When George Michael rocked China in 1985
As the world mourns pop star George Michael, Chinese music fans recalled the key cultural role he played in the country’s opening-up to the West.
The British singer’s quintessential 1980s group Wham! was the first major Western band to tour China after the country’s opening-up. The group’s 10-day tour in 1985 helped pave the way for Western music in China and added to Wham!’s global stature.
Michael, a two-time Grammy Award-winner, was 53 when he died in Oxfordshire, England on Sunday.
In April 1985, Wham! (made up of Michael along with Andrew Ridgeley) performed in Beijing and in Guangzhou.
In Beijing, the band drew 15,000 people to Workers Gymnasium. The duo also visited the Great Wall and Tian’anmen Square, the basis for the documentary Foreign Skies:Wham!inChina.
Zhang Qin, then a Peking University student, said: “I stood in line outside the box office the whole night to buy a ticket. The price was 5 yuan, but scalpers sold tickets for 25 yuan in a few days.” At that time, a worker’s monthly salary was about 40 yuan.
Singer Cheng Fangyuan sang WakeMeUpBeforeYou Go-Go in Chinese before the tour. The Chinese version aired on radio and was made into a cassette, quickly bringing Wham! fame in China.
“It was an unforgettable experience, the dazzling lights, the overwhelming waves of noise. We never saw a performance like that; their songs brought the hall down,” said Cheng, who saw Wham! play in Beijing.
“Chinese audiences were unfamiliar with that kind of concert. They were impressed by the performance but did not know how to respond. Some foreigners in the audience stood up, singing and dancing with them,” she recalled.
“After the performance, Wham! met officials from the Ministry of Culture. I still remember Michael looked so handsome and cool in a colorful shirt and jeans with long blond hair.”
To make the concert happen, it took Wham!’s manager Simon Napier-Bell 18 months of persuading the Chinese government to let the band play, with one premise that it would help China attract foreign investment, according to CBS News.
“In the end, everybody got what they wanted from it,” Napier-Bell told the Taipei Times. “Wham! became the biggest, most famous band in the world, and the Chinese got a concert that proved they meant what they said about opening up.”
The concert influenced Chinese musicians who had never seen electric guitars played on stage and aroused their interest in rock ’n’ roll.
Huang Wen, a music writer, told CBS News that the performance had an impact on big- name musicians, including Cui Jian, the godfather of Chinese rock.
“In the early 1980s, pop songs from Hong Kong were very popular in the Chinese mainland, and after the concert, college students and people in the music industry started to get interested in rock ’n’ roll,” she said.
Hong Kong music composer Jim Lau wrote on Weibo: “I’ve learned Wham! and George Michael at a young age because of Careless I even printed a photo (of Wham!) on my favorite outerwear.
“Time has no pity, he is gone. Hit songs in that era are the most classic! I still enjoy listening to those extraordinary works,” Lau said.
“It is with great sadness that we can confirm our beloved son, brother and friend George passed away peacefully at home over the Christmas period,” his publicist said in a statement. “The family would ask that their privacy be respected at this difficult and emotional time. There will be no further comment at this stage.”
“I am in deep shock. I have lost a beloved friend — the kindest, most generous soul and a brilliant artist,” Elton John posted on Instragram.
“Heartbroken at the loss of my beloved friend Yog. Me, his loved ones, his friends, the world of music, the world at large. 4ever loved. A xx,” Ridgeley wrote on Twitter.
British police said Michael’s death was “unexplained but not suspicious”.
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou on June 25, 1963, in London to Greek Cypriot immigrant parents, Michael formed Wham! with his school friend Ridgeley in 1981.
After Wham!, he forged a career as a successful solo artist, although his time in the public eye included some run-ins with the law and drug arrests.
A Weibo user named Geek Sun Xinxin wrote a poem in memory of Michael:
... The blond hair flying on the stage, the … faces under the stage with sparks in their eyes
Listening to Last Christmas one more time, the fire is still on.
Heng Weili and Hong Xiao in New York, Chen Jie in Beijing contributed to this story.
George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, members of the British band Wham!, visit the Great Wall in April 1985 during their groundbreaking tour of China.