China Nights: Charity, Punk Rock and a Birthday to Remember

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2:00 AM HKT, Sun June 18, 2017 4 mins read

Pictured: the author

I’ve got a China story to tell. It involves luck, chance, AIDS prevention education for Chinese Youth, chain-smoking Single’s Day revelers, punk rock and a decent 29th birthday party.

Like most good stories it starts with me in my parent’s basement procrastinating on Facebook trying to delay for another few minutes becoming an adult. I had three browser tabs open, two job boards and my newsfeed. Scrolling down I came across an old high school friend’s post. She was teaching in China. Her company was hiring foreign teachers. I messaged her. A day later I was Skyping with her boss. A day after that I was preparing to move to Beijing to teach English.

Fast-forward a year and I’m sitting in my 20th-story bedroom in the northwest corner of Beijing contemplating an entirely new phenomena: disposable income. For the first time in my adult life I had money to spend. Not a lot, but some. What to do? What to do? I’d promised myself if that fateful day ever happened I’d donate a portion of my income to charity. Still, something about that seemed limp to me. A few pennies in a bucket seemed futile in the grand picture. I wanted to make an impact, not a dent; or maybe I was back-peddling on my idealism. The question haunted me: how could I get the best value for my money? What organizations should I support? Where would my renminbi go furthest? Cynicism hugged me.

Then an idea hit. For years I’d spent my weekends hanging in the back of my musician friend’s shows. I thought that many charity organizations needed awareness and social support as much as they needed money. Real change took real connection, real events… what if I spent the money to organize a concert that could raise even more money than I spent? It was like an investment with no losers; plus there’d be a good concert, which is great. Win-win-win!

Emboldened, I created a WeChat group and invited the musicians, movers and shakers I trusted could make things happen. I pitched the idea of a huge music festival. Everyone agreed red tape would strangle the idea. Ryan, a talented musician, pitched the idea of a series of concerts and events across multiple venues. Sophie, a branding genius, came up with the name “Giving a Beat.” Dennis, a freelance Russian illustrator, drew up a logo. Ryan put me in touch with JP, another talented musician, in the process of organizing a charity concert at Yugong Yishan, the holy grail of Beijing venues. He’d never done anything like it before, neither had I, we clicked on the idea and were game to try. He looped me in with a number of bands that supported the idea. He had build a relationship with Bethel China, an amazing organization founded by two expat musicians, which works with blind or visually impaired orphans. They provide care, education and life-changing services. Check them out. They’re awesome. The first show was in July and it was all in all a success.

Summer came and I left China for the US. When I landed back in Beijing I got in touch with JP and Steven, a local star and the lead singer of Steven & the Mac Daddies, about Giving a Beat. Steven organized a Christmas show and the proceeds were split with Bethel China and Agape Life House, a foster home for orphans with physical disabilities. (Side note: Agape Life House runs a wonderful bakery to support the organization.) The second show was smoother than the first. One high school class enthusiastically raised 4,000 RMB for the event. I got to hold a big check. I was learning more and more about charities in China and meeting inspiring people living in Beijing. Things were good.

It was time to raise the bar. It was time to attempt the impossible: a Temple Bar charity show. Charity concerts are common in Beijing, Giving a Beat didn’t invent the idea, but it was widely known in the music community that Temple doesn’t do charity shows. A challenge. I knew if it was going to work I needed the right cause. Through a translating gig I got connected to a big league organization, APEPCY, Aids Prevention & Education Project for the Youth of China, “Leading the Revolution of Philanthropic Organizations.” I pitched them the Giving a Beat model. They invited me to their office, an apartment converted into a bustling headquarters. I couldn’t believe they agreed to listen to me. I was talking about raising a few thousand RMB. They were raising hundreds of thousand of RMB through Tencent Giving on their WeChat platform. They had a budget of millions. They must have thought I was crazy. For 10 years they’d been changing the landscape of AIDS education across China. They were endorsed by the government, well staffed, well organized. This little Giving A Beat anecdote is a nothing compared with their story, which we’ll save for another time. Despite everything, they agreed to the show, and with their support I pitched the booker for Temple.

I could write about her thin back and the way her shoulder blades poked and stretched her skin and that coy, busy smile between small lips. Twelve men must fall in love with her a night. I could write about the men on the older side dressed like a Hell’s Angels JV squad making jokes at the bar, and my motor-mouthed diatribe on the necessity of rebellious art in an age of corporate politeness. I could write about throwing NGO brochures at Temple’s creative staff whom I cornered in the backroom, using the most of my powers of persuasion to say, These guys, yeah these APEPCY folk, they are the ones that are gonna make it. I could write about the lurching of the dancers and the shriek shriek anger-energy of the Chinese punk band. I could write about how they tore their shirts off and got on the table and flung their hair around honoring the gods of ’80s stadium hair metal and the demigods of ’70s London punk club gutter trash / fuck the queen / noise-music-fuck-it / we-all-die-simultaneous. Whatever happened, they agreed to let us set up a donation stand at the door (it was my birthday) and to give us the microphone for 10 minutes.

On the date of the show, 11/11, Singles Day, APEPCY volunteers showed up with red ribbons, a QR code and brochures. We set up shop in the corner and crossed our fingers. To this day I don’t know if the evening was a success or a massive failure. The Chinese bands seemed curious and grudgingly supportive of the idea. Before 1 a.m. concertgoers seemed genuinely interested. Sixty percent of the them threw a few RMB our way and got a red ribbon. Later in the night things got a bit sloppy. A drunken reveler almost knocked over the APEPCY representative as she told the story of the life-changing work their organization had done.

We didn’t raise much money. Still, it happened. Who knows? Maybe the butterfly effect will kick in. All in all it was one of my better birthday parties.

POSTSCRIPT: Giving a Beat is now an annual event. For those in Beijing, here’s the details for this year’s charity concert:

China Nights is a weekly series. If you have a story you’d like to share, please get in touch: [email protected]

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Frustrated? Maybe stop l