by Gary Sullivan
Hang on the Box, mainland China’s first all-girl punk unit, was a glorious mess of contradictions and extremes. Their first live performance, for a small but fanatical crowd of fellow Beijing punks, was met with boos, laughter and jeering; six months later they were on the cover of the local edition of Newsweek, serving as poster girls for an entire generation of Chinese youth. Lauded by critics for politicizing gender through their empowered, femme-forward lyrics, they were famously scornful of Cobra, the only other all-girl rock group before them on the mainland.
Despite Hang on the Box’s cult status in Japan and the United States, the band constantly struggled to get gigs, record deals and respect at home in China, where—because of the Newsweek cover, because they were the first Chinese band of any kind to sing exclusively in English, because they were women—the scene never fully embraced them. Yet, by the time they disbanded, increasing numbers of bands coming out of the movement—great bands, like Queen Sea Big Shark, Subs and Hedgehog—seemed to have at least one prominent female member and were singing most, if not all, of their songs in English.
Hang on the Box, often referred to as HOTB, was founded in the summer of 1998 by Wang Yue (aka Gia Wang, vocals) and Yilina (bass), who were classmates, and Li Yan Fan (guitar), who had approached the two friends in a bootleg music store, asking for a cigarette. According to their Japanese label’s website, Yilina, who was born in inner Mongolia, had a dream one night in which a god told her that, if she ever formed a band, she must call it Hang on the Box.
Jonathan Campbell recounts Wang and Yilina’s punk conversion in his book Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll. “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 that, “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.’”
According to Campbell, not long after Wang’s conversion, she received a phone call from Shen Yue of Anarchy Jerks, inviting her to a gig at Beijing’s first all-punk venue, Scream, which had just opened a few months before. After bragging about the awesomeness of his band, Shen asked Wang what she was up to. She told him that she, too, had just formed a band. It was only sort of true. He politely asked if her band would like to open for his. “I said yes,” Wang recalls. “I didn’t even think about it.”
Licking their wounds after the initial disaster at Scream, HOTB’s members made a pact to work their asses off and become the greatest all-girl punk band in the world. In 1999, they enlisted Shen Jing (aka Shenggy) to play drums. After two years of gigging and recording, unable find a mainland label to take them on, they finally found a home for their first CD, Yellow Banana, through Audrey Kimura’s Sister Records + Benten label in Tokyo, Japan. (Benten, or Benzeiten, is a goddess of love, music and happiness.) “This is not a political statement that we are making about the sickening system of the music business or the all too passive attitude of the general listening population,” Kimura says, referring to her label’s female-centric focus, “we just want to have fun.” It was a match made in heaven. Scream Records, the Beijing venue’s newly launched label, released the album for mainlanders the following year.
Yellow Banana, released in 2001, is by any standards one of the most rock-solid debuts ever burned into optical discs of polycarbonate plastic. In addition to Ramones-y/riot grrrl-esque instant classics like “Asshole, I’m Not Your Baby,” “No Sexy,” “Heroin and Cocaine” and “For Some Stupid Cunts at BBS,” there is the inexplicably dreamy “Red Comet,” which sounds a bit like Portishead channeled through the Cowboy Junkies, and the bizarrely sweet “Your Everything Kills Me,” a scratchy, springy near-ballad, flatly sung and which almost sounds like it’s being performed underwater. Most remarkable, given the shock-to-the-system assault of most of the cuts on this album, is how gorgeously melodic everything is: There isn’t a song on this record, however thrashing and abrasive, that won’t give even a mildly sensitive listener goose bumps.
The lyrics, despite being in English, are often indecipherable, even in the rare instances when the English-speaking listener can clearly make out each of the words Wang is singing. “Kill Your Belly”—perhaps a rejoinder to the Sex Pistols’ chilling “Bodies”?—is reputedly about abortion; yet one is left wondering who’s speaking to whom in the repeated chorus, “Fuu-uuhck you, I don’t neeeed you!”—China’s One Child Policy to Developing Fetus X?
In 2002, Yilina, for reasons that remain mysterious and despite having named the band, quit, and was replaced by Liu Bao. HOTB continued to record and tour, at home and abroad, then, just as mysteriously, the day after the release of their second album, 2003’s Di Di Di, Yilina rejoined.
Di Di Di is nearly as thrilling as Yellow Banana. Though less abrasive, songs like “I’m Mine” and “Now I Wanna Say Apologies to You” have all of the stripped-down, frenzied, fuzz-tone energy of anything on the first disc, while tracks like “Summertime,” a slow, bluesy cover of the Gershwin classic, expand HOTB’s range even further. In the title song Wang Yue wears her personal heroes on her sleeve: “Every day I listen to the Cibo Matto,” she insists in a delightfully strained falsetto, “I’ma listen to Bikini Kill, Bikini Kill…”
Over the next year, two more HOTB releases emerged: For Every Punk Bitch & Arsehole (2003), a compilation of the first two albums for European distribution, and Foxy Lady (2004), another compilation, this time including two new songs—a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” featuring Wang screaming the lyrics through a megaphone, and a live version of “Shanghai,” a song that would later get them into a bit of hot water with the Shanghai press. The band continued to tour, adding new songs to their repertoire.
In an interview conducted in 2004 by Andrea Benvenuto of Women Rock, Wang was asked about the group’s feminist message and whether “addressing sexism fit[s] in with whatever desire you have to just be in a band and have fun.” She responded:
“There’re many things I’m not satisfied with in life, also about the relationship between the female and male. Because I’m not pleased with it, then I take my lyrics to reflect that rage. I think that will influence many people. In a new song I cite a part from the movie A Clockwork Orange: ‘What kind of world is it at all? Man on the moon, man spinning around the earth, and there is no attention paid to earthly law and all the normal.”
During this same interview, when asked about what it means to be punk, Wang’s response was: “We’re not punk! NO!!!” No further explanation beyond that is given.
But HOTB was changing. If Yellow Banana was the trio’s Velvet Underground and Nico, their 2007 album, No More Nice Girls, was their Loaded. It’s a beautiful, often dreamy album, with a sound much closer to more recent Beijing bands like The Gar and Carsick Cars, both of whom HOTB most likely influenced. But not everyone welcomed it. Berwin Song, the Cleveland, Ohio-born deputy editor of Time Out Shanghai, trashed it upon its release:
“In their tumultuous near-decade of existence, Hang on the Box may have, at one point, captured a genuine punk aesthetic with their disdain and anger. As the cover to No More Nice Girls shows, their final era is better represented by baby-doll dresses and pigtails—and music that’s just as soft.”
Song then focused his critique on Wang: “After ten years, she still can’t play her guitar (the album’s guitar tracks are handled by guest players), and it’s clear she’s in it just for the style. She thinks she’s hot, and wants you to think so too. In the song ‘Shanghai,’ she croons, in that Chinglishy love-you-long-time sing-song of hers, ‘We can to keep such great white cock.’ Who gets off on that, I wonder?”
So, what of Song’s assertions? First of all, there is not a single track on any of HOTB’s albums where Wang sounds anything remotely “sing-song” nor “love-you-long-time.” Even at her most brazen—for example, on Yellow Banana’s “Motorcycle Boy,” where she belts out “Yes I like you, oh I want to fuck you!”—there is not even a hint of seduction in her voice. Rather, she sounds like she (and her wall of guitar noise) is going to rape, and then possibly murder, the object of her lust.
Secondly, it’s immaterial how much Wang may or may not have played her guitar in the studio. For one thing, she’s the lead singer, not the guitarist. Even if she was, no one has ever thought less of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” because non-Beatle Eric Clapton, rather than George Harrison, played the lead.
Finally, I would argue, “Shanghai” is not intended, as Song implies, to incite yellow fever; most likely, it’s a slam against author Wei Hui and the hype around her international bestseller Shanghai Baby, in which the Joni Mitchell-listening, Henry Miller-reading protagonist Nikki/Coco carries on with the BMW-driving German, Mark:
What is Shanghai?
Rich white cock and hungry yellow chick
What is Shanghai?
Stupid white cock and hungry yellow chick
Oh, our Shanghai is international
Oh, our Shanghai is A-1, A-1, A-1
We can to keep such great white cock
We can to sell such great yellow chick
No More Nice Girls does reveal more of the band’s softer side than previous recordings, but the album is unmistakably Hang on the Box, like the shadow of the cherry tree in the album’s third track, “You Hate Me But I Love You”:
the spring water nested in a hole in a rock
shimmers softly when disturbed
the vibrations of the ground
have given birth to strong waves
which crash together in an irregular swell
on the surface without cresting if there’s
a verb meaning “to move harmoniously”
it must be used here the cherry tree
gripped in shadows spread out and curl up
sway and twist, to the rhythm of the water
but the interesting thing is that however much
they change they keep the shape of a cherry tree
Since the release of No More Nice Girls, HOTB has broken up and reformed (with different lineups) several times. It’s doubtful, however, that they’ll ever record again. The disappointment of their many fans around the world aside, it almost doesn’t matter: their place in the short but robust history of Chinese rock ’n’ roll will forever be prominent and secure.
Poet and cartoonist Gary Sullivan runs bodedgapop.com.