A curated spread of new Chinese music from sparkling electronica to soulful folk.
Early last year, I started to search out music from Wuhan to refresh my sense of the city as a vibrant hub for indie music, rather than just the epicentre of a devastating pandemic.
I’d never been to Wuhan, but when I worked in China as a reporter, my colleagues kept filing story after story about the city’s music scene, and I had always planned to check it out myself one day.
Obviously, coronavirus has killed that dream for now, so instead I moved my itinerary online, exploring artists and labels from all over China.
Now, as we approach two years of Australia’s international borders being closed, music remains one of the only ways we can travel.
Here in Melbourne, I’m in lockdown number six with no end in sight. But if I close my eyes, for the length of a track I can pretend I’m in a sweaty crowd, somewhere else, carried by the rhythm.
Chinese Football – ‘Summer Fling’
Let’s start in Wuhan with Chinese Football, a local math rock band that’s also amassed a decent international following.
Their band name is both a homage to American Football – an emo outfit from Illinois – and a running joke about how crap the Chinese men’s national soccer team is.
This sunny, emo-tinged pop track will tug the heartstrings of anyone who was at high school in the noughties.
Lonely Cookies – ‘Eastlake Swimming’
Labelmates to Chinese Football on Wild Records, Lonely Cookies continue the ‘teenagers in love’ vibe we’ve got happening here with a pouty indie pop number that laments, ‘love is really weird, wish I could break open your brain‘.
Also, the animated video clip features a human skateboard.
Wutiaoren – ‘Sea Breeze’
Moving down to China’s south coast, Wutiaoren sing in both Mandarin and their mother tongue, the local language of Haifeng (which is a homophone for ‘haifeng’ – ‘sea breeze’).
They sing about factories, bars, and working-class life in small coastal cities, and you can almost feel the salt in the air and the beat-up scooters whizzing past.
There’s something so spellbinding about their narrative-heavy folk ballads – even when I don’t understand the lyrics.
Re-TROS – ‘At Mosp Here’
Forgive them their penchant for deconstructing words as if they’re writing chapter titles for a philosophy thesis: Re-TROS make addictive, sophisticated music.
Made up of husband-and-wife team Hua Dong and Liu Min and drummer Huang Jin, the band have been around for over 15 years and even toured Australia back in 2011, but they’ve also acquired many new fans recently after appearing on the hit TV show, The Big Band.
Hua used to study in Germany and there’s clearly an industrial German influence on both their sound and aesthetic. A great soundtrack for just about anything.
Shii – ‘Bubble’
This glitchy, glittery track from Shii‘s 2019 debut album feels like sparks going off inside my mind.
A solo electronic artist from Wuhan, Shii recently participated in a digital exchange with Melbourne-based duo The Merindas as part of the Asialink sonicbridge program – you can see all the videos from that project on YouTube.
Muzzy Mum – ‘I Don’t Understand the Era’
This anthem of modern-day malaise comes from Muzzy Mum‘s 2020 album, I Hate Winter, New Year and Red Light Runners.
The catchy ‘everything sucks’ chorus makes it perfect for lockdown number six.
Jiafeng – ‘Useless Cuteness’
It’s no surprise that Jiafeng‘s hyperpop aesthetic speaks to me: the Shanghai-based producer is also a vlogger and multimedia artist whose work draws heavily from computer games, Y2K graphics, internet nostalgia and intertextual irony.
For instance, he uses lyrics purchased online, his last album came with its own dance simulation game, and his vlogs feature things that toe the line between pranks and performance art – such as using Taobao’s reverse image search on artworks in the Shanghai Biennale to try to buy similar-looking objects.
It’s really silly and really fun. But also, this song is a banger and the soaring chorus of ‘cuteness is useless‘ serves an apt retort whenever anyone tries to charm you.
彭喜悦tingting – ‘咬你(Bite You)’
This track appears on Shanghai label Eating Music’s second annual compilation in 2020 and it’s furious and sexy.
All three compilations are available on Bandcamp and they’re a great way to sample new Chinese music.
SMZB – ‘Three Women’
SMZB are known for leading Wuhan’s punk vanguard, back in the day – but this track from their 2020 album is a moving story of three generations of women, stripped back to vocals and minimal instrumentation.
Kaishandao – ‘Driving in Fafa’s Car’
Aotearoa-born, Chengdu-based Kaishandao blends mindfulness therapy instruction and eddying swirls of sound on this track, the last one on her 2021 album, Homeland. It’s convincing, transporting, and comforting.
Jinghua Qian is a writer and critic living in the Kulin nations and a reporter for ABC’s China Tonight.