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Notes from the Underpass

Note: This article was originally published on September 22, 2015 on SmartBeijing.com.* It has been republished here with permission. Re-upping this article in particular to share in my & Krish Raghav’s biweekly newsletter Open All the Buddha Boxes — sign up for that here!

Last Tuesday was one of those classic Beijing September nights, where the city seems to be slowly preparing for hibernation, but still moving briskly enough to enjoy the sliver of fine autumn weather we get before the freeze. Around 9:30pm, a small crew of guerilla noise fans begins to gather at a seemingly random underground tunnel connecting the access road running along the Airport Expressway and a small median park buffering the highway and the adjacent Xiangheyuan thoroughfare. Zhu Wenbo, organizer of erstwhile weekly experimental music series Zoomin’ Night, waits with his typical forbearance for a group of retirees to finish their impromptu, public hong ge choir rehearsal. He’d booked the later slot.

Zhu Wenbo performing as CT-808

Up until this summer, Wenbo had organized a showcase of Beijing’s least classifiable, furthest-left-field experimental music every Tuesday night for nearly six years. Zoomin’ Night was born at storied Wudaokou rock venue D-22, and migrated along with the rest of that club’s regulars to XP, which closed this past July. “Honestly, it was really tiring,” he says. “I wanted to give myself a break, enjoy life a bit. I’d thought about it a lot, what it would be like if Zoomin’ Night stopped, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The closing of XP was a natural stopping point.”

Since 2011, Zhu Wenbo had been encouraged to start his own label by Michael Pettis, the founder of D-22, XP, and veteran indie label Maybe Mars. After nixing his weekly, Wenbo decided to do just that. Transforming Zoomin’ Night from a live showcase to a cassette label, Wenbo has been monthly issuing concrete documents from the ephemeral cast of misfit noisers he’s attracted over the years. When he’d put the finishing touches on “Essay”, a solo release for Zoomin’ Night regular John Wilton, he sought out a proper space for a post-XP release event.

“Last year, when I was moving into an apartment behind Sanyuanqiao, I accidentally found this place. Beijing has many underpasses like it, but this one’s a bit different. There’s a park next to it, and the steps leading up to it resemble the step-seating of an amphitheater. It’s not that far from the city center, but it’s just far enough removed from residential buildings to avoid noise complaints.”

Most importantly: the acoustics are right. After testing the natural amplification with a few solo busks on clarinet and saxophone, Wenbo began inviting friends to his newly discovered haven, eventually reifying this public space into a guerilla performance theater.

The scene last Tuesday was the best-attended of the three underpass shows Zhu Wenbo has put together so far. It opened with a short set from visiting New Delhi songwriter Lifafa, who’d just finished a string of more stage-oriented performances at Dada and DDC, and relished the opportunity for a less structured public serenade.

What followed was a thoroughly Zoomin’, hour-long set by a loose assembly of 20-something Beijing transplants who’ve found each other through Wenbo’s steadfast curatorship. The organizer himself played on a circuit-bent toy keyboard; his wife, Zhao Cong, roamed the length of the tunnel, alternately blowing into a sax reed attached to a piece of vacuum tubing and shuttling an abused cowbell along the floor in a solo game of kick the can; Chui Wan frontman Yan Yulong played a violin duet along with A Ke, making her first public concert; and Zoomin’ Night newcomers Li Song and Li Bingyu added errant strains of clarinet and sax, respectively, to the amorphous mix.

Zhao Cong
Abing (left) and A Ke

Aside from the scattered cognoscenti who’d come explicitly for this experience, the “audience” was made up of random citizens on foot from points A to B, whose reactions ranged from bemused attention to complete disinterest. Some enthusiastically took part in the spectacle, voguing for the cameras on their way through the tunnel. (There were many cameras.) “Luckily, the police still haven’t discovered us,” Wenbo tells me a week later. “Actually, there aren’t many people coming and going in this underpass. The people who do come don’t react much differently from people who would randomly wander in to XP on a Tuesday night.”

It’s 45 minutes into the underpass drone, a deep, hypnotic zone, and I need to micturate. I head up the amphitheater steps, into the park, and immediately I’m back in a more familiar Beijing. There’s the car noise; there’s someone, maybe a prostitute, maybe a ghost, lobbing a jumbled English proposition in my direction. Reliably I find a pile of garbage, relieve, and get lost on my way back, the only landmark being the city’s incessant rush of flying headlights. Of course, I remember, all that’s solid here melts into air. I rely on my ears instead, and am soon guided back by phantom notes from the underpass.

*My writing career began at SmartBeijing, where in addition to events/listings-based coverage I wrote about 60 features on various topics, mostly related to music and art. SmartBeijing went down earlier this year for a scheduled server upgrade and never came back; the site’s parent company has told me they have no plans to extract the database, so the first three years of my writing career are basically consigned to vapor. There’s another post to be written about the precarity of writing for the internet etc etc, but for now I’m more interested in pulling what I can from the Internet Archive so that at least some of what I wrote for SmartBeijing isn’t permanently memoryholed. My impetus for doing this is largely to reevaluate old interviews as source material for a book on Beijing underground music 1999-2019 that I am co-authoring with Krish Raghav; learn more about that (and sign up for our biweekly newsletter!) here. I maintain a spreadsheet including all of my published articles (and links) which is publicly viewable here; if you’re a freelance writer, I highly encourage you to maintain a similar list. Without these dead SmartBeijing URL’s I’d have no way to access all of these old article!

Published in China Music Writing