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Catching the Beat of China’s New Revolution

Badabings.  Squeezed in almost anonymously on that avenue of neon that is Funghuang Jie in Suzhou’s downtown.  Suzhou is about two hours outside (and about twenty years behind) Shanghai.  A pub on a street eaten up by restaurants.  Badabings wants to be different.  From the outside it looks like a Mexican brothel and I’ve never been to Mexico.  There are no windows, only a black brick wall and little light emitting through the glass door.  Actually it looks a lot like an Asian brothel.  Maybe I’ve got the wrong place.  Only a flashing neon sign over my head announcing “Badabings” reassures me.

I nervously park my bike, finding the lock at the second attempt, take a deep breath and push open the only gap in the wall.  Relieved not to be accosted by working girls, I’m pleasantly surprised by what I find.  The pub is still dark but only in the sense that the “White Album” or “Pink Floyd” are dark.  Lots of little corners, couches and crevices in which to disappear while the band takes centre stage.  It’s a music bar, one of those quiet little places; the kind people go to on first dates.  The pub is taller than the floor space so there is a balcony with more tables and stools but mind your head up there.  In the corner some Chinese business men quietly celebrate a job well done as one of their number stumbles across the floor back to their table from a badly needed trip to the bathroom.

Johnny’s whiskey glass has run dry except for the ice but he extends his index finger and his thumb from top to bottom and tells me the guy has just drank that much Absolut Vodka.  It’s Johnny’s place but he doesn’t care.  “He’s having a good time” is all he will say adding as a caveat that everyone needs to go crazy every once in a while.

Johnny represents the new China but it’s not so long ago that such sentiments were untaught and therefore not thought; even today conformity rather than individuality is the norm.  China is changing and Johnny is making it happen.  The walls are decorated by distorted photos in tasteful frames of John and Yoko, Marlon Brando when he was Don Corleone and other figures who have changed the world.  Johnny loves music though and he draws my attention to the giant fresco of the album cover of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and proclaims that he discovered rock ‘n roll in 1992, “I love The Beatles and The Rolling Stones”.  Most Chinese missed out on the sixties and Beatle mania, they were going through a cultural revolution of a different kind back then. 

Johnny is probably in his mid-thirties, his black shoulder length hair half hidden by the tea cosy he wears on his head.  He exudes cool and carries the easy style of every good publican.  Badbings has been in business for just over a year and he is happy with the way things are going.  Business is okay he says, weekends are good, not so busy during the week but it’s talking about the music that he becomes animated.

“I was in a band for years before this.  Me and my three friends.  We played all over Shanghai man, they were great days.” They’ve all gone back to their home cities now and opened music bars.  Spreading the word perhaps.  I suspect he’s either learned his English through music or films and noticing a large stack of old battered magazines like Q, NME and Empire piled up at the end of the bar for anyone who wants a mozy, I think I’m right.

Johnny isn’t his real name of course.  The Chinese tend to use English names when talking to westerners.  It’s not an easy language to pronounce or remember so it’s easier for everyone this way but sometimes it’s nice just to be able to choose.   “You know how I got my name?”  He asks and I sense a story coming on.  “I used to play the bass guitar with the band but before every gig I used to warm up by playing Johnny be good, man that’s a great song” and then on his air guitar, he shows me how it was done.  The vocals are real, “go Johnny go go, go Johnny go go, Johnny be good” and I can see that some part of him still misses those days.  “And when I used to play, all the foreigners used to shout up at the stage that my name must be Johnny, so it just stuck after that, Johnny be Good”.

He has a new mission these days, bringing rock ‘n roll to the people of Suzhou.  Not so long ago it would have been mission impossible and even today it’s only possible until the police or the Government decide they want to close it down.  China is changing though and there are plenty of places like Badabing’s popping up all over provincial China but there are plenty shutting down too so he’s taking nothing for granted.  He is giving Chinese music a chance, giving local bands the chance to support his regular professional outfit from the Philippines.  “The world needs some crazy people”, Johnny says and China needs more people like Johnny, Johnny be good.    

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