Last decade Gia, singer with China’s first all-girl punk band Hang on the Box, battled Beijing’s sexist rock norms.
Time Out Beijing chats to her about her legacy and the band’s next chapter.
Sat amongst the white sofas and endless rows of Macbooks in her management’s Beijing office, the founder of China’s first all-female punk group suddenly bursts into tears. ‘I’m sorry,’ Wang Yue (aka Gia) sniffs, tugging a tissue from its packet. ‘I feel touched because only a Westerner would say I’ve achieved a lot. No Chinese acknowledge the value of my music.’
This is not the kind of fragility one might expect from Gia who, fuelled by a love of Chinese rockers Black Panther and Britain’s The Clash, in 1998 played her first gig with Hang on the Box (completed by guitarist Li Yan Fan, bassist Yilina and drummer Shenjing). They played a shambolic show at Beijing’s aptly named Scream Club, then wrote some sweary, Ramones-y punk songs and ripped the capital a new rectum.
They were arguably one of the most influential bands for the following wave of English-singing Beijing rock bands (your Hedgehogs and so on), especially those featuring female members in the previously male-dominated scene. The bloody-raw songs on their 2001 debut album Yellow Bananas
pricked enough ears around the world to earn them a US tour. But back home the cult success they achieved was tarnished by jealousy that smacked of sexism.
‘We were on the cover of Newsweek
magazine not long after our first gig,’ recalls Gia. ‘Other bands felt upset and jealous. They thought the only reason we appeared on the cover was because we were women. We were elbowed out of the circle.’
Despite being outsiders, Hang on the Box went on to release three more studio albums. Songs such as ‘Ass Hole, I’m Not Your Baby’ and ‘Kill Your Belly’ (which fans have suggested may be about abortion, a somewhat touchy topic in early-2000s China to say the least) offered a fresh perspective from the usually testosterone-saturated world of Chinese rock.
The scorn they received wasn’t just from jealous bully-boy cliques. The band also became a target for conservative netizens when a photo of them lifting their shirts to show their bras circulated online.
‘It was fun and punk but people condemned us as dirty,’ says Gia, gesticulating with arms adorned with dainty heart-shaped tattoos.‘There were thousands of messages with my name in them. Some said my family ran a whorehouse. I didn’t care. I was poisoned by Western music in my teenage years, in a good way, by bands like Bikini Kill and X-Ray Spex. I didn’t know what modesty was.’
Things wound down for the band after the release of 2007 album No More Nice Girls and Gia moved into fashion (her image today is rather more sleek than her upturned-dressing-up-box style of old). Hang on the Box existed, but only as a sporadically resurrected project with new members, still helmed by Gia. Their decent, if softly produced 2013 EP Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was disowned by the singer but now a new incarnation, featuring two guys and three girls, is hitting the Beijing toilet circuit.
Good news, but you wonder why Gia bothers, clearly harbouring bitterness about the way her band has been perceived in China. She has other musical outlets in her solo side project plus her experimental band Girl Kill Girl. Is this an attempt to finally win appreciation for Hang on the Box that previously largely came from outside the country?
If so, she won’t directly admit it. ‘I don’t dare to say that we are an influential band in China,’ Gia says. ‘If I said that people would criticise. But I guess I want to tell the world that we are a good band.’
We’ll have an opportunity to test if this claim still rings true this month at School Bar. Will the punk rage remain? Will Gia, like before, be chucking expletives around like confetti? ‘Haha, I don’t use vulgar language like “F**k your mother” anymore,’ she says. ‘My criticism has become more mature.’
Three of the best
Gia explains Hang on the Box's top songs
1. ‘Now I Wanna Say Apology to You’
‘The idea is to apologise to your ex. When you were together, you didn’t have a good time and hurt each other. It wasn’t until you broke up that you realised you needed to say sorry.’
‘The lyrics were harsh. We thought that meant that we kept pace with the Western world. We were the first to do so. This song would be my first choice as representative of Hang on the Box’s early days.’
3. ‘Down by the Water’ (The Drums cover)
‘Although it’s a cover, I put lots of emotion in the song and added Chinese lyrics to it. I performed it based on my own understanding.’