As Spring swept across the nation’s capital on the back of a brown sandstorm grimy enough to force most reasonable people to spend the Labour Day weekend inside, Beijing’s young and fearless ventured to the outskirts of town to get their grit in musical (not just particulate) form.
The electro, folk and indie pop crowd filled Tongzhou Park for Strawberry Festival, the classic rockers were way over the other side of the city on Jinglang Island for Midi Fest and those willing to spend three times as much for the chance to see some well-known international acts were on a snowless ski slope an hour and a half out of Beijing at Music Valley. One day at Strawberry and Midi sets you back RMB60 (about AUD9) pre-purchase and RMB80 at the gate. It’s cheaper again if you go to two or even all three days. In contrast, a day at Music Valley is RMB230 (AUD35), including a chartered bus there and back.
On the last day of April and the first of the long weekend, my Finnish flatmate and I, joined by a Spanish friend, rode the subway out to Strawberry. I can’t say the music left much of an impression on me (I had after all not even looked at who was playing and certainly wouldn’t label myself anything but ignorant when it comes to the Chinese scene) and it seemed that a large proportion of the local festival-goers weren’t overly fussed either – fashion statements and nonchalance appear to be as much a part of festivals here as they are in Australia. It must be said, though, that crowds are generally less aggressive (despite the opposite being true everywhere in China but the moshpit) and you could quite easily wriggle your way to just in front of the stage if you were really keen.
Ultimately more interesting than what was happening onstage was the event that occurred at about 6pm right across the Park; I call it Beergate. In fact, we first became aware of Beergate after discovering that you could actually buy a vodka and strawberry juice concoction, when we had previously only seen beer for sale, and decided to give it a shot. After taking a slurp through our oversized straws, we were alarmed to find that this new discovery tasted an awful lot like strawberry juice and water. Upon consulting the staff behind the bar, our suspicions were confirmed: we had indeed purchased three strawberry waters and had paid no less for the pleasure than what we would have 10 minutes beforehand when vodka was being served. After some deliberation, a tin of vodka was eventually emptied surreptitiously into our Tupperware containers full of strawberry bits and we toddled off merrily toward the main stage.
Only later did the full scale of Beergate become apparent, when we tried to buy beers (note: full cartons of beer were stacked beside the bar in full view of the discerning public) and were told that beer was not for sale. This state of affairs was immediately blamed on the police (by the bar staff), who were now stationed at each bar keeping their eyes on us all. My flatmate attempted to reason with the authorities and some financial incentive may or may not have been offered (mostly in jest). Alas, to no avail (though one or two cans may have been liberated by a willing accomplice while we were discussing the matter with members of the law enforcement community).
In a final twist that only China could have offered up with such innocence and keen willingness, we were heading toward the gate at the end of the night when we heard tell of a mysterious VIP tent where free vodka was being doled out in great quantities to all and sundry. And yes indeed, some lovely folk who smilingly informed me they were volunteers were handing out cans of vodka free of charge to anybody who asked nicely. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo.
An hour and a bit on the bus (not hungover at all thanks to the behavioural guidance from the police) and we rolled into a ski resort east of Beijing. Something of a dustbowl, the plain looked down on two stages side by side, the concept being that as soon as one band finished up on one stage, the next band would start up right beside them without any delay and everybody could see everything all the time. By and large, this went exactly to plan and worked very well indeed. Ladytron and Editors proved to be particular highlights and Canadian band Hot Hot Heat was also a crowd favourite, at one point soliciting song requests and then shouting back, “Oh, you wanna hear that song? Sorry, that’s the one song we’re not allowed to play”.
After assuring each other on the bus the whole way to the festival that we didn’t really want to drink today and had had quite enough yesterday and the night before that thank you, we immediately made tracks for the food and drink section to test the non-alcoholic waters. Beergate continued; not a drop of alcohol to be purchased anywhere on the premises. In an alarming extension of this stance, the organisers had completely banned smoking at the venue, a policy that, while accepted very happily by me, was no doubt seen as a cruel perversion of the natural order by many of the Chinese attendees, who are normally able to smoke wherever they goddamn like out of doors.
Well, like a Prohibition-era speakeasy patron, I immediately adopted the mentality of the child who was told that he couldn’t do something. Had beer been freely available, it is quite possible that I may have had one but I could just as easily have not. In all honesty, I didn’t really feel like it. But now that somebody was telling me I couldn’t have any, I wanted a drink maybe more than I ever have before.
We were quickly able to establish that the man running the Thai food stall had beer round the back and RMB50 later, the three of us were walking toward the stages with a big paper cup full of beer each. After three or four hours of uninterrupted service in which he probably made more money off black-market beer than green papaya salad, the Thai food man was abruptly shut down and hopefully skipped out on the place altogether (as opposed to ending up in cuffs in the nearest police station).
Music Valley was a step up from Strawberry in terms of its paranoia and ideological messaging and really pulled out all the stops in a series of delightfully crafted messages that flashed across the big screens (in Chinese and English) in between some of the acts. I re-produce all the English versions here for your personal gratification:
Give others our music but not our garbage
We sing but not spit
We scream and shout, we also use please, thanks and sorry
We want to be high on music but not high on drugs
We drink and have fun but not drive after drink
When you leave with a dirty restroom, either one of us could be the next one
We fire up our passion but we don’t play with fire
We follow orders because we’re Music Valley music fans
We’re here to pump up the artist but not pick a fight
Our music site can’t be destroyed
Simple life, let’s green Beijing
The police presence also seemed to be stronger at Music Valley with teams scattered all over the premises and a healthy coterie of plain-clothes cops keeping an eye on things from in front of the stages. Some enterprising folk that climbed up on their friends’ shoulders or even crowd-surfed had green lasers pointed at them and were gestured at furiously by police as photos were taken with large digital cameras, presumably for purposes of evidence-gathering.
The last laugh goes to one disgruntled female fan (see photo above; note particularly the man in blue giving a huge thumbs up) who, for whatever reason, had lost all patience and penned a sign that read (in Chinese), “The organisers are stupid c***s. The divided areas [stage layout?] is a stupid c***. I want a refund.” When told to relinquish the offending material by police, she refused. The authorities gave up and walked away – no doubt they were just as displeased to have been told to spend their Labour Day holiday standing around pretending to work as she was to be told what not to do and how not to do it.