S01 Episode 3: Ryuichi Sakamoto Cringe / Xiao Hai Goes to RMB City
Who ate all the iconoclasts + When VR feels warmer than reality + 5/5 😈 inner Mongolian metal
In the house this week: Simon, Jaime, Xiao Hai, Krish, Caiwei, Xuandi, Yi-Ling, Tianyu, and Caiwei.
Krish: Welcome to Episode 3. This one is a tragedy in two parts about “imagination”—featuring an opening act about why it's so hard for a certain kind of artistic movement to emerge in China today, then a denouement about who gets to see it even if it does.
Tianyu: The next two episodes after this one will be a little bit different. Next week, we'll be posting our open call for pitches and commissions, and the following week will be our first deep-dive special for paid subscribers only.
Krish: For our first story, Simon Frank considers the strange, intense fandom in China around Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. Known globally as a pioneer of electronic pop music (he was one of the members of Yellow Magic Orchestra) and his stirring soundtrack work (notably the 2015 film The Revenant), Sakamoto is an unusual object of pop-idol-esque obsession. Yet a strange combination of music history, cultural quirks and visions of the future combine to elevate his gentle music to super stardom.
Those same factors weave into our second story, where Jaime asks the poet Xiao Hai: "What had to happen for Virtual Reality to feel more empathetic than the real world?"
By Simon Frank
Simon: A few months ago, when Chaoyang Trap was transforming from an aspirational PowerPoint into a newsletter, I pitched Krish on writing something about the uses and abuses of Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto (坂本龙一) within China’s cultural scene—basically, how through no fault of his own, he is desperately clung to by tastemakers trying to preserve their own relevancy and has inspired a fandom that seems to be the antithesis of his calm, refined aesthetic. This was bubbling into visibility because of the excitement around Sakamoto’s sound installation exhibition “seeing sound hearing time,” which was set to open on March 15 at M WOODS Hutong (木木美术馆) in Beijing.
Krish: You can make a pretty reasonable case that most “culture wars” on the Chinese internet are just battling fandoms. Sakamoto’s stands apart because this model of intense fan culture—usually reserved for pop idols—is transposed here to an experimental musician, one whose work has resisted bite-sized commodification and drip-feed worship. Yet it’s taken root, complete with a lucrative market for anything Sakamoto-adjacent. In 2019, his team even had to issue an official statement directed at fans in China, urging them not to believe anyone who claimed to be Sakamoto’s disciple.
The exhibition opening turned tragic, and a little weird. On March 9, a worker died after falling from the museum’s roof, a week before the scheduled opening. After days of silence, during which anger grew online at the museum’s active “management” of negative comments on Weibo, M WOODS and Sakamoto’s official social media accounts expressed their condolences and announced that in remembrance, the exhibition opening would be delayed.
Behind the scenes, you could see a classic instance of battling fandoms. M WOODS itself is an institution built like a pop idol, the epitome of wanghong (网红), an aesthetic designed to be a magnet for social media influencers. That, in turn, has bred a highly motivated group of M WOODS haters, driven both by the perceived shallowness of everything wanghong and a twisted misogyny against co-founder Wanwan, an art collector and model responsible for the museum’s online clout. In between was Sakamoto’s own fandom, torn between defending their idol’s reputation and salvaging a chance to see his life’s work. While the cause of justice for the worker’s death was taken up by a few activists, in music circles this tension mostly manifested as an uncomfortable silence as the issue raged. In days, the tragedy that sparked it was abstracted away as a vague “incident.”
After further radio silence, M WOODS finally announced over WeChat on Friday March 19 that the exhibition was now open—without any mention of the events that led to the new opening date.
Simon: Without being disrespectful towards the deceased and this sad situation in general, I thought it might still be meaningful to ask how we got here. Sakamoto’s exhibition was hugely ambitious, bringing in technicians from overseas in the middle of the pandemic who underwent weeks of quarantine. So what makes him such an attractive figure that this exhibition had to go ahead? Why not just work with a Chinese sound artist, when institutions face not only logistical issues but also a not-not-nationalistic cultural climate?
To be clear, though the cultural scene may have a Ryuichi Sakamoto problem, there’s no problem with the man himself: his music is great, he’s stylish, and by all accounts a nice guy. It goes without saying that I hope he makes a speedy recovery from his recent bout of cancer. Nor is it too hard to see his specific appeal in China. His long career has intersected with the country at a few key points: before he achieved stardom in the synth pop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra, his 1978 debut album featured a Mao Zedong poem read through a vocoder, and quoted from the melody of “The East is Red” (东方红); as an actor he came to China to film The Last Emperor (末代皇帝) in the late 80s; and he performed in Beijing in 1996. So not only do indie kids embracing Bubble-era Japanese “city pop” love him, but so do an older generation of promoter-curator types excited that someone they remember from an earlier era is still relevant. That his music is now mostly field recording-driven ambient doesn’t actually hurt: though very good, it’s also easy to reach for if you want to appear to be a serious, intellectual person who listens to experimental music.
So where do things go too far? Sakamoto has inspired a highly specific kind of adulation, which, when closely examined, reveals gaps in China’s own music industry. His nickname in Japan since the Yellow Magic Orchestra days has been “Professor,” a moniker that has also been embraced in China, and even popped up in M WOODS’ marketing materials. But if Sakamoto is the Professor, what has China’s music scene learned from him?
Caiwei: It's worth pointing out that many of China's pop idols claim to be inspired by Sakamoto, and it would not take a lot of backtracking for Chinese pop music fans to discover Sakamoto as the “idol of their idol."
Yi-Ling: I’m fascinated by the idea that 1) adulation of a non-Chinese artist in China, is ultimately rooted in 2) a gap in the Chinese industry. Which begs the question: why can China never have its own Professor Sakamoto? Which in turn makes me wonder, why does it seem like, when it comes to cultural conversations about China, that we are always asking some iteration of the question of: “why can China not have its own...Chanel/ Kendrick Lamar /Burning Man/ Oscar’s/ [insert globally recognized cultural icon/artifact that somehow, in spite of its population of 1 billion, China is incapable of producing]? Chinese hip-hop, in particular, consistently asks a variation of the question, "Can China produce its own Kendrick Lamar?"
So what is the secret sauce missing in the cultural ecosystem that won’t allow homegrown icons to rise to the surface?
Simon: On one level, the answer is obvious: the infrastructure for commercial popular music in mainland China was limited at the time when Sakamoto’s career began, and it would have been financially impossible for someone to experiment with the cutting-edge electronic equipment he used. But things are different now—so why does the enthusiasm of tastemakers like Beijing radio DJ Zhang Youdai (张有待), who has been trumpeting his “friendship” with Sakamoto since the 1990s, give the exhibition the air of a “homecoming?” Why is Sakamoto’s tacit acknowledgment still so important?
There are actually examples closer to home of people pop enough to be famous and arty enough to be respected, yet for a variety of reasons none of them seem perfectly “professorial.” Faye Wong (王菲) arguably remains Greater China’s hippest pop star, but from a business perspective is too big for the projects Sakamoto is involved in (and after recording the theme song to a propaganda film in 2019, maybe shouldn’t be considered that cool?). Dou Wei (窦唯), who was briefly married to Wong in the 90s, seems particularly Sakamoto-esque, for how he started his career with a hair metal boy band (黑豹乐队, Black Panther) in the late 80s before recording goth/post punk tracks in the early 90s, and then shifting gears again into post rock, ambient, and even Buddhist black metal. But today he doesn’t perform live, and far from being renowned as a handsome older gentleman, is known as a slob who loves unhealthy Beijing breakfast and hates paparazzi. Thinking about Sakamoto’s soundtrack work, pop star turned experimental electronic composer Lim Giong (林強) immediately comes to mind—except he’s actually from Taiwan.
Caiwei: Fun fact: Wong’s song “What if You Are Fake (如果你是假的)” in her 2000 studio album Fable made a direct reference to Sakamoto in the lyrics:
“What if you look like Snoopy,
What if you are Mary, Julie or Charlie,
or Ban Ben Long Yi [Ryuichi Sakamoto],
Does it make any difference,
Will I still love you,
Will it be as sweet?”
Simon: To be fair, this type of problem isn’t unique to China. The way popular culture works has changed, and while there are more “weird” celebrities now, it’s probably harder for figures to emerge who, like Sakamoto or David Bowie, hold a wide appeal across multiple niche cultures. However, the Chinese culture industry’s obsession with Sakamoto, while being unable to produce their own equivalent (and not due to any lack of raw talent), is a bit embarrassing and speaks to the degree to which the scene eats its own young.
The iconoclasts of the 90s, an era of relative openness, didn’t have the chance to age gracefully, either selling out (Faye Wong) or opting out (Dou Wei). Pivoting back, the Mao quote on Sakamoto’s first album didn’t come out of nowhere, but rather from a tradition of left wing student activism in Japan. Though his views have changed, he remains an intensely political artist, rallying against nuclear power for example. This social consciousness lends a certain depth to his celebrity, perhaps making being his fan seem more meaningful. Taking such a stance in China, however, would amount to commercial suicide.
Today, when mainstream music is mostly a spectacle, and indie and experimental music are increasingly commodified as lifestyle experiences, one is left with a scene that possesses a considerable amount of money and creativity, yet struggles to present new icons that people genuinely connect with. This leads people to reach for compromise figures with wide appeal across different fandoms like Sakamoto, whose participation as an elder statesman also implicitly suggests that the scene is alive and exciting.
Yet working with someone from a different generation and culture opens up space for tension and accidents, or can be a missed opportunity to challenge a Chinese artist to grow to the next level. But perhaps that’s missing the point of Sakamoto’s appeal—coming from another context entirely, he floats above the humdrum compromises and endless negotiation that go into being a star in China. Unblemished by unfortunate realities, he lets us imagine something better.
(Full disclosure, Simon works at the contemporary art museum UCCA in Beijing.)
Krish: The power of music plays a key part in our second story, which addresses this idea of "imagination" and the sources of hope in art. One of my favourite films is Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis, a magical realist documentary that sees the city of Old Delhi through the eyes of its working class, reshaping physical and psychological space to reflect their dreams and desires.
I was reminded of it recently at Beijing's UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, currently showing a huge retrospective of Chinese multimedia artist Cao Fei. In 2006, Cao Fei shot a speculative video called “Whose Utopia” at a light bulb factory in the Pearl River Delta, staging the dreams and desires of line workers at the factory alongside the routine tedium of their jobs.
In the village of Picun on the outskirts of Beijing is a remarkable institution called the Migrant Workers' Museum, where a banner across the entrance reads:
"Without our culture, we have no history, without our history, we have no future.”
Picun is also home to the Picun Writer's Group, an artists collective of migrant workers who are attempting to articulate their culture, their history, and yes, their dreams and desires, within a system not used to hearing them expressed.
This next story is the through-line connecting them all. Last week, Jaime invited Picun-based poet and former factory worker Xiao Hai to see Cao Fei's work at UCCA, and share his reflections on art and imagination.
Jaime: Thank you, Simon, for reclaiming “imagination” because that’s exactly what I hope the conversation with Xiao Hai would locate, the knowledge that something good can still exist.. What does it mean for him, a poet and former migrant worker, when there is an artist out there whose o-e-u-v-r-e is based largely on the plight of his life? I have deep fatigue for the words “imagination” and “possibilities” in creative contexts, especially when they are often signs of a lazy lack of rigor or faith in specificities in contemporary art. And maybe it is also the poverty of realists and privilege that makes me skeptical of art projects that suggest “possibilities” without defining what the enabling conditions are. Sakamoto fandom and the broken links in Chinese contemporary art/music/cultural productions are perfect examples of how talking about conditions is more useful than naming the thing—just think about how quickly the term “involution” has been drained in the discourse.
Interview translated from Chinese.
Jaime: The first thing Xiao Hai (小海) mentioned when we met up was that one time he slept on a bench outside UCCA in the summer of 2016, when he first arrived in Beijing. He didn’t have a place to stay at the time, but he wanted to do something with art. He spent the night outside the museum after being kicked out of an internet café. There were a lot of mosquitoes, and at around six or seven in the morning, he got up and moved to another spot to lie in the sun. Months later, he found a job as a server at Schindler’s in 798. He now works at a charity second-hand clothing store near Picun (皮村).
I first saw Xiao Hai in a documentary last winter about a troupe of former workers putting on a play in Picun. That night, he surprised the filmmaker by showing up to the screening at Fruityspace and spontaneously shared a poem he wrote while he was walking around the Shichahai lakeside during the day. He struck me as someone who enjoys looking at new things, someone who will keep returning if he sees something he likes. I asked him if he wanted to see the exhibition of Cao Fei’s works at UCCA and thank god, he said yes.
Xiao Hai: I was shook.
Jaime: Did you manage to see everything?
Xiao Hai: Pretty much. I didn’t finish some of the videos, but I went back to watch my favorite ones two or three times.
Jaime: Which were your favorite ones?
Xiao Hai: Watching the VR video (“The Eternal Wave,” 2020) with the headset really hit different. It was so real; I had never seen movies like this before. The details were incredible, like the smoke rising from the cigarette on the table. They even give you a movie ticket inside the virtual reality cinema. And then there’s a woman who would start talking to you. Everyone is so lonely and aimless in real life, so imagine when all of a sudden, someone from a virtual world is paying attention to you. You sit there and listen to her as she confides in you, like a real friend. That was such a magical feeling, what the hell. You know it’s virtual, but it feels more real than reality.
Jaime: What do you mean by “more real than reality”?
Xiao Hai: For some reason I just felt this warmth. Even though it’s a virtual scene, it felt warm. It could also be because I am not usually exposed to this kind of virtual world. The things I follow are usually too real—very cruel, very hard, very painful things that make you feel lost, tired, lonely, and even things that break you down. You know I am not a gamer, right? So I don’t usually come into contact with the virtual, but this kind of virtual world feels more meaningful and poetic than gaming. I wanted to watch it the third time before I left, but I was afraid that the museum staff would get sick of me.
Jaime: Did it inspire you to start gaming?
Xiao Hai: Not gaming per se, but it really inspired me to think differently. Maybe I could be more open and go wild in my poetry or creativity. Cao Fei's lens cracks open a very wide landscape. I learned so much from her works.
Jaime: In your own reading habits, are you usually more drawn to non-fiction or fiction?
Xiao Hai: More non-fiction. You know the ancient saying “actors are heartless, but singers mean what they sing” (戏子无情 歌者有意). I didn’t even know about non-fiction at first, I only listened to music. I mean, I was fifteen and a half when I went to work in the factories in Shenzhen. I never finished secondary school. I had no outlook on life and no value system. I just followed the flow and went to the south.
I started listening to rock music around that time—I had no money for novels and no time to read—and started to become more aware of the reality around me and my own plight. I kept thinking, well, working in the factories was one path to achieve my dreams. I wanted to be free, I didn’t want to live like this, but I didn’t know exactly what kind of life I wanted, what freedom even meant.
To go back even further, I didn’t like to watch cartoons when I was child. I would rather listen to music; the emotions are more direct. But the fictional in the exhibition is different in the way it intersects and integrates with reality. It’s a fiction that could become reality decades or centuries later.
Jaime: Does this evocation of the future feel like a form of hope to you?
Xiao Hai: The treatment of how the artwork embellishes reality, I feel like it opened up a really colorful and dynamic world: maybe there are other sides to our world that are not just what we see in front of us. It’s not always sad and confused and trapped. And then perhaps it would eventually lead to hope…like you said, maybe you can see a new hope. It’s hard to say if that hope is real or fake, but I would rather believe that it exists.
Jaime: Do you recognize yourself in the imagination of any of the artworks? How did you imagine your life in the past?
Xiao Hai: It’s more often despair in the past, and sadness. There wasn’t a lot of imagination. I never had those kinds of fantasy before. Maybe when I used to work in the factories, I thought about writing songs. I wanted to become a rock musician. I don’t anymore. During my factory days, I was always looking for something, but I could never find it. I was lonely every single moment and I was never happy.
Jaime: Did you know what you were looking for?
Xiao Hai: I guess it was freedom. Freedom from the workshop, from the products, from working overtime late into the night, from not being able to sleep when I was tired, from being a robot. Eventually I found a like-minded community in Picun, but I still have workshop PTSD. After all, I spent a decade in the factory. I still feel lonely and empty. This kind of loneliness needs art that is capacious and imaginative. So the exhibition felt nourishing and uplifting to me. Like nutrients.
Jaime: When do you feel the least despair, the least lonely, the most yourself?
Xiao Hai: When I am writing. It’s not illegal to be ourselves. I think humans should be their authentic selves. Why do we have to be robots?
By the way, the Luo Xiang guy you mentioned earlier, is he the shamate (杀马特) guy?
Xiao Hai: No, I was in Shenzhen and Dongguan. I didn’t hear about shamate until later, although I agree with the phenomenon. I found music and poetry instead, which is low-cost and more immediate. Writing saved me in the workshop. It made me confident and it made me believe that my dreams are valid.
Jaime: Did you relate to the scenes of workers dreaming in “Whose Utopia”?
Xiao Hai: I’d say it’s pretty remarkable that Cao Fei was paying attention to workers in 2006. The Foxconn suicides didn’t even happen until 2010. Seeing these fictional scenes inserted into reality would be quite inspiring to workers today. I feel like a lot of workers are still unconscious. If more workers can realize there is more than one way to live than just going from factory to factory, from city to city—I think sometimes it has to do with consciousness, you know? I wasn’t conscious of these possibilities before, either. If I saw this video as a factory worker back then, I would’ve been shook. Now that I have managed to leave that life behind, I feel the resonance.
Cao Fei’s attempt to reimagine this physically exhausting factory life into something more romantic and poetic, I think it’s something pretty hard to come by. Workers don’t get to be themselves.
Jaime: You don’t think it’s too romantic? For workers, is having dreams in itself a privilege? After all, not everyone can afford to follow their dreams. Does it feel too idealistic?
Xiao Hai: The way I see it, the dream itself is a fiction. The whole notion is disconnected from reality—in the video, the dreamer is dancing while everyone else is working. Everyone has dreams—it’s innate to being human—but not everyone will have the courage to follow them, for all kinds of reasons. Not everyone can achieve their dreams, but everyone should have the right to follow their dreams.
Jaime: It sounds like the video should be screening at the factories, not in an art museum. Who is the audience of whose utopia?
Xiao Hai: That’s a really good point. The work as it is shown in the art museum certainly raises awareness and understanding, but there is no way for people to participate and there is no way to change anything. Its biggest value would be for workers to see a work like this. It’s like a bomb; you don’t know the power and influence it contains. Of course, it would be amazing if there is funding to support screenings for workers, but the government probably won’t allow it.
Jaime: Who would you show this work to if you can show it to one person?
Xiao Hai: A worker on the frontline. Someone who is already kind of conscious. They might not get it if they aren’t already half-awake.
(Disclaimer: Jaime is an employee at UCCA. Views expressed are her own.)
Tianyu: That’s it for episode 3! If you enjoyed this, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription, or forward it to a friend by hitting the shiny button below! Every fourth episode (i.e. the next one) will be for paying subscribers only, and all of our revenue will go towards paying contributors on time and supporting writers. We also welcome feedback, story ideas, and cute animal GIFs via email (hello [at] chaoya.ng) or Twitter (@ChaoyangTrap).
Krish: Next time: write for Chaoyang Trap! And then: bloodzboi.
Outro music this week is the rousing inner-Mongolian metal of Nine Treasures (九宝). This song is from their latest re-release / retrospective Awakening from Dukkha, which has some truly 😈 artwork, unbeatable 😈 riffage, and the best 😈 song title ever in:
Tianyu: Bye! 😈
Jaime (bot) is a critic and translator in Beijing who lives in Dongcheng and works in Chaoyang. She is also a contributing editor at Spike.
Xiao Hai is a poet and former migrant worker from Shangqiu (Henan Province). He was a member of the Picun Literature Group and won the Best Poet prize at the First Laborers’ Literature Awards.
Krish Raghav is a comic-book artist in Beijing. He likes Haruomi Hosono more than Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Xuandi Wang is a writer who grew up in Zhejiang. His professional skills include but not limited to lurking and gawking.
Yi-Ling Liu is a writer in Beijing. She likes to wall-dance—both online and at the climbing gym.
Caiwei Chen is a writer, journalist and podcaster. She cooks with boxed ingredients but tries to finish all her dishes with a gourmet touch.
Tianyu Fang is a writer who grew up in Beijing. After a Qingming festival of eating too much spicy food in Sichuan and Guizhou, he’s still recovering from a stomach ache.