‘We Have Three Times More Luggage Than Anyone’: Kikuyu Chinese Tour Diary Pt 2
From Wuhan to Shanghai to Beijing, SEZ WILKS (a.k.a. Kikuyu) wraps up her maiden tour of China. Along the way come the frustrations and rewards of DIY music there. Photos by MATT RICHARDS.
The slow train to Wuhan is delayed. While waiting we make friends with Ink, a fellow passenger from Yueyang. He asks us what language is spoken in Australia. Then he points to our bags and asks us why we’re carrying so much garbage? We like him immediately, chatting easily in broken English for an hour and a half until the train arrives. On the train, an old guy wearing glasses with the sticker still on the lens pulls out his nose hairs, examining each one closely. I use the dwindling 3G to sketch some more audience-friendly banter:
“We’ll start small and get a bit bigger.” (“Women hui congxiao chu zhou shou, da yi dian de.”)
“The next song is not mine.” (“Xia yi shou ge qu shi bushi wo de.”)
I have no idea what Google Translate is spitting back at me and just hope the intention translates.
Five hours later we arrive in Wuhan super hungry and grab some dirty fast food from a place called Dico's. It's like KFC but with rice as well as chips (carbohydrate coma). We linger in the taxi queue for 30 minutes only to jump a cab whose boot doesn’t close. The driver ignores our gestures, accelerating haphazardly between trucks and bikes. The boot flaps violently and our bags loll about like the tongue of an unconscious animal. Matt leaps out at the first red light to bring the essentials into the cab.
Arriving at our hotel we're stoked to find the venue, VOX, and a market of food vendors directly opposite. Hunting the street food stalls for dinner we find potstickers and pancake-burgers with capsicum, meat and chillis, plus sweet banana buns for dessert. Staff at VOX sweep and tidy from the previous night’s gig. Venue manager Li Ke is a friendly guy who helps communicate my tech needs to an engineer. It's the first place to have enough DIs for me and the sound guy's a total pro who tweaks my room sound and foldback via an iPad. It’s clear and great. Little King, the bar's resident cat, meows in expectation.
The bar girl hands me a woodblock to decorate. It's a VOX tradition – the bar's inside wall is hammered with hundreds of blocks scribbled by touring bands. I copy the font from my tour banner and stain the wood with black marker and bright textas. The pre-show soundtrack is caught in the '90s, with tonight's ambience dictated by Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Cranberries. A crowd gathers, sitting next to each other but playing games on their phones. Li Ke sets up bar stools near the stage to encourage an intimate show. Despite being unlit, people stumble upon them and sit there, waiting: they stay there my whole set, entranced. As predicted by Tom [see part one.] I sell no CDs, but 100 payers makes enough to cover train tickets to Shanghai and Beijing. I crash at midnight and set my alarm for 6am to make the Shanghai fast train.
Even with good hustle through traffic jams we still have to sprint for the train, chilli noodle soup slopping from paper containers in plastic bags. We have three times more luggage than anyone else and cause a clusterfuck in each carriage we enter. Our only saving grace is my ability to stash bags into overhead compartments like a Scottish sheaf tosser. The train is clean, comfy and floats along. We fall asleep until the food cart blunders toward our seats. Morning tea is bottled water and 'finger licking braised pork' flavour chips. Can't win them all.
“I drop my best Chinese pop song for the cops and they disappear.”
Rhys, original innovator of the Kikuyu China Tour, meets us in a Shanghai subway station. For those who haven't met him, Rhys is an Aussie energiser bunny: 100 miles a minute, hardly a breath between each thought, wit three steps ahead. He swears ruthlessly, which causes his wife Kenji to say “gross” a lot. Rhys takes us to his apartment and feeds us Vitamin C jubes and water, does our laundry. We’ve barely had time to hang it out before we’re whisked away to the evening's gig at Cellar Door Wines. Andy, the wine shop's owner, wears German industrial design glasses and is a gracious host, providing top-shelf imported wine, cheese and even a wine barrel to place my rig on. Rhys provides the backline (a stolen Fender amp and a karaoke speaker with flashing lights). My vocal loops bounce brightly off the windows and wine bottles, but the crowd enjoy the tunes. I shmooze with one woman so much that when we cheers she throws her glass of red wine all over me. Now the wine shop looks like a murder scene, red wine running down my bare arms and pooling on the floor. Andy moves in with a mop; we all share an expensive German sparkling; a German expat buys a CD. Life's good. We crash early on Rhys and Kenji's fold-out couch.
In the morning we wake up feeling unwell and sneak more Vitamin C jubes. Rhys explains through the bedroom wall the nonsense involved in booking shao kao (street barbecue) guys to cook outside this afternoon's courtyard show. He’s offered them 200 kuai to turn up with meat and a barbecue, plus the profit on whatever meat skewers they sell to the crowd. It’s an okay deal, but they won’t confirm and keep asking how many people will be attending. 70 people have RSVP’d to the online event, but Rhys says if it rains no one will come so it’ll be cancelled. He tells the shao kao guys 40 people. They still won’t confirm and tell him to call them again at 2pm. (The show kicks off at 3pm.)
Rhys takes us to his local restaurant for breakfast and we slurp long noodles, biting them and letting them fall communally back into the dish. Rhys drops some rice out of his mouth into the tomato and egg dish and vetoes a portion. While we eat we learn about the Human Flesh Search, a terrifying citizen-driven internet identity search used in China. Rhys tells us the Human Flesh Search is used by Chinese 'netizens' to take action against individuals involved in corruption, social injustices and other morally dubious situations. Online forums provide activists with the means to search for and share personal information – a person's location, telephone and credit card details – which are then used to identify and harass the targeted individual. I cross my fingers that the shao kao deal goes well.
We taxi along winding tree-lined streets, past old buildings with shutters on the windows. The location for the afternoon's gig is Studio Timeless, a beautiful clothing and accessories shop in Shanghai's former French Concession area. The shop is run by CC, a handsome Chinese DJ and style guru with a penchant for all things Japanese. (I do a quick calculation on the 4,200-kuai shoes and choke.) We sweep the courtyard, play with the neighbour's puppy and dash to the shops for beer and snacks. Rhys handballs the shao kao fiasco to CC, hoping a native Chinese speaker can wrangle a negotiation. It works – they agree to come at 3pm.
The courtyard fills and heads nod as I play. From behind my keyboard I watch as barbecue meat is handed out to the crowd and vaguely think that wasn’t the plan. Two songs out from the end of my set, minor shit hits the fan. A traffic accident happens between a taxi and a bicycle. Thankfully no one’s hurt, but a witness encourages the cyclist to make the driver pay up as compensation and a heated discussion begins. The police arrive and declare that the music is too loud and that the shao kao guys are making too much smoke. Rhys comes running over to me in between songs and urgently asks for 1000 kuai. Turns out the shao kao guys have screwed us over – they’ve cooked all their meat at once (800 kuai worth) and distributed it amongst the crowd instead of letting gig-goers buy it. Rhys is unable to make a scene about it with the cops there, so we suck it up and wear this one. Luckily the meat is fresh and tastes great, so everyone’s happy to eat it. I drop my best Chinese pop song for the cops and they disappear. We chat with the crowd as they filter out, sharing the last of the barbecue skewers and warm beer before a quick pack down in the dark.
My last show in Shanghai is at a bar called Lune. The gig’s been a source of conflict, with my show bumped a week out despite venue confirmation, great promotion and decent online press. Not straight shooting. Fortunately Rhys is friends with the other band’s promoter and cooperatively negotiates my way back on the line-up as opener. It’s the umpteenth time Lune has stuffed Rhys around and he’s fed up. I tell him I’m impressed by his commitment to the Shanghai scene despite the ongoing frustration some of its players cause. He replies with good humour that he’s already ordered a t-shirt range with the print “EUROTRASH IDIOT SCUMBAGS GO TO LUNE” and has sent interview questions to Lune’s booker under his Chinese pseudonym, Xiao Zhong (“Small Medium”):
Recently, someone at Lune double-booked a night. One show had been confirmed for months. One was booked a bit more than a week out from the event. Rather than give the night to who it was given to first, someone at Lune decided to flip a coin. Is this the kind of fair problem-solving we'll be seeing in the coming months at Lune?
At an event at Lune, an MC was heard yelling 'Who wants reggae?' and when no one replied, he then put on some reggae. What's Lune's stance on MCs yelling out rhetorical questions before a set?
Is it true that the Lune drum kit is like the mask in ‘The Mask’, and even after several attempts to throw it out – it still comes flying back in the window? Also, can you confirm or deny that the drum kit is held together by the collective misery of all those who have played it?
“We grin at the knowledge that we can fill a room through our small-fry networks. It’s a proud moment for DIY and we celebrate at a trashy nightclub.”
I arrive at Lune to find the band I was usurped by – two Canadian MCs called The Airplane Boys – blasting rhymes onstage at brain-shaking volume. Setting up for soundcheck there’s no light on stage to negotiate the spaghetti of leads under the DJ booth. The venue’s DIs are busted so we bypass them, using my and Rhys’ back-up leads to run all the way back to the mixing desk. Lune’s booker, Christian, emerges from a side door and I bite my tongue, sweetly thanking him for having me instead of asking him whether I was heads or tails. He lingers around the stage, concerned that I’m messing with the MCs’ set-up. I reassure him that all the leads I’m unrolling, re-rolling and replacing are my own and that I haven’t touched the boys’ channels. He relaxes and admits he’s no sound guy, then goes over the desk and wiggles the faders a bit. I check for two minutes through one song and bail for dinner. Awkward.
Despite the double-booking drama, Lune goes off. The bar packs with people who’ve come for my show. Friends-of-friends-of-friends in Australia come up and introduce themselves. Much of the Studio Timeless audience returns, bringing new people with them and dancing down front. Heatwolves and DJ Caution come, too, and I give them Kikuyu shirts as a thank you for their remix.
The Airplane Boys sleep through my set, but are quick to congratulate my performance after their show. Rhys, Matt and I drink and dance with those who stay on and during their set The Airplane Boys name-drop that they’re managed by Snoop Dogg’s team. The crowd is told a member of the team has flown in to be here tonight. (Matt to Rhys: “That was a waste of money.”) We grin at the knowledge that we can fill a room through our small-fry networks. It’s a proud moment for DIY and we celebrate at a trashy nightclub until 4am.
Running on two hours’ sleep, I hail a cab and hotfoot it to Shanghai’s Hong Qiao station. The fast train to Beijing takes five hours, smooth and speedy, but with the impending last show of the tour I’m too wired to sleep. Last night’s adrenalin has given way to an achy head cold. 1300km fly past, dry mountains giving way to snow covered fields. Passengers on the train start donning puffer jackets and gloves and we groggily prepare for the worst. We have thermals, but it’s not enough to keep out the creeping freeze. Tom meets us at the station and I joke that it’s like the reveal of Oz. He takes my duffel bag and subway hops us to our hotel, setting a cracking pace – he walks as fast as Rhys talks. At the hotel we momentarily slow him down, stretching his ‘five or 10 minutes’ to 15 to indulge in a hot shower.
The evening’s venue is a punk club called XP and we slide there on foot. Together Tom, Matt and I toast to the tour, swap some kuai and listen to the opening act soundcheck for an hour. Over a beer, Tom shares his latest letdown: a Chinese friend agreed to make some t-shirts in a unique fabric and cut, for which Tom agreed to pay extra, only to receive the full order in high-necked coarse cotton. It seems living as a foreigner in China, you get good at shrugging things off. As start time for my set approaches, it becomes clear that the snow's kept people at home. But it doesn't matter – the room at XP is small and feels friendly. A couple of people move close up with their chairs and I sing to them through the first song as others follow forward. By the time my set's over a modest but committed crowd has gathered. Soggy socks, sleeplessness and thermal underwear make for a hazy last gig, but in the style of my tour team I shrug it off.
After the show we opt for dinner and an early night. At a hotpot restaurant, Tom and his girlfriend talk easily while I sneeze into my chilli broth. I learn that Tom shares similar frustrations to Rhys, repeatedly coming up against unpredictable roadblocks to presenting alternative live music in China. The small annoyances add up, but they’re not enough to stop them being involved. They say it’s worth it, regardless of how exasperating the process can be. Getting out of the taxi at Beijing airport I feel pure gratitude for these guys and for the opportunity to connect with small but super-keen indie pop audiences in China. As the city's lights disappear below, I remember good advice I was given last year: there’s no point touring somewhere unless you intend to go back. This makes leaving easier.
Kikuyu's latest release is 'Hunter Gathered'. Tour dates below. Read part one.
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]