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.