Punk in Asia?
What I find the most appealing about the Asian punk scene is the sense of community behind it
What Asia brings to mind for some: Overpopulation. Corruption. Smog. Ambition. Soju. Sake. Baiju. Dumplings. Martial arts. Spice. Chopsticks. Electronics. Street food. Counterfeits.
However, when most people think of Asia, pictures of pierced-tattooed-Mohawked punks are certainly not the first things that spring to mind. However, over the last 15 years, punk has established a firm foothold across Asia, which is growing as these two traditionally clashing cultures adapt to each other.
This was definitely not evident when I first moved to the region in 1999. However, as the saying goes, "Seek and you will find." You might have to dig a bit deeper to find where the concerts are taking place, but yep, they are out there. I've found punk in the cities of Asia whenever I have looked for it, from Bangkok to Tokyo, and Seoul to Beijing.
A small, graffiti covered bar called Chaos City was my first find in Northern Thailand. The outwardly timid Thais had been introduced to the world of punk by a few expats who had moved in and opened a bar there. The Thai punks formed a band. They sang in public parks. They spent hours spiking their hair with glue. They rocked, they screamed, they tossed their mic stands. And at the end of every set, the band would ever so politely ‘wai' the crowd (placing their palms and fingers together in the traditional greeting.) This always amused me: to be so punk and raucous one second and then so polite and traditional the next.
What does punk mean to punks in Asia? In my opinion, it takes more devotion and commitment to become a punk in Asia. These socially conservative and conformist/collectivist societies frown upon blatant rebellion. Dragon moms are not going to be happy about kick-ass skull tattoos and tongue piercings. Weekends are not for moshing. They are for piano or violin lessons. Look at the ‘cleansing' of punks by Indonesian police in late 2011, which involved stripping body piercings and shaving off Mohawks. It is a dramatic yet accurate symbol of how Asian authorities view the punk scene.
Punk in Asia can paint a very confusing picture at times. Asian skinheads. Nazi flags on bikes, bags and jackets. Hitler Chicken (a restaurant recently opened in Thailand). Nazi salutes. This is all very bizarre stuff indeed.
The swastika is an ancient symbol that has been used for over 3,000 years and is easily misunderstood. To most Asians, the swastika represents [insert religious meaning] national pride, not anti-Semitism. And Nazi fashion sense with thick-soled leather boots and muted colours of grey, tan and black have always appealed to edgy members of the underground music scene. Combining this different meaning of such a divisive symbol with the fashion of the SS, and it is easy for outsiders to misinterpret Asian punks wearing swastikas and dressing this way as hateful anti-Semites.
What I find the most appealing about the Asian punk scene is the sense of community behind it. Bands support each other. People from every race and religion gather to mosh. They talk about the music. They revel in the music.
There are some truly amazing and talented bands. Of course, there is some absolute crap. But the spirit is always there.
It doesn't matter if you are into punk, thrash, metal, industrial or even indie. Everyone is in it together on the weird boat ride of Asian punk, destination unknown and negotiable. And what an AWESOME ride it is. I am curious to see how the authorities (especially in some of the more authoritarian countries) will respond to the Asian punk scene as it continues to grow in influence and popularity. This ship certainly will not sink.
Photo by Christopher Stecher (Beijing Skinhead Band: Misandao)