Michael has been living and traveling to China since the mid 1990’s. Here he shares his unique insights of his 20 years experience of cultural activity and exchange between China and Europe.
What inspired you to go to china? And when did you first go?
«Hong Kong! After apprenticing as a forwarding agent, I got a scholarship / job offer there! What an adventure for a young teenager barely speaking english nor sure even where and what HKG really was! This experience turned my life upside down, and I became what I am today. I moved to Beijing just before the hand over, early 1997.»
Describe the early scene, was it free and open?
«Free and open? No, China was just about to open towards the rest of the world after decades of strict communist rule. One felt the burden of the past and the cry for emancipation from it’s rigid structures in many senses. When I arrived in Beijing, the transition had just started; in an incredible way which many were not able to keep track of! I wanted to experience China’s new youth, this 80’s generation from up close, to experience their longings,rebellion; search for identity. I dreamt of a small but lively urban subculture, a music scene for young people (like myself) to meet, exchange, realise; live their ideas. This dream succeeded and became a reality. Along the way I learned a good deal about China. I had great luck to be there; to share and contribute to this vivid scene. A youth culture of music and art full of passion, not for profit or hype, but for people and without hypocritical swarm.»
You organized the first rave at the Great Wall, describe this event…
«Yes, In 1998 we were the first to climb the Great Wall. A 600 strong multicultural party crowd, consisting of Chinese creative artists, intellectuals, musicians, punks, MCs, journalists, singers; foreign ravers, important triad members and other illustrious party go’ers, we were partying exuberantly until late in the morning! It was unforgettable for all…»
What other events were you engaged in?
«In China, the combination of punk and techno laid the foundations for later scenes which punks and rock bands would take part in. In addition to the DJ sets, the punk rockers lent a feeling of vitality and liveliness to the events. For us, the idea of having punk and techno perform together in the same event is inconceivable because of the clash of two mutually incomprehensible musical languages. But it was possible in China-at that time. The inflammatory character of electronic music and the rough flair of punk music were successfully combined in different ways. It was as if the music scene was gaining a new momentum of its’s own and we organised countless parties and events not only in BJS but soon all over China.»
How is the scene in China different now?
«In recent years, China has seen an unprecedented boom in avant-garde music and art. The number of music festivals is growing yearly, new concert venues are thriving and exhibition spaces for contemporary art are springing up in a tremendous variety. Artists and bands recently unknown are now gaining audiences and a new wave of musicians and visual artists is captivating the country. The artists self-esteem and proficiency in their work have grown significantly. After having absorbed both Western and Chinese culture, they are advancing their projects with intensity, sincerity and ingenuity to create something radically new. A growing crowd of fashion, music and art-conscious youth keeps pushing this cultural phenomenon across the country. Moreover, the artists begin to see that they can make a living with their art today, which is another step in the advancing Chinese contemporary music scene. Unfortunately for the last 1 – 2 year’s, the government does much to control the movement.»
Your agency Miro-China was formed in 1997. Was it one of the first cultural agencies in Zurich to attempt Swiss/Chinese exchange?
«In terms of music yes, definitely. And not for Zurich only. We were the first to invite Chinese musicians to the west, to create a platform of exchange for unconventional people and ideas, based not on profit or hype but on people committed to a lively global dialogue.»
When you look back on the past 20 years of involvement culturally and personally what are your feelings about this important period, and it’s evolution of which you continue to play a part in.
«Music and art are not the only things that make my work with China fascinating there is a bigger reward and probably the main focus behind my engagement: China and its people.which has never failed to charm me since my first visit. I find the exchange of arts and people to be very important, in terms of respect and mutual understanding. and without the urge of payback. I believe in people and in direct exchange, also on a small scale. For years, entrepreneurs and western art institutions in China have been repackaging foreign pop culture, selling it to China’s youth and cashing in on their fetish for the foreign. More importantly for me is to share ideas, to experiment, and for artists to create without too much pressure from a profitable output.»
I try to answer from my observations of urban artists in China today: when China’s economic and cultural curtain fell, a completely new world opened up for youth and urban culture. Unlike in the West, which saw the gradual evolution of pop music for more than half a century, Chinese youth was at once confronted with Elvis, the Beatniks, Heavy Metal, electronic music and everything in between. With this very different background and starting point, artists seemed to approach a blank canvas where they painted their idea of culture in the widest range of shapes and colours and in a lively, inspiring and stunning way. What emerged is an original, highly eclectic scene that is vibrant, irreverent, colourful and playful. This young art scene, which is working outside institutional channels and beyond an increasingly commercialized society. Yes, they definitely seem to me ahead of time in China, whereas the vast majority of it’s country does not recognize the huge potential and importance of it’s art culture not only to the country but also in terms of image transfer to the outside world.
Michael VonPlon: Organizer, Cultural Ambassador, Entrepeneur. He has been active in cultural events relative to China and Europe since the mid 1990’s. He is founder of Miro China and China Drifting (Beijing-Zurich). Currently residing in Zurich, CH.