I’ve started a Substack

It’s called Concrete Avalanche and is about music from China. It’s a work in progress, but so far it’s been shared by Taylor Lorenz, Chaoyang Trap and Bill Bishop (of Sinocism) and been highlighted in Semafor’s ‘London Review of Substacks’.

The hope is it’ll help keep you up to date on new releases from China and/or introduce you to new music and artists you might not have found otherwise.

I had reservations about starting this newsletter. In addition to the usual concerns about whether I’ll be able to sustain it etc, I want artists from China to be judged on their music rather than where they’re from. Yet at the same time, there is a real lack of coverage of those artists in English and it can be difficult for non-Chinese readers to find extensive information about new music from the country.

So here we are. Concrete Avalanche is still new and still finding its feet so please be patient with it, but I welcome any feedback, tips, questions or Bandcamp subsidies.

Find the first issue here and the latest one here.

“Maybe we can stop celebrating the mere existence of culture in China, and demand more”

Widely celebrated Substack newsletter Chaoyang Trap invited me to contribute a few words to their inaugural edition of The Chaoyang Review. I wrote about the ambitious new album from Xi’an-based post-punk band FAZI, entitled Folding Story.

Introducing the new review series, Krish Raghav wrote, ‘The “review” is an exercise in paying attention. If there’s something (anything) that ties our chaotic newsletter together, it is this discernment towards what feels under-explored in English writing about China. Cultural critique—rigorous, reflective, current—felt like a big one. […] The hope is that our choice of review subjects (and our multi-voiced perspective) can highlight the overlooked, analyze the popular, and reflect unfolding reactions. At the very least, maybe we can help create a more info-rich, expansive idea of where the actual cultural conversation on the Chinese web is.’

It’s an important new direction from what has quickly become one of the most incisive and interesting English language voices on contemporary Chinese culture.  

Read the inaugural edition of the Chaoyang Review, including my write-up of FAZI’s album, here.

“What does it mean to ‘gather’ in a divided world?”

Very happy to get my hands on a physical copy of this book, which I contributed to with some translation and editing.

The third edition of ‘Staging Alterity’ – a project involving performances and discussions with artists from around the world – was due to take place in Shanghai in September 2020, but of course the pandemic made an in-person event of that nature impossible. Instead, co-curators Ophelia Huang and Zhao Chuan gathered together essays, conversations and imagery from an array of important figures for this fascinating book, published with the support of Pro Helvetia.

Find out more about the book here.

Inside the ice cold world of Scandinavia’s winter surfers

For Vogue Scandinavia, I spoke with some of the region’s diehard surf enthusiasts.

The best waves of the year only arrive during the area’s coldest months, often meaning sub-zero temperatures and a risk of frostbite. “When I stop feeling my toes, I go up, I put some hot water in my boots, I get the feeling back in my toes,” one committed surfer told me. “And then I go out to surf again.”

If it sounds brutal, that’s probably because it is. Yet surfing in such conditions also comes with some extraordinarily beautiful scenery, including the opportunity to ride waves under the Northern Lights.

To read more about the people heading out to the coast when the temperature is down and the surf is up, get the December-January issue of Vogue Scandinavia or read the full story at Vogue Scandinavia ($).

“We’d like to be able to reach people in far off corners of the world”

I profiled Hualun for issue 450 of The Wire, ‘the world’s greatest print and online music magazine.

I spoke to the band about their journey from leading China’s early post-rock scene to exploring ambient soundscapes, via soundtrack work for the likes of An Elephant Sitting Still.

They also told me about the significance of creating the music for Wuhan Wuhan, a documentary on the early outbreak of Covid-19, after the pandemic locked down the city where they formed and trapped them in their nearby hometown of Yichang.

Read the full story in issue 450 of The Wire ($).

Photo: Li Zhengde for The Wire

Pop star Lexie Liu: “I broke out of my own vocal range”

The K/DA idol and influential pop singer talks about her new direction, making music for the gaming world, and exploring Gregorian chants

It’s been two and half years since RADII first interviewed Lexie Liu. Back then she was a 19-year-old contestant on The Rap of China. Today, she’s an established star. And while her new EP is entitled Gone Gold for other reasons (more on those below), it’s a name that fits well with her ascent to the upper echelons of Mandopop.

Rap of China, where she made the final four, may have helped propel her towards stardom, but she’s never really been a rapper. Even backstage at the show she told us, “Rap is not my main thing to do. I’m more focused on the R&B side,” before listing Rihanna, Michael Jackson, Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga as her main stylistic references.

After a stream of sleek R&B tracks, Liu’s latest single — “ALGTR,” which dropped on January 11 — saw another change of direction. Gone was the sultry, slow-burn swagger of her 2019 album Meta Ego. In its place was high-energy electro-pop.

“When it came to making this EP, I was already dissatisfied with what I’d done before,” she says. “I was tired of singing those songs. With ‘ALGTR,’ I gave myself really high requirements and was in the studio for four days; I switched up my timbre and broke out of my own vocal range.”

Read the full article at RADII.

Why remote work didn’t last long in China

In late January of last year, my wife and I took a high-speed train from Shanghai to Fuzhou, four hours away, to visit her family home in the countryside. Travelling a few days before the Lunar New Year – the largest annual human migration in the world as millions of people in China make the journey home – we were concerned enough about rumours of a new flu in the city of Wuhan to wear masks, but not so worried to cancel our plans. Days later, Wuhan was placed under ‘lockdown’, a term that would soon become familiar to everyone on the planet. 

Working for a digital media platform that focuses on Chinese youth culture and sharing stories from sides of the country that are rarely explored, in theory I could do my work wherever there was an internet connection. So we decided to stay put and work remotely until the virus situation improved. People across the country were similarly assuming that a return to the office wasn’t going to happen any time soon. 

China often has a claustrophobic, micromanagement-heavy work culture, and nothing like this had ever happened before. There were headlines from international media outlets about the country’s ‘nationwide work-from-home experiment’. Management consulting firm McKinsey called it ‘a blueprint for remote working’ and predicted it would ‘leave a lasting impression on the way people live and work for years to come’. 

But since then, how much has really changed?

Read the full article at Courier.

Behind the scenes with Chinese idol group SNH48, unauthorised AKB48 spin-off

Having controversially split from their Japanese founding partners, the Chinese management of SNH48, BEJ48, GNZ48, SHY48 – and soon CKG48 – seem set on creating a lucrative idol universe of epic proportions

A key election took place in Shanghai last weekend – at least as far as Mandopop fans are concerned.

SNH48, mainland China’s first “idol group”, and its three sister units held their fourth annual election to decide the top-ranking idols. The process saw nearly 300 girls from across the country perform for baying fans at Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena as part of a marathon six-hour event on July 29.

In the end, the top three positions in the massive popularity contest went to the same three girls who finished top of the pile last year. But there was still plenty of melodrama along the way, while the concert confirms the growing confidence of the Star48 Group, which manages all four idol units, since a controversial split from its Japanese founders.

Read the full article at South China Morning Post.

Huang Yong Ping: ‘It’s important for an artist to think about bigger issues’

For someone who produces large-scale statement art pieces, Xiamen-born artist Huang Yong Ping is surprisingly reticent. During our time with him at the opening of his Bâton Serpent III: Spur Track to the Left exhibition at the Power Station of Art (PSA), he is quietly reserved, and when he does offer comment it’s in a rapid, hushed manner as if he wants his sentences to be over as soon as possible (at least in the presence of the press, which may be somewhat understandable).

Dressed in all black with circular specs perched on his nose just below a greying comb-over, the wiry 62-year-old is content to let his huge – and hugely impressive – art do most of the talking. Bâton Serpent III, a continuation of sorts from exhibitions shown in Rome (2014’s Bâton Serpent) and Beijing (last year’s Bâton Serpent II), presents two dozen of Huang’s works dating back to 1995, including some that have been modified specifically for the PSA’s colossal space.

‘This exhibition was in Beijing for three months and coming here means it’s kind of the same audience – of course people from Shanghai go to exhibitions in Beijing, it’s like showing to the same people,’ says Huang. ‘So this exhibition had to be expanded, this was very important for me.’

Huang’s expansionism applies directly to his works too. Whereas one of the city’s other major art exhibitions of the moment – the Yuz Museum’s Alberto Giacometti retrospective – features sculptures whose monumentalism defies their often miniature scale, Bâton Serpent III showcases a number of simply enormous pieces of art.

Read the full piece on Time Out Shanghai.

Meet the winner of the first ever Mr Gay China competition

Meng Fanyu may have only been crowned Mr Gay China a few days before we meet, but he seems to have settled quickly into the role of champion. Before sitting down to chat on the plush sofas of So Café & Lounge (a lower key venue from the same people behind the adjacent ICON nightclub, the scene of Meng’s triumph), we ask if we can first take a few photos. With no further prompting from us, he immediately works his way through a repertoire of pouts and Blue Steel-like looks as the camera clicks away.

He laughs it off when we suggest he’s already well used to having his photo taken, but having appeared in his underpants on stage at ICON throughout the Mr Gay China competition in front of hordes of cameraphone-wielding young men, it’s safe to say that we’re not the only ones in the city to possess images of Meng.

Organisers of the competition – the first of its kind to be held in Mainland China after a 2010 contest was nixed by the authorities before it even got off the ground – have been keen to emphasise that it was about more than just pretty faces, with a focus on sexual health. But there’s no denying that 27 year-old Meng is strikingly handsome.

Read the full article on Time Out Shanghai.