How a Blacklisted Band Has Turned to a Welsh Soccer Club to Get Round China’s Censors

VICE News spoke to the Beijing indie group Birdstriking. Their debut album, which contains lyrics about government propaganda, was banned in China so they're now writing about Swansea City instead.
May 19, 2016, 3:45pm

Government propaganda, brainwashing, and censorship were topics angrily sung about on Beijing indie band Birdstriking's 2012 debut album, causing it to be banned by China's Ministry of Culture. Having just finished recording their second album, the band have admitted to self-censoring and covering less abrasive topics to get the new songs past authorities. Namely, the Welsh soccer club Swansea City.

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The band have conceded that they "cannot solve things" by trying to take the government to task through music, adding that they don't want the "bullshit" of getting hassled by authorities.

Typifying this new, softer approach, they have recorded a Swansea-inspired cover of Indian Summer by Beat Happening. For the new version of the 1988 song guitarist Wang Xinjiu has written Mandarin lyrics about the club and its former manager, Garry Monk.

In contrast to this new sports-inspired direction, Monkey Snake, the song that got Birdstriking's first album banned, saw the group branded "Indie's answer to Ai Weiwei" by Noisey. The lyrics include, "You have the lies, the media/It doesn't mean you can transform my mind" and, "You have a fucking train/It doesn't mean you can take me home."

Frontman He Fan, speaking last year, said of Monkey Snake: "We're controlled by them [state media] but we don't even know it. With the song, we try to tell people to have your own ideas and not be controlled by something else. That's why in the video we are flying away from our cages and gradually destroy them."

Unfortunately for Birdstriking, all song lyrics need to be approved by China's Ministry of Culture before licenses for their official release in the country are granted. Unsurprisingly, considering Chinese authorities' intolerance for any smidgen of dissent in the arts, the Ministry's rubber stamp was not forthcoming when Monkey Snake's lyrics were sent in.

The crackdown has become more even more ruthless under President Xi Jinping in the years since Birdstriking's 2012 album was released outside of China.

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Last year the Ministry of Culture released a list of 120 songs that it had banned because they supposedly trumpeted "obscenity, violence, crime, or harmed social morality." Banned songs included Fart, by Taiwanese singer Chang Csun-yuk, and 17 tracks by Beijing hip-hop band In3, who rap about corrupt officials, drugs, and hating school teachers.

Related: China's Censorship War Against Sex, Drugs, and 'Vulgar Content' Is Now Hitting Online Music Streams

I met Birdstriking on the last day of recording for their second album. Sitting amid uncharacteristically smog-free air on the porch of a central Beijing recording studio, the band members explained why they didn't write lyrics about government brainwashing this time round.

"Our power is limited," said He, pointing out that although it was enough to get their first album banned Monkey Snake was the only song on that record that had lyrics that could be considered controversial or anti-authoritarian.

Still, when asked if he deliberately avoided writing lyrics that could be seen as antagonistic this time round to ensure that the album gets released, he sighed heavily. "Yes, I admit, I did think that way," he said.

The frontman said the band received no direct threats about their music following their first album ban, but still expected the follow-up record to be heavily scrutinized. "One song [that expresses anger at authorities] is enough," he added. "We don't want all the bullshit that comes with it. It's not worth it."

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Birdstriking's version of Indian Summer channels Wang's obsession with Swansea City. Originally from Liaoning province in northeast China, Wang became a hardcore Swansea supporter when studying at Cardiff University during the 2012-13 soccer season.

Wang wrote the lyrics in summer 2015, when Swansea manager Garry Monk had just been sacked by the club. "I was waiting for a bus to take me to a recording studio in Beijing, listening to Indian Summer, thinking about this really sad situation for the club," Wang said.

"They had sacked one of the most legendary men in their club's history. He played for them from League One [the third tier in the English league system] to the Premier League and managed them to their highest position ever. I can use the word 'legend' for Garry Monk."

The lyrics make sentimental reference to Swansea fans as the "Jack Army" and describe the team's playing as "tika taka," which is usually associated with Barcelona and the Spanish national team. The lines, "After 12 years we are going to say goodbye… each past moment still being vivid," refer to Monk's 12 years with the club.

Monk was grateful for the gesture, telling Wang in an email via VICE News: "Thank you so much for your song tribute. It really is quite humbling to see how someone from the Far East has taken the time to pay tribute to someone like me. This shows just what a global force football is. It's very kind of you, Wang, thank you."

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The other topics dealt with on the new album are just as inoffensive. The song 25 is about "being 25, working hard, and playing hard", and is supposedly representative of the new tone. Is it not sad that Birdstriking, who recently expanded from a three-piece to a five-piece, feel that they have to dismiss the idea of recording another song in the vein of Monkey Snake to avoid trouble with authorities?

The band members seemed relaxed about it. "My first reaction to finding out the album was banned was, 'What the fuck?!'" said Wang. "But being angry about everything cannot solve things. That's not a defeatist attitude, it's just a change in our way of thinking."

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Although it stifled their success in China, their ban got them a lot of media coverage in the west. The Brian Jonestown Massacre took Birdstriking on tour with them in the US and the UK; Ricky Maymi, TBJM's guitarist, has produced the Beijing band's new album. He said that the controversy around Birdstriking was the main reason they got booked for their first US tour.

Wang said of the ban: "It meant that the government cared about us. Maybe they thought we were strong and had to be controlled: these three young lads."

Other bands also disapproved of by the Chinese government, such as the aforementioned hip-hop group In3, have found it almost impossible to play live in China, with police regularly forcing gig cancellations.

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Last year, after playing a gig in the southwestern Yunnan province, the In3 rappers were detained by police for five days after being grabbed on a plane by plain-clothes police when they landed in Beijing. They were handcuffed on the plane, had hoods placed on their heads then were detained for five days without charge.

Nothing quite so dramatic has happened to Birdstriking, who have been able to gig regularly in China. "We think there may be people in the government who like our music," said He.

Wang added: "It felt like someone was firing shots at us, but maybe lifting the gun a bit at the last minute. Like, 'No album, but gigs are OK.'" Frontman He said that he hopes that new fans will go on to discover their former, more politically-charged incarnation by hearing unofficially-released versions of Money Snake when they delve into the band's back catalog.

I met Wang in a central Beijing bar a few days after their recording session. He was due to watch his local team, Liaoning Whowin FC, play Beijing Guoan in the evening and wore a Swansea training top commemorating the team's 2013 League Cup win against Bradford City. "Swansea and Liaoning have the same color scheme," he said. "So it's okay to wear this today."

Wang studied for a Master's degree in operational research and applied statistics in 2012-13 at Cardiff University, taking the train to Swansea out of curiosity to try and watch the team play in September 2012. He couldn't get a ticket, but watched a few minutes of the game through a gap in some gates. Despite Swansea losing 3-0 to Everton, he was hooked by the atmosphere and returned, ticket in hand, for "about 15-20" more matches.

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"I don't look like a Welsh guy," said Wang. "At my first match in the stadium, against Reading, lots of people assumed I was South Korean… I told people I was from China: loud and proud.

"I couldn't understand the chants in English so nearby fans would teach me to shout things like, [then-manager] 'Michael Laudrup's Barmy Army!' But my favorite chant was, 'Cardiff City's going down.' I love the sense of humor British fans have when it comes to chanting. Chinese fans don't have this, they just chant dreadful swear words. It's a shame."

Although he has since moved back to Beijing and works as an engineer as well as performing band duties with Birdstriking, Wang maintains his passion for Swansea City. "I dreamed I went back to study in Cardiff but skipped lectures to go to matches," he admitted, and he stays up into the early hours to watch them play on TV.

Although it's concerning to hear about yet another example of freedom of expression being quashed in the arts in China, having a hugely heartfelt Mandarin-language song about a mid-ranking Premier League team is an enjoyably quirky consolation.

It will be a while before the world gets to hear it, though. Birdstriking's new album, although completed, won't be released for a long time and the Indian Summer cover's inclusion will depend on approval from Beat Happening.

Still, considering President Xi's current obsession with making the country a great footballing nation, it's unlikely that China's authorities will have any quibbles with the band's new lyrics.

Follow Jamie Fullerton on Twitter: @jamiefullerton1