Shedding light on some myths around restrictions and censorship
Tom Ng glances at his bandmate, Joshua Frank, before both look down at their glasses with a slight shrug of resignation. “I guess you’ve answered this question a lot,” Ng sighs after a couple of seconds, “it’s my turn to answer this time.”
I’d just asked the pair about how they met in Beijing, which, I freely admit is the kind of question Gong Gong Gong must be sick of answering by now. The band has been running a two-guy lo-fi scene out of the Chinese capital for almost five years now, but the fact that they’re an experimental band operating from what’s considered to be one of the world’s most controlled societies is the thing most interviewers seem to hone in on first. So, yeah, it’s an obvious place to begin an interview, but, hey, it’s as good a place as any.
“I moved to Beijing, like, maybe ten years ago to start playing music,” says Ng, launching into the duo’s backstory. “I was getting a bit frustrated in Hong Kong; it’s like the only thing people were interested in was all this commercial shit, so really I moved to Beijing to do something different. I’d say that Beijing actually has a lot more creative freedom than Hong Kong.”
“I think that’s one thing that people don’t realise when they imagine what making music or art in China is like,” adds Frank. “We played a show yesterday and someone came up to us and asked, ‘so tell me, what’s it like making music under a totalitarian regime?’ I was, like, ‘man, you know nothing about China.’ People tend to think about all these restrictions and censorship, and while those things are an element, there is also the same kind of creative freedom that you get from any big, cosmopolitan city. What we’re doing, and what a lot of Chinese bands have no potential of doing, is making any money. It’s just not considered to be something anyone could profit off, so there’s a certain amount of freedom there.”
Clearly, if anyone knows about the reality of making music in Beijing, it’s Ng and Joshua. A Hong Konger and a Canadian, respectively, both have been making music in the city for a little over ten years, and not only as Gong Gong Gong. Along with Frank’s brother, the pair founded analogue label Rose Mansion Analog, and play in numerous other projects including Hot & Cold, the Offset: Spectacles and Love Research Institute. In the five or so years they’ve been in a band together, they’ve performed in underpass tunnels, subterranean art spaces and have generally been promoting noise music to any place in China that would book them.
Even so, if you’re looking for ambassadors for their Beijing scene, then Gong Gong Gong aren’t the guys for the job. “There was some pretty interesting music happening in Beijing from, say, 2009 to 2011, but it feels like a lot of the bands aren’t really relevant these days,” Frank tells me as we delve into the city’s noise circuit. “There is a Chinese indie scene, but it exists in a way that is very different from the West; it doesn’t really develop very fast and the group of people involved has tended to remain pretty constant. It seems like a lot of the bands we came up with have gotten stuck doing the same thing, which is not really all that interesting.”
“It’s also doesn’t help that a lot of the venues are shut now,” says Ng. “It’s not because of censorship per se, but because it’s hard for a venue to sustain itself. It’s still quite traditional in China, so when you get older a lot of people are called back by their parents to get married, have kids and work in some government job. It feels like there’s an attitude that by the time you’ve hit 30 you shouldn’t be doing stupid stuff like being in bands.”