Chengdu native Tan Zhong, 35, is a bank-employee-turned-nightclub owner and events organizer. His first attempts at marketing for liquor companies led him to hire foreign DJs who played unfamiliar electronic music at promo events ("In Chongqing, after half an hour of minimal on Tractor, somebody threw an egg," he recalls). In 2003, Tan Zhong started opening nightclubs with friends, the first of which was in the Blue Caribbean Plaza and served pizza, rice, coffee, parties, and "total chaos"—and closed its doors six months later. A string of short-lived clubs followed, spelling out a spotty history of the city's underground nightlife scene. Then, just after the 2008 earthquake, Panda Club opened, hosting weekly DJ nights in its warehouse-style space.
Panda closed last year, and now you have a new club in the works.
It'll be in Chengdu's east, on Jianshe Nan Lu, and open in August. It'll also be called Panda. We're working with [famed nightclub and record label] Tresor from Berlin. Also the Goethe-Institut to hold events and function as a springboard to send Chengdu's producers to Europe, Alliance Française, and a Spanish design studio. There are two buildings. One has three stories, so each floor will be different: one will be a live house with a good sound system that can hold up to 1,000 people; another a DJ club; and the last, a lounge bar. On the weekends it'll be dedicated to music, and during the week there'll be theater, exhibitions, workshops.
You've opened—and closed—a lot of clubs.
It started out as a hobby. I didn't have any experience. I had to pay my dues so to speak, but that's how it is when you enter a profession with no experience. Also, since it was a hobby, not a commercial undertaking, our full attention was on our day jobs. It was just something we did on the side, and that's why we opened and closed.
What motivates you to keep going?
It's my dream. Also, Chengdu is so boring—the city needs a place for electronic music. Somebody has to do something about it. If you don't do it, who will?
You've put together the electronic-music stage at the last two Zebra Music Festivals. This year you won't. Why not?
I was told there'd be two stages, "Earth" and "Sky"—pop and rock. Why no electronic music? Well, because there's no power. That was the problem last year: There wasn't enough power for all the three stages, so a power surge on one stage affected the others. There was no money for generators for our stage. The second problem is security. It's a sensitive time at the moment. There's a lot of pressure on big events, so they have to end at 10 p.m. We'll get a few hours on the small stage at the end of the day, 6 or 6:30 until 10 p.m.
But you have something in the works to make up for it—an electronic music festival in October?
The idea is to combine the outside space of the new club, to invite all of China's good music, and some foreign musicians, 20 to 30 acts. Day 1 will be outside from 2 to 10 p.m., and after we'll move the party inside. The second and third days will be indoors. The capacity will be 5,000 people. We have really good DJs—you know, the guy from "Berlin Calling," Paul Kalkbrenner. ... The Chengdu Biennale will move to the east, too. And in mid-October we will hold the Scandinavian Art Festival in Chengdu.
Personally, how did you discover electronic music?
Ten years ago it was extremely difficult to find electronic music in China. There was a music magazine called Music Heaven (音乐天堂) that featured new Western music every issue. I was into that; it had features on Prodigy, and some trip-hop. The first year I listened to that stuff I didn't have any feeling. My friend would listen to it and say that the stereo was broken. One day I came across Fabric's Michael Mayer mix and realized, hey, club music doesn't have to be boring. That's the thing with electronic music. You gotta be at the right place, at the right time. And then you suddenly get sucked into it. With clubs, it's a live experience, not just passively listening to music. And also, people dance.
Ha. We've never seen you dance once.
I'm old. Anyway, after a year I discovered more and got more into it, then some electronic world music, then club music, and then I started to go out to the [now-closed electronic-music club] Age of Red.
Akufen, Ricardo Villalobos, and Aphex Twin, more and more. Sigor Rus. Ritchie Hawtin I used to like, but now don't. So many names ... it's like eating an egg. You eat the egg, but you don't know where it's from, which hen dropped that egg. I like music, but I don't care who made it.
I don't listen to music. I don't have time to listen to music now. Really, you need time to let the music enter your heart.