China’s First Female Punk Band Broke Stereotypes

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The punk rock group Hang on the Box.

Credit: Bob Gruen

The punk rock group Hang on the Box.

(WOMENSENEWS)– did not experience the feminist awakening that America and Europe did in the 1960s and 1970s. After Chairman Mao’s pledge that women would hold up half the sky, they started to dress more like men and fill roles previously assigned to men, challenging certain stereotypes, but women did not tackle deep-seated gender bias.

This started to change from the 1980s, when books on gender theory were translated into Chinese and saw its first "wave" of feminist scholarship. Feminism remained within academic borders for the next few decades. Then in the 2000s it gained momentum at a social level. Women started to acquire a voice, and stories began to appear about guerrilla feminism, so to speak – women spontaneously taking action to highlight a certain cause. For example, in the summer of 2012 two women draped in black robes took to the Shanghai subway in protest. They wore placards that read, "I can be flirtatious, but you can’t harass" and "We want to feel cool! We don’t want dirty hands." The photos were a reaction to a sign on Shanghai Metro’s microblog that said, "Girls, please be self-dignified to avoid perverts," the state’s clumsy response to a rise in sexual harassment on the subway.

In recent years, these stories are becoming more frequent and are very encouraging. Even if does not have many groups dedicated to strengthening women, it is no longer lacking individuals fighting for the cause. Amongst the most notorious is Wang Yue or, to use her stage name, Gia, a rock star who could be labelled the Chinese version of Pussy Riot.

Gia‘s story is remarkable and sums up all of the extremes and contradictions of being young and female in . She first encountered fame as the vocalist in the Chinese all-female rock band Hang on the Box (HOTB), which was formed in 1998 when she and her friends were only 15 years old. Gia revels in the accolade of being the front woman of ‘s first all-girl punk group, a remarkable feat in any context, let alone in.

The First Show

In ‘s detailed book on the advent of Chinese rock music, "Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock and Roll," he recounts Wang and band member Yilina’s punk conversion. "Their lives were changed the moment they saw their first show," Campbell writes. "The mohawks, the dyed hair, the sunglasses (inside!); they’d never seen anything like it." Wang told Campbell, "You didn’t know what made [the punks] special but you knew that, in comparison, you were a jackass. [ . . . ] I called Yilina and said, ‘Our entire life before was completely stupid. We need to become like them: our taste in music, our attitude, our lives.’"

The band is a phenomenal success, both within China and beyond. The road has not always been straight and smooth, of course. It featured a first live performance to a chorus of boos and mockery, countless break ups and reconciliations and a constant struggle to secure gigs, record deals and respect.

But HOTB were a sensation. Within just six months of their first live gig, they appeared on the cover of a Chinese edition of Newsweek, serving as poster girls for an entire generation of Chinese youth. In 2004 and 2005, HOTB was nominated for the Best Rock Band gong at the Chinese equivalent of the Grammy Music Awards, the Annual Pepsi Music Awards. They also quickly acquired cult status in Japan and the United States. Unlike most other Chinese rock bands, HOTB have toured in these countries, as well as China and Hong Kong. They have a huge fan base, including celebrities such as Marilyn Manson, and have played at prominent international festivals like South by Southwest.

Carving Out a Voice

Their story is not only significant in terms of Chinese rock music; it is also a story of women carving out a voice in a predominantly patriarchal environment. HOTB have been lauded by critics for politicizing gender through their empowered, femme-forward lyrics. Yellow Banana, their first album, which was released in 2001, featured riot grrrl-esque songs like "Asshole, I’m Not Your Baby," "No Sexy" and "For Some Stupid Cunts at BBS." Early material was littered with swear words, and the girls courted controversy. For example, when they did a photo shoot where they flaunted their underwear, members of the public asked them whether they were running a brothel.

Seeing women embrace their sexuality and speak in a way that was less demure was a first for China and made the band members targets of hate as much as admiration. The image most common for Chinese women at the time – and to this day – is that of the young, wide-eyed beauty from Japanese cartoons, and many Chinese girls infantilize themselves to fit the mold. The markets in China‘s shopping districts have plenty of stores selling clothes to adults that look more as if they are designed for children – dresses in pale blues and pinks with bows and ribbons on. Accompanying this fragile, childlike look is the affected sa jiao, "cute whining," done in the fashion of a demanding child. Gia and her band members are the opposite of that. They wear bold colors, have piercings and tattoos. They speak with attitude and they shock people.

Gia sings about the issues that are important to women. "Kill Your Belly" is reputedly about abortion, for example. It strikes a chord in a population where abortion is rife. And the issues that Gia has been singing about for the past two decades still matter now. Change is coming to Chinese women, but not fast enough, a central irony in a country defined by its bullet-fast change.

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