An Interview with Wu Wei

Wu Wei 吴维

Wu Wei 吴维

Wu Wei 吴维 (b.1975) is the frontman of SMZB, a Wuhan-based Chinese punk band with a loyal following in China. Shayan Momin of the Fulbright Program in Beijing conducted this interview with Wu on 22 September 2013.–The Editors


Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, is the largest city in central China. SMZB, which stands for ‘bread of life’ 生命之饼, first formed in 1996. Wu Wei is a co-founder and manager of Wuhan Prison 武汉监狱, a small bar located in a backstreet of Wuhan’s Wuchang district which opened in 2008. Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’ is playing.  Wu greets me with the question ‘It’s too loud—want me to turn it down?’  It’s 6:50p.m. We’re sitting in a corner booth at Wuhan Prison.

Wu Wei: Yeah, Wuhan Prison. Why is the bar called Wuhan Prison? I just really like the name, you know. The title track of one of our albums is ‘Wuhan Prison’. No, I don’t mean the bar is a prison. This city is a prison. Why? If you want to know, you should check out the lyrics to that song. It’s all there. But I’ll have to email them to you—they’ve been deleted from all of the Chinese websites.

Shayan Momin: Where did you grow up?

 WW: I grew up in Hankou in a neighborhood around Hanzheng Street, but we moved around a lot before I was twenty, probably about once every two and a half years or so. There was constant demolition and forced relocation in Wuhan back then. Our home was destroyed many times, so we had to keep moving. I don’t know how much the government gave us in compensation—that was my parents’ business, not mine. It was an old neighborhood in Wuhan, but of course it doesn’t exist anymore. There’s a big shopping mall and some three-story apartment buildings there now. I was really into painting and calligraphy when I was studying. I went to a high school that specialised in teaching calligraphy. It was close to my home. Of course, my grades were shit—I didn’t really like studying.

Wuhan looks like it’s changed a lot but I don’t think people have changed that much. Most people have the same priorities—find work, earn money, get married and buy a house. There’s been a lot of technological development, so more want to buy cars and smartphones, but it’s the same—the desire to consume is the same.

I suppose there are more kinds of entertainment. We didn’t have shit to do back then—now kids are always playing computer games. When I was young, we would sit in parks. Was it better before? Not really. Like I said, in spite of all of these developments, life in the city hasn’t changed much—I didn’t like it much then and I don’t like it much now.

 SM: Does this place have two names? Someone told me it’s also called Folkhand 噪摇.

 WW: The bar is also technically known as ‘Folkhand’, though no one calls it that. When we registered, the boss was afraid that the city wouldn’t let us the name ‘Wuhan Prison’, so we came up with the name ‘Folkhand’ just in case. What does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything. I was sitting right where you’re sitting now, thinking, “Damn, I need to think of another name for this bar.” You see over there, there’s the word ‘Folk’ on the wall, and next to it there’s that big painting I did of that guy holding his palm up. Get it now? I sat here for ages. Finally I just looked up, saw the ‘Folk’ sign, thought ‘Folk… Arm? No. Hand?’ And there you have it—Folkhand.

Students, foreign students, foreign teachers, bands, artists … these kinds of people like to hang out here. You saw Mai Dian 麦巅 in here the other night?[1] Yeah, he comes around too—but you know, he doesn’t drink or anything so he doesn’t come too often. I suppose this place has a bit of an underground reputation. It’s become a meeting place for so-called alternative or underground folks in Wuhan. But we didn’t have that kind of goal when we first started. We just wanted to have a bar where people could hang out after shows at VOX.[2] After concerts, no one had anywhere to go, so we thought it’d be nice to have a place nearby to hang out. People would just go hang out and drink outside of VOX, on the side of the street. So we thought we’d attract those kinds of people.

It’s kind of like a dive bar. That was intentional. We didn’t want to open a place with a dance floor or anything. Actually, when we opened, this place was half the size. Later, you see—right here, we tore the wall down. So we couldn’t even have a dance floor or anything if we wanted. I renovated and decorated the place myself.

This job? It’s just a job. When I started here, I never imagined I’d be working here for so many years. To be honest, it’s pretty exhausting sometimes. But I also think that I might not be able to find another job, so I suppose it’s not so bad. There’s a kind of freedom here. The schedule is flexible—if we’re playing a show, I don’t have to worry about if I can get time off from the bar, you know? If we don’t have a show, I’m always here. We used to do some shows here but the acoustics aren’t very good.

To be honest, Wuhan doesn’t really have a punk scene now, so talking about this stuff makes me a little embarrassed. The music scene in general … well, there are more and more people who are coming out to see concerts, but many of these people aren’t really into music. Most people just come out to drink and hang out.

SMZB music video: No Friend No Life

SM: Which Chinese bands are you into nowadays?

WW: I don’t really listen to many Chinese bands now. One of my favorite Chinese artists is Cui Jian—actually, when I was starting the band in the nineties, I had never even heard of Cui Jian.[3] I hadn’t heard his music. Lots of people told me I should listen to him—after my band started to take off, someone called me the ‘Cui Jian’ of punk. That made me curious, so I bought some of his albums. After listening to him, I realized that he was quite unique—totally different from every other Chinese musician at the time. I thought he was great.

It’s embarrassing. I met Cui Jian early on, and at that time I hadn’t heard his music. It was in 1997. At the time, we were in Beijing to see a show but back then there weren’t too many places in Beijing for live music, so everyone ran into each other at these places. So we had a friend, a local Beijinger who was studying here in Wuhan, and he said to me, ‘Hey, Cui Jian is somewhere around here—let’s go find him.’ Who? Oh yeah, he’s a musician, right? Wait, why are we looking for this guy? And he said, ‘Are you shitting me? He’s got excellent connections in this city—he can help you guys book shows and all of that.’ We had just recorded a demo too, so my friend thought we should give Cui Jian our demo and he’d maybe help us circulate it or something. But I was anxious because I was about to ask this famous rock musician for help and I didn’t know anything about his music. So we were sitting around watching another band perform, and my friend pokes me and points to a guy standing near us and says, ‘Hey, that’s Cui Jian. Go talk to him!’ Fuck me … I waited for him to step outside of the venue for a minute.

Hello! Excuse me, are you Cui Jian? Nice to meet you! My name is Wu Wei. I’m from Wuhan and I’m in a band called SMZB. We just recorded a demo and we’d love to hear what you think. If you like it, maybe we can talk about playing some shows in Beijing in the future.

He agreed to listen to our demo. At that time, we were using beepers, so I told him he could page me anytime. A few hours later, he paged me, so I called him and he said, ‘Hey, come on down to this bar—let’s hang out and talk about booking some shows for you guys around here.’

SM: I really can’t believe you didn’t know Cui Jian in 1997 …

WW: Okay, wait, hold on. You have to understand—for two or three years before 1997, I was only listening to foreign bands. When I first went to Beijing, everyone had heard Chinese rock and roll music except me. ‘You haven’t heard of Tang Dynasty? Okay, what about Cui Jian? No? What the hell is wrong with you?’ When I was starting my band, every day I was studying music, you know, listening to stuff and writing songs. My bass teacher told me, ‘There’s so much innovative foreign music right now—you don’t have any time to listen to Chinese stuff!’ So aside from seeing local concerts in Wuhan or wherever, I wasn’t listening to any Chinese music. So this might sound weird but for me, understanding the Chinese music scene was a slow process and I didn’t start until I had already begun my music career.

Anyway, Cui Jian and I were sitting outside a bar chatting—he was curious about Wuhan so we talked about the music scene in Wuhan, life in Wuhan and so on—and he offered to help us book some shows in Beijing. He’s a great person, you know—I was so impressed that he was willing to help us. We were strangers. So I thought, well, this guy is awesome, and I should just be honest with him. At the end, I said, ‘Hey, listen, we’re so grateful that you’re willing to help us so much, and I’m really happy we had the chance to meet and talk. All of my friends really love your music, and it was their idea to find you and give you our demo. But I need to tell you something: I’ve never listened to your music.’ What happened? He got up and left! His face changed immediately and he didn’t seem like he wanted to chat anymore. Then he stood up and said, ‘Okay, you know how to get in touch with that venue. Get in touch with them if you want to do a show here. I’m going inside. See you later.’ Then he walked into the bar and left me sitting there. Who knows if he remembers this—it was in 1997. Oh yeah, I totally regretted saying that afterwards. Then I started listening to his stuff, and I thought, ‘Shit, this is good! If I ever see that guy again, I’m going to stop him and yell “I listened to your music! I really like it! ”’

SM: I heard you used to collect punch-out CDs.
[Also known as saw gash CDs, these were disks considered unsold inventory by US record companies; to ensure the disks couldn’t be sold and to minimize expenses, the companies would saw a gash a centimetre long into the disks, but most of the CD could still be played. The disks were sold as scrap to Chinese recyclers who figured out that young people would pay good money for the disks. See Saw Gash Generation for more on the phenomenon.]

WW: Punch-outs? Yeah, we had them here. They weren’t just in Wuhan—they were in the whole country. Wuhan, Beijing, everywhere. In China, punch-out CDs were how we became exposed to foreign music. There were no computers back then, you know what I mean? We just went to buy and listen to punch-out CDs. They had a big hole near the middle of them meant to prevent people from listening to them, or sometimes they’d have another big hole near the edges of the CD. But you could still listen to many of them.

I think it was America or Japan, maybe both. I’m not sure. Anyway, stores in those countries would sell new CDs, right? After some time, they’d have a bunch that wouldn’t sell—to them, these albums had become worthless. Garbage. I don’t know who punched the holes—it could have been America or Japan, could have been the Chinese government. Whoever did it wanted to make sure that these garbage albums wouldn’t have any value, so they put holes in them and shipped them to coastal cities in China to be destroyed. But, you know, somehow they didn’t get destroyed. Local folks on the coast would dig through garbage to find these CDs and then sell them to people from other cities for a reasonable price. People from all over China would head to these coastal scrap heaps to buy punch-out CDs and bring them back to their cities. Back then this was the only way to listen to foreign music.

They had everything. It wasn’t just punk music. Jazz, pop, folk, classical music, everything. Of course they had a huge impact on me! Not just me, everyone! We’d all go to these punch-out CD stores to sift through piles of CDs to find music we liked. It was really interesting—the people selling the albums didn’t really understand music, so they’d just put all kinds of different albums together in the same bin. There was no punk section, no rock section, no ‘genres’ to speak of. So people would just dig through heaps of CDs, unsure of what they were getting. It became sort of a hobby here for a while, collecting punch-outs from abroad.

Wu Wei: A slightly different look

Wu Wei: A slightly different look

SM: How did you get interested in politics?

WW: Actually, I wasn’t interested in politics. Living in this city, this country, has forced me to pay attention to politics. When I first started playing music, I wasn’t thinking about political and social issues. But I started to think more about certain kinds of problems as my music career progressed. I started to think as a person living in this city, as an individual. But what does it mean to be an individual? What qualities should an individual possess? Why are there so many things I don’t like, so many things that make me unhappy?

To be frank, the process of making music was, for me, a process of profound self-reflection. Before I started playing music, I’d never think about what I ‘should’ be doing. I had no goals in life whatsoever. I felt like I should just be roaming the streets. You know, I didn’t even have a job after I graduated from high school in 1993. For two years or so, I didn’t do anything—I’d just be out in Hankou every night getting into trouble with my friends.  Anything to kill time. They didn’t have anything else to do either. They liked going to KTV or going out dancing. I couldn’t dance to save my life but I’d go with them and sit in some dark corner and drink beer by myself. I didn’t even smoke back then! Afterwards, I’d go with them to find some late-night street food somewhere and play mahjong into the early hours of the morning. This was our routine. Man, even then I knew I didn’t want that kind of lifestyle but I didn’t know what else to do! I just went along with it. Do you know what I mean?

Drugs changed everything. Many of my friends started using drugs and that really bothered me. I eventually decided I didn’t want to hang out with those kinds of people. I tried to help some of my friends quit drugs but it never worked. Anyway, I felt like I needed a change of scenery. I had some friends in Beijing so in February of 1995 I packed up and left Wuhan for a while.

Heroin was really popular back then. Heroin is still popular but there are all kinds of new drugs available—meth, ketamine, cocaine, ecstasy. But if you ask me, it’s all the same—back then, my friends would inject themselves with heroin. Now someone will take a pill in the club. It’s the same.  Sorry, I have to take this call.

Where were we? At that time, well, I’d say drugs didn’t start showing up in Wuhan until the early nineties or so. I don’t know what it was like in other cities in China. But I started to notice drugs when my buddies started using them. I was relatively straight back then—like I said, I didn’t even smoke cigarettes. It seemed like all of my friends starting using drugs in the early nineties. That was a confusing time for me. I thought I had many friends, but I felt alienated. My friends could only think about going out, drinking, dancing, and playing mahjong. After drugs became popular, I felt like I needed to go to Beijing. I didn’t really know what rock and roll was then. Going to Beijing was like going to a new world.  I didn’t know much about the music scene. I just knew some people from Beijing who had passed through Wuhan. To me, they seemed totally different from the kinds of people who were hanging out in Wuhan. They were pure, you know? Those guys were real punks. That’s how I came into contact with punk culture.

SM: Did your friends have any trouble with the police?

WW: Yes, many of my friends were arrested. They were thrown in jail or put in rehabilitation clinics. But the funny thing is that they were still buying heroin in the jails and rehab centers. You haven’t heard of this before? It’s like this: I’m a cop, right, and I bust you and throw you into the clinic or the jail. But if you give my friends and me some money, we’ll let you go out at night and bring heroin back into the facility. We’ll even let you sell it. That’s their business, you know. That’s how cops make money in this town! The cops are corrupt? No shit! Drugs, this business … it was just a complete disaster. Some of my best friends died from heroin addiction. I watched it happen.

I went to Beijing for the first time in 1995. Before that, when all of this stuff was happening, I was lost. Going to Beijing was a great thing for me but it happened only by chance. I’m very grateful now that I had the chance to leave Wuhan for a bit, otherwise I don’t know what I’d be doing. One day, I was just hanging around with nothing to do, flipping through a magazine, and I saw that lots of creative stuff was going on there. So I thought to myself, ‘Why not? A change of scenery might be good for me.’ But you know, that time I just went for three months or so. Then I came back to Wuhan for a couple of months before heading back to Beijing.

I came back to Wuhan that time because I had a couple of friends here who were playing music, and you know, it’s not like I had a job or anything—I thought living at home with my folks and playing music for a while was a good idea. As long as we had food to eat, we were fine. A few months later, I went back to Beijing and spent a year or so there. After a year of hanging out in Beijing and playing music in different cities in China, I was ready to come back to Wuhan and start SMZB.

SM: Do the police still sell drugs inside prisons and rehabilitation clinics?

WW:Of course. It’s still like this. In this city, everyone who has had some contact with drug culture knows this to be true. Other folks might think that these centers can really help people get over their addiction, but of course that isn’t necessarily true.

I tried to help one of my best friends get off heroin. In my own home—not in some clinic. This was in 1995. I’ll be honest with you: the reason I came back from Beijing the first time was because I wanted to help my friend get off heroin. I locked him in my bedroom. We slept together in my bed for two months. My parents cooked for him and we didn’t let him leave my room for anything except for going to the bathroom. We bought some medication for people trying to kick heroin. I gave him the injections myself. After two months, he was completely over it. He managed to stop! But not even one fucking month later, he started hanging out with his old friends who were still using drugs and got hooked again. Just like that. If you want to quit drugs you have to leave this city, you know, and go to a place where you can’t find drugs. He’s screwed up many times, man—over and over again, you know? After that, I was done—I decided to help where I could but I acknowledged that I can’t do certain things on my own. So I left this city and went back to Beijing. My friend? I haven’t seen him or spoken to him in years. I think he’s still in Wuhan, but who knows. After I started really playing music, I severed many of my ties with old friends, so I don’t know what he’s doing now. That whole experience with him truly broke my heart.

If I was addicted to drugs, if I really wanted to quit drugs, I’d need some medication and need to leave wherever I was living and go live for a year in a place where I can’t find drugs and others can’t find me. I’ve had many friends who quit drugs and then immediately get sucked back into it. It’s ridiculous—they spend all of their parents’ money on drugs, you know? It hasn’t gotten any better. It’s the same as it was twenty years ago. But my friends now aren’t on drugs. They might smoke pot, but they’re not on heroin or meth or anything like that.

In other countries, maybe there’s a longer history between drugs and rock music. In China, it wasn’t like that at first. The friends I had who were into drugs weren’t into rock music. The friends I had who were into rock music weren’t into drugs. They were two separate things, two totally different worlds.

I’ve had a few run-ins with the cops myself. Not about drugs or anything like that—usually it has something to do with our performances. They don’t really like it when we perform outside, so doing outdoor performances is a pain in the ass. I don’t know why—maybe it has something to do with the lyrics of our songs. Sometimes even playing indoors is a hassle. Last year, we were doing a show next door at VOX. During our soundcheck, some cops came up to us on stage and told us to shut it down, that we couldn’t perform. What the hell? Tons of people know about this show, we said. People are coming from other parts of China to see us perform. They told us we couldn’t have so many people in the venue. So after some arguing, they let the first three hundred people in, and turned everyone else away. What a load of bullshit! We’ve had six, seven hundred people inside VOX before. They’re just afraid of crowds, you know? During our performance, there were a few cops backstage watching. So we put our giant zui hexie 罪和谐 (‘sin harmony’) banner up behind us when we played![4] Oh yeah, they definitely saw it. I was sure they’d take it down, but they didn’t. I’m still not sure why.

One time, they almost showed up at the bar. Did you hear about what was happening at East Lake in 2010?[5] There were a lot of protests and activism going on then. I was a part of it. At one point, we were planning a demonstration for about two weeks. I think it was going to be on a Saturday. When I showed up at the bar to work the day before our demonstration, the phone rang. It was the cops. They said they wanted to meet up with me to chat about something. I didn’t want to draw any attention to this bar so I told them I’d meet up with them somewhere else:  a coffee shop in Guanggu. I ran over there and there were two cops waiting at the entrance of the café. They took me to their car. One cop sat in front and the other sat in the back with me. The cop in the back started interrogating me about our plans—when we were planning to go, who was involved, all kinds of shit. I’d answer vaguely or feign ignorance, but the cop in front knew the answers to all the questions —he had copies of my emails and transcripts of my private chat sessions with people who were planning protests and demonstrations. They wanted to verify the information they already had. They even had my text messages!

Of course I changed my email address but it’s no use. They can still get it. I have several email accounts but I don’t trust that any of them is secure. They haven’t really bothered me since the East Lake stuff, though. As long as you stay away from political stuff, the police don’t give a shit about what you do. This bar has been open for four years and the cops haven’t come here one time. They probably don’t even know about it. It’s a small place after all.

SM: How’s business?

WW: Business here is okay I suppose. I don’t think our bar is among the most popular bars in the city or anything—those are all manyao (慢摇, ‘slow-rocking’) bars in Hankou.[6] But it’s good here—the bar isn’t too big and the drinks aren’t too expensive so people like it. Yeah, you noticed that sign behind the bar, huh? It’s true—all the alcohol here is real. Why put the sign up? Lots of people—particularly foreigners—come here and complain about fake alcohol in other bars around town. It’s really cute—they ask me, ‘Did you know they’re selling fake alcohol in other bars around here? Why do they do that?’ What a silly question. Obviously, everybody knows they do this, and everybody knows they do this to make more money! After some customers realised we don’t sell fake alcohol, they stopped going to the other places. It’s strange though—even the people who go to those bars to drink know that they’re drinking fake alcohol. I really don’t understand this shit. Why the hell go and spend a fortune to drink fake alcohol all night? Man, Chinese people are really … this kind of thinking … you really can’t understand it, can you? Chinese folks always ask me, ‘Why do you guys tell people you sell real alcohol?’ I tell them it’s so everyone knows that they can relax and not worry about what kind of poison they’re drinking. Shouldn’t that be obvious?

It’s fucking eight hundred yuan for one bottle of fake Chivas Regal at one of these manyao bars. Then they give you a whole lot of tea to drink so you can’t taste whatever the hell they’re putting in it. Everyone knows this. Don’t ask me—I don’t understand why people go to these places either. But these bars are laughing all the way to the bank. It’s just baoli (暴利, ‘outrageous profit-making’), you know. No, not that other baoli (暴力, ‘violence’). The cost of producing a bottle of fake booze is probably, like, thirty to forty yuan. Then they turn it around for seven, eight hundred yuan. It’s incredible.

See, there are people in this city who go around to other bars to buy empty liquor bottles. That’s their job! They’ll give you ten or twenty yuan for one bottle. Yeah, they’ve come here in the past but I’ve told them I won’t sell them any of our bottles. If you sell it to them, they’ll produce phoney booze. I don’t want to be a part of that. Your friend told you that the alcohol they sell at [place name withheld] is fake? Yeah, have you been there yet? No? Go take a look—their business is way better than ours and all they sell is fake alcohol. They make that garbage in buckets in the back of the bar. They do a good job of masking the fake alcohol. You may not taste it right away but the second day you’ll feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. No one gives a shit though. Some people just go to these places and drink beer because they don’t trust the liquor.

It’s like, how can I explain it … this kind of behavior is typical of Chinese consumerism, you know? These bars encourage you to buy the eight hundred yuan bottle of fake whiskey. They don’t even let you buy one bottle of beer. You have to buy a dozen beers at a time. But if you have a small group of people you might not want to drink twenty-four or thirty-six or forty-eight beers. You’ll feel bloated so you buy the bottle of fake booze instead. It’s not just a problem in Wuhan—this happens all over the country.

It’s a new phenomenon. Ten, twenty years ago, this wasn’t a problem. Back then, those kinds of bars didn’t have foreign alcohol. Actually, we didn’t even call them ‘bars’—they were just dancing clubs. And they only had Chinese beer.

But it’s not just alcohol. All kinds of foods and beverages are fake. It’s a consequence of our ‘economic development’. Now everyone is thinking about how to maximise revenue, reduce costs and make more money. Wuhan doesn’t have any character anymore. You’ve been to other cities in China, right? Isn’t it the same everywhere? The old neighborhoods, the local cultures, they’re all gone now. They’ve been replaced by ugly, new buildings. No, you’re wrong—the problem isn’t that they lack character. They’re just fucking ugly! The entire country looks like this now. The government’s thinking is that there’s land to be sold in every city. Destroy the old buildings, build something new and then sell the real estate. In this country, in every major city, there are people who are being forcibly removed from their homes so the government can destroy the buildings and build something new.

With so much ‘development’, China still manages to have so many poor people. Migrants are scattered everywhere, peasants are mired in poverty. Without government contacts or a government background, you can’t make real money. So people doing business don’t think about safety—they think about how to sell fake products.

China is on a path towards death. Do you understand what I’m saying? It’s not just these kinds of things. It’s everything. Culture and tradition are now basically nonexistent in this country. In this system… the kinds of things that happen to ordinary people every day … I really believe that before I die, there will be massive changes in this country. It can’t get any worse than this. And a big part of it is that culture, tradition and art and morals and lots of other things were lost during the Cultural Revolution. After that, there wasn’t any sort of unifying philosophy. The government just focused on developing the economy but they couldn’t imagine the kind of consequences that development would bring. You want to know why everything is fake in this country? Even the food here is fake. China has no culture. No tradition. No sense of conviction. Not a thing. Everyone just wants to fucking make money.

In the eighties—you know Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang right?—they wanted to first have political reform and then economic reform, or do them both concurrently. But Deng Xiaoping threw away this idea of political reform and decided to focus only on economic reform. So these were two factions in the Party. After Hu died, well, you know what happened at Tiananmen Square. If Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang were still around, and Deng Xiaoping had listened to them, I don’t believe China would have become like this. But lots of people don’t know about this history. I think many younger people don’t know anything about Zhao Ziyang. After he was placed under house arrest, the government didn’t publish anything about him. The same with Hu Yaobang.

I mean, at the beginning, I thought China needed some kind of political reform and that there shouldn’t be only one political party, you know, otherwise there’s always going to be some kind of dictatorship. Now I’m not so optimistic about the prospects for political reform. I don’t think you can say that political reform will change the way people interact with one another. How different will the next generation be from this one? What about the generation after that? This political system is certainly a problem. But culture, morals, these are an entirely different set of problems. They’re already gone—how do you bring them back? This is a very difficult problem to solve. You might think you can address these issues through education, but education in China is a complete disaster. So democracy, right, let’s say there was another political party in China and everyone had the right to vote. How will this fix the education system? Can this kind of reform really address systemic problems that began in the early eighties, over thirty years ago? Not likely. I’m very pessimistic now. I can’t help it—I don’t want to think about these kinds of issues but I spend a lot of time brooding over them anyway. It’s really annoying, honest. I’m happy when friends come by to drink and chat. It stops me from thinking about these depressing issues but let’s not forget they also serve as inspiration for my music. Still, I don’t want to be depressed all the time—I need breaks too. Being pessimistic every day really isn’t good for anyone. So I try to keep busy all the time. I don’t like being bored or still.

Writing songs and performing helps me clarify and develop my thoughts. But I’m also very interested in movies. I hope to direct a film one day. I’m writing a script. I think it will reflect some of the same opinions I’ve written about before but there’ll be new ideas as well. This is how I keep myself busy. I believe these kinds of projects will help me change myself and prevent me from becoming something I hate. This is nothing original. Many people have said this type of thing.

Have you seen the movie Black Snow? It’s about a young man released from prison in the eighties and his attempts to re-enter society and make a life for himself. Jiang Wen didn’t direct it—he plays the lead character—but that’s one of my favorite movies, I think. Actually, most of the Chinese movies that I like were made in the eighties. The art scene in the eighties was incredible—it was more open, more experimental. There were even really good TV shows in the eighties as well, if you can believe it. After 1989, well, all of that came to an end. It’s a step backwards. There haven’t been any improvements. There are more and more buildings, but that’s it. Nothing is real.

SM: What do your friends think?

WW: I never talk to my friends about this stuff. No one wants to talk about this shit. They think talk is cheap—you can talk all day but talking won’t change any of these problems. Unfortunately, I feel like I have to think about these problems. I feel alienated in this city. I have many friends but still feel lonely. With most of them, we just kind of hang out and eat and drink. If I say even one word about these things, my friends will just stop talking, and someone will change the subject.

Maybe these problems will be resolved in fifty years or so. Actually, I don’t know. There’s no way to know. Destruction is easy and fast. But if you want to put some of the pieces back together again, it might take a hundred years.

You can’t avoid thinking about these things, right? Being an upright person means having a sense of responsibility.



[1] An anarchist punk musician who started ‘Our Home’ 我们家, an autonomous social center in Wuhan. Pseudonym. For more information on Mai Dian, see his essay, ‘The Alternative Education of a Chinese Punk’. The original Chinese version is here.

[2] A popular music venue in Wuchang around the corner from Wuhan Prison.

[3] China’s best known rock musician. His song ‘Nothing to My Name’ 一无所有 became a kind of anthem for disillusioned youth during the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

[4] Zui hexie  罪和谐 is the title of one of SMZB’s albums, translated by the band as ‘Sin Harmony’. This term hexie means ‘harmony’; ‘to harmonize’ is slang for state censorship. SMZB’s title means ‘censorship is a crime’. It is a play on zui hexie 最和谐 ‘most harmonious’.

[5] Protests in response to commercial redevelopment of a scenic area around Wuhan’s East Lake.

[6] ‘Slow-rocking’ bar 慢摇—a Chinese-style dance club.

[7] Eight hundred yuan is approximately 128 USD.



Youtube: SMZB – PRC! (song and slideshow) How China Fooled The World, (BBC documentary that ends with an interview with Wu Wei)