As a young man living for the present and not thinking too much, I may not have made the most of the piece of history that was Wham!’s concert in Beijing’s Workers Stadium, one cool April night in 1985. But now, prompted by the death of George Michael to recall that time, I can see that the concert I attended was more than just a musical first, it was a symbol of the changes that were setting China on the road to the country it is today.

When Wham! came to China

Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) had started the ball rolling in the late 1970s by opening the country to foreign trade and bringing in the idea of entrepreneurism, and the period from late 1984 to 1986 was an interesting time to be in the Chinese capital as it felt as if Deng’s ideas had started to really gather pace. A graduate in Chinese from Britain’s Durham University, I had been teaching English at Beijing Agricultural University from late 1984 before moving to New World Press, part of the government’s Foreign Languages Publishing Administration (FLP), the following year as an editor and translator for their English-language publications.

I’d actually first been to Beijing on a one-year study course three years before the Wham! concert, as part of my degree. On our arrival in Beijing in September 1981, after an almost three-day train journey from Guangzhou, my fellow students and I were issued with grain coupons to allow us to eat in restaurants and cotton coupons so we could buy the thick padded green or blue coats necessary for the Beijing winter. We got, by all accounts, a more generous allocation of coupons than the locals.

We were also getting a look at a disappearing China, though we didn’t know it at the time. By my return, the coupons were gone. Other changes were also apparent, and continued over the two years I made the city my home. Private restaurants were appearing, bars too; the markets and stores sold clothes and fashions other than the green and blue jackets and baggy trousers that had been standard wear for decades. And people were wearing the new styles in public, staff in my office wore tight jeans. Hotels were being built to accommodate the growing numbers of Western and Japanese businessmen looking for new opportunities, and suddenly it became possible to get a real pizza in town, although they were a little out of reach for those of us on local salaries.

No longer were we rationed to one case of Tsingtao beer per purchaser, and the street markets sold other vegetables beside the ubiquitous baicai cabbage. A short-lived campaign by the Communist Party against “spiritual pollution”, or the influx of “Western” values in 1983 to early 1984 hadn’t dampened the pace of change.

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Another noticeable feature of the capital during that time was the sudden increase in the number of Uygurs from the far western Xinjiang (新疆) region who came to the city. Muslims, recognisable by their skull caps and central Asian appearance, they ostensibly operated kebab stands on the side of roads and at tourist sites. The spicy lamb skewers were a treat – despite rumours the meat wasn’t actually lamb, but cat, or so the stories went – but the Uygurs had another business objective: the special foreign exchange certificates (FECs) that foreigners had to use as money. Introduced by the authorities to keep track of foreign currency use, FECs were issued only to foreigners and could be used only in designated foreigner-only stores and eateries.

Naturally, with locals wanting to get their hands on the better quality and variety of goods sold in the foreigner-only stores, a huge black market in FECs quickly sprang up, with better exchange rates than the banks offered, and the Uygurs were a big part of this nominally illegal trade. So the phrase, shouted at passing foreigners through the smoke of dozens of skewers of grilled lamb (or cat), “shish kebab change money” became part of the city’s lexicon.

The issue even became a joke among the general population. Open comments, not always complimentary, about foreigners and usually made in Chinese, had become more common around this time, after years when even showing interest in a foreigner would have drawn the attention of the authorities. On a bus in the city one day, I heard a young man start a familiar monologue: “Look, there’s a foreigner. I know how to talk to a foreigner: ‘hello hello’.” At which point another voice piped up: “No, this is how you talk to a foreigner: ‘hello hello huan waihui [change money]’,” prompting laughter from almost the whole bus, including me.

While much was in flux, not all of old Beijing was being swept aside. The city had yet to take on its modern appearance. Traditional hutong alleys with their walled courtyard houses survived in many areas, indeed on the south sides of East and West Chang’an Avenue, on either side of Tiananmen Square, there could be found many hutongs between the low-rise government buildings, now long since replaced by the glass and steel symbols of corporate and state power. The bicycle remained the primary mode of transport, but more cars were on the roads, and on Baiwanzhuang Street, where I lived in a spacious apartment behind the New World Press office, the youtiao fried dough stick vendor still came round on his rickety bicycle cart in the mornings.

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Away from the main streets, it was still possible to experience good old Communist-style service in little state-run shops: pointing to an item on one of the shelves and being told by the assistant, busy drinking tea or eating lunch, “mei you” – “we haven’t got any”. Guaranteed their wages regardless, there was no incentive to actually get up and serve anyone.

And, of course, the skies were clear, except in the spring when the dust storms came, or if you lived too close to the big steel plant that used to be on the western fringe of city. At the FLP itself, the small foreign community, which included Indian, Japanese and Thai editors and translators as well as Westerners, led a quite pleasant life in our courtyard behind the office. The back gate had no security guard, so we could bring local friends in and out without the risk of getting them into trouble, we had a cook and a cleaner, a driver to take us shopping, and in 1985 were taken on a week-long trip to the northeastern part of Inner Mongolia (內蒙古), staying in traditional yurt tents on the grasslands.

This then, was the background against which Wham! came to China. The group got the gig, according to some media reports, because their manager persuaded the Chinese that allowing the concert would boost the country’s image and help its push to welcome the outside world and draw much-needed investment. Getting a ticket was not easy. A good friend of mine, a Tunisian studying hydraulic engineering at Tsinghua University, suggested we cycle over to the stadium, which was on the other side of the city from where we lived, to see if anyone was selling them. Sure enough we found a local lady, happy to part with a couple as long as we paid in FECs and who charged us only the actual cost, 5 yuan each, with no mark-up.

As the concert kicked off with Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, the foreigners in the audience got up to dance, and some of the large numbers of police in the stadium moved unsuccessfully to stop them. Some chants of “fascist pigs”, in English, could be heard. Then came word that some Chinese in the audience had been taken out of their seats by police and hauled off somewhere. At one point, lights behind the audience and in one of the entry ways went off and there was a movement of people in and out for a brief period. From my seat high up in the stands, I couldn’t see what it was, but the rumour afterwards was that Deng himself had come in for a look. Who knows. During the intermission a video accompanying a Wham! song showed a scene of a man and woman kissing, drawing loud hisses of disapproval.

Looking at China now, 30 years on and through the prisms of hindsight and memory, it’s often easy to read too much into past events, to say with confidence this, that or the other event was historic, or symbolic in some way. But it’s fair to say the Wham! concert was. Returning to Beijing in 2012 for a two-year stint, I found the city unrecognisable, both physically and in terms of attitudes and the way people conducted themselves: the China of 1985 was another world to the one now; one generation, two worlds, you might say.

Jonathan Standing is a senior editor at the South China Morning Post