This interview was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife, issue 21 ("Questions").
Self-portrait. Image courtesy Greenwall.
Cai Ming, aka Greenwall, 33, is a self-taught freelance photographer and graphic designer. As one of a core group of people who were involved with the Little Bar since its beginning, he has been instrumental in building Chengdu's rock scene.
As a high-school student, Greenwall started listening to rock music, and in the mid-'90s, after his father purchased an inexpensive secondhand camera, he started taking photos. After graduating from high school, he worked first at a governmental accounting office, and then in a bank, all the while staying close to the city's budding rock scene.
It was 1994, and the few bands that had formed in Chengdu knew each other and played together. Greenwall joined several that never came to fruition ("I can't really sing or play any instruments," he explains) but focused on accompanying his friends' bands to gigs as a photographer. Shortly after Little Bar's opening in 1997, founder Tang Jie sought Greenwall out to shoot shows on a regular basis. Over the following years, he became more involved in the operations of the Little Bar, including designing posters and booking bands.
Greenwall's photos are frequently published in national rock magazines and online and he's also exhibited at the Little Bar, the 2004 Midi Festival, and will be in this year's Midi Festival in Shanghai. We recently sat down with him at the old Little Bar to ask about rock in Chengdu.
Translated from Mandarin.
Why is the old Little Bar still open if there is also a new Little Bar?
The old Little Bar is the original; Tang Jie has a long history with it, so it definitely cannot be torn down or closed. We opened the new one because the number of bands in Chengdu is growing, the audiences are growing, so it was time to open a new, bigger bar.
But this one's still not big. Why not open a bigger one?
To open a bigger bar, you need to put in money, and then you have to raise drink prices. Little Bar has always been just a simple, small place for gigs. It's not Music House or those commercial, few-hundred square-meter places where people come to drink.
Speaking of, Little Bar doesn't have a party vibe. Why does everybody leave right after the show's over?
A lot of the kids who come to see the shows, well one reason is they're nervous about getting back to school. Another reason is they're just not used to going to bars every day to party. A lot of people when they come to the Little Bar, they get to the door and stand there debating whether or not to go in. On the Internet, you can see a lot of kids posting, "Oh, I don't have anybody to see the show with; is there anybody who will go with me?" They're really shy.
Pogo-ing at the Little Bar. Photo by Greenwall.
How has Little Bar has impacted the development of China's rock scene?
Maybe to talk about its role in the development of China's rock scene is too big. But in Chengdu it's quite important. Before there was Little Bar, in Chengdu there were only three or four bands, not more. Every year, somebody would do a show on TV or an event in a big disco. Every year just once. And then finally one of the bars said, "OK, we'll do rock shows as our main thing." But then the boss realized the kids who came to see the shows didn't buy drinks, and when a band was on, all the people who were drinking would leave. And the bands, if they came and decided the sound or the equipment wasn't good—well actually at that time the equipment wasn't good—they would cuss and throw a fit on stage, like punks. So that didn't help relations with the bar, and finally there were no bars who would agree to let rock bands have shows.
Little Bar opened in 1997 and in 1998 started to have shows. So it became a place where bands could always play, and that was very important for bands, to have a place that was there just for shows. Before when I was in a band, in '96, we practiced every day, but if we could only perform once a year—of course there was no way for us to be good. So Little Bar, for the local bands, was a place to increase their skills and recognition.
From 2000 Little Bar started to have touring bands, including foreign bands, and all the shows, no matter who was playing, had a big turnout. It wasn't like now, some shows there are only 70 or 80 people. At that time every show had 100 or 200 people—and at the old Little Bar, 100 is still quite a lot!
Also starting in 2000, Little Bar sent nine of Chengdu's bands to Beijing for shows. This was a milestone because at that time in China everybody knew only Beijing. Beijing had rock; the other places were all "villages"—how could there be rock there!? And then nine of Chengdu's bands went to Beijing, so although there was still a big distance between Beijing and Chengdu's scenes, at least they knew, OK, there's also something going on in Chengdu.
What do you think of the rock scene in Chengdu today? Who are notable bands?
The most professional are still Sound Toy, Ashura ... for the younger bands, Mosaic, Mr. Turtle, Taiyang Feiquan ... these bands are all decent. But really Chengdu is still quite a bit behind Beijing. The number of good bands, good singers, is still lagging behind Beijing a lot. In terms of numbers, there are a lot more [than before]. But really, really good bands? There still aren't that many.
So is there a particular band you want to book for Chengdu, like Marilyn Manson?
Haha. If you want to book a band you have to have the money. I'm not the boss. So I can't make that decision. I can only say if he came to Chengdu I'd probably go see him. If there's an especially good band playing in Beijing I'll probably go see them. But I can't decide who comes.
How do you choose bands to play?
Usually we don't have very high criteria because Little Bar's philosophy isn't to make money; it's to have shows. So if you're a band, no matter where you come from, you can have a chance. Of course we can't give you a lot of money, just the money from the door, but for bands on tour, usually we don't reject anyone. This is one way. The other is sometimes we think of a theme for the show, like a party, and we choose bands that'll suit that theme and can play well together.
Little Bar poster designed by Greenwall.
If you don't really like the band, will you design their poster really fast or something?
Haha, well, uh, sometimes, there are metal bands I don't really like, and their posters are really, really ugly. So I'll spend a few days to change it a bit, make it a little better. Just because I don't like it doesn't mean others don't. But there are of course times when the band is just really shitty. If you're new you need to go through this, make these trial bands, you do it two or three times, and finally people will start to think you're good, and then we can let them have a show. But if you play two or three times and everyone thinks you suck, of course you can't come back. Haha.
Have you had bands come who have to eat instant noodles every day?
Very few. Just behind Little Bar there's a hotel with beds on the floor. There were some bands who wanted to save money, especially some foreign bands. There was a British punk band who didn't want to spend money so they stayed there. They saw it and thought it was great, really cheap, 10 kuai a person! Some Chinese bands, well, we can't say they have more money, but they look at it and think, "Ugh ... forget it, I'll pay the 100 kuai for a better room!"
Secondhand Rose Band (二手玫瑰) played two sold-out nights at the Little Bar in 2007. Photo by Greenwall.
In the history of the Little Bar, what was your favorite show?
Whoa, there's too many ... .
OK, then what about the worst?
The worst—hmm, still can't say.
You just don't want to name any names.
No, no. [Laughs.] It's just hard to say.
OK, then which show had the lowest attendance?
The fewest ... the fewest was ... Li Daiguo. Last year, no, the year before, in September, Douglas had a show with Baitian. It was supposed to be a show with several components, but the others ended up canceling. They still did the performance, just Li Daiguo and Baitian. Only 20 people came. That was the fewest. We sold 20 tickets, so maybe 400 kuai, but there was another 1,000 kuai from drink sales, and the people at the door put that money with the 400 kuai, and Tangjie forget; she thought the 1,400 was all from the door, so she gave it all to Li Daiguo. Then after she gave it to him, she suddenly remembered, but it was too embarrassing to ask for it back.
Douglas never found out?
He didn't know.
Can we print that?
Sure, whatever. Haha.
Do a lot of people come to shows just to find a boyfriend or girlfriend?
Well, it is a bar ... . Of course in a bar there are guys who come to check out girls, girls who come to check out guys, that's pretty typical. Little Bar is a bar, after all; it's not a concert hall or opera house. On the Internet, after every show there'll be somebody who posts [a missed connection]: "I wanna find this girl blah blah." But it's all in fun.
So have you found a girlfriend at the Little Bar?
Um, that should be a no?
No sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll?
Maybe in China, this kind of idea isn't as prevalent in rock circles. You know Chinese culture; from Cui Jian's time—he represented rock for a generation of youth—it really wasn't sex and drugs. Maybe it was because if you're oppressed, you want to reach a level of freedom, so you listen to rock. A lot of rockers, including a lot of the musicians in Chengdu, think, "If I make a band, I have a degree of freedom in my life." A lot of the musicians in Chengdu are like this; they make a band in order to have a rock 'n' roll lifestyle rather than to really make a really great band with excellent musicianship.
You can see more of Greenwall's poster designs at his blog.