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.”