The Local Folk

An Interview with Indie Band Wu Tiao Ren

In the liner notes of their 2009 début album, A Tale of Haifeng, Guangzhou-based indie folk band Wu Tiao Ren tinkered with the Communist party slogan “Lizu xiancheng, fangyan quanqiu,” which translates roughly: “See the world from our county’s perspective.” The phrase often appears on banners in small towns where locals hope to sell their products abroad. Wu Tiao Ren inverted the phrase so it read: “Lizu quanqiu, fangyan xiancheng,” or “See our county from a global perspective.” This flipped perspective might be the band’s mantra—their music combines an acute awareness of the impact of globalization on China’s small towns with a stubborn allegiance to cultural localities.

Amao, Renke, and Mr. Merely 500 Bucks sitting by a river in Bishan, Anhui province during the November 2012 Bishan Harvestival.

Wu Tiao Ren means “Five People,” but the group has only two members: the earnest Amao and the evasively playful Renke (two-and-a-half if you count the shadowy designer/unofficial PR rep of the band who calls himself Mr. Merely 500 Bucks). All three men grew up in Haifeng county, a subdistrict of the port city of Shantou in Guangdong province. Both Amao and Renke sing in the Haifeng dialect and play guitar, while Renke doubles on the accordion, an instrument Chinese folk musicians rarely use. One would expect this to limit the band’s audience. After all, the Haifeng dialect is only a small sub-dialect of Teochew—the least spoken language among the three major dialects in Guangdong province (the other two are Cantonese and Hakka). But Wu Tiao Ren enjoys a growing fan base outside of their hometown—their busy tour schedule includes cities across Mainland China, but they have also gained critical acclaim in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Ma Shifang, a Taiwanese writer and radio host, called their second album, Some Other Scenery, “the record I have waited for for twenty years, and I didn’t even know that I had been waiting for it.” This spring, the band was to play the grand finale at the Midi Music Festival, China’s largest rock music festival, in Shenzhen. An unexpected thunderstorm ended the festival before they could perform, but disappointed fans booked them a special concert at a local bar a few days later.

Before forming the band in 2008, Amao and Renke made a living selling dakou CDs. These were a widespread black-market item of mysterious provenance prevalent in China in the late ‘90s. Dakou means hole-punched, and describes the narrow horizontal cuts in the jewel-cases and the CDs themselves that often eliminated one or two tracks from each album and marked the discs as overstock from places outside of China. But they were available in such abundance and variety that they provided for an eclectic and refined musical education. Wu Tiao Ren’s musical heroes include the late Argentine composer and Bandoneón player Ástor Piazzolla, the late Cape Verdean singer Cesária Évora, and American singer-songwriter Tom Waits. But they draw inspiration closer to home as well. The band sings about small-town outcasts in China––an old bachelor who likes to watch factory girls going to work, a person riding a bicycle while walking a pig, a black market vendor of foreign currencies, and a young Haifeng native revolutionary who was executed by Chiang Kai-shek in 1929. Traditional local opera and fishermen’s songs inform their singing styles. Their albums also include field recordings of the bus horns and scooter engine noises on the streets of Haifeng and reenactments of their neighbors’ quarrels.

Since the release of A Tale of Haifeng in 2009, critics in China have raved about Wu Tiao Ren. Some have compared them to Cui Jian and Zhang Chu, two well-respected Chinese singer-poets. Others note their artistic kinship with indie film director Jia Zhangke, who just won the best screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival for his new film, A Touch of Sin, and whose films shine a light on small-town bums in Chinese contemporary cinema. But Wu Tiao Ren remains cool-headed. In a recent interview, they said that if they have anything in common with Jia, it is that they both try to tell stories of individuals rather than stereotypes. A reporter once asked them: “What special things should folk musicians sing about?” Their answer: “Things that are not special.”

On Some Other Scenery, winner of China’s Golden Banyan Tree Award for Best Folk Music Album in 2012, the band focused on social and political issues: China’s real estate bubble; inflation; the conflict in Guangzhou between Uyghur street vendors and chengguan, China’s thuggish unofficial cops; and the democratic village election in Wukan. Early in 2013, netizens even spotted Amao at the scene of protests against censorship in front of the Southern Weekend newspaper building in Guangzhou.

Wu Tiao Ren on the beach in Haifeng, Guangdong province.

Even though they sing about specific individuals in Haifeng and Guangzhou, Wu Tiao Ren has helped make urban Chinese more aware of the changes taking place in life across China. While the band can be seen as a byproduct of globalization, the music they create is something many of their fans can proudly claim as being made in China.

When did you start playing music?

Amao: When I was in middle school, I listened to a lot of rock and roll, including Cui Jian, Douwei, and other Chinese rock stars of the 1990s. Later, my brother went to college in Guangzhou and he would often send me the newest dakou CDs, which introduced me to Western rock music. I remember one of the CDs was the British indie rock band Gomez’s album Bring It On, which greatly stimulated me. In about 2001, I started playing guitar when I started selling dakou CDs in Guangzhou myself.

Renke: I went a different route. I had a childhood friend who was a die-hard fan of American rock and roll. He was the first to introduce me to rock music. Later in Guangzhou, when I stumbled upon the music of Chinese indie folk musicians like Xiaohe and Wan Xiaoli, I got inspired and thought, “I’m going to try it too!”

How did you come up with the idea of playing accordion?

Renke: In 2006, Amao’s girlfriend gave me her accordion. Amao and I both were selling dakou CDs back then and as a result were exposed to a great variety of music from all over the world. And I really liked the accordion in French gypsy music. Also, one of our favorite film directors was the Serbian director Emir Kusturica. I loved the accordion in Time of the Gypsies and Black Cat, White Cat. I thought it would be super cool if I could play the accordion.

Why did you leave Haifeng and move to Guangzhou?

Amao: Well, I didn’t do well on the college entrance exams. My test results were a pile of shit. So I just decided to go to Guangzhou. Guangzhou is the cultural center of Guangdong province. Since my family’s economic situation improved in the ‘90s, I went to Guangzhou whenever I had a chance to buy cassette tapes and later dakou CDs. There is an underground distribution center for dakou CDs in the Gangding borough, near South China Normal University, where my brother went to college. So I thought I would just go to Guangzhou to sell dakou CDs. I figured I knew the industry well, at least on the consumers’ side.

Renke: I moved to Guangzhou in 2004. I was living in despair in Haifeng. That’s an exaggeration, but life was extremely boring. For the first sixteen years of my life, I never ventured beyond the small town. After middle school, I went to study arts and crafts at a vocational school and found it unbearable. I dropped out and found a job painting seashells in an adornment factory. The job was equally numbing. So I quit after a few months and decided to go to Guangzhou.

You went to Guangzhou to sell dakou CDs as well?

Renke: Not in the beginning. I identified myself more as a “painter” back then. When I first got to Guangzhou, I went into the business of selling pirated books. One of my early bestsellers was Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China’s Peasants (中国农民调查) by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao. The government banned the book in 2004. So you could only get illegal copies from guerrilla-style book vendors like me, who sold illegal books out of a cardboard box in front of the Guangzhou Book Center, the largest bookstore in Guangzhou. We also sold many pirated copies of popular books that were not banned. Now I of course know that this business is not so glorious because it hurts writers’ intellectual property. But at the time, I didn’t care about intellectual property at all. It was a great job with a flexible schedule that allowed me to make a living and get an “education.” Later, I joined Amao in the dakou CD business.

Amao: You see, he’s younger than me, but I’m actually more innocent. Renke is very complicated. 

Where did you get your inventory?

Amao: From Heping town in Shantou city. We would take off from Guangzhou at night, ride the bus for several hours, and get to Heping in the morning. We would pick CDs for a whole day and take the bus back to Guangzhou at night. To save money, we never spent the night there. The ride felt like riding a wild boar. I’m not sure why these dakou CDs all came to this small town. A friend of mine had an explanation: he thought that the music industry in America and Europe wanted to keep the price of CDs stable. So when they had more CDs than they could sell, they just cut a small piece from the edge of the CDs to remove them from the market.

Renke: I heard another theory: the CDs were electronic waste of developed countries, where companies simply didn’t want to pay laborers to process this waste. China and other developing countries would import this waste and process it for any salvageable value. In China, selling these slightly damaged CDs was more profitable than recycling them. That’s why the dakou CDs could enjoy a second life here. In Heping we used to buy these CDs by the jin [1 jin is approximately 1.1 lb].

The CDs must have also provided an education.

Amao: Sure. Picking CDs in Heping was like treasure hunting. Each great discovery opened the door to another world for us. The more music we were exposed to, the more we wanted to learn, imitate, and eventually create our own stuff.

Renke: It is no coincidence that we sold dakou CDs for many years. It’s because we love music. Amao also has a huge personal collection of CDs and vinyl records that he is reluctant to sell. I myself am more oblivious to collecting physical records.

When did you start having the confidence to share your own music with other people?

Renke: I need to answer this question more seriously. It was in 2005 during a time when I had no confidence that I started to have confidence. We could barely make a living selling CDs. At the time, I had already started writing songs. The owner of a local bar heard me singing some of my songs and for some reason really liked them. He invited me to sing in his bar for three consecutive nights. So I brought a guitar and went to the bar and sang for three nights, unplugged. And the audience all seemed to like the songs. After that, the owner of the bar told me that I could come to the bar and enjoy a free meal whenever I needed one. I was a bit bewildered because I never thought much of my music. The fact that people liked [my songs] motivated me to take them more seriously—I decided that I should be able to do better than this; I should improve those songs. Through this process, I built up confidence.

Amao: For me, I guess it started in 2004. At the time, I lived in Guangzhou with my brother and cousins. But our friend Mr. Merely 500 Bucks still lived in Haifeng. I wrote several songs and so did my brother and cousins. One day we just had this idea to go back to Haifeng and have a concert on the streets. So we called up Mr. Merely 500 Bucks to draft him into helping us organize it. But he said we should do a formal concert—the kind that involves a stage. So he drafted more friends and organized the first indie music festival in Haifeng. It was in that festival that I met Renke. But the first time we performed together as Wu Tiao Ren was June 28, 2008, in an art space in the College Town district of Guangzhou.

Were your earliest songs written in the Haifeng dialect?

Renke: No. They were written half in Mandarin and half in English. 

Amao: Creation begins with imitation. And our influences came from all over the world. It took us a while to find our own voice. Our first song in Haifeng dialect was “Uncle Li.” It’s a song that one might sing while on the way to the farmer’s market. It just came together effortlessly. So gradually we wrote more songs in the Haifeng dialect. But sometimes we still sing in Mandarin when it feels right. For example, our song “I’ll Let You Know When There Is A Problem” is in Mandarin because it is about our friends in Guangzhou.

Mr. Merely 500 Bucks: To be fair, for whatever reason, it is rather difficult for Han Chinese to come up with music that is authentic, soulful, and at the same time distinctively Han. Ethnic minorities are more advanced in this respect. We Han Chinese don’t really have a sophisticated tradition of music and dance, except maybe in traditional operas, which are all in dialects. So I think it is quite natural that Wu Tiao Ren returned to the Haifeng local dialect—their mother language. We are speaking Mandarin now in this interview and it feels as if we are all wearing some kind of uniform. Mandarin to us is a work language. Most of the drama in our lives is carried on in Haifeng dialect.

Do people in Haifeng like Wu Tiao Ren?

Mr. Merely 500 Bucks: I did a survey before they released their first album, A Tale of Haifeng, in 2009. We asked 102 people on the streets of Haifeng if they had heard of this band called Wu Tiao Ren. Not one of them said yes, which was exactly what we had expected. It is ironic that the very people Wu Tiao Ren celebrate in their album don’t like their music. These folks typically like the songs sung on CCTV New Year’s Galas—melodramatic and “fashionable” songs that in fact are incredibly hollow. That’s the kind of entertainment they are comfortable with. They don’t want to listen to songs about the neighbors in the Haifeng dialect. It is very strange. I see this on Haifeng TV all the time; when interviewed by a TV reporter on the street, a peasant riding a scooter in his slippers will suddenly speak like a party leader with the same kind of bureaucratic vocabulary. And you know for sure he does not talk like that in real life. It is as if he knows what is expected of him in such circumstances.

Renke: That was the situation in 2009. Now more people in Haifeng have heard of us.

Mr. Merely 500 Bucks: That’s true. Since then, Wu Tiao Ren have released two albums and won many awards. They have been interviewed by Phoenix TV and almost all of the major print media in China. So they seem more legitimate to their homies now. I’m sure more people in Haifeng would be proud of Wu Tiao Ren if one day they have a concert in America. It is like reimportation––an imported product is still superior even when it is originally made in China.