photo by Chai Dong Xin
Formed in 1999, King Ly Chee has pretty much singlehandedly flown the hardcore flag in Hong Kong. It's been tough. As I wrote on Monday, hardcore punk is still a relatively new and foreign concept in China. The terse intensity of its lyrical content is hard to contextualize here, and lacks the trans-lingual immediacy of other less socially conscious offshoots of punk and metal.
King Ly Chee frontman Riz Farooqi has done more than his part to address this. In the '90s he released Start From Scratch, a bi-lingual fanzine aimed at introducing the ideals of hardcore to a Chinese-reading public. Despite the fact that the Hong Kong hardcore scene has barely moved in 15 years — to this day it's just King Ly Chee and one other band — Riz has worked hard to spread the words and music throughout China and Southeast Asia.
King Ly Chee is in town on Saturday for the 2nd China Hardcore Festival, a small but significant milestone. Here's Riz on his music, his band, and how he's seen Chinese hardcore develop (or fail to) over the last decade+:
SmartBeijing: You're based in Hong Kong, but also went to school in Massachusetts, a major epicenter of late '90s and early 2000s hardcore. Where and how did you first get into hardcore? Which bands were most inspiring to you early on? Now?
Riz Farooqi: As a kid growing up it was metal for sure. I have always been and still am a metalhead at heart. So bands like Slayer, Anthrax, Iron Maiden, Metallica (early stuff - I don't care for anything after the ...And Justice For All album), Pantera, etc. I always loved the anger of the music and the technicality. Very rarely was I inspired to think about the world while listening to this type of music. So when I was introduced to Bad Religion and Sick of it All as a 13-year-old I was FLOORED by how relatable the lyrics and the message of those types of bands were. You could never get any records of punk/hardcore bands in Hong Kong so I really didn't pursue that much further, but still got into what I could, falling in love with bands like Minor Threat.
Nowadays I make a conscious decision to look for hardcore bands OUTSIDE of the US. Nothing against the US at all, but I just feel that there's so much emphasis and importance placed on bands from there that it makes me cringe sometimes. There are GREAT bands from around the world that don't get the time of day because they can't attach "Boston" or "NYC" at the end of their band.
Bands I'm super into right now: Wolf x Down (Europe), Redemption Denied (Europe), Conquerer (South Africa), No Turning Back (Europe), Overthrown (Singapore), Unregenerate Blood (China), It Never Happened (China), 13 Steps (S. Korea).
SmBJ: It seems that there really wasn't any hardcore in Hong Kong in 1999, when you started King Ly Chee. Before that, you had a bi-lingual zine called Start From Scratch to introduce hardcore bands to a Chinese readership. What was your initial motivation to launch Start From Scratch? Did you get a lot of feedback from Hong Kong or elsewhere in China? Abroad?
RF: Very simple - I wanted to give HK kids a chance to learn about the message behind this type of music and actually help in a way to define what punk/hardcore is in terms of values instead of just the "look." It wasn't easy to do because I don't consider myself the be-all end-all of hardcore, but I certainly know that when a band gets on stage claiming to be a hardcore band but busts into a Limp Bizkit cover that there's something wrong. That was the main inspiration for me…the HK Chinese media was labeling things like Korn hardcore and so kids really misunderstood. I remember when King Ly Chee started playing people would ask us: "I thought you were a hardcore band. How come you don't have a DJ?"
The magazine had to be in Chinese because that was my main audience. It worked for a long time, then after a while it was really hard to keep bugging friends to translate my articles, especially when they were all busy with their own lives. Eventually, I just had to let the zine go…
SmBJ: In Western countries, being "DIY" is a conscious choice that bands can make, as there are options for labels and management. But it seems that King Ly Chee, like so many bands in China, has been DIY by necessity. What does "DIY" mean to you? What kind of DIY networks for punk and hardcore have you seen take shape in China since you've been active in the scene?
RF: Yeah - you totally hit the nail on the head. We've never really gotten any sort of support or sponsorship anything rather big. It has always been friends helping each other. Even when we released our Stand Strong record in 2003 under the godfather of Hong Kong rock Paul Wong's label, it wasn't a full-fledged label. He was just looking to help bands out and chose us because of how hard we work. It has always been that way.
I think the "DIY" network is SUPER amazing in Southeast Asia. We started touring very early and it was just quick emails to people. I have seen [it] build from small DIY promoters who really don't know their shit, to now these promoters have a few years under their belt and they are huge concert promoters. That's been cool to see happen in SE Asia.
China has also been a total DIY setup. We usually work with our good friend Paul of Hotpot Music and he just literally calls clubs throughout China and sets up tours for us. Then it's a door split and we work it all out from that. We print our own merch, design it and sell them at shows. I handle a lot of that shit too which is a pain in the ass. I also handle our online sales and THAT really sucks because you have to get the orders, package them yourself and then lug it to a post office. PAIN…
SmBJ: I saw Bane and Terror when they came through Beijing in 2009/2010; attendance was pretty small for both shows. But it seems that even just in the past few years, Beijing's hardcore scene has developed and expanded significantly. On a larger time scale, how have you seen hardcore as a distinct genre evolve in China since 1999?
RF: I have not seen it evolve in Hong Kong at all. I saw it get somewhat big in 2003-2004 but it has died since then. Died. There are two hardcore bands in Hong Kong: King Ly Chee and a band called Weeper. Kids here just don't like the simplicity of the music or the ideals maybe... I have no idea what the issue is here. But whatever the problem is - it's just that people don't care for hardcore here.
In China, especially Northern China, there's a totally different response to hardcore. It might be because metal has been thriving in China for so many decades that people are more [interested] to get into something heavy, but that is more simple and with more ideals about community-building and living positively. Plus, people in China, when they get into some sort of music, they REALLY study the music and its history and its culture. By doing this, their commitment to the music/lifestyle goes deeper than being a passing fad. My hat's off to the Beijing hardcore scene because they're doing everything right. I mean, what other city in China could have a China Hardcore Festival, besides Beijing? No way...
SmBJ: You released two separate versions of your last record, Time Will Prove: one in English and one in Mandarin. Hardcore tends to have pretty straightforward lyrics, but do you think that the feeling or the energy of the lyrics changes from one language to the other?
RF: The language issue goes back to when I started this band and my old magazine. It was just that I wanted people to get into the lyrical content without having to do too much work (like opening Google Translate and translating lyrics). While we're on stage and we sing in Chinese in Chinese-majority places, the response has always been immediate. Because honestly, hardcore doesn't always attract people solely because of the music. Sometimes, some of the BEST hardcore bands are the ones where you pick up the lyrics or listen to what they have to say on stage, and suddenly the music means more. Metal is a genre where seriously no one really cares about the lyrics - the music is already so full-on that people fall in love with metal without caring what the band has to say or what they sing about.
Having said that, if we could sing in just one language it would be so much easier. I mean last night we played a show in HK and I sang all the English lyrics, then tomorrow we're playing in Beijing so I'm singing all the Chinese lyrics. It's tough… but all our experiences in this band have been a struggle.
SmBJ: Many Chinese hardcore bands — really, rock bands of very genre — tend to sing in English. How important of a factor is language for CNHC?
RF: I have no problem with people singing in whatever language they want to sing in. A lot of people sing in English because you don't have to worry about "tones" with English words and sometimes it rolls off the tongue easier. Personally, I think Mandarin sounds great in music. I definitely do NOT think the same way about Cantonese. I don't think Cantonese sounds that great - it's definitely a harsher language and sounds much better when you're yelling at someone. Mandarin sounds softer and is therefore much better combined to music… just personal taste.
SmBJ: Straight edge and vegetarianism/veganism are major themes of Western hardcore, and these concepts have taken root in China as well to a certain extent, but the meanings seem slightly different. For example, I'll see X'd up kids at a hardcore show in Beijing who won't drink alcohol but still smoke cigarettes. And vegetarianism of any kind is still a very foreign concept in China. In your experience, how prominent is straight edge/veg in Chinese hardcore? What other issues comprise major themes of CNHC?
RF: Yeah, I've had plenty of conversations over the last 14 years with people that are trying to redefine this simple idea to fit their own "culture" or lives. One guy even said that he's straight edge because he controls the amount of alcohol he consumes. That was the funniest thing I've ever heard and he went on a whole rant of how I'm a fascist with my "rules." I was like - there aren't any rules… If you're straight edge you choose not do any of it. If you enjoy doing that stuff good for you! Why label yourself? I label myself straight edge because I'm proud that in my 37 years of existence I've never drank or smoked or done drugs. Simple.
I don't think any of the "ideals" of hardcore really get misunderstood in China. The only thing that gets misunderstood is still the music. People still consider anything heavy with screaming vocals "hardcore." That's always difficult because the ones who have misunderstood the music are the ones MOST disappointed when they hear a band like Black Flag or Minor Threat. Hahahaha… they're like, "What's this?! It sounds like punk rock!"
SmBJ: I toured with a Chinese punk band through the US a few years ago, and the biggest question they'd get after shows was, "How can you do a punk band in a Communist country?" Obviously the situation in Hong Kong is different, but in general, how do you describe Chinese hardcore to someone from another country who has no idea that it even exists? What preconceived notions or stereotypes do you face when people regard King Ly Chee as a "Chinese" band?
RF: I think in general hardcore anywhere in the world shares certain characteristics in its music that makes it "hardcore." A band from Malaysia, South Korea, Beijing could all be bands that have been transplanted out of the US. I think my biggest regret is that in the 14 years of this band we never tried to create a new "hardcore" sound that would be where we're from. But that gets hard and not many bands have been able to bridge that gap to create something really "unique" inside hardcore. Off the top of my head I can only think of Envy out of Japan. But since they bridged out of hardcore with their own sound, they've turned more into a post-rock band. Doesn't matter really - they're fucking amazing. Which is fine - because I'm really not looking at our band as a way to pay the bills. We all have day jobs and we do this on the side. It's not always that much fun to do this band (maybe it never was) but I am someone that has always been clear with a purpose. Whether or not that purpose or direction is really worth putting my life into is a whole different story.
SmBJ: You're in town on Saturday for the second CNHC Festival, which seems like a pretty big step in terms of developing a national platform for hardcore in China. What other promising signs have you seen emerge lately — labels, bands, crews, zines, websites, etc?
RF: No labels or zines…I can't imagine it being easy to print reading material in the Mainland, especially if you want to take it to a national level.
But the best thing to witness is to watch more hardcore bands pop up around the country. I find it amazing that most of the hardcore bands are in Northern China… Southern China seems to really not be that into hardcore. Which is of course heartbreaking because that's where we're from.
SmBJ: What is King Ly Chee working on next? What personally keeps you going from day to day?
RF: Next year is our 15th year anniversary. 15 years of hell really… We'll try to release a new album because we're not the type of band that goes back in time to redo songs or whatever. We have always looked forward, so what better way to celebrate your 15th year than release a record with brand new songs…
We'll see what happens. We still have drummer issues and that has been an ongoing issue in this band since day one. Our last drummer quit two weeks after we released our last album, Time Will Prove, in 2012. Since then we've had to borrow drummers from friends…
So it makes it hard to make any real formal plans… take it day by day.
The only thing that keeps me going with this band is that I've done this band for SO long (I was 22 when it started and I'm 37 now) that it is just part of my identity. So it'll keep trucking along…
Catch King Ly Chee at the 2nd annual CNHC Festival on Saturday, September 7 at Mao Livehouse.