They come to the big, bustling, modern city chasing dreams. From towns and villages in Kham and Amdo – vast swathes of historical Tibet that now overlap the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan – they pour into Chengdu, often with little more than the name of a nightclub where they might seek an audition, or of a cousin, a distant relative or a friend of a friend.
Many come from nomadic families for whom borders have traditionally meant little. Speaking different dialects and with varying proficiency in Mandarin, they head for Chengdu’s Wuhou district, which boasts a large Tibetan presence. It is here that the best singers and musicians among them might build new lives, performing in bars and clubs specialising in Tibetan song and dance.
With an urban population topping 10 million, Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, is far removed from the wide open spaces of the Tibetan plateau, where home might change with the season. In Chengdu, a performer’s accommodation is usually a cheap flat, perhaps little more than a bleak, concrete box, with peeling paint and cracks in the walls, costing 500 yuan (US$72) or so a month; or a shared dormitory above the place where he or she works each night until 2am or 3am.
Typically, the salary will barely cover rent; performers’ earnings are boosted by receiving khata, silk scarves of red, gold or green that equate to tips paid by patrons in amounts ranging from 100 to 500 yuan. Customers pay for the khata, which the singers turn in to the club at the end of the night. The value is tallied and the performers receive their bonus.
Khata are presented to singers as they perform, and sometimes an artist will end his or her performance with shoulders draped in many scarves, bowing to those who may have paid them more than a month’s salary for a few minutes of work. At other times, a song might end without a single khata making it to the stage, the artist left to express thanks to the audience and meekly retire from the spotlight.
Although Chengdu is often mentioned in the same breath as Shanghai and Beijing when it comes to independent music in China, Tibetan performers live in their own world, often struggling to fund recordings and low-budget videos, hoping to grow their brands in a competitive market via social-media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo.
It’s a world where stardom is, in theory, only a song away, but one that is populated by the artists’ fellow Tibetan countrymen and women – people far from home.
Meiduozuo moved to Chengdu from Zhuochu, a mountain town in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in the south of Gansu, late last year. Previously, she says, she had come to the city only when she needed to record a song, staying for a few days before heading home. Her parents, both in their 70s and retired, were not happy about their youngest daughter moving away to pursue what seemed like a frivolous dream.
Meiduozuo’s father was a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, stationed in Xinjiang province. Her mother dropped out of school in third grade, and later became a housewife, caring for the couple’s three children as they moved from base to base. Singing was not a career choice that Meiduozuo’s parents understood, but she would not be deterred.
Sitting in a Tibetan teahouse in Wuhou, before her nightly performance at music club Jiesilin, Meiduozuo, who says she is 30 but hints that she has been telling people that for some time, wears the traditional jewellery of her region and speaks warmly of her hometown, which she refers to often in her songs. She is eager to showcase her culture to the people of Chengdu.
“My parents didn’t agree with my choice, because I have to pay for recording myself,” she says. “But it makes me feel proud to have my own music and show my culture. I’m making music for the people of my hometown because I want to show what Zhuochu is about.”
Seated in a dimly lit back room at Makye Ame Restaurant, in Chengdu, where he will perform later in the evening, Kawa, 28, scribbles in a notebook filled with lyrics. He has the manner of both scholar and artist, glasses resting low on his nose.
Kawa, who hails from Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, studied Tibetan-Chinese translation at a technical college in Aba, graduating in the summer of 2012.
Kawa contemplated going home but his family was away at the time, scouring Amdo hillsides for yartsa gunbu (“summer grass, winter worm” in Tibetan), a sought-after aphrodisiac that is created by underground caterpillars becoming infected by a parasitic fungus. Yartsa gunbu is known as the “Viagra of the Himalayas”, and is a source of income for many Tibetan families.
Kawa accepted a job with a telecommunications company in Barkam, the capital of Ngawa, 200km and a 10-hour drive along winding mountain roads from his hometown. The six months he spent bound to an office cubicle were torturous for a man with dreams of performing.
“I couldn’t take it any more,” he says. “I was depressed. The only way I could get to sleep was to think about singing. It was like I wasn’t living in reality. I wouldn’t have stayed even for a salary of a million yuan. My mind was made up.”
Having resigned, Kawa considered going to Beijing, but with his older brother a monk and his younger sister married, the responsibility of taking care of his parents fell to him.
“I had friends in the film industry in Beijing,” he recalls, “but I told them I had to look after my family, even though they wanted me to come.” He had to remain relatively close by.
In March 2013, Kawa arrived in Chengdu. During his college days, he had auditioned at a club in Wuhou called Tanggula Mountain, a large performance space for Tibetan music and dance. He was turned down. His second attempt, however, was successful. He didn’t tell his parents right away. Soon enough, through word of mouth in the tight-knit community, they heard he was performing at night.
“I had told my family I was going on a business trip,” Kawa says, of how he originally explained his absence. “Later, they found out I was singing somewhere. I told them I was just covering for a friend. In October of 2013, I finally told them the truth.”
During Kawa’s first year in Chengdu, he didn’t make much progress. Though he met many people in the music scene, he spent most of his time drinking and socialising. When it came time to return home for the Tibetan New Year, Kawa was too embarrassed to go back, he says. For all his time away, he did not have a single original song.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Kawa began his music career in earnest. A friend in Beijing, a film director, contacted him, saying he needed a song for a movie, a Tibetan love story titled Her Name is So Lha. Kawa read the script, and a song poured out of him one rainy afternoon. “It was destiny,” he says.
The experience gave him confidence. He continued writing songs, mixing traditional Tibetan styles, combining the wavering delivery of his ancestors with modern pop sensibilities, the lyrics a blend of his native tongue, Mandarin and a smattering of English.
When he left Barkam, Kawa didn’t just leave a job; he also left behind his long-term girlfriend. When she learned how hard he’d been partying during that first year, she ended the relationship. In an effort to prove he has changed, Kawa has begged, borrowed and saved 400,000 yuan to record his first album, which is nearing completion.
“It’s for her, to show I’ve been working hard,” he says, solemnly. “And for my family, too. I don’t know if I can win back my girlfriend, but actions speak louder than words.”
Churdan, 28, a native of Sichuan’s Hongyuan county, also in Ngawa, has been in Chengdu for seven years. Though he has taken to the stage hundreds of times at the Jiesilin music club and elsewhere, singing traditional songs and original compositions, his earnings have remained modest.
Fortunately, Churdan’s outgoings are also low, kept down by living rent-free in a dorm above the club with other performers, five to a room. “This place is nice,” he says of his current digs. “Before, the places I lived weren’t so nice. Some clubs didn’t even offer somewhere to stay.”
Though only formally educated for two years, Churdan taught himself to read and write both Tibetan and Mandarin. “I was a herder,” he says. “My family are nomads. I loved to sing, so I was always missing school.”
We are chatting in Chengdu’s People’s Park, and Churdan’s traditional Tibetan attire makes him stand out among the crowds of mostly Han Chinese. He clearly understands the importance of controlling his image, telling Post Magazine’s photographer where he would like his shots taken, and confidently explaining the visual message he wants to convey.
“My dream is to release an album,” Churdan says. “If I can find somebody to invest, I can do it anytime.”
He is, in fact, driven by a belief that one day the right person will notice his talent. In the meantime, he makes do with gigs at Jiesilin, which usually wrap up with a few khata hanging from his neck.
“It feels like home,” says Zhuoma, 22, sitting down to a cup of yak-butter tea in her modest central Chengdu flat, the view from the 21st floor obscured by smog. She has been in the city for three years, having moved here from Shiqu, in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, some 1,000km and nearly a full day’s drive away.
Zhuoma’s parents died when she was three. Her adoptive parents, a protective, kindly couple she calls mother and father, raised her as though she were their own. Later, her stepsister died, prompting Zhuoma to travel to the city, hoping to help support the family. She sings nightly at Jiesilin and Yang Jin Ma, clubs owned by a man from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. She starts at 9pm, finishing up at about 2am.
“I never thought about singing,” she says of her early days in the city. “I just wanted to work in a hotel or something. But I saw someone singing in a bar, and after that I slowly started singing myself. My cousin got me set up in Chengdu and introduced me at Yang Jin Ma. At first I was making only 700 yuan a month. I stayed in the dorm with a lot of other people. It took two years for things to get a little bit easier.”
Zhouma hid the hardships she endured from her adoptive parents. “When I first started singing, I didn’t tell them,” she says. “I contacted them after three months. They weren’t happy about it.”
Now her family is at peace with her chosen life, though Zhuoma does not want to be in the entertainment business forever, saying she would like to open a cafe or a tea shop.
“If I can save enough money to make an album, I want to stop performing at night,” she says, but then backtracks, her cherubic features contorting into a frown. “If my album was successful, I would continue. You have to consider the circumstances.”
Sang-Sang, 21, also from Ngawa, came to Chengdu three years ago to work in a Tibetan music bar, where he eventually started singing. Beginning as a dancer, he was guided into the industry by friends and family in Chengdu, and is inspired by fellow Tibetan performers, such as the popular pop duo Anu.
Sang-Sang has yet to produce an album or record his own songs, but he plans to. He also hopes to migrate into the hip hop scene.
Hailing from Zoige county, in Ngawa, Duo-Zhaxi has lived in Chengdu for six years. Although he studied Tibetan language and cultural studies at Northwest University for Nationalities, in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, his passion has always been music.
Tibetan villages all have their own songs, the 24-year-old says. With increased urbanisation, however, many such songs are likely to disappear if no effort is made to keep them alive. To this end, Duo-Zhaxi visits elders in villages in and around Zoige, to research and record traditional songs.
“Tibetan music is a type of conversation with nature,” Duo-Zhaxi says, referring to how nomads sing while herding yak, the sound influenced by the echoes that bounce back from grassland hills.
Qimei, 29, from Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in Qinghai, says he has been making music since he was 11 years old. His instruments of choice are the flute, mandolin and longtouqin (“dragon-head guitar”). Seven years ago, he came to Chengdu to pursue his musical career, singing in Tibetan bars.
Like many other Tibetans in China, Qimei now has his feet planted firmly in the urban environment. He has a wife and a daughter, and runs a clothing store in Wuhou.
Since moving to Chengdu, he has performed all over China and produced a number of albums, and he appears on television regularly.
“I’d prefer to live at home in Yushu, but at home there is no place to develop my music and appear on TV,” he says.
Qimei’s dream, he says, is to perform abroad and share Tibetan music with a broader audience.