BEIJING — The scaffold reared up behind the lights of the makeshift stage, tapering off above the decks to become lost among the skyline of pipes, chimneys and factory roofs that frames the industrial playground around Beijing's famous 798 art district.
Upwards of 3,000 people danced below, creaking the floorboards and stomping the grass, moving to the sound that bounced trapped between the walls, reveling in a venue would have made the Detroit pioneers of techno proud. A line of smiling Chinese students did the conga through the crowd.
It seemed too good to be true, and in the end it was. But for the 10 or so hours before the local Chaoyang police department closed it down due to safety concerns, a host of international acts and local talent rocked Intro 2009, an event billed as China's first outdoor electronic music festival.
The party had been scheduled to run until 4 in the morning, moving indoors at 11 p.m. to shield residents from the noise, but when the police saw the size of the crowd, they reneged on the deal and brought the party to an abrupt conclusion.
It is something of a miracle that it happened at all. When I sat down to meet Acupuncture Records chief organizer Miao Wong two days before the event, the stress was etched on her face, the pressure and tension she was under to pull the festival off was palpable. "Even now, I expect it not to happen," she said. "It's like a miracle, it's still extremely difficult to do certain things but there's a way to work through the difficulties."
The 24-year-old was still waiting to hear whether or not she has jumped through all the hoops with a good enough score to get the final nod from all the authorities involved.
In May 2008, with the Beijing government limbering up to host the perfect Olympics, the public security bureau pulled the plug on the capital's Midi Music Festival. An outdoor gathering of boisterous music fans posed too large a risk of trouble, it seemed. So how, less than two weeks before the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident and with the government already tetchy about maintaining public order, did Wong and her team manage to get consent to host a techno festival, a celebration of a music renowned for flying in the face of authority at over 140 bpm?
"We didn't exactly say festival. We said outdoors in a large plaza, an event that would set up a link with youth culture through an up and coming art form," Wong said. She is also keen to stress that techno is in its infancy in China, and hasn't developed the kind of anti-authoritarian attitude it has come to be associated with in Europe and North America. "It's ground zero, there's no anti-authoritarian sentiment. Freedom is part of the spirit but not 'bring down the government,'" she said.
It took a personal introduction to the China Performing Arts Agency and a number of video screenings to get clearance for the event. The Ministry of Culture is keen, according to Wong, to move away from the somewhat staid "5,000 years of culture" tag that is often attached to China, and explore something more modern.
However, despite the CPAA's best intentions, the buck does not stop with the agency or even the ministry that it operates under. The real power, and where the bucks do actually stop (at least until they can be redistributed to the various palms concerned), is with the local police, fire brigade and security services. So even with a convoy of trucks carrying sound and lighting equipment near 100 meters long parked up on Beijing's sixth ring road, it was still not clear whether the festival would happen.
Acupuncture has been running parties in the capital for two years but the label had never tried anything as ambitious as a 15-hour music marathon before, and the authorities had no experience dealing with such a request.
It came as little surprise, then, when the hundreds of security officials who had kept a reserved distance throughout the day made their way towards the front of the stage as the end of the outdoor section of of the festival approached, and told the organizers to cancel the rest of the party. The disappointment manifested itself in the forlorn figure of resident DJ Pancake Lee, who sat disconsolate by the side of the stage as crew members began dismantling the set. "Look," he said, "we've worked so hard for this and it's ended in failure. Some things don't change."
But that the organizers pulled off what partygoer Andrew Hunt, 32, described as "a truly amazing and progressive event" is testament to their dedication and hard work. International artists from Germany's Chris Liebing and M.A.N.D.Y. Philip to the U.K.'s Italoboyz, on their first trip to China, have pledged to return next year.
Acupuncture's first foray into the administrative minefield that is hosting any large public event in China ultimately ended in disappointment. But the festival was called "Intro" for a reason. It has put Beijing on the map. "It'll be step by step," Wong said. This was only the beginning."
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