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In the West, security would have been called for this nuisance of a man. In this uncensored Beijing club, nobody minded

Every other live venue in Beijing must submit detailed information about every musical act to the local cultural department at least three days in advance

The lead singer climbed on to a bar counter next to the stage, punching the air as she hit a high note before crouching into a squat while the guitar took over. The lead guitarist, who wore a black turtleneck and slicked back hair, stepped offstage and moved into the audience for his solo, lunging forward with each chord.

The man next to me, his dreadlocks tied back and held in a brown bandanna, raised his arms above his head, pointed upwards and started to clap as he jerked back and forth. A plastic glass of beer tipped off the ledge behind him, splashing a fresh layer into the palimpsest of stains on the black painted wall.

There were about 70 of us in this little club in a hutong, one of the narrow alleys along which most people in Beijing lived for a couple of thousand years until the second half of the last century. Most were demolished to make way for broader streets and apartment buildings, and many of those that survived now house smart shops, restaurants and bars.

This club is one of the shabbier ones, the walls decorated with broken guitars surrounded by stickers for long-forgotten bands. But it is unique in Beijing in allowing musicians to perform what they choose without receiving prior permission from the censors.


Every other live venue must submit detailed information about each performance to the local cultural department at least three days in advance. If a performer is from outside China the authorities need to know all the details of the show 20 days beforehand.

The application must include information about everyone involved in the performance, including the musicians and the promoter, and details of all the instruments and equipment to be used. All audiovisual material must be submitted for approval, along with a song list and the lyrics for each song.

If a band wants to perform a cover version of a foreign song the lyrics must be submitted in the original language and in a Chinese translation. Lyrics should, according to the official guidelines, reflect “the right values” when dealing with life events and feelings.

The censors regularly reject material based on the song lyrics, not just for rock bands but for classical music choirs too. Choirs performing in Beijing avoid performing sacred music of any kind because they know it will not be approved.

Performers at this club, which mostly hosts punk bands, do not have to submit any material to the culture department and they can perform what they choose on the night. I asked a friend who was playing at the club the night I was there why the normal rules did not apply here. “Because they never have,” he said.

There were five acts playing that night and his was the second, a metal band mostly made up of high school students. The most obviously talented was the drummer, a young man with shoulder-length hair who I later learned was training with one of China’s top drummers and planned to continue his studies in New York when he left school.

The other bands were punk or post-punk, and my friend, who joined me after he finished performing, classified each into micro-genres. The final one, a highly-produced outfit led by a woman with pigtails and a screech worthy of Chinese opera, had a big following on social media.

Before each band started their set they acted as their own stage crew, moving equipment, checking the sound and in the case of the drummers, bringing on their own cymbals. In between sets part of the audience drifted out to the bar, surging back in when the music started again.

Most looked as if they were in their 20s but there was, apart from myself, one notable exception. A wiry man in a leather motorcycle jacket with long, improbably black hair and a face that had felt the surgeon’s knife who was in his late 40s or early 50s.

As each band started playing he would push his way to the front of the crowd and dance in a wild, jerky style, sometimes stepping on to the low stage alongside the performers. When he was in the body of the crowd he would slam against others or get into their faces, and when the music stopped he would accost strangers or interrupt their conversations.

In any club in western Europe somebody would have called security or intervened directly to tell him to stop being a nuisance. But nobody here seemed too bothered and my friend, who was performing during one of the man’s stage invasions, saw nothing wrong with his behaviour. “I don’t know anything about him except that he comes here every Wednesday and he loves the music. That’s okay, isn’t it?” he said.