China’s First Punk Band

When the Clash played Hong Kong in February 1982, I participated in a stage invasion and found myself standing next to Mick Jones at his microphone. Together we sang the backing vocals to “London’s Burning.” For the 16-year-old me, this was all life goals unlocked at once. But what I remember more than the teenage euphoria of that moment is a comment of Joe Strummer’s. At some point in the evening, he surveyed the audience and said, with mingled derision and surprise, “I’ve never seen so many suntanned punks.”

The great man’s pronouncement set off an existentialist crisis for me, right there in the Academic Community Hall. I mean, Strummer was right. We weren’t glue-sniffing, nihilistic guttersnipes. We were Hong Kong kids. Cosplay punks. Well-fed part timers. But that was Hong Kong 40 years ago. We didn’t have a scene of our own—yet—so we borrowed somebody else’s.

Dreadful-delightful

Rick’s Café was a Kowloon bar that occupied a small Hart Avenue basement and it was quite the modish place to go in the early 1980s. Tamil lawyers went to Rick’s to drink Scotch, feeling their way down the dark staircase with the soiled green carpeting. British police inspectors went there in loud off-duty shirts and Stanley Market denim, rugby bodies reeking of Paco Rabanne. There you would find the German importer of kitchen equipment and his Thai girlfriend. The South Korean insurance broker with his thirsty clients and impeccable hair. The Australian schoolteacher in her lemon-yellow legwarmers and high-volume curls.

In Kowloon in those days, live music mostly meant a listless lounge vocalist, an accompanying organist and their jobbing renditions of “I’ve Never Been to Me” and “Woman in Love.” Or it was a taverna guitarist maundering through the back catalogue of Kris Kristofferson and Bread. Some of the rowdier bars featured the thumping, 4:4 professionalism of a Filipino cover band. But Rick’s was unusual because it provided a home for the diminished 9ths and augmented minor 11ths of modern jazz. Hong Kong’s best known jazz musician, the guitarist Eugene Pao, is an alumnus of One Finger Snap, the original resident combo at Rick’s. 

Because the bar was an outlier, it decided, in November 1981, to put my band on the bill as well. There were five of us: two punks (cosplay – see above), two metal heads and me. I was a weird sort of cat: a lead guitarist with a statement afro, an obsession with David Sylvian, and a fondness for quoting T.S. Eliot and John Donne. “Godknowswhat,” one word, was the description of me at the time in my friend Alison’s appropriately named fanzine Inferiority Complex. I didn’t know whether to be offended or not, but my girlfriend Mimi laughed when she read it and said, “That’s pretty cool, actually.” So I owned it. Even today, Godknowswhat describes me well.

Nobody in the band was older than 16. The drummer, Dan, was just 14. We were vaguely famous, in that colonial backwater way, for being kids playing thrashy songs with intensely political lyrics. Those attributes, along with some studded wristbands and tight trousers, made us Hong Kong’s first punk band, which is to say we were the first punk band in all of China. And we were dreadful-delightful in the way teenage bands often are.

We were called the Stress. I never liked the name. It was an attempt to reproduce the aggressive, five-letter sibilance of the Clash, only the Clash sounds cool, menacing and of the streets. The Stress sounds like it was devised by clever kids at private school, which we were. It has the air of San Miguels after cricket practice, of skateboarding, and house parties at Clearwater Bay. 

To this day, I have no idea why Bernie, the Australian proprietor of Rick’s, let the Stress play at his Casablanca-themed lounge-bar with its potted ficus trees, cane chairs and thoughtfully composed snack menu. But that is what he did, and it was a very generous invitation. In a town desperately short on music venues, Rick’s was the 100 Club, the Whisky A-Go-Go and the Blue Note in one. We lugged our shiny flight cases up Chatham Road, dodging the dribbling air-conditioners and passing narrow-fronted shops with their mounds of oranges, cabinets of lizard wine and roaring sugarcane juicers. From small transistor radios, Cantonese opera pricked and perforated the viscid air and everywhere the gaudy shop signs and the building names exclaimed the desiderata of an East Asian port: Lucky, Prosperous, Golden, Win, Forward, Dragon, Eternal.

After some nervous twanging, tuning and tom-smacking that passed for a soundcheck, we stood outside Rick’s watching our audience arrive. These were older, professional people, decanted from taxis with a reasonable expectation of entertainment. As they sipped their screwdrivers, or tequila sunrises, or Long Island Iced Teas, they wanted to hear some Weather Report or Spyro Gyra. Or at the very least some Top 40, or some Stones and Beatles, or maybe just “La Bamba” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

Crammed onto the tiny stage at Rick’s, we gave them an artless, 30-minute set of agitprop child punk. Two people danced, both of them members of Contact, the other band on the bill that Sunday night. Everyone else was baffled, some abusively so. Bernie never did call us back.

 

Receiving faint signals

Without the internet, we learned about new music amid the improbable surroundings of the YMCA bookshop on Salisbury Road. It sold—alongside Bibles, evangelical screeds and paperback homilies—two-month-old copies of NME and Melody Maker. After class, the girls and boys of King George V School could be seen, in our brown blazers, scrutinising these papers for the reviews—our only source of information on what was happening in the pop world outside. We’d make mental notes on what albums to buy and head out to look for them in the record shops of the Kowloon peninsula.

We’d be lucky to find any. The records on sale at those places seemed to be targeted at audiophiles – rich guys who wore pastel-coloured V-necks and cried into their brandy while blasting Barbara Streisand or the Crusaders from their Nakamichi speakers. But sometimes the good stuff would turn up. Among the Average White Band and Tim Weisberg LPs, you could find a random 7” of Prefab Sprout’s “Lions in My Own Garden,” or 12” version of Cabaret Voltaire’s “Just Fascination,” or the Japanese pressing of Aztec Camera’s High Land, Hard Rain

Unsurprisingly, great paradigm shifts in music would pass the insular colony by. It was just too hard to stay abreast, even if you loved new music. When Johnny Rotten walked off the stage at the final Sex Pistols concert at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1978, I was walking around the Ocean Terminal mall humming Manhattan Transfer. When the post-punk movement found its apogee in Joy Division’s Closer (1980), I was 14, spending my days by the poolside at the club, reapplying Coppertone and wondering if I would ever master the tablature of America’s “Ventura Highway.” The Clash released their greatest work, London Calling, in 1979. When we first heard it in Hong Kong, in 1981, we were like those galactic travellers of the lonely beyond, receiving faint signals, unaware that by the time we started picking them up everything at the source of transmission had moved on.

It wasn’t a society that tolerated much deviance. “I was never going to be one of the blonde, bikini-clad, pool-party-loving girls with that slight Hong Kong American twang who were ever present in my classroom,” recalls Alison today. “I was angry and angst-ridden.”

Proving that at least one Hong Kong punk was pallid, she wrote me in a recent email: “The sun was my enemy. We had a little speedboat and at weekends would ride out to beautiful, unspoiled beaches on the outlying islands, where I would cocoon myself in towels to preserve my pale, punk skin. Sweltering, I would spend the entire day complaining that I could be in my bedroom listening to the Sex Pistols.”

Collaborators

The Stress grew out of the friendship between me and an elfin, red-haired boy called Jez. As 13-year-olds, we bought cheap clone guitars—his of a Gibson Flying V, mine of a Fender Stratocaster—from Colin’s Music in Waterloo Road and would spend hours practicing together at his parents’ flat. We couldn’t afford amps, so instead plugged our instruments into his father’s hi-fi, getting beautiful distortion off the overloaded speakers as riffs reverberated off the parquet floor. Jez was so driven, he used to sleep with the fingers of his left hand bound together with gaffer tape in the shape of a barre chord. By the time the Stress started performing, Jez and I had been jamming for three years, close collaborators despite our completely different tastes in music. He charitably overlooked the fact that I was into bands that wore makeup; I generously ignored his cis-male obsession with Motorhead and Saxon. We were the unlikely, symbiotic Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Lower Sixth – and any serious band coming out of the school required our involvement and imprimatur. 

Jez died years ago. I wish I could ask him for his memories of that time before the Stress, and of the songs we wrote, jamming at the back of Mike Ryan’s music class. I would get him to remember how, as 14- and 15-year-olds, we used to buy bottles of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine at Park ‘n’ Shop for HK$9 and hang out in parks, him in his denim and Dr Martens, and me in my Brittania bomber jacket and red Adidas Hurricanes, talking music, bands, and everything. I tip some Boone’s Farm for him now.

The big room”

Every band back then rehearsed at President Studios. It was high above the streets of Mong Kok, where grubby tenements were packed as densely as a medieval citadel. Bamboo poles, hung with laundry, festooned the parapets like the flags of a feudal horde. Great coppices of TV antennae grew out of the uneven rooflines and thatches of electric cable fell luxuriantly through the gaps. Each elevation teemed with Cantonese life. The ground floor shops selling shark’s fin and bêche de mer, or electrical appliances, gave way to first-floor kindergartens, second-floor dentists, third-floor brothels, tenth-floor churches, and the penthouse premises of clan associations and feng shui masters. Old junkies rented bedspaces here; two or more families shared tiny apartments; the occasional, alcoholic European haunted the back stairs.

President Studios was located in the Sincere Building, a great, filthy ziggurat built around a wide, central well into which had fallen years of irretrievable rubbish – Styrofoam takeaway boxes, broken tricycles, sheets of corrugated plastic and twisted Coke cans long faded to amaranth and grey. The walk to the studios from the elevator took you down a long corridor, where the doors of half a dozen apartments would be open because of the heat, revealing interiors of cheap plastic furniture, Taoist altars and smells of steamed fish. It was like going to play in Kowloon’s front room.

The studios were converted from one of these apartments and had two groups of customers. Thoughtful-looking schoolchildren, in neat uniforms of blue and white, would arrive for piano lessons at the behest of aspirational parents. They quickly disappeared into sound-proofed booths just big enough to hold an upright Bosendorfer and a stool. 

Teenage bands made up the other clientele. The owner, a tall man with a tonsure, would show you, if it was available, to the “big room” – a Hong Kong euphemism for a space that measured no more than six foot by twelve. It had walls lined with noxious brown carpet the colour of an old pub. Into this had been crammed a guitar amp, a bass amp, a PA, two old keyboards and their amps, a drum kit and several guitars. Roughly the same amount of stuff had been squeezed into two smaller adjoining rooms, which were thus even more cramped. From these dens, scores of Hong Kong bands emerged.

The Stress rehearsed here after school, usually with friends in tow. At times, the “big room” was as crowded and as raucous as a subway carriage. In later years, and in different bands, I spent a lot of time at President Studios, but nothing reproduced the energy of those early Stress rehearsals when, jacked up on Vita Lemon Tea, we thought we were changing Hong Kong forever.

“The destruction of everything you value”

In the autumn of 1981, Jez and I were in a band called the Crux. I remember us grinding out laborious covers of AC/DC and Status Quo at the YMCA hall on Salisbury Road, before an older school and gap-year crowd. There was so much flared, flapping denim in the room you could watch it make eddies and swirls in the pall of Charlie and Old Spice hanging over the dance floor. 

While in this dreary purgatory, we got pitched by a new boy at school, who had recently arrived from Redhill, a town in Surrey, England. His name was John and he told us, in the politest, most beautiful way—and relentlessly—that everything we were doing was dated, because in music there was a new wave, in fact a New Wave, alongside which nothing else mattered. He played the bass and had heard we played guitar and said we should form a band with him because the Crux was a joke. Cover bands were a joke. We ought to be playing original material like an actual group. John’s exhortations were alternately mesmerising and exhausting and we eventually relented. We came up with the band name and began referring to ourselves as Stressuits. As in Jesuits.

We recruited Dan on drums. He was even younger than us, but he could smash a snare or a cymbal like Keith Moon’s demented lovechild. Various singers auditioned for the band, but as soon as our biology teacher’s blond baritone son, Pete, stepped up to the mic, we knew it had to be him. I came up with the band’s catchy slogan, “The destruction of everything you value.” Pete wrote this across his t-shirt in fastidious marker pen. 

In other words, we were irresistible. 

We were quickly propelled to sloppy live performances, startling TV appearances, controversial radio slots and lippy newspaper interviews. There was “management interest” and rash talk of an EP. “By now, the Stress will be a familiar name to most of you,” wrote the 15-year-old Alison in a late 1981 issue of Inferiority Complex.

She described our music as “reggae/ska, punk, a bit of everything” and added: “From the time of their first sessions to their sudden fame (but lack of fortune) of these past few weeks, the Stress haven’t changed much. Their performance is more polished and their heads are a little bigger but that’s understandable. They argue a lot, make mistakes, everything that everyone else does.”

Decades later, friendly, beery, fellow dads would approach me at Southside parties going, “Hey, weren’t you in the Stress? Ha ha, no way! You guys were awesome!” But we never had more than a dozen songs. That’s how easy it was to create a buzz in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. You could do it on nothing at all. I wrote or co-wrote most of them, although “wrote” probably isn’t the right word for the rampant musical quotations that characterised my early compositional style. 

Our most popular song was the cod reggae “International Catastrophe.” I lifted the first two bars of its bass line, note for note, from Thin Lizzy’s “Dancing in the Moonlight.” (The song got made into a video by RTV but, happily, none of the production team noticed the liberal sampling.) I took part of the riff for the behemothic “Rest in Peace” from U2’s “11 o’ Clock Tick Tock.” The chords of “Calm Before the Storm” mashed up the Tom Robinson Band’s “Winter of ‘79” and the Clash’s “All the Young Punks.” The chorus of “KGV,” which I intended as a kind of anarchist denunciation of our school (and which tearful, drunken alumni would sing to me at reunions years later), was the Clash’s “Tommy Gun” with different words. The verse of “Man of Reason” freely infringed the Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket,” to which I added lyrics that managed to be both callow and Orwellian:

He has taken the game out of our lives—
Substituted rules for us to trust.
The sun has blown out
And there’s nothing left to laugh about.
Left with a life of emptiness, years that turn to dust,
Left with a life of emptiness, watching all the promises rust.

He’s a Man of Reason, logic is his game,
He calls things by a number and never by a name.
Because he controls the past, he controls the present too.
He says the sun goes around the Earth
And his followers say it’s true.

The one song I wasn’t involved with—Jez’s “I Got Religion”—was a two-minute slab of original, punk-metal ferocity, easily our best number and the closest we came to hewing to the guttersnipe ideal. Alison’s brother, Andrew, wrote the lyrics. Pete stammered them like Roger Daltrey on the Who’s “My Generation”:

I got religion, I’m saved for a week
From Sunday to Sunday I turn the other cheek
I got religion and, ugh, religion’s got m-m-m-me.

RTHK actually played it once. I can still hear Keith Jay, the plummy presenter, introducing it. “They like to make a lot of noise, don’t they?” he said drily. “And they could have used a little longer in the studio, as you might be able to discern from this next number.”

I can’t say why I stole so much of the music, other than that it happens – and to be a Hongkonger at the time was to be a copyist. It was what I knew. If there was a counterfeit bag or watch to be had, this was the city for it. We knew how to do plastic flowers, or 24-hour suits, or perfect reproductions of Cartier Tanks. We didn’t know how to do good indie. All that fumbling for a Hong Kong identity—the groundwork for the emergence of meaningfully local art or music or writing—that would come much later, when the colony was over and the resumption of Chinese sovereignty forced us to ask ourselves who we were and what we actually wanted to say. Forced me.

For now, we were the perfect punk band for Hong Kong. An RTV show aimed at teens, called Duoscope, featured us struggling out of a giant Styrofoam reproduction of a can. (The Stress “wish to make it quite clear that they’re not the morons they’re portrayed as on Duoscope” editorialised Alison helpfully in the aftermath.) The idea was to show viewers that the Stress weren’t making canned music, but we didn’t deserve the clumsy compliment because so much of what we did was derivative, from our middle eights to our marketing. We’d read, for example, that the Sex Pistols, unable to get bookings in their early days, would turn up at polytechnics and colleges unannounced and just play. So we decided to try the same thing by arriving uninvited at a band night at Island School and walking on stage between two of that school’s most popular groups. The organisers literally pulled the plug on us and we were jeered off the school grounds by well-dressed students from May Road homes. It was excruciating.

“New people, new styles”

In a live music scene as tame as Hong Kong’s, getting an audience was actually easy. Alison, always precocious, introduced us to a DJ ten years our senior called Andrew Bull – the beginning, for me, of a lifelong friendship. He was running a club night called Boobs. (Yeah, I know. The name. But it is what it is.)

Andrew would ambush implausible venues—cheap cafés, usually—by telling the managers that he was interested in hiring the premises for a “private function.” What he would not reveal was that there would be tickets sold on the door and a large crowd of unruly teens would arrive, baying for alcohol. Most venues wouldn’t allow him back but the Joker restaurant on Wyndham Street tolerated this arrangement for a few weeks. A flyer of the time, written by him and Alison, promised “New people, new styles, new music, radical” as well as “Free LPs to interesting people.”

One night, the Stress were on the bill and the waiters tried to shut us down. “Too much bahling-bahlum!” they shouted, using the wonderful onomatopoeic Cantonese word that means “noise.” Hundreds of kids had shown up. Adding to the chaos was a news crew from TVB, who had come to film a documentary on underage drinking – and our gig. The Stress’s infamy was assured. Here was colonial Hong Kong’s lost generation, and we were the house band.

If finding a crowd was simple, getting the look was not – not for me, anyway. John and Pete had “proper” punk gear brought “out” from England – mohair jumpers and brothel creepers and fluorescent-coloured pants. Dan had pronounced rock leanings but lived and performed in a genre-neutral ensemble of white t-shirt and jeans. Jez refused to cut his hair or take off his biker jacket. And I didn’t really know what to do but, being the only Eurasian, decided I had to represent. 

The South China Morning Post ran a bookstore at Star Ferry, and a popular item, targeted at tourists, was a white souvenir t-shirt printed with the names of Hong Kong districts in black Chinese calligraphy. My stage outfit consisted of one of these with the sleeves slashed off. Over it, I wore a cheap grey, mandarin-collar shirt from Yue Hwa. This was long before Shanghai Tang started selling mandarin-collar shirts for HK$1,188; in 1982, the only people who wore collars like that were communist apparatchiks and you got stared at if you had one. On my feet I had those $10 kung-fu shoes with the plastic soles. I badly wanted to wear bondage pants but there were none to be had, so I asked my parents’ domestic helper, Lourdes, to sew some zips at random angles down the legs of a pair of black Giordano jeans. Yes. Filipina maids, in sky-blue pinafores, dressed the young anarchists of Hong Kong as we went on stage to sing of our repression.


“Pop-up anarchists”

The end of the Stress came for the most middle-class of reasons: A-levels and university. Our hearts hadn’t been in it for some time. You can only go so far on a clutch of copycat songs in a genre that was already six years old as 1983 dawned. 

Jez went off to university in the UK, but we would meet up in the holidays and go for a jam at President Studios as if we were 13-year-olds all over again. Pete joined the British Army. Dan had long since emigrated to Australia (he was replaced for a time on drums by Alex, who was crisp, understated and—oh happy bridge building!—attended our nemesis, Island School). John returned to England and formed a band called the Go Hole and another called SP!N. They were making some headway, signed to the Stephen Street label Foundation, but John was in a terrible car accident that left him in a coma for 11 days. The band proceeded without him and became the 90s Britpop outfit Gene.

Alison, inevitably, worked in music. While still at school, she became an assistant producer on RTHK, working on Gerry Jose’s evening show five nights a week. “I would rush home from school each day,” she remembers, and for work would “change into whatever was black (my entire wardrobe), don my boots and Harrington jacket and my Siouxsie-inspired thick makeup and spike up my dyed hair with sugar water.” She later moved to the UK and today is a VP at Sony. But she started out at Complete Music, the publishing arm of Cherry Red Records.

“I answered the phone one day to a young man asking if he could send in a demo by his band, the Go Hole,” she says. “Never heard of them, but I recognised the voice.  ‘John, is that you?  It’s Alison.’  We had a good chat, he sent the demo and we ended up publishing his first couple of Go Hole songs.”

As for me, well, 1982 had all been so intense. Besides being in a notorious band, I’d been arrested for badly vandalising a Mercedes and spraying a giant anarchy symbol on the wall of a Kowloon Tong mansion. I was in all kinds of difficulty at home and in school and had my heart broken for the first time. Change was welcome.

“Together we lit the hearts and minds of all among us,” John wrote to me recently. “We played our songs in pop-up clubs with us as pop-up anarchists. Those young colonials who remember can’t go back to the Lan Kwai Fong or Central bars [without thinking how] the Stress lit them up back in the day.”

“Pop-up anarchists” is perfect. But, of course, we weren’t universally adored. My parting with the Stress came when I overheard a schoolgirl talking about us one day. She could have been no more than 14 and had one of those blonde, asymmetrical haircuts that began appearing as the New Romantics came into vogue. “The Stress?” she said to a friend, without realising I was standing nearby. “What a bunch of stiffs.” That was the only push I needed to begin educating myself about the new sound. I slinked away, got rid of the statement afro, dyed my new, shorter hair blonde, got more ear piercings, painted my nails, experimented with eyeliner and started listening to Spandau Ballet and Heaven 17. I spent my gap year as the slim and pretty intern of a fashionable PR company on Wellington Street.

I couldn’t wait to leave punk behind. I wanted the notoriety that came with being in a band, but I never wanted to actually play live. Performing always terrified me. And besides, I was never a very good punk. There was always the suntan – and my right-wing musical taste. 

After the Clash performed that incredible two-and-a-half hour set in 1982, I and other members of the Stress—in fact, half the punks in Hong Kong—went backstage to meet them. They were amazing and kind. The four of them signed my vinyl copy of London Calling, which I still have somewhere, and they spent a lot of time talking to us when all they wanted to do, surely, was get back to the hotel. My girlfriend Mimi was very academic, and a flautist who listened to a lot of classical music, so when Mick Jones asked me what music I was listening to, I replied with sincerity: “Handel’s Messiah, mostly.” 

Jones was at a loss for words. But it was probably the most original thing—and therefore the punkiest thing—that I’d ever said in my young, derivative life. It was certainly a kind of beginning.


Photographies courtesy of Alison Rowden, Sharon Lovegrove via Facebook, Siobhan “Shiv” Rogers via Facebook.

Dedicated to Jeremy “Jez” Naylor and Andrew Rowden.

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