WATCH: Stories Behind Dakou, China’s Semi-Illegal ’90s Music Imports

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3:50 PM HKT, Wed November 15, 2017 1 mins read

If you talk to any Beijing rock fan born between 1970 and 1990, especially those coming from the Xinjiekou neighborhood near the city center, you’ll very likely come across the term dakou, which translates to “saw-gash.” Now we can take a deeper dive into this underground music culture and sunset industry via a documentary currently making the rounds on WeChat.

While imported foreign music was strictly controlled in China back in the ’90s, millions of unsold records were abandoned by music companies throughout the US and Europe at the time, due to the high price of collection and storage. A great portion of these records — at first cassette tapes, and later CDs — were imported into China, sawed or cut at Customs, and treated as “foreign plastic trash,” says Wang Yue in the documentary. Wang is the vocalist of Hang on the Box, one of first punk bands from China, whose photo was on the cover of Newsweek back in 1999. In this dakou documentary, she speaks to the influence these illicitly imported disks had on her own career.

Wang Yue — aka Gia Wang — of Hang on the Box

But no one could have guessed that this “trash” would be reborn in China, treasured by music fans for their affordable price and their fairly listenable quality. A lot of Chinese music fans who used to listen to as many dakou cassettes/CDs as they could find, including Wang Yue, are today leading musicians, top music critics, professors in music academies, or simply people who still are passionate and loyal to their own musical upbringing.

The shiploads of dakou that arrived in China in the ’90s and beyond turned into a grey-industry chain, subtly cultivating Chinese fans’ musical tastes. Ironically, the West had no about this discarded music entering Chinese culture. In fact, the British Phonographic Institution and Association of Independent Music even invested significant manpower and resources into studying how to enter China’s music market. They were not aware that massive quantities of dakou have been circulating throughout China for decades.

Thanks to dakou, this music “will always have an essential position in Chinese music history,” according to the mini-documentary.

H/T for the buried YouTube find

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