern metropolis and it is very fashionable. The location and vibe has attracted many artists, musicians and designers. This has resulted in a very vibrant art, fashion, and music scene, which up until fairly recently, was mainly punk and new-wave. The city has plenty of fascinating event locations, clubs, and live venues. One of its more infamous venues was a former bank’s high-rise office building, where on every floor was a club with its own musical genre. Starting with karaoke on the ground floor, moving up to disco, Hi-NRG, hip-hop, reggae, ambient, and eventually techno in the TAG club, on the top floor.

From your gaze, what are some of the music and youth scene parallels between ’80s Manchester, ’90s Berlin and current day Chengdu? Obviously with Covid, social culture has changed immensely, but if you can speak to what counterparts you see in the music and youth ethos between these cities and cultural eras.

Chengdu does remind me of Manchester. Of course, everyone knows the Beatles came from that other neighbouring Northern English town, Liverpool, but so many more artists actually came from Manchester, like The Bee Gees, The Hollies, or 10CC, not to mention all the ones that have emerged since the punk era. Similar to Chengdu, Manchester during the early ’70s was an equally forgotten, former industrial city. It was the initial birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and indeed, the birthplace or at least the inspiration for communism, as Marx and Engels both spent a lot of time there formulating their original theories and writings. But since the 60s, there’s been a vibrant music scene there, born out of youth boredom and the lack of job opportunities. The music focus started shifting from central London to Manchester in 1976, after the Buzzcocks invited a little known band called The Sex Pistols to play there, and the punk movement was born. Thankfully, our weekly music press had someone there to witness it and suddenly the shift from London to Manchester was under way in the media. Manchester finally had its own homegrown and exciting new music scene to report and not some tepid rock imitation of what was happening in London. Its scene was young, fresh, and creative. Local News reader Tony Wilson recognized the budding Manchester music scene and through his own music and events TV program, was able to introduce both emerging and established bands to a young and influential audience. Within a year, the punk-rock scene which had been centered mainly around Manchester, had spread its tentacles right across the entire country.

Chengdu is in a similar position. The lack of strict surveillance and affordable rent, plus the broader performance opportunities, are attracting artists and musicians from all over China. One thing to understand is, the West has had over five decades to develop its modern music scene. China has had roughly fifteen years. In that span, they have had to cram fifty years into a very short period, and really only over the past five years, have they started to create their own music scene. This is quite an achievement. Yet I found that a lot of Chinese musicians did not consider themselves good enough. They compared themselves to hugely successful or legendary artists, without considering the fact that Western pop music has had at least five decades of development to learn how to do it. This wasn’t apparent a few years or so ago. With the recent global fascination with K-Pop, acceptance in the West of far-Eastern pop music is rapidly growing, and China too has started to nurture its own artists, from C-Pop to Rap or indie bands like Hiperson, or The Retros who supported Depeche Mode as their opening act, or STOLEN who supported New Order in 2019.

STOLEN in Chengdu / Photo: John Yingling

You actually signed STOLEN several years ago to your record label, MFS. How has their development been since you started working with them?

Because of Covid, the listening audience has been forced to look inward as Western bands and artists are not touring the East (or anywhere else at the moment) and promoters have had to look locally. For the post lockdown youth, all starved of live entertainment, the pandemic has helped to actuate the music scene in a positive way, and has presented a welcome opportunity for homegrown talent to showcase themselves. STOLEN’s sold out tour with New Order provided them with a captive audience who were blown away by this unexpected musical surprise. New Order’s tour crew were delighted to see the support band receive a standing ovation, night-after-night. This band has certainly drawn some international attention to both Chengdu’s music scene and modern Chinese music in general, and they are without doubt China’s most known band in Europe at the moment. Their own brand of music, mixing influences and adapting and developing ideas from five decades, whilst adding a sprinkling of the futuristic, creates an exciting sound of modern China. Our familiar songwriting skills and sounds may be attuned to our Western ears, but in the 21st century, that shouldn’t really be the buffer for the entire Asian music scene to step up to, but merely a bar to step over. We just have to be prepared to give them a chance.

Chinese copyright laws are quite strict. If you‘re uploading original recordings, you have to register with facial ID and provide Chinese translations for all lyrics, all part of a broad monitoring system that I assume would limit messaging and anything approaching transgression.

Yes, that is generally true, and although it sounds utterly restrictive to our Western methods and concepts of freedom, this is actually something that has been part of all communist societies since the 1920s, and it has become an accepted part of making music in China. We shouldn’t forget that although China is rapidly developing a Westernized capitalistic image, it is still a communist country. It has its own ways and means of maintaining cultural standards. Every artist has to be creative when it comes to getting their message across and for every song, they have to supply an explanation to the meaning of their lyrics, especially if they are singing in Chinese. But it’s actually not as draconian as it sounds and it’s up to the flexibility and understanding of each individual assessor, as to what gets through. In general, the authorities are more concerned about decency, or that a piece of music is not calling out for insurrection or the overthrow of the government, rather than someone complaining about their everyday life or relationship. Of course, that said, gangsta rap is definitely not the kind of musical image they would like their artists to promote and they’d much prefer artists to sing positive and optimistic songs. Traditional Chinese pop reflects that, and a song about darkness is generally frowned upon, but not necessarily forbidden. Techno on the other hand, is mainly instrumental music, and it can easily circumvent the censorship.

Marketing arms like radio, TV promotion, and social media are highly censored and controlled. And then factoring in China’s zero-tolerance on drugs and its scarcity and the question is, how has the scene flourished without the apparatus of these elements?

Drugs are not the main focus in China. Alcohol however, is a much bigger problem. Our music scenes here have danced with drink and drugs since the 1920s, and each consecutive scene has been plagued and promoted with drugs specific to that musical genre. Alcohol always, and you look at opium and cocaine with jazz, cheap amphetamines with the twangy guitars of Beatle-mania, LSD and marijuana with the psychedelic ’60s, speed and cocaine again with ’70s punk and ’80s new-wave, acid with house, ecstasy with techno. There is really not much difference between narcotics and intoxicating drinks, as they both can result in similar effects in the end. The notion that it enhances the experience is up to the individual consumer, but it’s generally just a marketing ploy by the drug dealers. In a place like the TAG club you really don’t need substances to appreciate the energy of the location. And just like in the West, the modern-day promotion of events and gigs is shared on social media platforms, such as chat-rooms or through platforms like WeChat or Weibo. Word of mouth is essential and in China, and the rating system is the barometer for everything, which is what attracts and drives people to try and be better.

TAG Club / Photo: John Yingling

As we touched on earlier, the urban development of a Chinese city like Chengdu has accelerated twofold just in the last decade. How much do you think the architecture and urban planning of Chengdu influence the music?

Yes, for sure, downtown Chengdu is super futuristic. The old traditional buildings have been structurally incorporated into the design of the surrounding modernism. I think that meant a lot to young people in Chengdu, and they are very proud that their local government didn’t choose to demolish and erase the buildings of the past. The city does feel like a Blade Runner film set, and the reminders of the past are never far away. Their parents and grandparents at their age, could never have imagined a future like it is today. Mobile phones, stylish clothing, delicious food, all in a clean and modern setting.

How significant do you think the support of the LGBT community is to the music scene in Chengdu? Chengdu seems to be a bit more progressive and liberal than other major cities in China, at least from my sole visit a few years ago. How important is that to the LGBT community and the growth of the music scene?

Most certainly, it doesn’t matter if being LGBT is legal or not, it is a definite part of our humanity and therefore of daily life in China. In the past, China has taken a generally archaic view towards the LGBT community, mainly due to a lack of education on the subject, yet it appears most younger people seem to be more liberal and open-minded, as they realize that it doesn’t really matter anymore what your sexual preferences are. This is thanks to social media and the possibility to find like-minded people and discuss any topics of concern. And due to its relaxed attitude towards art, fashion and music, Chengdu has become attractive to the kind of people who are involved in these creative industries. In that way, Chengdu resembles Berlin a lot.

Yes, Berlin has always reminded me of a permissible zone inside a well established and formalized region. Germany has several economically productive and global facing cities like Frankfurt, Cologne, Munich, and Hamburg to name a few. If you are young, under-represented, and marginalized, Berlin makes sense. To me, Chengdu has emerged as a similar sanctuary of sorts in contrast to Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, etc.

As far as Chinese cities, Chengdu is a place where like-minded people feel safe and comfortable. In China if you are gay and live in a close-knit rural community, your sexual preference might be viewed as something alien, with disdain or suspicion, whereas in Chengdu, you can meet your peers, who have all been through similar experiences. However, unlike Taiwan, China still has quite a way to go before it totally embraces gender diversity. But, Chengdu seems to be at a good starting point.

In your mind, is there a balance or understanding to NOT go over a political or societal line? Agitating Beijing would most likely result in the shuttering of clubs and venues, and banning artists and promoters.

Naturally, this is a given normality in China. If you are trying to put on a gig or event, you make sure to do the best you can, and that it stays within the parameters of decency, and meets with all the necessary standards that are required by law. It just wouldn’t make sense to jeopardize your event due to political recklessness. If you piss off the authorities, you will never fulfill your dreams. That said, it is also up to visiting Western artists to also respect the wishes of the promoter and their rules too. For sure, some Western artists may feel it is their political duty to make a bold political statement against the ruling party. They might even feel that their political opinion is valued and should be heard by their captive audience, who from their perspective, seem to be brainwashed.

However, even if they might be able express themselves openly at home as much as they wish, the consequences of their thoughtless, selfish actions, usually go unknown to them, and while they think they are being radical, their simple statement can land a lot of people in a terrible amount of trouble. Besides, I think Western society is no more perfect than anywhere else. The reality is, none of the countries in the West come anywhere close to the population of China. We have to try to understand that. Trying to police a country with over 1.4 BILLION people is not the same as trying to police a country with 350 million, or less. The threats to the well-being of society and everyday life in general are obviously greatly enhanced, and so, security is tight. At the moment, the CCP view a so-called free society and the kind of upheaval such freedoms can apparently bring, as problematic.

There is a contrast between the CCP and the Chinese people, but in the West, sometimes we assume that they are one in the same, or at the very least, somewhat closely aligned. What are your thoughts on making distinctions between the political and the cultural?  

It’s hard to talk about China without mentioning their stance on human rights or surveillance, but i feel we have to put some of these things aside when we speak about music. We can’t always dwell on the negative issues that bother us. We don’t do that when we talk about British music or American music, do we? This doesn’t mean we should forget or imagine it’s not happening, but we have to approach it from the Chinese point of view and as their music scene becomes more defined, I believe we can send and receive the right kind of messages through music. I hope that comes across in this interview, because it is exactly what I mean by the Chinese people’s point of view, not the CCP. The illusion of freedom only appears as such because it is supported by a free media or access to the global internet. Not to mention, the jaded opinion many people in the West have today (especially in the UK) that our societies are better. 

Reeder in Berlin / Photo: Irmgard Schmitz

Yes, in the West, there is a general sentiment that we are more progressive, more free, and less totalitarian. But these beliefs keep getting fractured as Western societies are becoming more aware of the systemic power structures in place.

The entire British Empire was built on bullying its way around the world (behind the disguise of bringing civilization, culture, and Christianity), while colonizing and enslaving people at gunpoint. It was all, and only ever, about profit and all European kingdoms that had the means were at it, and America followed suit. It’s easy to point a modern day finger at what China is doing now, and demonize or boycott them under the gaze of human rights or on internet blogs. The politically-minded British are eager to condemn the Chinese for their social points system or mass surveillance, but Britain has more CCTV cameras per capita than any other nation. We also must not forget, that the greed of the West to save money and make profits over the past few decades has in a very large way created the China of today. We have helped to create a new and very clever competitor. The West laid the groundwork, and the Chinese are like young students, fine tuning the system. The Chinese waited, saw their chance, and grabbed the opportunity. With our history, who are we to condemn?

Mark Reeder is the founder of music label MFS (Masterminded For Success).
Gabriel Kuo is the founder and editor of Atmota.