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

Secret police, banquets for 140 officials and ‘the hardest performance of Michael’s life’: how Wham! became the first Western band to perform in China

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 December, 2016, 9:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 December, 2016, 4:34am

Despite the buzz worldwide in 1985 about Wham! being the first Western band to perform in China as the country began to open up after the Cultural Revolution, the hour-long concert was not an especially good one.

“It was the hardest performance I’ve ever given in my life,” said George Michael, then 21, a few hours after the April 7 show, according to a Chicago Tribune article written at the time.

“I couldn’t believe how quiet the crowd were at first.”

To make matters worse, the audience of 15,000 at Workers’ Stadium in Beijing mistook the cameras and lights of film crews intending to record their reactions for those of the government’s secret police, so they sat rigidly in their seats, recalled the group’s manager, Simon Napier-Bell, in an interview with the BBC in 2005.

Michael and fellow band member Andrew Ridgeley had adapted their performances for China, removing sexual scenes in the music videos accompanying their songs and reducing the volume of their music by half to avoid scaring audiences.

Watch: how Wham! became the first Western band to perform in China

Gilbert van Kerckhove, an electronics engineer from Belgium who since 1980 had been working and living in Beijing, remembered arriving for the concert at 7.45pm sharp.

“Police were everywhere and we had to sit down and couldn’t stand up,” said Van Kerckhove, who was 36 that year. “It was like the band were playing to prison inmates. It was really surreal.”

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Van Kerckhove recalled many tickets to the concert were given out for free to government officials and Westerners through the Foreign Enterprise Service Corporation.

Each ticket was sold for about five yuan.

“We couldn’t believe it that a group like that would be coming to Beijing,” he said.

It took 18 months of negotiations between Napier-Bell and the Chinese authorities to settle on the 10-day trip, after the music manager persuaded the government it needed to show it was opening up to secure foreign investment, according to the Briton.

Napier-Bell flew to Beijing to make his pitch to officials and ended up taking 143 to lunch three times each, he said.

To prevent rival rock band Queen from becoming the first to play in China, Napier-Bell even came up with a little sabotage. He presented two brochures to the Chinese officials, one depicting Wham! fans as pleasant, middle-class youngsters and the other showing Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury as overtly flamboyant. The officials eventually chose Wham!

Van Kerckhove said he was “overemotional” during the concert and would have screamed if not suppressed by the police.

Wham!, on the other hand, performed in a professional way despite the quiet audience.

“They were very spontaneous,” Van Kerckhove said. “They were very relaxed.”

Four days later, they performed in Guangzhou. The tickets were much more expensive there, at around 16 yuan, against an average weekly wage of 20 yuan at the time.

The crowd in the southern economic boomtown were more lively than their northern counterparts despite warnings from the government, and many in the audience got up and danced, according to a biography of Michael written by Rob Jovanovic. At the end of the show Michael returned to sing Careless Whisper in a white suit.

During the trip, Wham! also stopped by Hong Kong and held two concerts at the Coliseum in Hung Hom. It was reported the band were late for both shows and the gigs left much to be desired.

But that did not stop the group becoming a hit in the city.

By around 5.30pm on Monday, there were only four Wham! CDs left at HMV in Causeway Bay. Staffer Matthew Poon, 28, said he had seen many fans of Michael coming in to buy the band’s albums. Poon’s personal favourite was Last Christmas, he said.

“I think ... [Michael] broke some boundaries between Western and Chinese culture, which is pretty impressive,” he said.