Wham! ba±ed Com­mu­nist China

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Si­mon Denyer

It was a cul­ture shock to ri­val the best of them. The bouf­fant, coif­fured hair, ex­u­ber­ant danc­ing and ex­trav­a­gant im­age of Bri­tain’s lead­ing pop band, and the Com­mu­nist Party’s dour in­sis­tence on uni­for­mity.

When Ge­orge Michael and An­drew Ridge­ley un­der­took a his­toric tour of China in 1985, they may have baf­fled many of the lo­cals. But they also might have had a last­ing in­flu­ence on a coun­try still emerg­ing from the trauma of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion.

Around 15,000 peo­ple were packed into the Peo­ple’s Gym­na­sium in Beijing on April 7 to watch the first Western pop act to visit the coun­try. Press re­ports at the time de­scribe many of the au­di­ence as un­sure how to re­act — partly be­cause the au­thor­i­ties were deeply am­biva­lent about the whole af­fair, and po­lice kept telling peo­ple not to stand up. An ac­count on bi­og­ra­phy.com de­scribes the mood as a mix­ture of joy, con­fu­sion and para­noia.

But around the coun­try, a young gen­er­a­tion who were throw­ing off the shack­les of Com­mu­nist aus­ter­ity saw an in­spi­ra­tion in the duo.

“I was danc­ing to their mu­sic in un­der­ground disco and rock par­ties in my art school in Chongqing,” said Rose Tang, who went on to be­come a stu­dent leader of the 1989 Tianan­men Square pro-democ­racy protests. “Wham!’s mu­sic and their hair­styles were all the rage among art stu­dents.”

Tang, who now lives in Brook­lyn, said Wham!’s mu­sic helped her on the path to ac­tivism. “The mu­sic was really in­stru­men­tal in cul­ti­vat­ing our re­bel­lious An­drew Ridge­ley, left, and Ge­orge Michael per­form in Beijing in 1985. Wham! be­came the first Western pop act to visit China and may have had a last­ing in­flu­ence on the coun­try. As­so­ci­ated Press file spirit,” she said.

The band’s man­ager, Si­mon Napier-Bell, re­port­edly spent 18 months per­suad­ing Com­mu­nist au­thor­i­ties that the coun­try was ready for Western pop cul­ture, as the coun­try opened to the world and tried to at­tract for­eign in­vest­ment. In Beijing, though, many in the au­di­ence were mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Party or their younger rel­a­tives: Most prob­a­bly were hear­ing the band’s mu­sic for the first time.

Ac­cord­ing to a Bri­tish Em­bassy re­port pub­lished by The Guardian, Michael strug­gled to get the crowd to clap along to “Club Trop­i­cana,” in­stead get­ting a round of po­lite ap­plause. There was, the re­port de­cided, “a cer­tain lack of mu­tual un­der­stand­ing.”

But some younger mem­bers of the au­di­ence did dance — or try to.

“When­ever peo­ple got up to clap or dance, the cops would make them sit down,” tweeted Richard Hornik, a for­mer jour­nal­ist who at­tended the show.

In a 2005 BBC in­ter­view, Napier-Bell blamed the awk­ward sit­u­a­tion on his de­ci­sion to send a break­dancer into the crowd dur­ing the show, which ap­peared to hor­rify the au­thor­i­ties.

“In the in­ter­val, they an­nounced on the loud­speaker that no­body could stand up. Ev­ery­one had to sit down through the whole show — which was 100 per­cent my fault. I really killed the at­mos­phere.”

The crowd down­stairs also mis­took TV cam­eras for se­cret po­lice film­ing them, he said. “There were 7,500 peo­ple down­stairs in­tim­i­dated by the lights and the po­lice stand­ing around the out­side, and up­stairs you had 7,500 peo­ple get­ting more and more wild and crazy.

An hour-long video doc­u­ments the tour: In it, the pair visit the Great Wall, play soc­cer, meet Com­mu­nist Party of­fi­cials — a vice min­is­ter tells them he too is a mu­si­cian and com­poser and hopes art can pro­mote friend­ship be­tween their na­tions — and wind up at a re­cep­tion at the Bri­tish Em­bassy, where they ap­pear al­most equally out of place among the up­per class, cricket-play­ing diplo­matic elite.

They are gaw­ped at by lo­cals in blue, green and grey Mao suits and praised by con­cert go­ers, who de­scribe the event as “in­spir­ing” and “some­thing like ro­man­tic,” or earnestly ex­press a de­sire to have bet­ter un­der­stood the lyrics.

As the BBC’s Celia Hat­ton re­ported in 2015, con­cert go­ers were also given a free cas­sette tape, with Wham!’s orig­i­nal ma­te­rial on one side, and a Chi­nese singer’s ver­sion on the other, with lyrics, as she says, given “some added Com­mu­nist flair.”

The Chi­nese ver­sion of “Wake Me Up Be­fore You Go-Go” went: “Women are on the same jour­ney and will not fall be­hind.”

Cheng Fangyuan, a ris­ing star in China’s Ori­en­tal Dance and Song Troupe, recorded the Chi­nese lan­guage ver­sions.

“That was the first time we’d heard mu­sic that loud,” she told China’s Caixin Online on Mon­day. “Most Chi­nese au­di­ences didn’t know how to re­act to this kind of mu­sic and per­for­mance.”

In the video to the band’s song “Free­dom,” the pair talk about the cul­ture shock they and their Chi­nese hosts ex­pe­ri­enced, over­layed with more footage of the tour.

A later show in the south­ern city of Guangzhou was more suc­cess­ful: South­ern China was more open po­lit­i­cally and more ex­posed to Western in­flu­ence — and more fa­mil­iar with Wham!’s mu­sic.

In an in­ter­view with the Taipei Times, Napier-Bell said the con­cert had helped at­tract for­eign in­vest­ment to China and claimed a de­gree of credit for suc­cess of the coun­try’s re­forms.

“In the end ev­ery­body got what they wanted from it — 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,” he said.

It may also have in­spired China to de­velop pop­u­lar mu­sic of its own. The man known as the god­fa­ther of Chi­nese rock, Cui Jian, re­port­edly at­tended the con­cert and emerged mu­si­cally a year later.

But after the band packed up and left, the au­thor­i­ties in Chongqing were still grap­pling with the tour’s legacy, writer, artist and ac­tivist Tang said.

“The school prin­ci­pal of­ten came to our par­ties to turn off the boom boxes, telling us to avoid ‘Western spir­i­tual pol­lu­tion,’ ” said Tang, who said it took her years be­fore she even un­der­stand the lyrics to songs such as “Care­less Whis­per” and “Free­dom.”

On Chi­nese so­cial me­dia on Mon­day, users re­mem­bered Wham! as the first cas­sette they had ever bought, their first mem­ory of Bri­tish pop­u­lar mu­sic, and their gen­er­a­tion’s fa­vorite mu­sic.

“RIP. He is so young. God maybe wants to lis­ten to mu­sic this year,” one per­son wrote.

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