South China Morning Post
Monday, August 12, 2002

Shangri-la rocks to new beat while Beidaihe dances to the same old tune



Falling safely between the secret Central Government leadership meeting in Beidaihe and the Communist Party congress this autumn, Beijing-banned rock star Cui Jian will headline a music festival next weekend in the Yunnan province Himalayas.

The Lijiang Snow Mountain Music Festival, billed as China's biggest jam session ever, raises questions about whether rock can score with the pop-culture mainstream despite political-economic resistance and its traditional appeal only to minority of the nation's youth.

On August 17 and 18, rocker Cui Jian will join another 17 Chinese and two foreign bands on a mountainside just outside Lijiang near Shangri-la.

Cui Jian, 41, performs in venues ranging from Beijing bars to US concert halls but is banned from Beijing stages because the Government opposes his contribution to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. He chose Lijiang in honour of a Naxi minority housewife/singer whose music he has recycled into his own.

Like Beidaihe and the Party congress, the festival has government backing. The city of Lijiang is sponsoring the event - to raise tourism publicity for the scenic but hard-to-reach at the east end of the Himalayas.

Tickets cost 180 yuan for the first day, 150 yuan for the second day and 280 for both. Organisers expect about 20,000 people and could accommodate up to 40,000.

The festival site, at 3,000 metres above sea level, should attract middle-class music buffs, college students and foreigners, said organiser Chen Yu, who works for the co-sponsoring San Jiu Advertising.

Foreign students are particularly interested, Mr Chen said, and they may camp out at the concert site if they want. Hotels are available, too.

The event's motif and structure follow that of marathon outdoor music festivals common in Western countries.

"It's the first occasion, so there may be some shortcomings, but it's the first," warned Mr Chen. Organisers have already done a lot right. They are promoting the festival on the ever-popular, which lists the bands - such as Dutch singer Birgit and the Wild Children of China - plus travel information phone numbers in 26 major Chinese cities. The site,, links to band profiles and additional concert news.

Sponsors also realise getting to Lijiang from more populated parts of China is no Shangri-la. Direct flights from Beijing to Lijiang sold out last week, Mr Chen said, so he advises audience members to fly to Kunming and take a daylong bus ride to Lijiang, or a train-bus combination from Kunming via Dali.

Another smooth groove: The organisers are leveraging Cui Jian's name to promote the festival.

The oft-labelled "father of Chinese rock" has put out six albums and performed more than 64 times over the past four years. He has a following among middle-aged people in China - heads turn when he walks through a doorway - and overseas accolades, such as the Dutch ambassador's Prince Claus Award.

But rock itself seldom gets above ground. Older people don't like the rhythm, and only some young people like it, said Beijing music commentator Jiang Xiaoyu. While youthful followers see rock as a way to express their generation, recording labels are afraid to market it because of the risk that the lyrics may offend the government. Some of Cui Jian's lyrics question the direction of China's leadership and society's habits, such as getting rich at any expense.

Most bands play to word-of-mouth crowds, attracting mainly non-conformists such as school dropouts, longhaired artists and foreigners who run with these out crowds. The rock "market" is small, and a single festival won't appreciably raise its profile, said Chen Duo, an editor at Star Times magazine in Beijing.

But rock will gain popularity as today's youth age, Mr Jiang speculated. He said the Lijiang music festival, thanks to the number of bands, will help spread the genre as well by introducing rock to the uninitiated.

People not sure whether to attend the festival should realise that despite the organisers' intentions, the event may not repeat. Too many people or any kind of freak-upset could deter sponsors, Mr Jiang said. "This is a hard opportunity to come by, and it's very likely there won't be a second festival," he said.

This is unlike the Beidaihe gathering and the Party congress which will be repeated in 2003 and for years to come.