Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. I am more used to pontificating through my fingers than through my mouth, but I am glad to have this opportunity to talk to you. Howard Spiers asked me to talk on the subject of the changes I have seen since I first came in to China in 1978, and the changes since then have indeed been staggering. Every year is interesting China, but I am especially pleased that I was here in Peking in 1979 to watch the sudden shift from Maoism to Dengism which gave rise to, amongst other things, the presence of foreign bankers in China.
The changes have been many, but much has also remained the same. Looking back over the past six years of news reporting, going through the New China News Agency and the People’s Daily virtually every day, my dominant impression is of reading over and over again the same phrase “The open door policy will not be changed”. I repeat: “The OPEN DOOR POLICY WILL NOT BE CHANGED”. Deng Xiaoping says it, then Gu Mu says it, then Chen Muhua and then Deng again. I’m not sure, but I think they are trying to tell us something.
Rather than simply listing the political and economic changes that have occurred in China since I first arrived, I thought today I would talk about another aspect of life in China, one you are not so familiar with, as a metaphor for the slow process of opening-up Deng Xiaoping has master-minded.
What I will give you is in fact a scoop — the previously unreported history of resident foreign musicians in China and their efforts to play both to foreign and Chinese audiences. There are perhaps tenuous parallels with banking and your efforts to play a role here, and anyway, you might find it amusing.
Apart from being a journalist, I also sing and play the guitar, and the combination of music and China has proved to be very interesting. I claim to be the only person ever to have played the kazoo on the Great Wall of China. I am the only person ever to have played guitar on the roof of the Potala in Lhasa — for the record, I played Chuck’s Berry’s song Maybelline, and the Louis Armstrong hit, Hello Dalai.
I have played Dylan on the Sino-Vietnamese border, and I once did a one-night stand in the Fuzhou City Transport Company Workers Retirement Home. I sang and played guitar in a hotel bar in Shanghai in 1979, surely making me the first western performer to appear in a Shanghai bar since the communist take-over. I may be wrong, of course, but proving it won’t be easy.
I was also for three years the lead singer and guitarist with the best rock and roll band in China, the Peking All-Stars. We never claimed to be any good, we just claimed to be the best in China. We knew we were the best because we were the ONLY rock and roll in China.
When I arrived in Peking, there were a few foreigners around who played music and we naturally coalesced into a band. There was an Australian journalist on bass, a Canadian diplomat on guitar, a Brazilian diplomat on drums and myself and another Canadian named Bill Rasberry on vocals and guitars.
At the time, we were limited by the political situation to playing for the diplomatic community and did a number of concerts in the Australian, British and new Zealand embassies amongst other places. On one occasion we played in the most attractive foreigners ghetto in Peking — the compound near the Summer Palace at a reception organised by the Dresdner bank, or perhaps the Deutsche Bank which has or had its office out there.
The idea of playing for a Chinese audience was not even considered. It was obviously impossible. It was only two years before that Beethoven had been rehabilitated. It seemed unlikely that China would accept the Beatles for several more years to come.
Then came the breakthrough. In early 1981, a friend of mine who taught English at the Peking Teachers University (Shifan Daxue) arranged for us to play before an audience of students in the university’s auditorium. It was, I believe, the first western pop performance before a Chinese audience in Peking, and there is a picture of the event in an excellent book of photographs called “China After Mao” which you may have seen. The concert was disguised as a lecture on modern western music, and after two songs, the professor sitting in the front row asked me to turn the volume of the amplifiers down. No, I explained gently, this is the way Rolling Stones songs are meant to be played.
The audience reaction was interesting. The students were clearly all interested because they knew they should be. This was the raw, decadent western culture which they had heard so much about. They clapped politely at the end of each song, but most did not seem to have a feel for the music – understandably, of course. A few with foreign friends perhaps were quite well educated and we received one request for any song by Bruce Springsteen or Bob Seger. Another student asked for the Paul Simon song 50 ways to leave Your Lover, which took us aback a bit.
We were triumphant at the fact that we had finally broken out of the foreigners’ ghettos and had at last played for Chinese people. Progress was being made, but it was slow. We tried the next year to give a return concert at the Teachers University, but the professor concerned was adamant that it was impossible.
It turned out that he had not cleared the first performance with the responsible officials in the relevant department — that is, the university’s Communist Party committee and he had been severely criticised for allowing this thin edge of the wedge of western spiritual pollution into the school.
The Communist Party cranked up a full-scale campaign against +spiritual pollution” in late 1981, and I can remember the exact moment that the campaign started to affect our efforts. The Peking All-Stars line-up had changed slightly. The Australian journalist was still on bass, but the Canadian diplomat on guitar had gone off to New York and had been replaced by a half-blind American by the name of Larry Vest who now has a country-and-western band in the Dallas area of Texas. On drums we had a marine from the American embassy.
One evening, just as the sun set over the Forbidden City, we played at a wedding reception on the roof of the Soviet wing of the Peking Hotel. Another evening, we played in the hall in the main building of the Friendship Hotel before an audience composed half of foreigners and half of Chinese, and were asked to come back the following week. I even opened negotiations around this time to play at a disco the International Club was running in the basement of the Minorities Palace near the Minzu Hotel.
The next Wednesday, we rolled up to the Friendship Hotel with our gear for the return engagement we had been asked to play. We were about to unload it when a white-coated attendant ran out and frantically told us that we couldn’t play for a hundred different reasons. In fact, there was only one reason — the dreaded Curse of “Spiritual Pollution” had hit us. We gloomily went back to our ghetto and resumed performances in the foreign community.
There were more personnel changes in China’s best rock and roll band. Our bass player got married and his wife frowned on such frivolity as popular music and he sold me his bass which I handed on to an American english teacher at the Peking Iron and Steel Institute. The other guitar spot was taken over by another American who worked for the New China News Agency, and we added a Madagascan drummer named Robinson Roland and a Swedish saxaphone player of French and Korean extraction.
Foreign music, like foreign banking is a very international business in Peking.
We played at the Jianguo Hotel a few times another major breakthrough, including one New year’s Eve party. But even there, there were problems with the Chinese management who were worried about the spiritual pollution campaign.
By 1983, things were loosening up again, and we played a series of shows at the Friendship Hotel and one in the foreign languages institute which were great fun. The entertainment-starved students and foreign experts in the northwest of the city turned out to be our natural audience. The final line-up of the Peking All-Stars, or the Beijing Old Stars as we were once billed at the Jianguo, was myself, the Madagascan drummer, the Swedish sax player, a Spaniard on bass, and on lead guitar — a very good musician who is also a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation who drove tanks in Lebanon against the Israelis in 1982.
His presence in the band caused difficulties only on one evening when we played at the Philippine Embassy just round the corner from here. The Philippine embassy is next to the Iraqi embassy and the PLO and the Chinese would only let him take part if he agreed to be accompanied by a bodyguard. So we had a muscular Indonesian kung fu expert hovering round the bandstand for the evening.
Only once did we have any competition and that consisted of a group of young boys from the Ugandan, Chilean, Yugoslav and Guyanan embassies using my equipment. They originally called themselves the Idiots, then changed their name to the Idols, then back to the Idiots. I suggested as a compromise that they settle for the Idle Idiots, but they ignored me for some reason.
When I left Peking in Janary 1984, the Peking All-Stars collapsed. I would like to think it was because I am indispensible, but the real reason, perhaps, was that apart from being lead singer and chief organiser, I owned all the equipment.
Almost immediately after my departure, as luck would have it, the spiritual pollution dam was swept away and it became possible once more for foreigners to play pop music before Chinese audiences. Two members of the old Peking All-Stars combined with a few other people to found the Peking Underground, which is still in business today, composed of an ad hoc bunch of students and others who play irregularly in Peking. They have even done tours in other parts of the country, and are at the moment playing in Shanghai. On my return, in July this year, I joined up with a group of embassy people and helped form a new band, tentatively called the China Mugs which has now played a grand total of two +gigs+, as they are called in the trade.
What does all this mean for China? And for foreign banking? If I may draw some lessons from my experience of music and rock bands here, I would say that
One — No one stays in China forever, which will be encouraging news for many of you.
Two — Slow progress interspersed with many setbacks can be expected. The main thing for the moment, for musicians and bankers alike, is that we are in China. The fact we are here at all is already a major step forward. Getting some business, gigs or loans or whatever, comes later.
Three — Whatever the rewards, or lack of them, being here is at least interesting.
And four — may you never have to deal with the with financial equivalent of a spiritual pollution campaign.
That’s about it. If you want to hear what some of my music sounds like, I play every Saturday in the lobby bar at the Lido Hotel, and you’re welcome to come down.
I would also like to wish you all success in your business activities, and if you have any information on where China’s foreign exchange reserves stood at the end of the third quarter, please give me a ring in my journalistic capacity at Reuters.