One a recent Sunday night, Liang Long strutted across the stage of the Marlin Room at Webster Hall, wearing a red floral-print jacket and snug red shorts. The jacket, adorned with dozens of gold tassels, was as majestically fussy as Michael Jackson’s, but with a more playful touch. The flower print, like a vintage wallpaper, was delicate and girlish, a whimsical twist on an otherwise stately look.
Liang Long, the lead singer of one of Beijing’s biggest alternative-rock bands, Second Hand Rose, was on the last stop of his first American tour. Three songs into the set, the group’s guitarist, Yao Lan, ripped into the opening of Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”; his red tutu bounced in time with the beat, and the crowd jumped along with him. The three-hundred-some audience members were almost all young and Chinese, and many were wearing hats decorated in the band’s signature red or green flower print, borrowed from their native region of Dongbei. The “Smooth Criminal” sample gave way to the sounds of heavy metal, and Liang Long began to wail, almost sounding like Gene Simmons of Kiss. The riffs on other songs—everything from hair metal to Peking opera—came and went within seconds, and somehow all came together to sound like nineties alternative rock.
Over the past decade, China’s alternative-rock scene has grown from marginal, with bands playing shows to a hundred Beijing teen-agers, to a near mainstream phenomenon, with festivals attracting more than a hundred thousand people. Liang Long, who grew up in a rural village in Dongbei in the seventies and eighties, first heard Western rock music when a friend returned from Beijing with a Guns N’ Roses videotape. “It was so cool and distinctive,” he told me recently at a lounge in Queens. “It was like they just did whatever they wanted to, and were very free.” He was dressed smartly, in head-to-toe black, and had a polite, thoughtful demeanor at odds with his tongue-in-cheek act.
Liang Long tried to cover Metallica songs, but found the screaming made him lose his voice. He tried to write his own grunge music, with limited success. After trying and failing to make it as a musician in Beijing, he abandoned his attempts to imitate Western rock and returned to Dongbei in the late nineties. There, he began to infuse his music with local sounds and styles, and put together the first incarnation of Second Hand Rose (several band members have since been replaced). Rock music might be “second hand” in China, but that didn’t mean it could only be derivative, or that the band needed to abandon their roots in order to participate in the rock tradition.
Second Hand Rose’s first show was in the third-tier city of Harbin, in Dongbei. Dressed in a cheap sweater, Liang Long quickly applied some lipstick and eyeliner before taking the stage. With so many pretty girls cheering for the other bands, he needed to give himself a more distinctive look. From this unpromising beginning, Second Hand Rose’s popularity grew, and the band members in time came to be known as veterans of alternative rock. Second Hand Rose now headlines major music festivals, and has performed at the prestigious state-run Worker’s Gymnasium in Beijing. In the mean time, Liang Long’s stage appearance developed into full drag—a bald Shanghai glamour girl in qipao and red heels—and then to the half-drag that he sports today. With his shaved head and flashy flower-print outfits, he looks like he’s wearing the retro fashion of the future.
Fifteen years after Second Hand Rose began, is Chinese rock still “second hand”? “It’s no longer escapism or trying not to see the world around you, since Western musical styles are now a part of daily life,” the band’s percussionist, Jeroen Groenewegen-Lau, said. The band’s novelty, more than ever, lies in the tension they create between traditional and Western forms. They run fluid suona melodies alongside heavy-metal guitar riffs; they play an entire song that mimics the comic folk-theater form Errenzhuan, in which a man and a woman exchange foul language and vulgar jokes. As Second Hand Rose has grown in popularity, they have helped to transform country traditions, like their signature red-and-green prints, into signifiers of cool. It’s not unthinkable that inventive Chinese musicians will continue to find new ways to infuse their work with local influences and, in the process, revamp folk-music traditions.
At Webster Hall, the room was packed, and the crowd contained so many new Chinese immigrants that, as a second-generation Chinese person, I felt slightly out of place. Nonetheless, when the Tom Waits-like opening to “Picking A Flower” gave way to its folksy chorus, with Liang Long’s distinctively Chinese croon, I found myself singing along with everyone else; I knew the melody even though I’d heard it just once before. When the song morphed into a Pink Floyd psychedelic space riff, only to devolve into Peking opera instrumentals and, finally, to nineties-style hard rock, the appeal of this bonkers mixture became clear: it’s a tour of the sounds that constitute an urban, internet-savvy, millennial Chinese youth.
When Second Hand Rose performed their Errenzhuan song, and their manager led a conga line through the crowd, I started to see how they might break through in the West. Liang Long’s earnestness as he played the Errenzhuan was entertainingly outrageous, and his subtle mockery of Chinese authority—the costume, the military salutes, the occasional allusions to Communist-era songs—betrayed a real irreverence. Liang Long flew all over the stage, doing a sort of pas de deux with Yao Lan, and they emanated something that can only be experienced firsthand: the raucous joy that’s fundamental to rock and roll.