Cambodia is no stranger, now, to Chinese alternative bands seeking to perform overseas – thanks to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Last weekend, Sonny Inbaraj Krishnan discovered Oh, Dirty Fingers – four hard-drinking, good-hearted Shanghai garage punks – who tore up Oscar’s On The Corner with their joyously anarchic, fast, loud and sloppy songs.
Cross-fertilisation from China’s Belt and Road Initiative when Cambodia is on the path to ruination with the uncontrolled influx of Chinese capitalists from the mainland, with scant regard for local customs, local laws and the environment? Someone told me I was crazy.
We can whinge and whine about Chinese capitalists (Mao Zedong would probably be turning in his grave), but the most common mistake is to ignore the fact that China suffered a century of humiliation with the First Opium War in 1839 – when British troops on gunboats stormed the southern port of Guangzhou, determined to increase Britain’s opium exports into China and turn the Chinese people into drug addicts. As former BBC correspondent Humphrey Hawksley writes in ‘Asian Waters – The Struggle Over the Asia Pacific and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion’, this century of humiliation ended 110 years later in 1949 when Mao Zedong came to power.
China is now the reawakened giant and in May 2017, President Xi Jinping reinforced his vision by hosting the Beijing summit on his infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative.
“The Belt and Road Initiative talked up shared prosperity, open borders, free trade, and glittering skyscrapers – all derived from legends of the ancient Silk Road that connected diverse civilizations,” writes Hawksley.
As President Xi himself said: “Opening up brings progress while isolation results in backwardness.”
Now coming back to the question of cross-fertilisation, I think the Belt and Road Initiative can also be a fertile exchange of knowledge and creative practices among artists from China and the Silk Road countries – music can echo ideas and easily travel beyond geographic boundaries; in part this symbolises internationality, hybrid modernity and globalism.
Hard-drinking, good-hearted Shanghai garage punks – that’s how I’ll describe Oh, Dirty Fingers that tore the house down at Oscar’s On The Corner, street 104, last weekend in the INDIERAWK Fest organised by Mia Renee Lee. With the crowd already hyped up by ska band Chequered Past (with a debut by frontwoman Ella Chord) and local rockers Khmeng Somrae, by the time Oh, Dirty Fingers came on stage everyone was ready for, as drummer Ale Amazonia (the sole non-Chinese in the band) describes it, “a mash-up from metal, rock, bossa-nova, reggae, kungfu, Mandopop-punk mix-up and sweet ballads.”
Oh, Dirty Fingers was formed in 2013 as a student band and made a name for themselves in Shanghai’s Live Bar and Beijing’s School and Temple bars.
“I read it in a book about two teenagers who try to start a band. They’re really into the Beatles and they have a list of all the potential names. They didn’t end up using the name Dirty Fingers but I felt that there was something there, so I picked it,” band leader and frontman Guan Xiaotian tells mongomagazine.com.
Does Dirty Fingers sound similar to The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers? Sticky Fingers was the first Stones album without guitarist Brian Jones, who was dismissed from the band in June 1969 and drowned several days later.
But don’t expect anyone in Oh, Dirty Fingers to drown – and yes, they do have strong livers to down the shots, whisky and countless beers all in one go.
Oh, Dirty Fingers are Guan Xiaotian on vocals and rhythm guitar, Bing Xiaohai on main guitar, Zhang Haiming on bass, and Brazilian Ale or Alex, as he calls himself, on drums.
“Punk rock should mean freedom,” said Kurt Cobain in 1991, just as their seminal album Nevermind was exploding punk values across the middle American mainstream. And Oh, Dirty Fingers just showed what freedom to perform means with their joyously anarchic, fast, loud and sloppy songs with Alex pounding on the drums, Guan Xiaotian crooning in his grunge, garage-punk guttural voice, guitarist Xiaohai keeping the tempo, yet allowing the music to descend into chaos, and bassist Haiming smoothing the rough edges with his cool bass riffs.
The crowd in Oscar’s goes crazy when Oh, Dirty Fingers open with ‘Undercover Cops’ – a hybrid of mixed surf rock, garage, glam, rockabilly, as Alex said “all meshed in one”.
“With Undercover Cops, I went to a bar and I was watching this cop just sitting with a drink, which he didn’t touch all night. He was just observing. I get inspiration from the environment. I just imagined myself in his position. He’s a man, he’s a person. He has feelings too,” Guan Xiaotian tells mongomagazine.com
In ‘I Also Like Your Girlfriend’, there is a call and reply between Guan Xiaotian and Xiaohai. Guan Xiaotian wants to have sex with Xiaohai’s girlfriend and sings in a guttural mating call and Xiaohai tells him to bugger off. Then all hell breaks loose on stage.
It seems Guan Xiaotian’s father never approved of this song, but when his dad was drunk said it was okay as long as his son wore a condom!
Oh, Dirty Fingers also played their unrecorded “Coke”, “Mafia” and “Alleluia” and told me they are keen to record something with local bands in Cambodia. Cross-fertilisation to create a new mind chaos or a massive head screw-up?
Previously, record labels couldn’t handle punk rockers because they couldn’t control them; they didn’t want to invest money in kids who were a bunch of screw-ups. But all that is set to change with DIY studios. For Oh, Dirty Fingers, Maybe Mars – an independent CD label that was started in the summer of 2007 to promote, identify and support talented young Chinese musicians and artists – has remained loyal to them.
Chinese punk bands are here to stay. Welcome to Cambodia!