Special Feature: Homework and Power Chords – Tales of High School Rockers


High School is a bitch. Plain and simple. Especially in China. Tutoring for four years has pretty much settled that I would never want my child placed in the educational system here. Cause when your students begin sounding like middle-aged pencil pushers you know something is up. It\’s cutthroat, competitive, and kids will do just about anything to get a leg up. So when I met Coraline (Xirui Xu), a seventeen year old girl who had contacted me through LBM about an upcoming show, I was expecting to find yet another disgruntled high school student, who had either given up all hope or was void of all personality, spare a extensive knowledge of formulas, vocab, and chinese poetry. And word to the wise, never meet a high school girl at a bar – can’t tell you the number of dirty looks I got. And what I found was someone who had submersed herself in music and more importantly in making it. Coraline is part of a league of other high school bands across Beijing that have taken up creating music as an alternative to doing community service, taking extra math classes, or taking part in spelling bee competitions. The following week I found myself at a tiny little practice space off of Andingmen where I would get to meet several young and aspiring bands who will play this Saturday at Mao Livehouse as part of a High School Band Music Festival. Here are their stories…


The Veterans – Finger Family

Ironically enough (in the Alanis Morris sense) my first festival experience began with Finger Family, the lively, cute yet stern pop punk outfit fronted by power girl Jojo, who recalls the moment vividly – “I still think that was our best show ever…it was the first time we played at MIDI…opening on the second largest stage, so we were under a lot of pressure. But our fans were so supportive”. And though Finger Family has grown up and graduated (from high school at least) they are still very much representative of a young, eager band who got their start winning over fellow high school students. Drummer and guitarist, Domo and CC, were busy idling their time listening to Sum 41 and Metallica, when they formed a punk band at high school over six years ago. Playing covers of popular punk bands with instruments provided by the school, they soon became quite the idols – so much they were eventually caught by their teacher bringing girls into the rehearsal rooms, putting an end to their musical careers behind school doors. It was soon after that Jojo, an anime fanatic, obsessed with playing beat for beat the theme songs from her favorite anime series, found the two through the internet – thus forming Finger Family. Cut to six years later and the band is still cutting tracks, opening for big names like Simple Plan, and getting gigs whenever they can. “We don’t get much money, but we can live. It’s enough” states Jojo. Besides playing in a band, Domo and CC give drum and guitar lessons to kindergarten students of wealthy families looking to give their kids an early start. Though getting through high school graduation is nothing compared to what awaits them after college, I’m willing to say they’ll be just fine.


Rock and Roll Heroes – Watermelon Can

Apart of being in a band is seeing where your limitations lie – or not – according to Watermelon Can, the trio behind the pop punk band who have gone above and beyond in the pursuit of making a name for themselves as well as bringing other high school bands into the fold. The band was formed in the last year of junior high by Xiangrui Kong, who looks like he’s been haunting around Gulou for years already. Why? Merely as an excuse to join their annual school festival. And like other young kids picking up instruments at their age, the prospects of taking the gaokao and getting into a top tier chinese university was already out of the question. Instead, they were being molded to head aboard after high school, leaving them with liberal amounts of time to rehearse and book shows, while also allowing Xiangrui to take over as head of the high school league of bands – a loose union comprised of several bands across over twenty Beijing high schools. ‘It’s this little circle where we know each other, can contact each other, and we want to broaden it,” Xiangrui firmly states. The first show organized by Xiangrui had Brain Failure headlining – of course Watermelon Can opened. “That was a really big moment” declares Xiangrui. “We were playing, and the drummer of Brain Failure, Xu Lin, said ‘Wow, that’s a really cool band, they tell me they’re from high school. I don’t believe it.’” Parents were a different story. Lewd lyrics alone, Xiangrui and drummer, Yingze Wang’s parents were ‘old school’ and like many other parents couldn’t quite get behind rock and roll as a hobby. “I don’t want to hear my parents (say) ‘My son is there, oh cool’ and then the next word is cào nǐ mā.” (translation: fuck your mother). Nevertheless, it’s clear Yingze and Xiangrui have a lot more leeway with their parents compared to others. Besides playing at both MIDI and Strawberry, Watermelon Can are one of the first high school bands to facilitate their own tour across China. Which is damn impressive considering the number of respected bands here who can’t muster the energy to step outside the third ring road. Five cities, including Wuhan, Xian, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Shanghai – drinking till three in the morning only to jump on a train to head to their next gig – “Tired and happy,” Yingze recalls with a weary grin. And if looming SATs and college applications weren’t scary enough, the band is already planning round two next summer, as well as the possibility of a North American tour, considering most the band members will be spread out across the USA. Now that takes passion.


The Classically Trained – Alkalic Weed

Yuanzhi Wang recalls when his parents called him from Workers Stadium – “I was busy doing homework, so much homework and my father called me – ‘We’re at the concert listening to Dylan singing’. And it could hear his hoarse voice from the phone.” It was heartbreaking to a then fourteen-year-old Yuanzhi, who was a huge fan of the artist and the accompanying folk movement of the 60s and 70s. He had meet Coraline at Beijing High School No. 2 where the two shared their love of folk and classic rock before Coraline came up with the bright idea of starting a band. Soon after she recruited Yunmeng Chen, their singer as well as a drummer with a taste for R&B, and the four of them began rehearsing under the name Alkalic Weed. “We were living under so much pressure. So joining a band was a nice way to express ourselves. It’s very simple,” Coraline explains. And though its members had been brought up on more traditional instruments – Yuanzhi on the chinese flute, Coraline on the piano, and Yunmeng with Chinese opera singing – they were more than ready to explore new ground. So they convinced their school officials to let them form a club, give them access to the school’s rehearsal room and BAM! – they had themselves a free rehearsal space. While that hurdle proved easy, many more lied ahead – teachers who are insistent they allocate more time to their studies, traditional parents who aren’t convinced music isn’t a means to an end, and interestingly enough, as Coraline notes, an onslaught of musical influences and inspiration. “Some (bands) play hard rock really crazily, some play folk music where they’ll just forget the words…so I was confused a little as to what kind of music am I.” Wide-eyed and enthusiastic, Yuanzhi, sounding very much like a young adult with an acute sense of history explains further – “Its’ hard for us to write something like Cui Jian did in the 1980s and 1990s…when it comes to us, we grew up in nice conditions and did not experience a lot. No revolution in our society. No change.” So where exactly does the inspiration come from. “From life”, Coraline exclaims, letting the word linger for a moment before recalling being affected by the death or her horse or the nervousness of dancing with a boy – it’s these little moments which the bands use as a starting point. The band will inevitably separate as some prepare to go aboard, but in many ways this just seems like a natural progression to Alkalic Weed, who are already looking forward to being finding inspiration elsewhere.


The Accidental Band – Bomb and Stone

Bomb and Stone are the Frankenstein creation of their schools’ need to fill a vacancy. Or at least that’s how drummer Xirou Wangxin explains it – “It was a condition for our school for each class to have a band.” Guitarist Kanjia Jin adds, “The teacher will choose a captain who’ll then choose the rest of the members.” So auditions were held, students were picked and the band was formed. Under the teacher’s supervision the students were tasked to perform songs for the underclassmen – songs the teacher wrote for their middle school students’ entrance exam – “to encourage them’ Kanjia sarcastically laughs, “the song was very stupid actually”. Soon after however, the band began meeting on their own, rehearsing their own material – so much, in fact, that the teacher didn’t even bother contacting them anymore, except for when the band was needed to perform at their student festival once a year. Again, Kanjia points out their teachers’ narrow-minded sensibilities – “He’s a traditional chinese music teacher so he can’t obviously accept what hard rock is”. And though both Xirou and Kanjia don’t consider what they play hard rock – “we are a lot more quiet than those bands,” adds Xirou – it’s clear they are reaching for a big sound. The band has two singers in addition to four instrumentalists. And while the show at Mao Livehouse will be their last, with most of the members preparing for the gaokao, it’s clear Xirou, who notes that all the boys still can’t believe she can play the drums, has been bitten by the music bug. And even with the looming burden that is the gaokao, and being a teenage girl in general, it’s clear she’ll be back for more. “I think they are more and more people expressing themselves through music…at least for me, I’ll definitely continue playing music after the gaokao.”


After years of listening to kids weep and mood about the week that lies ahead of them, it was inspiring to hear of kids giving immersing themselves in music. And though most of these students will have to buckle down over the next year as gaokaos, SATs, and truckloads of homework piles up the fact remains that these kids are giving it a shot and making the best of high school lives.



A week later one of my past students contacted me out of the blue – I had known Troy since 2008 when he was just nine years old. Clever little kid. Could engage with you in just about any subject – politics, science, literature, philosophy – to the point where I’d have to stop him from jumping too far down the rabbit hole. He eventually become so bogged down in his studies we stopped seeing each other on a regular basis. So when his parents invited me out to dinner to catch up I was delighted. And then he popped the question –

\”How easy is it to start a band?\”

By golly, you should’ve seen the gleam in my eye. The spirit of rock and roll lives and breathes in today’s youth and I can’t wait to hear what they cook up.



The Beijing High School Music Festival will be held Saturday, August 9th at Mao Livehouse – it starts at 4pm and will cost 60 RMB. A compilation CD will be available as well at the door. Bands performing include Finger Family, Watermelon Can, Bomb & Stone, Akalic Weed, 95 Factory, Morbid Goat, Omerta, Via Visions, and Sirens.  

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