(Header Photo: L-R: Qingqing青青 drums, Xiaohan小韩 vocal, Xiaoniao小鸟 guitar, Huanzi欢子bass)
By Ceridwen Brown
In this diary series, British drummer Ceridwen Brown shares her life in the girl-heavy haven of the Chinese underground music scene. Be sure to check out Part 1.1, Part 1.2, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.1 and Part 4.2
Headliners of the Beijing China Grrrl shows are Qingdao based band Dummy Toys. Describing themselves simply as Old School, the first I hear of them is a song they send over for the bandcamp playlist. It borrows a line from a Green Day song of the same name and is not a million miles away stylistically from that kind of well-cooked catchy power punk. It’s driven and fun and I can’t get it out of my damn head. I hear their drummer Qingqing is killer and can’t wait to see her live. The band tends to not play outside their home city; where they live a domestic yet committedly punk-rock-family lifestyle, 3 out of 4 members being mums – toddlers in tow at rehearsals and venues. And while appearance needn’t come with the territory, Dummy Toys couldn’t look more the part; a contemporary take on the ‘old school’ 70s punk look that teenagers of every generation since have dumbfounded their parents with.
When Casey and I meet them in their hostel the day before the show, they are no more casual with their style. Three scales of fishnet stockings, day-glow hair, no surface left unchained or unstudded… “You guys look amazing; do you seriously dress like this every day?” The answer is yes.
How did Dummy Toys get together and what’s with the name?
Xiaoniao小鸟: Actually there’s no big story behind the name; we just picked one we liked amongst others. We listed random ideas then just chose an easy one. Huanzi and I grew up together as classmates and used to have a band a long time ago when we were in high school. I played guitar, she played bass and sang, and another girl played drums. I actually don’t really like playing guitar so I switched to drums when I moved to Shanghai to study; I didn’t play drums well either (laughing). We started Dummy Toys with me on bass, which I love, in 2015 when I moved back to Qingdao.
Qingqing青青: I’ve had many bands before and currently have another grunge band with my husband but Dummy Toys is my very precious girl band.
What’s your music about?
Qingqing青青: It’s about the daily matters of women; happy and blessed things, sad and desperate things. It’s about human emotion.
Xiaoniao小鸟: Our lyrics are what we think about life. We write about what we are doing at that moment.
Huanzi欢子: We recently had to replace our lead vocalist – the former’s English was very good and she felt that English lyrics were easier to write. We all feel Chinese lyrics are harder, reatively speaking. We’ll have an idea for a song but then express it with English. Most English words only have one meaning, wheras in Chinese it’s more complex. You have to consider the wording and phrasing much more.
How did you first get into alternative music and begin playing your own?
Huanzi欢子: I started listening to rock songs in middle school; some of it was old Chinese rock music like Hei Bao , Tang Chao and Mo Yan San Jie (Dou Wei, He Yong, Zhang Chu). I got into punk by learning to cover Bored Army songs. I found them very exciting. Hang On the Box, who are 4 girls, were really popular at that time too.
Xiaoniao小鸟: At that same age I went into a music shop and the people there gave me a Metallica tape. It was “Kill ‘Em All”. I listened at home and thought it was pretty good. Next time I was there I asked for something similar and they gave me Nirvana. I didn’t find the two bands particularly different sounding at that point – they both seemed so heavy to me. I started skipping class to go to the music shop and just listened to whatever they gave me.
Qingqing青青: I was still a teenager in Jinan when I first heard this kind of music. I was pretty shocked… I fell into it immediately. First normal rock, metal and punk, then more experimental music. I’ve always found this restless style very liberating.
Who influenced you as you started your own bands and what do you listen to now?
Xiaoniao小鸟: The Japanese band Thug Murder had quite a big influence on me. Also street punk music in general was always my favourite. The band Monster Squad surprise me every time I listen to them. For Chinese bands, of course Demerit are hugley influential. My favourite song of theirs is Yi Ya Huan Ya, 以牙还牙 (revenge my justice) which is new. They’ve been around for so long and are still writing great material.
Huanzi欢子：Yeah, I really like some Japanese female bands like Shaoniandao, Lolita and No.18. Also the old riot Grrrl bands – we like Bikini Kill. These days I listen to a much wider range or music though; more indie.
Xiaohan小韩: I actually hadn’t listened to a lot of punk before I joined Dummy Toys. I like beautiful melodies. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were my biggest early influences. My favourite band in China is Qingqing’s grunge band SickFungo四线方格
Qingqing青青: All of us practice together every day.
Xiaoniao小鸟: And Qingdao [city], is getting better and better; it’s prospering every day. When we first started Dummy Toys, Qingdao didn’t have many alternative bands but they are growing in numbers. Our two venues Downtown and DMC have made a great contribution, giving the bands somewhere to play. Now so many people come out even on New Year’s Eve (think Christmas day) for shows.
Huanzi欢子: I returned after several years living in Beijing. Downtown has really brought up the vibe of underground music; local and overseas bands play there often. It’ has created an environment for underground music to exist in the city.
Do you feel political factors impact the underground scene?
Xiaohan小韩: The most impactful thing is the tattoo ban lately as tattoos can be easily connected to rock music and subculture. I think it’s quite silly that all the members with tattoos need to wrap themselves up like mummies with this tattoo ban now.
Qingqing why did you choose the drums?
Qingqing青青: I couldn’t sing and was just crazy about playing drums. I’ve loved them from the very beginning. It felt so cool the moment I tried them, that’s how I became a drummer. I’m actually very open to any music when I play drums; it works as long as it’s fun.
Is your music and lifestyle perceived as rebellious or edgy? What do your parents think of it and have they ever watched you perform?
Xiaoniao小鸟: Actually for us, it’s just a hobby – we love to play music. It’s not a way to show rebellion, but a way to make us happy. My parents don’t like it for sure, but they haven’t seen my shows, none of ours have. Even if they don’t like it, mine kind of accept it now as I have liked this for years and years.
Huanzi欢子: I feel our parents especially don’t understand this now because we aren’t young anymore. We have our own children now. We know puberty is long gone, as is that need to feel rebellious, but we are the way we are. We still like to live like this. I don’t want to have a regular life; I choose to have a more free life. We choose to be different from others for sure. It’s also part of what we enjoy about it.
How do you manage your young families and your music?
Qingqing青青: My little girl, my husband and my music are all together so there’s no conflict. Our daughter follows us to shows and has watched me since she was very young. She would pogo and sleep at the show. She was very happy to have lots of people playing with her and she’s still very happy to come now. My husband supports me too as he’s also a musician. We love this lifestyle and don’t feel tired at all. This is what I want.
Xiaoniao小鸟: There was no impact at all during my pregnancy, I have consulted with doctors and they said I could keep playing until I gave birth so I did. I’d want to go home right after the shows to be with my baby, so it changed a little for me in that way but it’s really fine. I’m also lucky to have a husband that supports me. It would be very difficult if you have fights over it at home.
Huanzi欢子: My kid is almost two now but my husband and I have been together for 10 years and have always been in the same musical circles so it didn’t impact our lifestyle really. In China its very common that your own parents live with you and help you raise the child; which has meant we can both keep playing and working in the evenings. We feel guilty about it sometimes as the baby is still so little and needs to be with me a lot. Our generation can have a second child if we want but I think the pressure would be bigger….one is good for now!
Qingqing青青: I’ve raised my daughter myself without help from my parents. I have given my energy and also received lots of happiness. It’s nice. I have tried my best and I have no regrets at all. She’s so fun and she takes care of people. I’m missing her now as I didn’t bring her this time. Xiao Tu already has the wish to become a lead vocalist…I’d never force it, but I think she will want to play when she is older.
Do you have day jobs and do you aspire to make a living from your music?
Xiaoniao小鸟: I personally don’t really aspire to that. I feel there would be several factors involved if it were to make money. I just want it to make me happy. I work in a beauty salon and Qing Qing is a tattoo artist. Xiaohan makes hand crafted jewelry.
Huanzi欢子: We go with the flow. I don’t expect the band to make money but I wouldn’t reject it if there were a chance it could happen. There aren’t many full time bands in China who exclusively do this to make a living. I feel it’s very hard to do that here.
Qingqing青青: We quite enjoy the fact that our scene is underground. I feel it will remain the same for a socialist state. It’s hard to tell the future.
Huanzi欢子: The internet plays a strong role right now and young people have so many options; they might not think rock music is cool anymore. For us at that age is was amazing, we downloaded anything we could find; (laughing) we were looking for something spiritual. Now young people here don’t seem to really relate to any one thing; they have endless choices of entertainment and it’s all more related to appearance now.
Have you encountered any situations where you felt you were being judged or challenged as a female player?
Xiaoniao小鸟: I do feel female players are given attention, but always from a supportive standpoint. I’ve never received any negativity or confrontation myself. And I think the attention is because it’s still less common. If 5 out of 10 players were female it wouldn’t be that way. I do put pressure on myself personally; worrying that people feel I’m only doing this because I am in a ‘girl band.’This idea really bothers me actually, I wish I could know we’re judged on our music with no consideration of gender. We are a good band and that’s way better than being a good ‘girl band’ to me.
Qingqing青青: I think I can be a better drummer than boys… there is no difference. My drummer friends give suggestions for sure but never criticism. I do feel for other female musicians and think we should work hard. We can’t lose to others just because we are a minority. Everyone needs to be hardworking. We watched Xiao Wang at a show, which made me feel really good. I like them a lot. The lead singer from Subs is my good friend too, I like her very much.
Done with my scripted questions, Xiao Xiao, who is leading the interview for us, asks if we’ve got anything extra to ask to which Casey replies “Do they have groupies?”; Xiao Xiao laughs and asks something we can’t understand – to which Dummy Toys look slightly horrified. Upon listening back with the translated transcript, I realize the question has been skewed into “Were you guys ever groupies?”
Huanzi欢子: Definitely not! Our relationships are very solid; me, Xiaoniao and Qingqing have only ever had one relationship…..so we don’t have this bother!
Qingqing青青: But we know a lot… you will see it as long as you are in this scene.
Xiaoniao小鸟: I’m quite old-fashioned on this subject.
Huanzi欢子: I never wanted to do that kind of thing either, but I was very cautious and now the young people – not only in the music scene, but the bigger environment – like to use these hookup apps. For people who like music, I guess they’d rather get people from the same scene as them, and of course they want band members. I won’t judge them differently as long as they are both willing to do it. I feel China is going through a time of freeing sex. People like us are too traditional and boring, but the next generation might have more open minds. I certainly don’t support promiscuity, but you can’t really do anything if the girls are into those players. Maybe it’s because of my age now that I can put myself into others’ positions and become more understanding of that mindset.
We leave Dummy Toys and Demerit’s infamous singer Spike (whose train ticket I am still not quite sure why I’ve paid for) to chill for the afternoon in the glorious spring sunshine. We bid our goodbyes and wander off to get stereotypically lost for a couple of Shanghai-ees in the Beijing hutong labyrinth. We settle in a dumpling shop and wait to be rescued.
The next morning the sunshine has been replaced by rain, rain and more rain. We paddle to the venue for 1pm; cameras, laptops, mics and band gear beneath umbrellas. We seek refuge in a ‘cream puff’ café between a high-end vegan restaurant and a vampire-themed bar to wait again….Beijing is weird. By 2pm someone arrives to let us in and by 2.30 we have people to interview. There’s a lot to fit in but somehow it gets done.
As the grey day turns to night we head downstairs to watch Dummy Toys begin a lengthy sound check. I wonder whether it’s always like this when they sound check or perhaps it’s a little for my benefit. Either way they blow the roof off the place and, under scrutiny, deliver the same exhaustive energy they’ll be bringing again in 4 hours time; Qingqing is a machine.
A good crowd has amassed by the time Ugly Girls play, but midway through Dummy Toys’ headline set a steady flow of another 100 or more come trickling in, packing the space to its breaking point. Our show is being gatecrashed by German rockstars Die Toten Hosen who have come straight from headlining a massive gig. Their army of fans continue to arrive as Dummy Toys play out to a massive crowd they deserve.
You can hear more Dummy Toys here at the CHINA GRRL bandcamp page. The compilation is a work in progress and will be available to purchase in full in the future.
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