'I Am A Sweet Sick Cat': Kikuyu Chinese Tour Diary Pt 1
Venturing from Shenzhen to Guangzhou to Changsha, SEZ WILKS (a.k.a. Kikuyu) kicks off her maiden tour of China. General confusion awaits, but with better-than-expected CD sales. Photos by MATT RICHARDS.
It started online. Around Christmas 2011 I got a message from my Australian friend Rhys, ex-Bang!Bang!Aids! drummer and now one half of Shanghai punk duo Pairs. He tells me he's just watched a Kikuyu clip online and thinks he can help hook up a China tour, if I'm keen: "You won't make much coin but it would be awesome!" Sold.
The proposition is simple: with little gear and no backline Kikuyu can play places in China that aren't traditional venues. Rhys plans to pitch me to a Chinese tour agency as an international artist who can promote and broaden their branding in places their usual demographic doesn't go. I mail a bunch of CDs to Rhys in Shanghai and we agree to catch up at an Auckland house party when we're both touring New Zealand in February. The motto for negotiations is “shoot straight.”
Jump to October 2012 and I'm flying to Guangzhou from Melbourne on the cheapest flight known to man. Accompanying me is my partner, Matt, documenting the tour in exchange for an almost all-expenses paid tour of Chinese megacities. The airline's in-flight exercise video promotes “improved discomfortableness” but stalls halfway, stopping the flow of qi through economy class. Matt thumbs the broken touch-screen of his entertainment console; I score someone's vegetarian meal. Touching down in China, a “Welcome to Guangzhou” video opens with a techno version of The X-Files theme song. We're not even off the plane and the confusion has begun.
“'Over the course of the next week the internet slows to a trickle, Gmail grinds to a halt, taxis' rear windows are kept locked and factories shut down to permit clear skies.”
The trip marks my third to China, but my first as a performing musician. Tom from tour agency This Town Touring has taken me on, booking nine shows from Shenzhen in the south to Beijing in the north. Like Rhys, Tom is an Australian expat committed to expanding the diversity of independent music available in China. The aim to play non-traditional venues is partly upheld – some active indie pop kids in Guangzhou have organised a bookstore matinee, and in Shanghai Rhys has confirmed both a wine shop show and a courtyard gig at his friend's clothing store. In other cities the DIY pop scene is less established, which means fewer people on the ground to help make unusual things happen. So instead I play punk/rock venues in Shenzhen, Changsha, Wuhan and Beijing. The jury's out on how many people will come to shows, though Tom and Rhys offer a unanimous warning: “Chinese kids don't buy merch.”
We emerge from the metro at Guangzhou Zoo station and eat crackly street pancakes outside a flamingo enclosure. It's 7am, shockingly hot and surreal. I'm glad to have a day to acclimatise (the first show is in Shenzhen the following night.) We find our hotel, shower and walk miles all over the pedestrian-unfriendly CBD to squint through haze at the Pearl River. In the afternoon we menace a 40-kuai ‘luxury electric yacht’ ($6 pedal boat) around Yuexiu Park's manufactured lakes. We stumble upon a pastel sports stadium, a Ming Dynasty city wall and Guangzhou's 'greenway', an ivy-lined path running along the backs of houses below layers of sprawling freeway and rail. China's big on public exercise and at sunset everyone's out, swinging arms and patting limbs. An elderly Chinese woman rubs her back against a metal bar, too short to reach the contraption's plastic massage roller.
At dinner we go to the only restaurant in our hood with photos of the food displayed on the walls. I can point to things and say “this one” and “this many” in Mandarin and it gets us through. Almost. I can't see any beer in the fridge so I pull out my phone's Chinese language app and ask for a large Tsingtao. Turns out it's a Muslim restaurant, which explains the quick look of horror the waitress shoots me. Faux pas aside, having a smart phone on tour in China quickly proves its worth. Using Google Translate I can save choice phrases in Chinese characters and whip them out sans wi-fi. This is especially helpful for additional tour curveballs, like my being diabetic. Travelling through Indonesia I discovered only at the end of the trip that instead of saying, “I have the sweet sickness, can I put my medicine in your fridge?” I'd been announcing, “I am a sweet sick cat.” These charades are done away with in China. Hotel staff store my insulin in the lobby's drinks fridge nestled between iced tea and Fanta.
After the free hotel breakfast (rice congee, pickled vegetables, dumplings with nothing inside, powdered milk, a banana) we wander out to buy a Chinese sim card. Matt is pulled up by a cop for filming a building. He deletes the footage and we move on, not before the cop tries to pull a cheap bribe from him. We smile and say goodbye and the fellow cops chuckle from the sidelines. We sneakily climb to the rooftop of our hotel and watch a primary school sport competition straight from above. The announcer is relentless and her broadcast cuts through the smog and up 12 floors to our blank ears. I put in my sim card and message Rhys in Shanghai:
“Testing Kikuyu's Chinese sim card, over.”
“Sez bomb, Sez bomb, you're my Sez bomb!”
Matt and I travel to Shenzhen dressed like fruits in Western gendered colours. He's wearing blue shorts and matching blue sneakers. Having brought nothing appropriate for 34-degree weather, I've purchased the only shorts in Guangzhou for a 5”11 female, which turn out to be fluorescent pink when I get them out of the dingy shop and into daylight. I pair them with pink sneakers and a black t-shirt that smells sour from being pulled off the line prematurely in my frantic, pre-flight pack.
The high-speed train ride is peaceful and, at 1.5 hours, short by Chinese travel standards. On arrival in Shenzhen I message the manager of Hongtang Guan ('Brown Sugar Jar'), a comfy, couch-filled loft bar built in a former factory storage space. A message comes back in broken English with a different number to try. Eventually I get hold of the right guy, Nui, and receive the hotel address in Chinese characters to show to the cab driver. (No hotel information is available before the tour, but as the tour progresses this call-and-response system becomes a well-oiled machine.) Walking to the railway station's taxi rank, Matt gets into the spirit of things by hocking a massive mid-sentence spit. We both lose it. Our laughter's cut short by beggars lined up at the taxi rank. A man is sitting without legs, his one arm outstretched for coins. His head rests between the bars of the taxi rank guard rail and his hair hides his face. Where his legs should be his jeans make two pools of denim.
Shenzhen is part of a Special Economic Zone and Google Maps places the hotel and venue in the middle of a technology park. The hotel is basic and deserted, except for staff who live on-site in the rooms. We push our two single beds together and head out into the technology park. Having missed lunch, we're super hungry and chow down on a massive meal of eggplant and fish, tofu and mushroom hotpot, steamed broccoli and glutinous rice noodle rolls with sweet peanut sauce. Outside on the street it's super-orderly and feels strangely like the suburbs. The low-cost, shed-style shops remind me of regional Australia's new gyms and pet shops, which are being built on concrete slabs in large industrial lots. Ugly, and odd.
Soon after Nui picks us up in his car. It's peak hour and we snail around the block, oblivious that the venue is so close. I make friends with the sound guy and a staff member whose Chinese name translates to 'Little Gun'. Venues in China come with an impressive complimentary back-line. I don't use any of it except the keyboard stand, but that on its own is a lifesaver. Right on show time around 60 people spread out over the top and bottom floors of the bar. The gig goes well – my gear works in Chinese powerpoints and people are into it, filming with iPads and mini tablets. Afterwards I sell and sign CDs and have photos taken with fans. Little Gun brings me tiny wooden toys as a gift and a savvy girl who's climbed Mt Kilimanjaro asks me if my name, Kikuyu, comes from the African people. The crowd leaves as promptly as it arrived and the venue's shut by midnight. Nui gives me a wad of kuai from the door takings, enough to house, feed and travel two people from Shenzhen to Guangzhou and beyond.
On the train to Guangzhou the next morning, our stomachs are a little queasy from the hotel's included breakfast (too-tepid noodles and cold scrambled egg). A kid across from me rips into snacks his grandma has given him, crushing peanuts in a mouth with a front tooth missing. He cleans his face in the train window's reflection, half an eye on Matt and half on the passing landscape. I post pics on Weibo (Chinese Twitter), CC'ing China Railways and spruiking my two shows in Guangzhou. One is in a six-storey bookshop called UN Bookstore and the other's at a reggae-friendly dive bar called C:Union, tucked behind a hotel complex. My excitement simmers as Guangzhou's gold-tinted skyscrapers come back into view – I can't wait to play!
“China is usually a black hole of CD sales. Double figures is a major achievement.”
UN Bookstore is located in a frenzied tourist and shopping hub on Beijing Rd, Guangzhou. Space, guitarist from Chinese support band YourBoyfriendSucks, has drawn an incredible poster for the show. For whatever reason it's horror-themed: 'KIKUYU' is etched in orange cartoon letters below mohawked skulls, groping mummies, a brain-operated octopus and a terrifying cyclops zombie boy. It hangs beside the Chinese equivalent of Moleskine notebooks in the store's front window. A weirdly formal gallery space on level five is where I'm playing. Someone's projected the Kikuyu tour poster onto a pull-down screen behind me, so it looks like I'm about to give a PowerPoint presentation.
Upstairs I meet Zoey and Howie, beautiful people from YourBoyfriendSucks who've organised everything for the show, including wheeling a vocal PA up five floors from who knows where. We hit it off, swapping music recommendations, silly tour stories and badges. Their friend Sam does sound and we make things work with a combination of my backup gear and theirs, a crap mic and RCA cables that can reach all the way from my gear to the mixing desk. Seventy-odd kids spill into the space and cram onto the carpet in front of me, iPhones up and recording. They wear backpacks, glasses and oversized T-shirts and shoot my set on every kind of mobile device imaginable. The audience sings along and claps in time to my cover of Chinese pop hit 'Superstar', which I've copied in pinyin from YouTube. As soon as the encore's over, the Full Label crew do a shout-out about my merch and a chaotic line forms for autographs and photos. We return to the hotel with Chinese sweets, instant photos and postal addresses from fans (“for DIY postcards!”). Matt quickly transfers footage to a hard-drive and I hit up Weibo before cabbing to C:Union.
YourBoyfriendSucks are running late, stuck waiting for a bus. I soundcheck anyway and do my best to reassure the bar staff they'll be here. Our luck continues on the food front – Matt and I find a restaurant with a picture menu near the bar and eat rice, mutton and carrot dumplings, smoky tofu and soy beans and garlic-fried green plant stems. Two giggling waitresses come to stand beside me and measure their height at my shoulder. Back at C:Union the bar is packed. Tables and chairs have been brought forward from out the back and jammed in front of the stage to seat drinkers. YourBoyfriendSucks arrive in time to play a short, sweet set. They jump off stage and kneel up front on the floor, listening close. I play for an hour, fabric tour banner rigged up behind me. The sound is good and the engineer pushes it loud. It's dark and the Chinese crowd is boozy, towers of beer being delivered to tables with every song.
After the show we farewell Howie and the other YourBoyfriendSucks kids. I feel sad to leave them so soon. From only one afternoon together we've become good friends. We determine to play a future show together in Hong Kong and I make a mental note to book a stopover there next time I fly north. Back at the hotel I do a quick merch count: I've sold 20 CDs in two days and a T-shirt. Tom and Rhys reckon that's unheard of – “China is usually a black hole of CD sales. Double figures is a major achievement,” emails Tom – but caution that Changsha and Wuhan are “dead zones.” Meanwhile, on the streets of Guangzhou the YourBoyfriendSucks crew warm up for karaoke with a late-night rendition of my song 'Summer Helicopter', Chinglish style.
We make it to Changsha by midday, functioning on five hours' sleep and hopping from taxi to subway to high-speed rail. I'm woozy but still buzzing from the Guangzhou gigs. With Howie's help I manage to buy a voucher from 7-11 and top up my phone credit. In China, you can only top up your phone credit in the province you bought your sim card – a ridiculous rule given China's transient population. Before we parted, Howie scribbled, “I want to buy 100RMB phone credit” on the back cover of Matt's magazine, which I give to the shop assistant. Giggles, a nod; success. The train travels at 300kmph through foggy rural mountains and I kill time recording the train's Chinese loudspeaker announcements to my phone.
With three nights off before the next show – a Halloween gig in Changsha – we journey six hours inland and up to hike in Zhangjiajie National Park. The Chinese government claims James Cameron used the park's epic karst pillars as inspiration for Avatar, so one of the rock formations has been renamed 'Hallelujah Avatar Mountain'. At the bus station the toilet is a concrete channel of raw faeces that flows in urine. The bus sounds like a hairdryer turning on and off each time the driver presses the accelerator. Looking out the window, everything is under construction. A sign suspended from 20 storeys of bamboo scaffolding advertises the benefits of new apartment living: 'Zero defect family ... taste of happiness.” Eventually the urban landscape opens into hills and valleys with older single-storey houses. Agricultural terraces make beautiful sweeping curves, segmenting the earth like panes of leadlight. We make it to Zhangjiajie National Park at nightfall, fobbing off a tout's offer to be our guide, and spend two days hiking the park's more obscure paths through fog, rain and blinding sun. The sandstone peaks float and hang in the mist (I get the Avatar thing now) and tourists shout and hear their voices ricochet around.
Back in Changsha I soundcheck at the biggest venue of the tour, 4698 Live House. The name is a rearrangement of the date of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Inside it's huge – to me and my small pop songs it feels like a stadium. I'm opening the night, having jumped onto a hard rock (gulp) line-up after the venue I was headlining closed down a week before my tour. The gig's advertised as a Halloween party, but only the staff are dressed in costume. They sell a 'one night only' cocktail called The Kiss Of Death. Mine’s watery, Matt’s is super sweet and neither of us can taste any alcohol. After soundcheck we meet Xiao Yu, a gentle guy from inner Mongolia who performs solo as Hollow Shadow. Together we plough through the free beers before the headline rock act arrives. I escape as five ’80s-styled boys enter the bandroom. An excited staff member over-enthusiastically pumps dry ice as I step across stage.
The sound engineer take a few minutes to notice me – awkward – and I hold a handful of keen listeners at the rails and on seats down the side. Songs with lots of sampled percussion work well, but my most minimal songs are dwarfed by this size venue. The diversity of spaces I'm playing on this tour means I'm learning a lot about how context effects my live performance. I make mental notes: Stripped-back songs played in huge clubs make the audience feel stark and sparse. In a small space they make everyone feel close and connected.
In the morning Matt and I scour the street for hangover food and find fried yam donuts, fruit, lattes in plastic bottles and a flaky pancake with egg, salad and sausage. I ditch the sausage; Matt keeps his; we both compete for the hotel toilet. Ugh. Wandering along the river we hear air raid sirens echoing over Changsha and realise the sky is uncharacteristically blue. My tour's coincided with the Chinese government's 18th party congress and this is the first inkling of political activity. Over the course of the next week the internet slows to a trickle, Gmail grinds to a halt, taxis' rear windows are kept locked and factories shut down to permit clear skies. As we hustle to the train station, I notice the wheels on my merch case are also slowing down. The rubber is roasting and flaking off in chunks from all the ‘k’s. I'm halfway through the tour and cross my fingers that the wheels and the internet don't melt before I'm done...
Kikuyu's latest release is 'Hunter Gathered'. Tour dates below. Part two tomorrow.
Sun, Dec 2 - Grace Darling Cellar, Melbourne, VIC
Sat, Jan 12 - Grand Poobah, Hobart, TAS
Sat, Jan 19 - Bridge Hotel, Castlemaine, VIC
Sun, Jan 27 - Wheatsheaf Hotel, Adelaide, SA
[all with Super XX Man]