Bedstars at School Bar, Beijing

From Mao to Mohawks

Volume 29: Autumn 2014


Yaogun - China's 'doomsday rock' 


Viktor and his friends are in thrall to Beijing’s new hedonism. They symbolise the possibilities open to Chinese youth who choose to experiment. Viktor is the lead singer in a Beijing-based band called Bedstars and is immersed in China’s underground rock scene. Describing themselves as ‘doomsday rock’, Bedstars’ influences range from the Rolling Stones through the Libertines.



On top of music, Viktor is trying to bring about a sexual revolution in China through his own sex toy company.

Chinese youth are experimenting outside the bedroom as much as they are inside. As an increasingly hedonistic bunch, their slogan could well be carpe diem or, more accurately, carpe noctem. At night, the country’s cities hum to the noise of fancy bars and clubs, underground raves and private parties. People cite New York as the city that never sleeps, but in the twenty-first century such a label should really be awarded to Shanghai first, and Beijing second.

The strict moral codes that were created by Confucius and adapted by the communists are dissolving around China. Since the 1980s, waves of ‘spiritual pollution’ from outside China have washed over the nation’s youth, who have proved more than ready to embrace these influences. Replacing communist jargon and imagery, China’s now-open doors have allowed in new role models, such as pop stars from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US. Young people have stepped out of their Maoist straitjackets and started to enjoy more daring choices in their clothing and lifestyles.

I am scheduled to meet Viktor on a warm Wednesday afternoon. He sends me to a guitar shop in a hip, central area of town. The shop is the smallest in a row of guitar stores – it is barely the size of an average bathroom – and is on a street dominated by dive bars and offbeat boutiques. Guitars cover the tiny wall area and a flag of the Sex Pistols’ album God Save the Queen peeks out from between them. Perched on a tiny plastic stool is John, a scrawny boy with hair dyed dark orange. I quickly deduce he is the band’s drummer. To a soundtrack of jazz, he uses one hand to balance a cigarette and the other to surf through a playlist on his computer. One of his colleagues, Ricky, soon appears.

‘Oh you’re English! You’re English! I have been to England!’ he enthuses. It transpires that Ricky and John are former band-mates in a group called Rustic, which won the Global Battle of the Bands in 2009, a big accolade and one that took them to England. The young men are originally from rural northern China and describe themselves as farm boys. Like other ambitious young people, they moved to the capital to try and make it. This background of struggle features in many of their songs, such as one called ‘Rock ’n’ Roll for Money and Sex’. It is a song about their projected desires, which have arguably come true (though not quite in a Mick Jagger way).

Winning the competition in London was certainly a dream. From their humble beginnings they beat nineteen other countries in a showdown; it was their first time overseas, and they took home a gold trophy and a cash prize worth more than they could ever imagine. Li Fan, another band member, was twenty-one at the time of winning and Ricky was nineteen. No Chinese band had ever done this before.

Ricky points to another poster, also hidden behind guitars on the wall. It is of Rustic back in their glory days.

‘Do you recognise us?’ he asks.

I squint, my eyes flicking back and forward between the two. Ricky is tall and has a pretty face, in an androgynous way. He is wearing Converse shoes, a T-shirt, and despite the temperature being thirty degrees, a pink, purple and yellow jacket. His hair, which is reasonably short, has a subtle purple hue running through and one of his ears is pierced. The aesthetic is not flamboyant. In the poster, on the other hand, three heavily made-up Marilyn Manson types glare into the camera lens. Ricky has hair that makes him look like Edward Scissorhands. The picture bears no resemblance to the happy-go-lucky boys standing in front of me.

As I tell them this, the music changes to electro-rock and John gets up to switch places with Ricky. Ricky moves to the computer and puts on a song for me to listen to. It is Rustic.

‘We sang in English,’ he explains. ‘Bad English!’

‘It’s better to sing in English because it’s more cool. And rock is Western too, so it makes sense. It’s hard writing song lyrics because I’m not a native English speaker. So I have to translate when writing the lyrics,’ he tells me, saying how as a child he would write songs in Chinese, but now he never does.

‘No kids in China care about rock. They’re more into pop. I of course love it because it’s more free. There’s no pretending. Society is more about money now. I think that’s everywhere, though,’ he says, shrugging.

‘What do you think of the rock music culture now?’ I ask.

‘Aged twenty to thirty people in China don’t have a good music culture. At school they teach you how to play music but not what music is. Music should play from the heart. It should be for yourself, not for an audience. In China people like me can’t become really good musicians because there is no music education or innovation. We keep on copying from the West. Maybe one day they [the West] will stop making music and we will catch up. We only started playing in the 1980s, whereas the West started what, the end of the 1940s? So the music scene in China is like the equivalent of the seventies and eighties in the West.’

Ricky pauses, then sighs. ‘Even though I’m turning twenty-five, I’m still poor about music. I wanna know so much more so I’m listening to more. I wanna have my own style eventually.’

It is true that rock music in China is not as old as in the West. It has, however, taken on some unique tones, as Jonathan Campbell describes in his book Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock and Roll. He writes: ‘International media reports on China’s contemporary urban culture – skateboarding, punk music, experimental theatre – abound, but rarely delve beneath the “hey-check-this-out-they’re-doing-stuff-we-did!” quickie. Yes, there was a journey from Mao to mohawks, but as much as the alliteration may work, there’s far more to the story than what’s on the surface.’

Campbell articulates over the course of his book the strange and wonderful quirks of Chinese rock music, which goes by the name of yaogun, a banner used to group many different people and musical styles.

Back in the guitar shop with Ricky, his self-deprecation spreads to the topic of his girlfriend. She works in contemporary art and has different tastes to his. Just as he starts to tell me about how they got together, Viktor shows up. At his side is a girl, waif thin, in teeny hot-pants that leave little to the imagination. Bulky black platforms, a red T-shirt and a dainty bag are thrown into the mix. It is an interesting combination: part athletic, part punk and part princess – Chinese girls having fun with fashion.

We decide to grab a drink on the rooftop of a café around the corner. After walking through a labyrinth of lanes, we arrive at an industrial-chic restaurant. Despite holding a lit cigarette, Viktor walks straight in, ignores the waiter and marches up a narrow flight of stairs to a makeshift rooftop terrace, choosing a table in the corner.

‘I don’t think there’s such a thing called Chinese rock music,’ he tells me, after explaining that his band, Bedstars, is so named because it sounds ‘slutty’.

Viktor was born in Henan, in central China, and raised at a military base, as his dad was an officer. There were lots of other children at the base, which suited Viktor as he had always longed for an older sister to play with. Then, at the age of fifteen, he moved to Beijing, where he has now been for eleven years.

‘I’m a lousy singer and player. For rock music you don’t need skills but passion,’ says Viktor, whose band is known for its head-banging music and crowd surfing. Viktor’s passion comes from noise, lots of it, and beats, he tells me. Most of all, his passion comes from girls.

‘Are girls into rock stars like they are back home?’

‘Nah, the girls here are into pop shit. They don’t wanna date a rock star,’ he says, adding that girls rarely hit on him. ‘It’s because I’m ugly,’ he remarks.

To be honest, Viktor is not the most attractive man I have met. Looks are not working on his side and neither is the music culture of China, which as yet is free from a culture of professional groupies, though some girls are starting to desire people in rock.

‘What do you think about groupies?’ I turn to ask his girlfriend. She has been sitting with us the whole time playing on her phone and chain-smoking. At this question she rolls her eyes.

‘I don’t judge. Everyone has their own life. But I would never act like that myself,’ she says matter-of-factly, an air of condescension around her words.

Viktor and his girlfriend are currently living at his parents’ place. It is a temporary arrangement while the girlfriend, unemployed, applies for jobs. Being a music editor is the dream, she says. Viktor’s parents are OK with the living situation. Like other Chinese parents, their gripe is merely that their son is not yet married, and shows no intention of changing this situation.

The girlfriend’s parents, on the other hand, do not know that she is living with her boyfriend. In fact, they don’t even know she has a boyfriend. They live in the southern province of Hunan. China is depressing, she explains, Hunan particularly so. The province is suffocating as a result of the attitude of the people, who are less tolerant towards difference. Her parents want her to follow a conventional route: make money and get married. Beijing is a more tolerant city and allows her to veer off the beaten track, which is exactly why she has ended up here.

China’s capital is more liberal – that part is true. It is also accommodating of creativity. But only to a degree. Bands come and go and in Beijing, as in the rest of China, guanxi – connections – rule supreme. There is nothing easy about making it in China, even if there are plenty more opportunities.

The stories of struggle from Viktor, his girlfriend and his friends highlight this point. Before moving on to the topic of his sexual revolution, I want to hear a bit more about Viktor’s band. What does he sing about, I ask? Apparently, songs about the life he lives. One song in particular is about the sad and upset faces he sees daily on the subway.

‘The people, they close their eyes. They don’t look happy, even if they might be going back to a home with a wife and kid.’

This is another truth. Rush hour in Beijing is a nightmare, nowhere more so than on the subway, where most of the city’s twenty million-plus workers try to cram onto a system that does not have the capacity. Those with a proclivity to commuter rage are best advised to avoid it. And of course he sings about love, about girls breaking his heart and him breaking theirs. As the conversation steers onto this topic, I look back and forth between Viktor and his girlfriend. She is growing increasingly uncomfortable.

‘I used to sing about drinking too, but now I’ve quit. I hurt people when I drink. I hurt my girlfriend. I kissed another girl right in front of her. Didn’t even remember!’ he says, chuckling to himself as the opposite reaction takes hold of his girlfriend’s face.

‘What do you think about this?’ I ask her.

She stubs out her cigarette and looks away.

What Viktor does not write or sing about is politics, which makes sense if you want your band to survive and avoid government harassment. It’s part of the Faustian bargain: the communist government will grant youth a degree of freedom in their personal lives so long as they don’t ask for too much.

‘I don’t know anything about politics. I don’t care about it. I used to love the idea of China having democracy. But then I think there is no solution. The current government looks ugly. They’re all fat and they look like bad people.’

Bo Xilai is good-looking, I throw into the chat as a counterpoint.

‘There’s a joke in China about his name. It sounds like “bullshit lie”. They’re not stupid, but they give the impression they’re stupid. They’re smart in a bad way,’ Viktor chips in, revealing that perhaps he does care about politics more than he would like to concede. Viktor’s is a common enough stance. The bulk of twenty-somethings in China occupy a middle ground between caring about politics and being completely uninvolved. They can largely see through the indoctrination, they are alert to the key issues, yet they’re unwilling to challenge the status quo. In short, they like democracy as a concept, just not quite now. Now is for fun, for not asking for too much.

I bring up the topic of sex.

Viktor feels somewhat short-changed when it comes to the cliché of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. In China the first two are much less dominant and money is a constant problem. If Viktor continues along the rock music trajectory, he calculates, getting enough money to afford the Beijing rents is unlikely in the near future. The industry is still too underground and, without enough financial support, he will always struggle. Those who are able to stay in the game are often kids who are bankrolled by their parents. He knows of people who haven’t even produced a single record and yet they have their own line of T-shirts and other paraphernalia as they try to copy what they perceive to be norms of the Western music industry.

It’s not all doom and gloom in China’s music industry. For every negative anecdote, there is a counter-example of a good band in China, and the entertainment industry is becoming more diversified. Contrary to the stories that circulate in the national media, and to arguments I have heard from other Chinese, Viktor actually thinks the youth of today are becoming less materialistic. Those born in the 1990s onwards are a different species from those born in the 1980s, immediately after the opening-up, he believes. They have different wants, different music tastes and – interestingly – different bedroom habits.

Unwilling to put all his energy into just music, Viktor has found another avenue to channel his interests and ambitions: the sex-toy industry. Viktor is currently in the process of starting an online sex store, which will sell toys and kinky underwear. For him, a revolution is underway and the revolution comes in the form of a dildo.

Online is the perfect platform in China for something sexy, he tells me. Chinese people are still very conservative. Walking into a store is embarrassing; online avoids that. So embarrassed are the Chinese about their sex lives that, according to his calculations, condoms will be the biggest sellers. The condoms at the cashiers are decorative; people rarely want to buy them so publicly.

‘When you walk on the street everyone looks like a virgin, but they all have sex. I did a survey of porno sites and discovered many career people doing kinky, perverted things,’ he exclaims, leaning across the table and looking me straight in the eyes.

‘Shi hen ku’ – ‘It’s very cool’ his girlfriend chips in, ku being a loanword from its English counterpart.

It is hard to tell if Viktor’s idea really is that revolutionary. Beijing is littered with sex stores. Others cottoned on to the market potential a while back. As for the demand side, people must be frequenting these stores to keep them in business. Chinese people can’t all be as shy as Viktor assumes.

Later on, with this in mind, I venture into one myself. The shop assistant looks at me with utmost suspicion when I start asking a series of questions. He’s frugal with information, only revealing that the shop has an even split of foreign and Chinese customers (I am the only customer in there at the time). The shop is not far from some major hotels, and also stocks fancy dress, which might explain the even split. My suspicions are that elsewhere in the city, the ratio of Chinese to foreigners would be higher.

A cursory glance elsewhere reveals that the sex-toy market in China is booming. While most people do not partake in one-night stands or have the number of partners that their youthful counterparts have in the West, they are becoming increasingly adventurous and this translates into a sex-toy industry in full swing. China is estimated to make 80 per cent of the world’s sex toys, with one million people employed in the industry. In the past these products have largely left the country. Now they’re staying put.

Adam and Eve was the first ever sex-toy store in China, opening in Beijing in 1993. Two decades later Beijing houses more than 2,000 sex stores. Definitive figures for the size of China’s sex-toy market are difficult to come by, but some speculate. For example, a 2012 article in Chinese business magazine The Founder places it at $16 billion (£10.5 billion). The domestic market is on the up, with the Chinese version of men’s magazine GQ calculating the market’s annual growth at 63.9 per cent.

This says nothing of online, Viktor’s future office. If you go onto Taobao, China’s equivalent of eBay, you find thousands of stores willing to cater to the sexually curious or deviant. How does Viktor intend to differentiate himself? Apparently by reversing the trend: importing foreign toys.

‘China is the factory of the world and things made here are bad quality. People want good quality. They will pay more,’ he says with conviction.

Viktor raises a good point. Quality control is a huge issue in modern China. The world should be worried. Exploding vibrators do not sound safe.

With this image in mind, I speak to Brian Sloan, an American who moved to China several years ago to export sex toys to the West. Does he have issues with quality control, I ask him? Not really, he responds quickly.

‘Quality control is handled the same as with any other product. For large orders I would use a secondary inspection company to do their own QC. Normally the factory handles it by itself. The factories who make sex toys do not want to make dangerous products, because then they wouldn’t have repeat customers.’

Sloan explains that his clients have different quality-level requirements. They can use extremely safe or relatively less safe materials.

‘But I don’t think anyone would make something totally unsafe to use. The safeness of materials relate mostly to how easy they are to clean and what chemicals are in them.’ Condoms are a totally different industry he adds, one that Sloan is not involved in. Stories of ‘faulty’ condoms have made headlines regularly, and these stories are not limited to China’s borders. In April 2013 more than 110 million faulty Chinese-made condoms were seized in Ghana. The condoms had holes and burst easily. In another condom-related news story, police in China confiscated over two million condoms that were being palmed off as Durex, Contex and Jissbon, a popular brand whose name is meant to sound like James Bond. Importing real Durex isn’t such a bad idea in light of this.

Viktor thinks that at least those that he mocks so much – the rich kids with no idea – will go in for more exclusive sex products. He is light-hearted when it comes to China’s various scandals, brushing them off with humour. He pokes fun at the fact that he will potentially die younger in Beijing (recent statistics say that those living in north China should expect to live for 5.5 years fewer than their southern counterparts because of air quality). He jokes that living amidst low-level toxicity, as he calls it, makes him stronger.

‘Have you heard about the tour group of Chinese and Japanese people visiting India? The Japanese get ill but the Chinese are fine because they’re immune,’ he says, laughing.

His girlfriend, meanwhile, is less amused by it all. ‘It’s depressing . . . in every way,’ she says, stamping out the fifteenth cigarette she has smoked since I met them.

I finally want to know what the pair thinks their future will entail. Will they get married and appease their parents? The girlfriend is a romantic, wanting the till-death-do-us-part bit. Viktor is more a cold realist: ‘If you love each other it doesn’t matter if you get married. It’s just for economy. My mum is so worried. She’s always saying, “Why can’t you be like other people? All I want is you to be normal!” I tell her my future is unwritten.’

 I playfully joke that they are both almost twenty-six and the clock is ticking, especially for the girl. ‘Sheng nu tick-tock tick-tock!’

‘Fuck them who care about sheng nu!’ Viktor spits, growling at the waiter for the bill.

Done with coffee, we head back to the guitar shop. We walk past a new bar and Viktor pauses, peering through the window.

‘I thought you no longer drank because it makes you misbehave?’ I enquire.

‘Yeah, and because I’m on medication. Me, my mother and my girlfriend are all on anti-depressants. We are all depressed! My mother is depressed because she is so disappointed that her son is in a profession that earns no money, that I dropped out of school and that I am not interested in marriage. My girlfriend is depressed because I keep on cheating on her. And I’m depressed because my mum and girlfriend are depressed. My dad, though, he’s a happy man.’


Pharmaceutical drugs and cigarettes aside, one of the topics that Viktor and I have not discussed is recreational drugs. I suspect that, if we had, our conversation would have been lively.

Jonathan Campbell documents the rise of recreational drugs in Red Rock. Drugs and rock go hand in hand in China as much as they do elsewhere. With more relaxed borders, increased wealth and greater individual freedoms, drug taking is becoming a permanent fixture within certain pockets of Chinese society. In an anonymous survey I conducted as research for this book, sent out to fifty people ranging from eighteen to thirty, 16 per cent of the respondents said they either had done drugs or knew someone who had. Most – 96 per cent – said they didn’t think taking drugs was cool, though they were evenly divided over whether drug users should be punished or not. Marijuana was singled out as OK, particularly if used for medicinal purposes.

Such mixed reactions were also displayed back in August 2008, when news of the ‘Lost Heart’ blog hit the press. It was penned by an eighteen-year-old girl suffering from drug addiction and suicidal tendencies. When you click into the website, electronic music starts to play, the groaning and heavy breathing of a man imitating a woman then takes over and the following caption appears: ‘The room has been booked, the foil placed, the ice pipe prepared. The fire is burning, the ice is running, let’s start, shall we?’

The site is filled with images of gaunt girls and heavily tattooed men snorting drugs through straws. The reaction to the blog was mixed. Some expressed sympathy for the blogger and her friends, relating that they too knew drug users; others expressed horror that this was going on and even called for a search to find those who were fuelling her addiction. The girl spoke of Triad members, and people were keen to chase the online paper trail.

Several years later, illegal drugs are moving away from the margins of the blogosphere and closer to the centre of youthful socialising. The increased popularity of drugs is certainly evident in Beijing. Getting drugs in the city is easy. You only need to head to Sanlitun, a central going-out area, and men peddling drugs will probably approach you. While these men rarely solicit Chinese rather than expats, sources tell me that scoring drugs is not difficult for locals either. If some of the parties I have been to are anything to go by, I can believe that.

Until recently heroin has been the drug of choice when it comes to Class A drugs, with marijuana being widespread in both ‘druggy’ and ‘non-druggy’ circles. Then, around 2010, synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine, ecstasy and ketamine, and other hard drugs such as cocaine, started to compete in popularity. The drugs are coming from North Korea, international transport hubs and home-grown labs. Young, wealthy urbanites as well as rural youth are the main users, with people under thirty-five making up more than 80 per cent of all addicts.

Meth, ‘ice’, is becoming particularly common, most notably within the gay community. A friend tells me: ‘They all ask on Jack’d [a gay social network] if you want to have fun and if you have any ice, at which point I usually block them or say goodbye.’

During my first time in a gay club in China, back in 2006 in Shanghai, the room was full of patrons snorting poppers. Experimentation has now migrated to meth. Crystal meth is commonly referred to as bing, meaning ice, and ‘doing meth’ is called liu bing, or ‘ice skating’. Initially it was confined to the rural hinterland. It took off amongst populations not previously pegged as drug users, such as truck drivers, who smoked it to stay awake for days on long-distance journeys. Now it’s starting to penetrate urban areas as a party and sex drug. Its increased popularity is in part due to the ease with which it could be made and obtained in the country. Ephedra sinica, the shrub that is used in meth production, is native to the country. The plant has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine. Other ingredients and tools are also readily available. Crucially, China is a huge source of precursor chemicals such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are also used to create methamphetamine.

The government’s expectedly harsh line on drugs continues a long tradition. China has bitter memories of the opium wars, which took place in the middle of the nineteenth century, and holds those historical figures who fought against it in high esteem. Lin Zexu, a Qing dynasty official who initiated a war against British opium when most Chinese authorities tacitly allowed it, remains widely honoured and respected in China. Modern Chinese attitudes towards drugs, at least amongst the older generations, contain strains of Lin’s approach. The puritanical view is visible even in the contours of Chinese censorship. On social media, searches for marijuana and specific slang for other drugs such as ketamine are blocked, perhaps owing to the increased use of the Internet to facilitate drug deals. But, like its policy on sex education, more often than not the government embarks on half-measures. For example, regarding meth in particular, ID is required for people buying medicines containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, and caps are placed on how much consumers can purchase at any one time. Enforcement is patchy, though, and plenty of pharmacies circumvent the rules.

Several local governments are also coming up with creative ways to combat usage. Sponsoring online dialogue and information campaigns, especially those targeted at youth, is one such way. In the city of Tianjin next to Beijing, for example, various civic organisations have partnered with the city government to host a viral anti-drug campaign on Weibo, asking youth to repost anti-drug messages to three of their friends. Participants are entered in a raffle for the chance to win an iPad, iPods and other electronic goods. The campaigns are not just about curbing drug use; they are about curbing misinformation. Myths that certain drugs are not addictive, that they help with weight loss and improve sexual prowess are all circulating, adding to the appeal of drugs amongst China’s youth.

Even though drug-taking is not quite on the same scale as in the US and UK, everything needs to be put in perspective. The twentieth century in China saw an eradication of the country’s opium past. Only twenty-five years ago, narcotics and illicit drug use were practically unheard of. When they were mentioned, it would invite consternation. Herein lies an irony: the escalation of drug use amongst Chinese kids has been provoked by the country’s relatively drug-free past. While my parents, for example, might not have been experimenting with acid at Woodstock, they were still children of the 1960s and 1970s and all that entailed. Not so for the parents in China, who had zero exposure to drugs as they were growing up. The result is once again discord between children and parents, with the latter offering minimal empathy and guidance to the former.


Viktor, his girlfriend and I soon arrive at the guitar shop. A girl is outside, clad in school uniform and looking roughly the age of ten. She is screaming at her mum, saying she wants to watch TV. Her mother is screaming back at her saying she needs to do her homework. Viktor laughs, likening the situation to his own childhood, and I am reminded once again that for all the change in China, there is still continuity.

With that I unchain my bike, which is parked outside. Viktor starts gossiping with his band-mate and friends, who are both in the same spot where I had left them earlier. More cigarettes are lit and, to a background of screams and laughter, I cycle off into the night.


‘Mao to Mohawks’ is extracted from Little Emperors and Material Girls (I. B. Tauris 2015).


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