The Frontwoman of Chinese Punk Rock
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because dynamite comes in small packages.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
It’s an ungodly hour when 32-year-old Shi “Atom” Lu takes the stage at a Beijing bar with sooty, peeling walls. Her cherubic face and 4-foot-11 frame barely poke above the drum set. Concealed, in the middle of this wild-rocker scene, is one of the major facts redefining Lu’s life at the moment. You can’t see it over her drums, but she is in her third trimester of pregnancy.
There’s something wonderfully feminist about this, especially because Lu’s punk persona, drawn from the likes of Pussy Riot, LCD Soundsystem, Nirvana and Nina Simone, powers her through gigs with two top indie bands. In an oversize faded jean jacket and wire-rimmed glasses, she’s adorable, and nearly overshadowed by her tall, lanky male bandmates. “But on the inside, I’m still very angry,” she tells OZY, with a giggle.
It’s clear that Lu is the star of the show, both tonight, with the group Hedgehog, and with her other group, Nova Heart, a Blondie-like band that riffs on sex, love, gender and standing up to the Man. With 12 hours of rehearsal every week, Lu pulls double duty as the adrenaline-charged drummer for both bands; her stage presence, simultaneously sweet and fearsome, exceeds that of most drummers’. She has performed everywhere from Berlin to Hong Kong, landed exclusive record deals with Modern Sky, mainland China’s biggest independent record label, and been named Beijing’s “Coolest Rock Star” runner-up by Time Out Beijing. “She’s like a racing heartbeat,” says 21-year-old fan Kun Li, stamping out a cigarette butt with her knockoff Converse sneakers outside the bar. “She’s almost too good.”
But wait, this is indie rock with Chinese characteristics, Lu says. Few people exemplify China’s growing counterculture moment more than she does, and even fewer stand where Lu stands, at the intersection between artistic rebellion and a burgeoning feminist explosion.
Every week, she and her rowdy Hedgehog bandmates rehearse and howl like mad in a rusty studio buried deep within an underground parking lot. It’s a stone’s throw from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, where the pro-democracy movement of 1989 quickly devolved into one of the bloodiest protests in Chinese history. The band’s popular songs — sung mostly in English to better circumvent censors — contain a harsh word or two for their country’s promises of prosperity, the rise of consumerism and the post-Tiananmen “naturally born bad seeds” of their generation. “Everyone is still in a dreaming period,” Lu says, but it’s not all about making noise and spreading nihilism. It’s just “another lifestyle choice” for Chinese post-’90s millennials to flirt with and explore. Take it or leave it, as she puts it.
Clutching her bump, she tells me the racket is “good for the baby.”
After Hedgehog’s set, a drunk with greasy hair plops down next to Lu on the couch, holding a potent handle of baijiu; he’s close to collapsing into her lap. For Lu, kooks and quirks come with the territory. She is a boisterous Beijinger, born and raised in the sprawling city’s constant clamor of car horns and jackhammers. Her own punk conversion began during her moody teenage years in the Hepingli neighborhood when, for 4,000 yuan (about $600), she traded in the harmonies of the piano for the dissonance of a Yamaha drum set. Headaches aside, her parents supported Lu’s shifting musical tastes. At 21, she joined Hedgehog; she’s grown up with them, and apparently her child will too: Clutching her bump, she tells me the racket is “good for the baby.”
Chinese bands like Lu’s have struggled to break through the fetters of the Great Firewall and into the global market — most fly under the radar of bigger music festivals, broader audiences and record labels that can inject both money and enthusiasm into the cash-strapped indie music industry. Although Lu feels fortunate — most of her peers can’t afford to play music full time — fringe cultures aren’t taken seriously either at home or abroad, she says, and she’s fed up with “having to justify our Chinese strangeness” to foreigners. The issue of recognition strikes a chord with record executives who are working, to no avail, to put China’s nascent indie rock scene on the map. The industry doubled in the past five years and is now worth 10 million yuan, or $1.5 million, according to Wang Xuli, a music manager with Modern Sky. But the music market in China is smaller than, say, Switzerland’s, even with 160 times more people, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
Lu is “pissed” about these limited prospects. Still, she does what she can to make a splash. And while smashing drums and screaming may make for a fan-pleasing spectacle, it’s also her calculated form of protest, “to be heard,” she says, against all odds. Cue the drumroll.