It is a universally acknowledged truth that the birthplace of Chinese rock n’ roll is Beijing.
Prior to the 1980s, rock music existed on the mainland as more of an Asian-influenced tribute to the sounds of the West. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that the likes of Cui Jian, Black Panther and Tang Dynasty burst onto the scene to give the country a rock identity and a distinctive sound that is exclusive to China.
It would take a while for the women’s side to get going, though.
Being late to a party doesn’t mean your presence isn’t valued, nor does it mean you won’t be the most interesting person there. It does mean you might need time to settle in or win over guests who have already made an impression on the host.
And, just as Janis Joplin turned up and caused a riot more than 30 years after Elvis had poured his first drink at America’s glamorous gathering, these three Beijing frontwomen have smashed the door down at the Far East’s feast of music and are in no mood to stop celebrating.
Fan Mingyu fronting ‘Bad Clutch’ in Beijing. Photo via @海淀阑尾/Weibo
In a land steeped in tradition, they have gone against the grain to pursue what they love with or without their parents’ blessing.
“My mom is a middle school teacher and I’ve never showed her my songs, but I have tried to describe how I scream on stage, and she called it ‘ghost yelling.’” Laughs Fan Mingyu, frontwoman of thrash-metal band Bad Clutch.
“One of my cousins came to one of our shows and, because he used to be a bassist, he seemed to like it. But my other relatives don’t enjoy metal music. Once, a member of my family said if they come to a metal show they will probably have a heart attack.”
Spirit playing bass for her band ‘PizzaFace’. Photo via Xu Zhaoyi
Chen Yiyuhang goes by the stage name Spirit when leading punk band PizzaFace, and says she has had a different experience when explaining her lifestyle choice to the family.
“They are really afraid I will starve to death with this choice of how I make a living,” she jokes. “But they are proud of how I express strength and love to the audience when I’m on stage.
“As a teenager, rock n’ roll was like a parent (to me). It helped me shape my attitudes and reactions to right and wrong and to what is fair and unfair.”
Janis Joplin herself once said she was “one of those regular weird people,” and while pursuing life on the stage makes Fan and Chen slightly irregular in their respective households, when it comes to Beijing’s music scene community, there is no place like home.
Yu Yang with her band mates in the well known ‘Xiao Wang’ - photo via Shangliang
Yu Yang has been the lead vocalist and primary songwriter for punk band Xiao Wang since 2017. Not only has the group caused a huge splash in the sea of the capital’s alternative arena, but she has also personally helped grow a sense of togetherness for all budding musicians who want to create and perform.
“When Xiao Wang first started, some people really liked us and some just treated us like a joke,” the Yunnan native tells That’s.
“The music scene in Beijing is male dominated and that will never change. But I want girls to know that you can do anything you want; you can write, you can sing, you can dance, and you can make a band even if you don’t have any professional training.”
Xiao Wang expresses messages of empowerment and have rocked their mantra across China with Yu also building bridges in Beijing by opening Blinding Elephant in 2020.
Blinding Elephant is a hub for performing and creativity in Beijing. Photo via Yu Yang
The bar, which is now in its second location, has become a haven for performers both upcoming and established. It’s a welcoming space for bands to cut their teeth and carve out friendships, while also serving as the perfect representation of its founder’s ethos.
“I think support from the community is so important. Bands use our community in a healthy way based on a ‘do it yourself’ culture. This means we help each other in every aspect.
“I have always liked rock music and one day I realized I can make a band like the ones I love, so I started. It’s simple, we (Xiao Wang) just make the music we like.”
Punk rock possesses a certain unapologetic power that is unmatched by any other style. It’s not about affects, and its energy covers a hole which is sometimes filled by the indulgent, over-the-top nature of some other categories.
Just as Yu wants to send a message of inclusivity using her favorite genre, Chen is also passionate about getting more women up on the underground stage, despite some unpleasant challenges.
“The scene being mostly masculine leads to a lot of social situations and habits from people that are awful for girls to endure,” she laments. “If you want to be a band leader and not have a manager, you must learn a man’s way of interacting while sticking to your own convictions.
“I would really like to see a more girl-friendly environment where we can just talk about music and gigs and not have to worry about whether we’ll be hated for not being like the guys. We also have to worry if there is sometimes an ulterior motive with some members of the audience.
“I sure would like to see more girls on stage expressing themselves. I have always thought bands with girls are more interesting and have fresh ideas. Girls who have a strong mind can be much stronger than those with boys. [Girls] really will sacrifice themselves for the thing they love.”
Image via Seto
Perhaps it is because China’s alternative scene is in its relative infancy that this talented trio have developed a fearless nature.
Yes, female-fronted acts like Cobra, Nova Heart and South Acid Mimi have paved a way for progression here since the early 90s, but many girl acts are still treated with a sense of novelty.
No one understands this more than Fan, who performs a style long associated with masculinity.
“There’re some women in metal in China, but not a lot of front women playing thrash metal,” she explains. “There is a difference when comparing men’s and women’s vocal chords and it’s more difficult for women to scream.
“Besides, most women are into music that has a clear melody, which may also contribute to the scarcity of women in metal. But I have hope that I will see more front women showing their girl power.”
Fan Mingyu fronting ‘Bad Clutch’ in Beijing. Photo via @海淀阑尾/Weibo
Fan says that is why she believes in the power of ‘thrash.’
“Metal music is enjoyed by a minority in China and the audiences are mostly male. But recently I have seen more and more women come to shows, even though they try to look like they aren’t enjoying themselves.
“Jokes aside, it’s a good sign that more people want to know about this music. Most of our lyrics are based on serious issues that a lot of people care about, such as animal abuse.
“We’re just trying to get people focused on these kinds of problems, and we do it by screaming out the emotion they deserve.”
Image via @海淀阑尾/Weibo
The picture that Chen, Fan and Yu paint is one of power, progression but ultimately patience. They have an ardent desire for a more equal scene but also an understanding it will take time.
The pop world is manufactured, and it is easy to create an image for people to buy into with unlimited resources. These three, like so many in Beijing, don’t have that same backing, but have built up fan bases and made music without compromise.
While the mainstream gives us stars that burn brightly and then fade away, these girls will continue to shine.
[Cover image via Yu Yang]