Fame and celebrity

Pop icon George Michael’s role in the opening up of China

Wham! duo were the first Western music stars to perform on the mainland after the Cultural Revolution, and in so doing, brought down the ‘Bamboo Curtain’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 December, 2016, 12:53am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 December, 2016, 12:53am

The fondness with which the late British pop singer George Michael has been remembered by Chinese is testament to the impact he and his band Wham! had in bringing their variety of music to China. The group was the first major foreign act to perform on the mainland after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Officials had agreed to a 10-day tour in April 1985 to show that the nation was open and welcoming to the world, particularly investors. It did that, but in doing so, also introduced concert-goers to a different style of fashion and entertainment.

George Michael in China: how singer made it over the bamboo curtain with more of a whisper than a wham

Culture is the best way for people from different backgrounds to better understand one another. The Cultural Revolution and China’s closing to the world prevented that opportunity. A new era dawned with the death of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), but the concept of soft power took time for authorities to come to grips with. Wham!’s manager, Simon Napier-Bell, wanted the group to be the world’s biggest and breaking barriers by becoming the first to perform in the most populous country of all was, for him, essential to attaining that goal.

Rival groups to that claim, the Rolling Stones and Queen, also wanted the accolade, but Napier-Bell’s tough negotiations over 18 months won out. The concerts that resulted were a blaze of noise, colour and movement that staid mainland audiences had not before experienced. Michael, his musical partner Andrew Ridgeley, and their two backup dancers, were an inspiration to budding musicians and opened eyes to what the outside world held. The performances, part of a world tour that took in two shows in Hong Kong, also sent a loud and clear message that China was open for international business.

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Much has since changed and foreign music stars regularly perform on the mainland. Audiences no longer face the tight restrictions during shows that they did for Wham! and dance and sing along, as in the West. But acts have to be mindful of political sensitivities. Michael and his group opened cultural doors and the benefits are ever-continuing.