Underground Chengdu: the live-music scene and best bars for jam sessions, dance, reggae and some fun in the Chinese city
Musician Wu Zhuoling is our guide for a tour of the Sichuan capital’s indie music bars and clubs, where you can find musicians playing rock, acoustic, jazz and electronic music, or just jamming together
In China, Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu is considered a second-tier city – a “small” central metropolis of around 14 million that can hardly hold a candle to Beijing and Shanghai, the country's artistic, musical, cultural, and political capitals.
For the Chengdu musicians I meet on a recent visit, that’s just fine. Not everyone aspires to the flippant cool, and competitive classicism, of China’s eastern cities.
On a Sunday night I head out to Chengdu’s Wuhou district, a laid-back area, noted for its large Tibetan community, in its southwestern quarter near Wuhou Temple. Prayer flags hang in shop windows below signs written in the flowing Tibetan script; the heady scent of incense billows from open doorways as men and women from villages in the Hengduan Mountains and the Tibetan plateau pass in traditional dress, looking somewhat out of place in the modern city.
I’m here to meet Wu Zhuoling, a self-taught musician, singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist who performs as a solo artist and as part of the indie electronic band Wednesday’s Trip, and who has agreed to share some of her favourite haunts.
Wu, 40, has enjoyed a productive career in the Chinese music scene, putting out seven albums and EPs, and touring China and Europe. In 2005 she hitchhiked to Lhasa, where she translated books and wrote songs for two years, and soaked up Tibetan culture.
We meet at New Machu Picchu Bar, a dark, lamplit lounge with various instruments adorning the walls along with photographs of the numerous musicians who have taken to the small stage towards the rear of the space for acoustic, jazz, electronic and experimental music performances.
Furniture carved from Himalayan soft woods, a smell of incense, and a rotund feline basking in the glow of a table lamp by the street-facing window all contribute to the relaxed feel of the place. The table of Tibetan men doing rounds of shots at the table next to ours hints at the fact the place can get rowdy when the mood is right.
“There’s Beijing and Shanghai, and then there’s Chengdu,” says Wu of the national hierarchy of independent music and underground culture. Her voice is soft and calm, her English fluent and refined. “In some ways it’s better here. We have a more relaxed atmosphere, and there are a lot of parties.”
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Chengdu has none of the snobbish culture of the other two cities, says Wu. As if to prove her point, several other musicians pour into the bar during the hour or so that we’re there, greeting us warmly. Some are Chengdu-born and -raised. Others come from elsewhere. They all wear a similar uniform, black on black – a contrast to their uniformly sunny dispositions and easy laughter.
“Musicians from Shuanxi ?? and Luzhuo [in Sichuan] and also from [neighbouring] Yunnan [province] like to gather here,” says Wu. “You can get a lot of shows and opportunities. It’s easy for me to make a living as a musician here.”
The Chengdu underground music scene that began with the live-music venue Little Bar about two decades ago has risen thanks to the efforts of musicians such as Wu, and so much so that the local government has begun promoting it as one of the city’s draws.
“Little Bar was the root of everything here,” says Wu. “It was the first place local indie musicians could play. At the time, only Beijing had a few places for indie music, but then the scene started up in Chengdu.”
From the New Machu Picchu Bar it’s a short taxi ride over to Steam, a hostel, and music and art hub, hidden behind the entrance to the Sichuan Lifeng Chemical Company.
The owner, Mao Mao, who plays guitar and synths for Wednesday’s Trip, hails from Lushan, a county west of Chendgu. Affable and arty in his trademark flat cap, a glass of IPA beer in one hand, cigarette dangling from the other, he takes us around the hostel, starting with the bar/performance space.
“I just wanted a place where people who love music can come and enjoy their time,” he says of the space, with its small stage and trippy azure lighting, murals, and art installations.
Touring bands frequently bed down in the accommodation housed in the adjacent building, Mao Mao explains in English. Any time they want to get up on stage and play, they’re welcome. “If someone here wants to jam, they just jam.”
Japanese instrumental rockers Mono are likely to do some work at Steam’s on-site Havoc Studio next year, says Mao Mao, and possibly legendary New York post-punk band Television too. “We don’t need famous bands, but good taste,” he says.
Mao Mao formed part of a rock band known well locally called Soundtoy before focusing his efforts on his collaboration with Wu. He describes Chengdu as “relatively more free” than other cities in China, and recalls a time when the 21 floors of the Poly Centre on Jinxiu Street were full of dance and rock clubs. Freedom being relative, only one electronic music club, Tag, remains there – the others shut down by anti-drug authorities.
Wu recommends Tag as one of the most popular party venues for twenty-somethings looking for a place to dance. “It’s a relatively professional club, hosting DJ sets and live electronic performances every weekend,” she says.
We opt instead for Jah Bar, a reggae joint on the south side of the Jinjiang district near Chengdu’s Old South Bridge. “I think Jah Bar represents what’s typical of the Chengdu underground music scene,” says Wu. “The utopian atmosphere, the spontaneous jam sessions every night, and the old faces you can meet there, either music fans or musicians. It always reminds me of the scene in Chengdu 10 years ago.”
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Jah is run by painter Judy Chu and her husband. On most nights there are jam sessions and performances. Even on a Sunday night the place is packed, tables filled with well-lubricated patrons taking in a session by a jazz trio from Mauritius.
The interior is bathed in a red glow from paper lanterns overhead and strings of lights behind the back bar, a nod to the bar’s location in the city’s unofficial red-light district.
New Machu Picchu Bar: a warm, friendly place for acoustic performances, open nightly, 6pm until late. Yulin Beijie 1, Chengdu.
Steam: Part hostel, part performance space, tattoo studio, and music/video studio.
30 Wuhouci Street, Wuhou district, Chengdu. http://steam-hostel.atchengduhotels.com/en/
Jah Bar: The heart of the Chengdu reggae scene. Old South Bridge, Huang Gate Road #36-118, Chengdu.
New Little Bar: Like Little Bar before it, this new, more spacious incarnation is the home of the Chengdu indie rock scene. 87 Fang Qin Jie, Yulin Shang Wu Gang, Chengdu.
Tag: An electronic music club, high above the city streets. Room 2118, Building A – Poly Centre, Jinxiu Street, Wuhou district, Chengdu. http://tagchengdu.com/
Getting there: Several airlines, including Air China and Sichuan Airlines, fly direct from Hong Kong to Chengdu.
Staying there: For budget travellers looking to be close to the action, Lazybones Hostel in the Jinniu district, described as Chengdu’s first “poshpacker” hostel, offers clean, modern, basic rooms at low prices. Taiyiminsheng mansion No. 2, Xinghui Road West, Jinniu, Chengdu.
To hear Wu Zhuoling’s music, visit: site.douban.com/zhuoling