Dongguan is not renowned for its music scene, but with the emergence of bands like Second Hand Goods and the inaugural Summer Night Concert last month, is it time to take music in Dongguan seriously? HERE! spoke to some local artists and promoters to find out.
The Beginning of The E.N.D
As Banda Nativa takes to the stage to open the inaugural Summer Night Concert at the Sofitel Royal Lagoon hotel, the sun still lingers over the pool.
The Brazilian band plays bouncy Goucho music and a few couples dance, while most guests stand in line for the buffet. It is not until the sun has set and E.N.D. comes on stage that the rock show begins.
The crowd does not know what to expect, but the band looks more assured then they did during their interview earlier that week where they were asked why they chose the name E.N.D.
“I am not sure. Let me check,” replies the drummer, Xiao Xiong and the rest of the band laughs nervously.
As Xiao Xiong checks his phone, the bassist, He Shi, offers his opinion. “I think it is because the end of every show is a new beginning,” he says unconvincingly.
They sit in a wine showroom accompanied by their management in Nancheng, taking time out of a photo shoot, while dancers wait outside to audition.
Looking around you would believe that E.N.D. were about to make it big, but when you actually speak to the band you realise they are yet to even record a song.
A Jun, the lead singer, explains, “At first, we were a metal band, but our lead singer who wrote our songs left. Afterwards we became a punk band and so the original songs were too heavy to use.”
While the band may not have any original material yet, they are not lacking in resilience. Before the band formed in 2012, A Jun and the lead guitarist Hai Bo used to perform Michael Jackson dance routines on the street.
It’s a determination that has followed them onto the stage. A Jun recalls one of their earlier gigs, “We were without a drummer, but we did not give up. Instead, I became the drummer, the rhythm guitarist became the singer, and the bassist became a keyboardist,” he said. When asked how the show went, A Jun laughed, “We were never invited back.”
Despite this, it shows that the band has grit and in 2013 they were rewarded for their resilience when they were invited to a show in Foshan to be the backing band for Johnny Yip, the famous crooner from Hong Kong.
At the hotel, E.N.D. start their show. The Chinese guests recognise songs from the likes of Beyond and some sing along. The foreigners may not know the songs, but they tap their feet as they drink and chat.
The band leaves the stage to warm applause. E.N.D. may only be playing covers right now, but they are a new band and tonight is a good night for them.
First Hand Sounds
A few nights before the show at the hotel, I am waiting to meet Second Hand Goods, a band that has started to make a name for themselves after performing gigs at Brown Sugar Jar.
As I wander around a factory in a part of Dongcheng that most foreigners would never recognize as Dongcheng, I hear a shout. I look up to see Fang, who plays the zither in the band, waving from the top floor. “Up here!” she shouts.
Upstairs, Fang leads me through a lounge, past the drummer for local band Heinous Jane snoozing on a couch, and into a recording studio where the rest of Second Hand Goods are.
Da Xin, vocalist and lead guitarist, is producing a track on the computer. The rest of the band sit around and drink beer; A Duo on bass, A Xiang on rhythm guitar and K on drums. Amongst the guitars and drums a cat lounges about and a dog looks to be petted.
The band is called Second Hand Goods because when they started everything they owned was second hand. “Second hand guitars, second hands drums, second hand underwear,” jokes K.
The band formed four years ago and the focus has always been on enjoying what they do. “We are not a professional band. We play for fun,” K explains simply. They have avoided any agents and only play the gigs they want. They all have day jobs. In fact, their studio is in a factory belonging to the company Da Xin and K work for.
Apart from Fang, the band are in their late thirties and when you listen to their music you can hear the influence of the bands, like Beyond and Guns N’ Roses, that they listened to when they were growing up.
K speaks frankly when talking about music in Dongguan, “We live in an industrial city. The people are not really interested in rock or punk.” When asked if he could see that changing, K replies dryly, “Maybe in a hundred years Dongguan will be cool.”
K may be exaggerating, but it sums up the frustration of many local musicians, who feel like they are not valued here. K recalled one recent incident, “The manager wanted us to play a show, but when I asked how much we would be paid, the manager got angry and asked why he should pay us anything because he is giving us an opportunity.”
K believes this attitude is common, despite some successful shows, in particular the one at the Root Underground Festival that took place in Dongguan in June. The band is focused on recording new material for now.
Before I leave the recording studio I ask K if he can recommend any other bands in Dongguan. He replies, “Speak to Astro Boy.”
The following night I am in a small music shop with posters of Kurt Cobain and The Edge on the wall. Opposite me are Astro Boy; Chun Sheng who plays drums, Hua who plays bass and Hei Lang who plays guitar and sings.
While the three-piece compares their sound to British punk rock, they have more in common with American bands like Green Day. Just like Green Day, Astro Boy has been around for a long time. The band may still look young, but they have played over a thousand shows since they formed twelve years ago. Chun Sheng and Hua only joined in 2010, but Hei Lang is the band’s founder.
The band are as passionate now as they were when they first started and, when asked if they are better now than they were when they started in 2002, Hei Lang does not hesitate to answer, “We are better now. Our sound has matured and we are better musicians,” he says.
The band is still playing live shows every week and Hei Lang is still writing new songs all the time. He recalls one song in particular, “I wrote a song called Leaking. It is about my younger brother who had a leak in his roof at home. He did not have any money to pay for the repairs because his boss at his factory had not paid his salary and he was worried the boss was about to runaway,” he said.
Hei Lang tries to sing about the real problems that people face, in a similar way to Bruce Springsteen in the U.S. or Billy Bragg in the U.K.
Hei Lang writes songs for other bands, too. He recently gave a song to E.N.D. and another song to a band called Five Sisters, which Hei Lang insists are actually sisters.
He also runs the music shop in which they are being interviewed.
Just like the Japanese anime character that the band is named after, Hei Lang may be small, but he is strong. He has kept his band together for twelve years, supports local artists, and teaches future generations how to play music at his shop.
So it turns out that the Five Sisters are, in fact, sisters. A few days after meeting with Astro Boy, I am sat in an apartment in Wanjiang drinking tea with the five pretty women and their parents. There is a lot more to the sisters, however, than just their looks.
The oldest sister, Yan Yan, tells their story, “Before we played music we were in an acrobatic troupe founded by our father and he took us all over the country to perform. We started to learn acrobatics from the age of three and we survived by eating whatever food was provided.”
In 2007 the family moved to Dongguan. When they arrived they found that they were unable to find the equipment they needed for their acrobatics.
At first, the sisters turned to dancing, but their father came up with the idea that they should start a band. The sisters had no experience, but they had lessons every day for six months. Yan Yan learned to play drums, Yan Fang the keyboard, Shaung Yan the guitar, Pan Pan the bass, and Fei Yan became the lead singer.
The sisters play commercial shows and that weekend they were scheduled to play the opening of a shopping center. Their biggest show so far was a twelve city tour sponsored by SANY, one of the largest heavy machinery companies in the world.
Up until now their sets have been made up of covers of Chinese rock, but recently they have begun to work on their own material. When asked what their musical influences are Fei Yan shuffles through her iPod and shows artists like Beyonce, Rammstein and Beyond—a mixture of which would sound interesting, to say the least. So far they have written two songs, one of which was completed with the help of Astro Boy.
As Yan Fang pours me another cup of tea we discuss if they have experienced much sexism. “Of course, we are discriminated against a lot. Usually they do not believe we can play good music, but we normally prove them wrong in the end,” replies Yan Yan defiantly.
The sisters have yet to come across another all girl five piece band, but Yan Yan sees this as a positive. “It gives us an advantage because we are rare,” she says.
When asked what Dongguan means to the sisters, Yan Yan replies, “Dongguan is home.” They admit that they plan to move on one day, but have no idea where that may be.
After the interview, the mother invites me to join them for lunch. The sisters rush around setting the table and preparing the meal. As we share the dumplings and steamed buns it is obvious that the sisters are a family first and a rock band second.
Viva La Revolution!
When Revolution takes to the stage at the hotel, the party is truly underway. Marcus pounds the drums while Vito lays down the bass. As guitarist Frank riffs away singer Andy calls the audience to come down. A crowd begins to gather at the front of the stage.
A few nights before the show, I sat down with Frank and Marcus in a pub in Dongcheng to talk about the band.
“Revolution is three Italian dudes, and one Kiwi,” Marcus adds, pointing to himself. He describes Revolution as, “a cover band, but not a classic cover band.”
They are as happy to play Cantonese pop as they are heavy metal. They often rearrange their covers so much that it might take you a minute to recognize your favorite songs.
The band formed in 2011, but they played music long before Revolution existed. When he was a teenager Frank became a roadie for artists like Iron Maiden and David Bowie. When he started to play in bands of his own, he opened for Dave Grohl’s first band, Scream. Later, he became guitarist for power metal band Shining Fury, one of the biggest metal bands in Italy.
Marcus has been drumming for thirty years. He used to drum for the house band for New Zealand’s biggest rock station, The Rock FM. During his time with the house band he played motor shows, bikini competitions and deer farms. He jokes, “Any kind of place you can think of, I played live there!”
The band has played shows all over the province. Frank smiles as he recalls a show at Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, “It was crazy. They had a big stage and in the audience there were Hong Kong movie stars.”
Despite the amazing shows they’ve played around Guangdong, the band still feel that Dongguan is lacking a great venue for music. “We need a spiritual home. Somewhere everyone can meet together,” bemoans Marcus.
While there is the Brown Sugar Jar, it is in Wanjiang, which for some foreigners is too far out of the way. “There is a gap in the market for a live music house in Dongcheng,” predicts Marcus.
The Police are playing in the pub and the discussion turns to everyone’s favorite musicians. When Frank and Marcus list their favorites they sound as giddy as teenagers who have just discovered Led Zeppelin.
Considering their passion for rock and their experience as musicians, I ask if they feel a certain responsibility to introduce their audiences to their favorite bands. Marcus, however, is quick to downplay the suggestion, “We don’t want to be preachy. We want to involve the crowd and make sure they enjoy the show, so we try to avoid playing songs that they won’t know. For us the key is to have fun.”
Back at the hotel, Revolution is doing just that. After having surprised the crowd with a cover of Taiwanese pop star Amei, Frank is now playing guitar with his teeth. Those in the crowd clap while one guest in his swimming shorts and covered in I Heart DG stickers bounces around in front of the stage.
After Revolution, the band from Hollywood Baby comes on stage for the last performance of the night. As they tear through a raucous rendition of Welcome to the Jungle, a group of Filipina women dance at the stage and a tipsy Englishman walks around dripping wet after swimming in the pool.
Just as it threatens to turn into Woodstock, the show passes its curfew. The free booze disappears and shortly after the sound is cut. The guests soon leave the hotel in search of the after show party on Bar Street.
The Cold Light of Day
The morning after, when the stage is taken apart and the trash is cleared away, we must take a sober look at the music scene in Dongguan.
Few people know the music scene better than Charlie Soler. Raised on a diet of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath in the Philippines, Charlie moved to Dongguan in 2004 and spent the next ten years playing with some of the best bands around.
In the beginning, Charlie played at China Groove, a once popular bar, long since closed. “People were wild back then. I played every night and practiced every day. The band only had two days off a month,” Charlie recalls fondly. Later he played at all the big live bars—Hollywood Baby, Thirsty Dog, Vita Bar.
Charlie thinks that the music scene was growing, but recently authorities have hurt live houses and musicians. “The government have restricted the rules for owning a bar license and for foreigners getting a visa. It will turn Dongguan into a dead end for music,” he warns.
These days Charlie is opening a steakhouse in Boracay in the Phillippines. He hopes that one day, if the government changes its stance, he can return to Dongguan and open a live house.
Neo Niu, already runs a live house in Dongguan, Brown Sugar Jar. For him, rock is his religion, and like a true evangelist he is doing everything he can to spread the good word.
When Neo first opened Brown Sugar Jar he received little support and when he compares the music scene to that in Shenzhen he notices the fans show less passion and there are less youngsters at shows. Neo, however, is still hopeful.
“The people here are still at the cognitive level of understanding rock. They may act reserved, but I can see they have passion. The people of Dongguan have great potential,” predicts Neo.