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Beijing’s Skinheads

A Small Band of Punks Stands Out By Looking Alike

  • Ma Ke a.k.a. ‘Mr. Ma,’ Yan Lei a.k.a. ‘Bangbang,’ and ‘TM©’ pose on a Beijing street for a portrait. (TM© asked not to reveal his real name.) Bangbang flashes a ‘V’ in defiance while wearing a t-shirt from the anti-fascist punk movement Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP), that depicts a punk-rock favorite Dr. Martens boot stomping a Nazi swastika.
    Ma Ke a.k.a. ‘Mr. Ma,’ Yan Lei a.k.a. ‘Bangbang,’ and ‘TM©’ pose on a Beijing street for a portrait. (TM© asked not to reveal his real name.) Bangbang flashes a ‘V’ in defiance while wearing a t-shirt from the anti-fascist punk movement Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP), that depicts a punk-rock favorite Dr. Martens boot stomping a Nazi swastika.
  • ‘TM©’ and his old friend ‘TM®’ (next photo) asked that their real names be withheld, instead choosing to be addresses as parts of a duo. Their nicknames relate to their work in brand consulting, where they specialize in brand vision.
    ‘TM©’ and his old friend ‘TM®’ (next photo) asked that their real names be withheld, instead choosing to be addresses as parts of a duo. Their nicknames relate to their work in brand consulting, where they specialize in brand vision.
  • TM® says that among the many punk subcultures, skinhead culture has the clearest brand consciousness. It has a unified style of dress, including Fred Perry polo shirts, Dr. Martens boots, and Levi’s jeans, all brands with a long history and culture. The more important meetings with clients and coworkers they attended, the more TM© and TM® wanted to emphasize their skinhead appearance—as an expression both of their own personalities and of their resistance to the system. They say that most of the time their customers don’t know what their Dr. Martens and Levi’s represent.
    TM® says that among the many punk subcultures, skinhead culture has the clearest brand consciousness. It has a unified style of dress, including Fred Perry polo shirts, Dr. Martens boots, and Levi’s jeans, all brands with a long history and culture. The more important meetings with clients and coworkers they attended, the more TM© and TM® wanted to emphasize their skinhead appearance—as an expression both of their own personalities and of their resistance to the system. They say that most of the time their customers don’t know what their Dr. Martens and Levi’s represent.
  • Bangbang says he used to be a rule-following, white-collar car salesman. He now runs a punk bar called 3 Rock in Beijing’s Sanlitun neighborhood. In 2005, after he saw a live performance by the Chinese punk band Misandao, he says he fell in love with the culture. The lead vocalist of Misandao, Lei Jun, who died suddenly at age 40 last year, wrote a song for him called, ‘Don’t Say It’s Ok.’
    Bangbang says he used to be a rule-following, white-collar car salesman. He now runs a punk bar called 3 Rock in Beijing’s Sanlitun neighborhood. In 2005, after he saw a live performance by the Chinese punk band Misandao, he says he fell in love with the culture. The lead vocalist of Misandao, Lei Jun, who died suddenly at age 40 last year, wrote a song for him called, ‘Don’t Say It’s Ok.’
  • ‘Nengxing’ (who asked that his real name be withheld) is Bangbang’s close friend. Nengxing doesn’t speak much. His crew cut and imposing physique give off a military air. His right arm is tattooed with a machine gun and four letters: A.C.A.B., an acronym for the slogan ‘All coppers are bastards,’ a reference to a song by the same name of the 1980s British punk band The 4-Skins that became a punk rallying cry.
    ‘Nengxing’ (who asked that his real name be withheld) is Bangbang’s close friend. Nengxing doesn’t speak much. His crew cut and imposing physique give off a military air. His right arm is tattooed with a machine gun and four letters: A.C.A.B., an acronym for the slogan ‘All coppers are bastards,’ a reference to a song by the same name of the 1980s British punk band The 4-Skins that became a punk rallying cry.
  • The four freshly inked characters on Ma’s neck stand for ‘Come and Go in Peace.’
    The four freshly inked characters on Ma’s neck stand for ‘Come and Go in Peace.’
  • Li Minzhen a.k.a. ‘Fafa’ works as a landscaper. He says at first, he liked rock music because he identified with its ethos of personal freedom. When he learned about punk music and culture, he accepted and identified with punk’s insistence on the self, its rejection of pandering, and its courage to say ‘No’ to mainstream society. Since 2011, he says, he has approached his work and life with a new positivity and cheerfulness.
    Li Minzhen a.k.a. ‘Fafa’ works as a landscaper. He says at first, he liked rock music because he identified with its ethos of personal freedom. When he learned about punk music and culture, he accepted and identified with punk’s insistence on the self, its rejection of pandering, and its courage to say ‘No’ to mainstream society. Since 2011, he says, he has approached his work and life with a new positivity and cheerfulness.
  • Thin suspenders, crossed at the back, are part of the standard punk attire.
    Thin suspenders, crossed at the back, are part of the standard punk attire.
  • Ma Ke is known as ‘Mr. Ma.’ Like many young Chinese who fell in love with rock music in the 1990s, he looked for pirated copies of Western CDs. He settled on punk and grew a Mohawk. When his family bought a computer, he discovered skinhead music on the web. In 1999, Ma and his childhood friend Lei Jun formed Misandao with a few friends. Ma was the bassist. In 2015, Ma formed a new punk band called SHAVE’N’SHUT.
    Ma Ke is known as ‘Mr. Ma.’ Like many young Chinese who fell in love with rock music in the 1990s, he looked for pirated copies of Western CDs. He settled on punk and grew a Mohawk. When his family bought a computer, he discovered skinhead music on the web. In 1999, Ma and his childhood friend Lei Jun formed Misandao with a few friends. Ma was the bassist. In 2015, Ma formed a new punk band called SHAVE’N’SHUT.
  • Whenever there is a punk concert, or an anniversary related to Misandao or the late Lei Jun, these friends assemble at the bar. Bangbang says, ‘I don’t have any normal expressions. I can’t smile anymore. I’m just always pissed off.’
    Whenever there is a punk concert, or an anniversary related to Misandao or the late Lei Jun, these friends assemble at the bar. Bangbang says, ‘I don’t have any normal expressions. I can’t smile anymore. I’m just always pissed off.’
  • Spider webs are common prison tattoos, and as such are a symbol of resistance. According to Bangbang, a lot of people into punk will get a spider web tattoo on their elbow.
    Spider webs are common prison tattoos, and as such are a symbol of resistance. According to Bangbang, a lot of people into punk will get a spider web tattoo on their elbow.
  • Wang Xu is the lead singer of SHAVE’N’SHUT. In high school, friends took him to see a Misandao show. The music and atmosphere made him feel released from life’s pressures.
    Wang Xu is the lead singer of SHAVE’N’SHUT. In high school, friends took him to see a Misandao show. The music and atmosphere made him feel released from life’s pressures.
  • Following Bangbang’s recommendation, the group touch their shaved heads together in a circle. When reviewing the photo on the camera screen, Ma laughed, ‘Shit, what a bunch of meatheads!’
    Following Bangbang’s recommendation, the group touch their shaved heads together in a circle. When reviewing the photo on the camera screen, Ma laughed, ‘Shit, what a bunch of meatheads!’

Punk, as with most modern Western rock music, took root in China abruptly and unevenly starting in the early 1990s. Beijing skinhead Ma Ke—pictured here with a teardrop temporary tattoo—was born in 1976, around the same time as punk itself. One of his first encounters with this anti-establishment subculture, which first arose in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia, was in the mid-90s at the long-defunct Beijing live music venue Busy Bee (Mang Feng). Ma was intrigued by the spiked hair and dress style of early apostles of the scene, members of bands like Brain Failure and Anarchy Boys.

Ma and his childhood friend Lei Jun became regulars at Scream, a punk club that closed in the early 2000s. In 1999, the two formed the band Misandao (roughly “Three Sweet Cuts”). Named after a bite-sized honey cake popular in Beijing, the band was the first to identify with the skinhead movement in punk, whose members shave their heads and wear boots and suspenders to signal their loyalty to the working class and its values.

Ma’s crew consumed punk culture however they could at the time—from the few friends in their circle with an Internet connection, from black market CDs and cassettes, and from bootleg movies on VCD—and eventually settled on the 1992 film Romper Stomper, about neo-Nazis in suburban Melbourne, as their style guide. “In those days, it was hard to dress like a punk. We couldn’t easily get spiked leather jackets, studded belts, boots. But it was easy to shave our heads and wear suspenders,” said Ma, who has kept his head clean-shaven for over 20 years. Ma pored over the history of skinhead culture and the Oi! punk sub-genre that emerged in late 1970s working class Britain as a reaction against the voguish pretensions of early standard-bearers such as the Sex Pistols.

Well aware of the overlap between skinhead punk and neo-Nazi movements, Ma pointedly identifies himself and his friends as anti-fascist skinheads, akin to the Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) movement started in New York City in the late 1980s. “Even though China is viewed as fascist by the outside world,” Ma said, “there’s no room for fascism here.”

Misandao, and especially the lead vocalist Lei, were instrumental in defining punk culture in China, especially through the Beijing Punk Festival that Lei founded in 2003. Lei died of a heart attack in May 2015, months before he had been planning to open a noodle shop in the city’s central Gulou neighborhood. The restaurant is now run by Lei’s widow—with daily help from Ma, who also works as a freelance photographer of Chinese street culture. Punk Rock Noodle, as the shop is known in English, is a main hangout for Beijing punks and skinheads today. Most of these photos were taken there.

Skinheads are a rare breed in China. Ma estimates there are only between 10 and 20 of them, mostly in Beijing, with a handful scattered in cities such as Chongqing and Shanghai. “It’s hard to keep statistics, since some people who say they’re skinheads this year won’t be next year.” Ma said that for him, skinhead culture in Beijing is an indistinguishable mix of musical preference, dress code, and specific history—a committed lifestyle choice for him and his friends.

Josh Feola

Captions from Jiemian translated by Eleanor Goodman. Aditional translation assistance by Emma Sun.