[Help], [Help], [Help] the Police!

In response to the recent New York Times article about Hip-hop in China (and partly inspired by the execrable Jay Chou/Song Zuying performance on last night’s CCTV gala), I present to you a video that perfectly sums up, for me, everything that’s wrong with foreign attitudes to allegedly underground Chinese music.

A minor digression first: that NYT article is written to give the impression that “many students and working-class Chinese” are rhyming about the “bitterness that comes with realizing …[they are] left out of China’s economic boom.”

This is horseshit. The angry Chinese rap I’ve heard is generalized teenage angst with no attempt at social commentary. The most “daring” rap I’ve heard is predicated on schoolboy puns about smoking pot. And while I no longer make much of an attempt to follow the music scene here, I am familiar with the bands discussed in the NYT piece.

Let’s start with 隐藏 Yin Ts’ang, the originators of “在北京 In Beijing” — the song that, according to the article, “took the underground music scene by storm.” Sample lyrics:

真不用提饭馆 烤鸭和炸酱面
鬼街吃火锅 太多选择我的天

Cabs come in 1.2 kuai and 1.6 kuai prices.
The traffic’s usually not bad, but sometimes there are traffic jams.
You don’t have to worry about restaurants — roast duck and zhajiang noodles
Or Gui Jie to eat hotpot. There are too many choices, oh my god!

Wow, guys, tell it like it is.

阴三儿 Yin Sanr, the band whose name the article incorrectly and sloppily romanizes as “Yin Tsar,” and completely mistranslates as “The Three Shadows,”  has got more going for it in the anger department. The article mentions the band’s song 老师你好 “Hello Teacher” (skip ahead about a minute and a half to get to the actual rapping) which most certainly is an angry song:

你不要脸 无能的表现

You say you’re a role model but you spit on the ground outside
The only cunting thing you know how to do is phone my father
You’re shameless and useless
Do whatever you want but don’t touch my CD player
You fucking cunt
I’ll listen to music in class if I want to.
I’ll do my math homework in writing class.
I drew a big cock in my copy book, that’s what I think of you.

The NYT article translates the first line of this excerpt and then waggles its eyebrows, encouraging the reader to mentally connect “railing against the authority of unfair teachers” to seething antiauthoritarian rage. It doesn’t translate the rest of the song, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the paragraph that precedes it, in which a young man complains about the wealth gap. Unless you equate hating high school with the potential for violent social upheaval, in which case I would have been the Che Guevara of my generation.

The author of the piece would have been much better off going with Yin Sanr’s song 北京晚报 “Beijing Evening News,” which does have political content and is a much, much better song. Sample lyrics (in Danwei’s translation): 


Big officials and leaders park outside night clubs
Girls hiding in the toilet
Whiskey and duck neck
Models and starlets
Sitting in a private room with stupid dicks
Cops patrolling, Dongbei pimps 
Lots of college girls
But student IDs get no discount
Beijing is building
But the people are changing
Who is responsible for all of this?

While I’m ranting, another problem with the NYT article: 说唱 shuochang, the word the piece gives for “hip-hop,” is “rap,” not hip-hop. The word for “hip-hop” is 嘻哈 xiha, a phonetic loan, and my impression (possibly wrong) is that people here who are into hip-hop would look upon the use of shuochang as a sign that someone was not part of the scene. Which the writer of that article clearly is not.

(Another small digression: I was planning to write something about the ultimate feasibility of rap in Mandarin as opposed to languages more phonologically suited for it, but this post has gone on long enough already. However, those of you who are interested in seeing rap perpetrated in languages not really built for it may enjoy Leimigi Thart, which answers the age-old question of how to say “I’ll serve your ass like John McEnroe / If your girl steps up, I’m smackin’ the ho!” in Irish.)
(“Freastloidh me thu ar nos John McEnroe / Ma shiulann do bheal suas, buailfidh me an ho!”)

Anyway, getting back to the start of this post: The effects of censorship on artistic creativity have been discussed before — David Moser had a wonderful piece on Danwei about the effect that the dictum that humor must 歌颂 rather than 讽刺 has had on the comic form of 相声 — but I think the video below really hammers the point home.

Happy New Year, everybody.

Comments (16)

  1. Chris A. wrote::

    My two cents is that Yin Ts’ang’s album 花天酒地 is refreshingly original and intelligent, traits someone living in Beijing appreciates immensely.

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 5:18 pm #
  2. Cooper wrote::

    So, now everyone is angry at Brendan for being critical of a Western newspaper’s sloppy reporting on China.

    Short of seeing a man eat his own head, now I’ve seen everything.

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 8:58 pm #
  3. Malika wrote::

    I read the article in the NYT, the reaction here in this blog, and the comments: eventually I got an image which is complex, and I like it, it goes to the real.
    Thank you Brendan as you called for passion and you got it … Nice shot.
    Good laugh at XINT comment :) –
    Angela : just keep on writing articles like this, sharing your interest, discoveries and researches – it’s almost like starting a book. Waiting for more.
    Well, Andreas, you are a part of it. Writing an article is more a question related to whether you have time for that or not. Of course, obviously your media IS Hip-Hop, this is where you express yourself. But according to the way you wrote in this present blog, it shows that you have a point of view, and that’s what matters, in a formal article, in a blog or in a song. You made a point though, you very clearly showed how mature Hip-Hop can be, here, as everywhere else. It’s so much a question of individual!
    Teenage Hip-Hop, Pop Hip-Hop, derivation of Hip-Hop like Slam, social, political, poetical, biographic, chauvinist, whatever, every form of art has its interpretation, from copy-cats to traitors going through all possible forms, classical, humorous, provocative, harsh…
    In some cases the actual emptiness might come from censorship, lack of education or laziness. It might as well be the result of a general disillusion, linked to worldwide phenomenon. Not knowing how to replace contestation by bitter hopes
    I don’t link content to political incorrectness. I hope the self-perception of freedom of expression goes beyond this.
    I wish you all happy birth year for this year; it has been 60 years that the People Republic of China was created. …

    Saturday, February 7, 2009 at 3:30 am #
  4. 洋胰子 wrote::


    Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 10:44 pm #
  5. Dwayne Stillman wrote::

    Let me just say this: Unlike Brendan O’Kane, the journalist for this article is in the hip-hop scene. He knows dozens of Chinese rappers, and not just in Beijing. How do I know this? Because I ran into him at a hip hop event last week at a club in Beijing,

    I’ve never seen Brendan O’Kane at a hip hop event. NOT ONE. Truth be told, if he were to even try to hang in this scene, he’d get eaten alive. I’ve never seen him, but I’ve heard he’s a skinny white guy who pees his pants at the site of hard niggaz (i.e. Chinese rappers).

    While some of the comments against Brendan are totally irrelevant to this discussion, I do agree that O’kane makes his living bitching about other people’s work, not doing his own. Telling fact: he’s gotten the most hits to his site off of this post where he bitches and shows his complete lack of knowledge on Chinese hip hop. That’s why he hasn’t posted anything since! He’s still trying to give his hater post more airtime. Pathetic.

    Monday, March 9, 2009 at 1:42 am #
  6. hsknotes wrote::

    I think my favorite is the racism. Nothing like racism to win the debate and smear your opponent. Stay classy.

    I think it fits in quite nicely with the interesting situation where a lot of the ‘scene’ in china is has a lot of ‘western-born or raised’ people either performing, attending, supporting, or ‘dating’, at least in some of the larger cities. It touches on the bomb that is the notion of ‘identity’ in china. I think people (foreigners mostly) don’t write about ‘odd’ things like 王力宏 being one of the major faces of Taiwan or the rap and punk scene in china having these ‘sprinklings’, to say the least, of ‘not born and raised in china’ influence, because it’s kind of clear what’s up and how identity and ethnicity operates in greater china, but I’m still surpised I haven’t seen a longer article, or even a long and involved blog write-up talking about this.

    Also, isn’t it true that most of the MSM out of china is usually bad? Isn’t that just sort of a rule these days? Don’t the ‘serious’ people just comb the sites like Rconversation and zonaeuropa, or occasionally go out on expeditions to the ‘countryside’ or the ‘cityside’ to write ‘hard-hitting’ stories, that kind of ring hollow or ‘off’ to people who aren’t nytimes reporters?

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 2:27 am #
  7. Sophia wrote::

    I’m not sure if you have seen it yet, but Sexybeijing.tv put out a documentary concerning the subject of the Chinese language and rap: http://www.sexybeijing.tv/new/default.aspx

    Saturday, April 11, 2009 at 11:00 am #
  8. Yi wrote::

    I read all the comments here, finally. I am a rapper in Beijing, and I thought that, contrary to what Bokane says, this article really did a service to Chinese youth by actually putting the spotlight on a scene that had been, up until the point it was published, completely ignored. Of all the articles published by The Times that have questionable reporting–that overexaggerate the state of Chinese censorship and the degree of freedom people have here-it seems strange that O’Kane singled this one article out. On the harder, hot-topic issues regarding China: pollution, detainment of dissidents, and religious intolerance, amongst others-Bokane never ventures to challenge the reporting of western journalists (especially journalists from the Times). What does O’Kane have to say about western journalists’ uncorroborated claims of genocide by the Chinese police against Tibetans during the Tibetan uprising? While there were casualties on both sides, it seems interesting that on a REALLY controversial topic like that, Mr. O’kane remained silent. He doesn’t have his magnifying glass out on any of Joseph Kahn, Edward Wong, or Andrew Jacob’s articles, which establish the basis for the west’s misunderstanding of China and bash China on a weekly basis. Sure, China’s government is really intolerant on certain issues, but if you look at the article that Mr. O’kane singled out, it was probably the most positive of the articles published in western media of late because it actually showed that young Chinese kids are hip! His arguments concerning the examples the writer chose seem totally piecemeal and subjectively thrown together. And he seems to have immense beef with the writer of the article, which I thought was one of the few articles doing a service to China in that it highlighted a real subculture here (how many Times articles do you see that do that? How many English language articles published by the mass media do you see do that, period?)They’re mostly focused on dissidents and farmers in order to give people in the west the impression that China is still living in the cultural revolution. I have to say that after reading the hip hop article in the Times, I feel it is one of the few articles in the past year that broke through the firewall in perception on China in the last two years; so I think it’s strange that it is also the article that B’okane decided to fact check (wrongly, and subjectively). I can’t really see why he would target this article when there are so many other articles that distort the truth on harder issues in China. Maybe Mr. O’kane has dozens of journalist friends and academics who, for some reason, targeted this journalist in order to discredit him. I thought the article was really strong, and did more to bring the reality of China’s youth to western readers than almost anything I had read before. The thrust of O’kane’s argument seems to be that this writer is misrepresenting the state of the music scene by saying that there is very little political rap in China. That’s not true-Andreas, who posted earlier in this conversation, has tons of political rap critical of the government, and the only reason he hasn’t been shut down is because he isn’t Chinese. I think the amount of self-censorship that goes on by Chinese rappers is significant; how many songs they don’t publish because they know they will be targeted if they do publish them. I can’t tell if O’kane is simply an attack dog for other people, or whether he simply enjoys portraying himself as an educated objective academic who, through this post, has actually attacked one of the only decent articles on China I’ve read in the last two years. I suspect he mostly simply enjoys the attention– his attack post has been up for like half a year. Anyway, I couldn’t just help but notice how agenda-driven O’kane’s blog post is. I wonder what the real motivations behind his article were, since his arguments are completely piecemeal and ignore the real facts of the underground hip-hop scene. While I don’t agree with some of the posts accusing him of being a spy or making uncorroborated claims against him, the fact that he has so many journalist friends suggests that he is part of a tertiary network of self proclaimed China experts who might have targeted this one writer (for what reason, God only knows) with the intention of discrediting him. That may sound a little bit conspiracy theory, but if it is true, than B’okane is in fact part of the very forces that misrepresent China he claims to be fighting against. It seems strange that all of his friends who write china blogs simultaneously referenced this one article; a coordinated attack. Journalists and academics sure are damn competitive and cutthroat. I even saw a wall street journal article reference this post. Damn. I think it just goes to show how much of the media coverage on China is controlled and fought over.

    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 1:13 am #
  9. Maggie wrote::

    I have to agree that it seems weird that Brendan is asking different people who contributed to this post to write articles “in counter” to this Times article. Maybe he is, in fact, part of a network of spies! CIA spies who have infiltrated all of the west’s top newspapers! And maybe, following this logic, the times journalist who wrote this article refused to join the CIA and so they, the united CIA spies of the world, collaborated to discredit him permanently and for eternity in order that they could maintain tight control over every word western readers read representing and misrepresenting china!!! maybe the writer of this article represented a threat to the CIA and NSA old boy colonial networks of the world!!!

    But WAIT! That wouldn’t make sense–if all the top journalists are spies, than the writer of the hip hop article must be a spy too! AHA!!!

    This article, is proof, then, that with the financial crisis came a critical rift in the CIA brotherhood; this is proof that they have a lack of solidarity!


    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 1:33 am #
  10. Viola Chang wrote::

    [Help], [Help], [Help] the ORIENTALIST ATTACK DOGS!


    The New generation of Orientalists have arrived!!!

    Long gone are the days of dishonest Western bloggers and reporters who can’t speak the local language!

    This is a NEW BREED! They’re advanced. They’re sophisticated, they can speak putonghua better than yo Chinese Chicken Mama!

    Featuring Brendan O’kane!!! Orientalist extraordinaire! Who flaunts his skills in Chinese to make you believe. . .WHATEVER IT IS HE WANTS!!!

    He can give you evidence in Chinese symbols he knows you can’t read! He’s committed; he loves the poor colonized people of China who are just too ignorant to realize the wisdom of freedom and democracy and the freemarket system!

    The CIA has payed him and his friends to produce an authoritative orientalist blog.

    But here’s the catch!!!

    Chinese people don’t give a fuck what he says! Because they CAN’T READ ENGLISH!!!!!

    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 2:10 am #
  11. richard wrote::

    “Orientalist extraordinaire.” I gotta remember that. Let me know if the CIA pays well, Brendan, and if so, are there any openings?

    On a more somber note – time to update this slumbering giant.

    Monday, May 25, 2009 at 4:51 pm #
  12. JamesD wrote::

    Thanks for the useful info. It’s so interesting

    Thursday, June 11, 2009 at 10:19 pm #
  13. Herbie (HERBZ) wrote::

    Greetings, well I’m the engineer – writer of many wonderous and mystical beats for Yin’ Tsang (never could spell that right) on their first album “serve the people”, the wonderous and mystical beats thing was a joke btw, Chill!

    They never intended the album to be some assault on anything, it was their first time in a studio, well I say studio….. my living room, complete with pimped out zebra pattern sofas and stuff, nobody was punching their hands in the air, the machines were pretty crap as well as a whole host of other problems, it got done though.

    censorship on the first cd

    Here’s the reason why, there was virtually nothing out there in Mandarin regarding hip hop, they had a fiercely tight budget and if their disc got pulled or rejected, it would have left them and myself without the tiny amount of money we were making in other ways.

    Ideas were put forward that might have taken the album to another level but it was self-censored so as to not make any problems. If they’d gone all “angry” at the start, there’d be no shows, no experiences to pass on to others getting into it or on the way up.

    So it might be cool to cut them some slack because at the end of the day, they were there first and did it first, the critics are an afterthought.

    btw, the final track on the cd is the first Mandarin Jungle choon.

    I still write and produce, so if anyone’s got ideas and MONEY, you can email me…. beijingbass@yahoo.com

    Peace and thanx to Bokane for bringing up the topic


    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 4:05 am #
  14. Herbie (HERBZ) wrote::

    Btw, someone wrote that the first political rappers were Public enemy, I’ll vote “the Last Poets” 1972 .

    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 4:13 am #
  15. Ben Ross wrote::

    Yup, just more of the same old lazy US journalists preying upon the public’s reflexive political views. Alleged stories of descent in a society shaped by a Confucian value system never seem to get old, do they? From my experience most young Chinese people are listening to music more along the lines “I love you. I’m loving you. Like a mouse loves rice.” Pretty pugnacious stuff indeed.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 11:07 pm #
  16. Tiana wrote::

    Well done Herbie,its something nobody else would take on and the guys did well show wize out of it. Ungreatful cunts lol.

    Monday, September 13, 2010 at 11:34 pm #