I’ll See Myself Out: Notes on That Time I Square Danced to Chinese Punk Music in the Park


I’d like 6 jin of chicken hair clips, please. Xie xie.


Back  in the early 1990s, back when I was an untravelled granola crunchy uni student living on an island off the west coast of Canada, I wrote a rather long and rambling term paper on the history of Chinese rock music. At that time, it spanned the vast period between 1985 when Wham! played in Beijing (with Higher Cadre dudes in the front row, bewildered) and 1989 (when that thing that never happened happened). In between, Cui Jian sang some things that went over well with some people, but not with others.

My prof scrawled on the back page something along the lines of “Although I generally hate rock music,  this was actually really interesting and original. Would you like to present it at blah blah blah conference?” Being a terrified and shy 19 year old with no academic aspirations beyond curiosity, survival and making shit up at the last minute, I of course said no. And that was that.

I didn’t really hear much about the Chinese music scene after that, though I kept my 1993 curiosity firmly in mind when I moved here in 2009.

Nothing came of it.

The relatively uninspiring Shanghai music scene combined with my rather incompatible work schedule meant my social life revolved around coffee, wine, food, conversation, with a smattering of long walks thrown in.

The music I listened to was pretty much all confined to my iPod



So yeah, modern China.


Twenty years after writing that term paper, I found myself sitting on a blanket on the grass in Century Park in Pudong, about two blocks away from my first Chinese flat, listening to the Subs and watching in awe as a mosh pit formed and crowd surfers started whizzing across its surface. People were dancing. People were shouting, fists pumping. Energy was palpable. It was noisy and chaotic and powerful.

It didn’t feel like I was in Shanghai any more.

This was something new.



Normally this only happens in the People’s Square metro station at peak time


The fact that I was hearing live music that wasn’t traditional Peking opera or a Filipino bar band was mind blowing. The fact that the crowds were actually visibly excited and expressing, like, passion was rare and amazing.



Neither Peking Opera nor bar band


I turned to my companions on the blanket and whispered, in awe, ‘This is truly the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in this country”.

There was nodding all around.

For those of you not living in China, you might think, pah, you obviously haven’t been out much.

And I suppose that’s true, to a degree.

The thing is, for the past four years, what I’ve heard has mostly been the following: treacly Sino pop in restaurants (turned down low enough to be muzak), familiar western hits in laowai joints, soft and floaty tai chi background soundtracks, annoyingly motivational marching music during break time at some universities interspersed with barking commands to exercise, Filipino cover bands.



No, foot up YOU rock, dumb ass!


I remember being in an elevator in Bangkok a few years ago and suddenly feeling like something very odd was going on. Then I realized they had piped in super groovy funky dance music and my body was automatically starting to move to it.

That doesn’t exactly ever happen here.

My students here never really talked much about music, nor did any of the thousands of exam candidates I’ve interviewed over the years. If they said anything, they generally noted their vague fondness for American hip hop or their preference for soft, quiet music (so , and I quote, ‘I can relax myself‘).  Oh, and there was that girl up in Jinan who wryly admitted that she was secretly fond of synth pop. I liked her.

At one point a few years ago, I stumbled upon a couple of my students during the lunch break in the meeting room next to my office at Tongji University. They were rehearsing a dance routine for a school performance, a paradigm shifting mix of Chinese opera masks and moves and some surreally appropriate Kanye West.  It was awesome and I told them so. I think about that often still because it stood out so much amongst the fluffy pop and cover bands.


A million years ago in a dozen different countries, I used to go out a lot to see live bands and to dance until it was ludicrously late in the morning.


In Istanbul, my bare feet used to get hideously grey from dancing to African and reggae bands on breezy roof top terraces over the Bosporus, heaving with throngs of blissed out Turks and foreigners.

In Ireland and England, I spent far too much of my meagre earnings on going to gigs in places so small you could only see the top or bottom half of the performer (I’m looking at you, 12 Bar Club in London!). I got muddy at festivals. I stayed up well past my bedtime in clubs, then went to work later that morning with under-eye bags so vast they could hold your laundry.

In Canada, I followed my family on our annual pilgrimages to a ton of rather groovy music festivals around British Columbia, adding proud musical notches to my non-sexual groupie bedpost.



The music is just over there, to the left


In China, not so much.

Music became an internal feature of my life, rather than an external, social aspect. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone out dancing. It certainly wasn’t in Shanghai.

A huge part of myself and what I loved had been quietly moved out of my core and placed somewhere over there on a shelf, half forgotten.

And there we were, on that blanket at the MIDI Festival in Century Park, heart bursting from unexpected joy from being surrounded by that familiar energy again.

I had brief neurotic fears that I was enjoying it so much because I was going to turn 39 in a few months and that this was all just some predictable and pathetic mid-life crisis and I was just desperately clinging onto my long lost youth, etc, etc.

Flashes of horror that I was just a stereotypical dork edging towards 40, trying to recapture my lost youth.

(Blah blah blah)

Then I stopped to think about it a bit more carefully and decided, faaaack, it’s not sad or pathetic to remember who you are and what you love.

It’s not a mid-life crisis if you find yourself delving back into the things that made you really happy at any age in the past and which still (yay!) make you happy now.

I was just going back to me, recognizing those parts I’d thought I’d lost or left behind.  Reclaiming them. Planting that flag again that says, yo, here be dragons. Or whatever your flag says.

I had a strangely euphoric feeling of coming home, of finally being myself in my own skin again after years of not quite fitting in and trying to fit into mental and emotional spaces that weren’t right.

So we all danced. On the grass, grooving until after dusk. To techno, to punk, to thrash, to weird random percussive chaos involving pots and pans. Then we went to a ridiculously cheesy new-money night club on Hengshan Lu and danced until the taxi meters doubled their rates, dodging broken glass on the runway dance floor and the hired dancers wearing gimp masks and PVC bondage gear.



Not one of Madame Mao’s sanctioned revolutionary operas, but close enough.


And it was great.

Thank you, Shanghai.



Probably ending up on Weibo after iPhone paparazzi surrounded us while we square danced to thrash.




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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.