Rebel girls

Society & Culture

The rise of female punk bands in China

Beijing-based punk band Pizza Face / Photographer: 鳄鱼拍不拍

This article was originally published on Neocha and is republished with permission.

Living too “punk” is always risky. In China, it might be an even greater risk, as the mainly black-haired, homogeneous society isn’t exactly known for being welcoming to the attitudes and aesthetics that define punk culture. Pink, six-inch hair spikes and studded jackets aren’t digestible for most in the country. Chinese parents often have particular hopes for their children, and any deviation from their expectations means disappointment.

Despite these adversities, punk bands have kept on in China. Within the underground punk scene, female punkers remain somewhat of a rarity. Though they may be hard to find, they exist. It’s encouraging to see their presence, but it’s clear that if punk wants to find a stronger foothold in China, women will need to play a larger role in its evolution. In Western countries, the role of females in punk has been a constant: bands like Bikini Kill, L7, Blondie, and The Distillers have elevated the genre to greater heights. Looking at China’s neighboring countries, such as Japan, where punk arrived much earlier, female groups like OXZ were challenging gender stereotypes as early as 1981. China’s female punk revolution has been more recent in comparison, but its development has been rapid.

A photo taken at Qingdao’s DMC
A photo taken at School in Beijing / Photographer: 阿谭女士

Women-run venues in China have been key to the scene’s development in the country. These spaces include Inferno in Shanghai, DAFA Club in Tianjin, Prison in Wuhan, and DMC in Qingdao—but as the scene grows, the new generation of female punkers will need role models they can look up to. While these women who work behind the scenes are integral, the ascent of more female-fronted and all-female punk bands will be equally important.

China’s first all-women punk band is Hang On The Box. Formed in 1998, after 20 years when China was beginning to open itself to the outside world, the band could in some ways be considered the Chinese version of Pussy Riot. While they haven’t gone to the extremes that Pussy Riot did in Russia, HOTB were pioneers in the country, with many bands and musicians following in their footsteps. They showed countless Chinese women that it was perfectly fine to express themselves in ways that deviate from cultural norms. Their impact was enormous. Within just six months of their first live gig, they appeared on the cover of the Chinese Newsweek, serving as poster girls for an entire generation of Chinese youth. Despite this momentum, a lack of further mainstream recognition forced HOTB to eventually sign with a Japanese label.

A photo of Hang on the Box band members circa 1999
A photo of Hang on the Box band members circa 1999
A photo of Hang on the Box band members circa 1999

Punk as a genre has evolved into offshoot subgenres like post-punk—a similar trajectory was followed by Chinese punk rockers. Beijing’s SUBS are not punk in the strictest sense, but their attitude and street-wise nature can only be described as punk rock. Their DIY methods are a fixture of punk culture, and SUBS have made a name for themselves as China’s longest-running art-punk idols, having been entirely independent for their ten-plus year tenure as a band.

Fronted by Kang Mao, the self-appointed Queen of Fucking Everything (also the name of their 2010 album), whose stage presence is as chic as former Crystal Castles vocalist Alice Glass, SUBS’ screaming garage-punk is one of the most coveted live experiences one can have in the country. Just as an artist evolves through the years experimenting with different mediums, the art-punk sound of SUBS has also: their latest full-length album, yoU aRe yoU, experiments with new wave, post-punk, psych, and electronic.

Kang Mao, the frontwoman of SUBS / Photographer: Laurent Hou
Kang Mao, the frontwoman of SUBS / Image Courtesy of SUBS
Beijing-based art punkers SUBS / Photographer: 韩浊一

Building upon the art-punk recipe that SUBS started, Beijing’s Pizza Face combines a street-punk aesthetic with an unhinged stage presence that results in chaotic shows. Established in 2018 by vocalist Spirit, drummer A-ze, guitarist Fengzi, and bass player A-Fan, they keep the frantic tempo of punk rock but blend in melodic touches and exotic textures resulting in a sound that teeters between sweet and grating. “I always wanted to find a way to be against things out of my logic since I was little,” says Spirit, who cites The Clash, Rancid, and Brody Dalle as some of her influences. ”Regarding the Pizza Face experience, we are more like an animated film with a punk soundtrack.”

Just as a pizza can be host to any toppings you like, Pizza Face comes in many “flavors.” Their shows are the epitome of unfiltered expression. When Spirit and company play a venue, it becomes their kingdom for time that they are on stage. A set ranges from mouth-full-of-pizza-style-screaming songs to moody mid-tempo pieces perfect for writhing around on the floor to. Their shows prove that unpredictability is still one of the greatest assets of punk music. At one performance, after climbing the speakers, frontwoman Spirit was given a rose by a concert attendee, which she promptly chewed up and swallowed.

Beijing-based punk band Pizza Face / Photographer: 鳄鱼拍不拍

Aside from the music itself, punk fashion remains elusive in China, of either gender. While the younger generation has become more willing to dress in bolder, unconventional ways, the Middle Kingdom is still a largely conservative society, and the conspicuous nature of punk fashion often still garners double-takes and raised brows on the street. While Hang on the Box set a precedent for female punk bands in China, their look still remained somewhat modest.

Dummy Toys / Photographer: Kbbbbb-
Dummy Toys / Photographer: Kbbbbb-
Dummy Toys / Photographer: Kbbbbb-

However, spiked hair, leather boots, studs, and piercings are what Qingdao’s Dummy Toys are all about. They have taken the punk aesthetic to its purest form, representing a contemporary take on the old-school 70s punk look. Their attitude is equally punk, unafraid of flipping off anyone who judges their lifestyle. Only teenagers when Hang On The Box was at the height of their popularity, Dummy Toys’ members say they were influenced by them but give equal credit to non-female bands in the country as well, such as Demerit, of which drummer Qingqing’s husband plays in.

Their acidic anthem, “Street Punk Girls,” from their Not A Puppet album encapsulates their look and desire to be free from a mundane, homogenized existence. The music video for the song shows a girl bored with her normal life, and in a not-so-subtle display of how one might break out of monotony, she spikes her hair, throws on a pair of Doc Martens, and skateboards to a Dummy Toys’ concert.

The song “Not a Puppet,” the title track from their debut LP, further emphasizes their philosophy of carving out one’s own lane. The notion of being a puppet on a string is a metaphor many bands have used in the past, the most famous being Metallica with their Master of Puppets album. “We don’t want to be puppets of anyone or anything, and we don’t want to be restrained,” says guitarist Xiaoniao. “The education we have received from childhood teaches us about a lot of so-called norms in society. We don’t want to be what others want; we still want to be ourselves.”

When asked if their appearance has caused any trouble for them, Xiaoniao says, “I’ve heard that some people think it’s a bit strange, but it’s not a big problem. We don’t want to force them to accept us, and we will not change ourselves because of them.”

The band has been key in nourishing the punk scene in Qingdao, running the DMC (Dirty Monster Club) bar, which has been putting on larger and larger punk events over the past few years.

Huanzi says, “We think Qingdao’s musical atmosphere is better than in previous years. It’s not just punk music. Everyone is willing to come to watch the show, but most people don’t necessarily have a fixed musical style or preference.”

At a Dummy Toy show, children may sometimes even be seen catching the show from backstage. These are the kids of the members themselves, and while they’re delighted that their children can see what they do, they have no intentions of molding them into images themselves. “What children like is their own thing,” Xiaoniao says. “It doesn’t matter whether they enter the punk world or not. In fact, we think children should be rebellious by nature. Most of them don’t like the same things as their parents.”

They understandably also have zero interest in being defined by their gender. The band only wants to keep making great punk music and isn’t interested in focusing on the band members’ gender. Pizza Face’s Spirit echoes the same sentiment, ”I’d prefer the focus to be on the personality inside the music and the fun we can offer, and hopefully encourage listeners to re-examine their outlooks.”

Dummy Toys / Photographer: Elsa Bouillot
Dummy Toys / Photographer: Elsa Bouillot

From Hang on the Box to Dummy Toys, the growing female presence in the punk-rock scene shows no sign of slowing down. Punk, like any other form of music, is always evolving, and no band is in its final form. A new generation of female artists influenced by the Chinese punk idols of the last 20 years are already emerging; they include Xiao Wang, a feisty and somewhat self-deprecating group who identify themselves as kawaiicore punk, and Free Sex Shop, a group that’s been a staple act at Beijing’s famous punk hangout, School Bar.

It is not just the punk subculture that has become a breeding ground for these current and future generations of musically inclined women in China. Rock and metal genres have been equally inclusive to women in China. At those same bars hosting punk bands like Dummy Toys or Pizza Face, it’s not uncommon to see other bands with female members. Take Tianjin’s Angel Monoplane for example, a symphonic metal band featuring a female singer who’s wheelchair-bound. Additionally, Silent Elegy is another band with a talented, operatic female vocalist. Though these bands would be the first to tell you that females being in the group are purely incidental. China is now a place where females can freely and openly create many forms of art without much judgment from their peers, and while the style of bands like Dummy Toys may be unique, it would make heads turn like back when Hang on the Box first started.

Times and attitudes are changing, and what seems bold and expressive now could very well be the norm in ten years. Time will tell who the next girl inspired by these bands will be to pick up her guitar and to put that strife to artistic use. Not long from now, in that crowd of black hair, half of the heads could very well be rainbow-colored.






Contributor: Ryan Dyer

Chinese Translation: Olivia Li