I have a bucket list.
I have had it for years and have been able to check off some items here and there. There was one thing that had been on the list from the very beginning, however, that I had planned to erase (not scratch off) because I thought the window had passed and there was absolutely no way it would ever come to fruition: be in a band and play a live show.
Coming to China, the Ska Show, and the Chinese Skanker
Then, in 2017, I came to China to teach with BASIS International School Shenzhen.
About six months after I arrived, I heard about a ska show happening in the Futian district of Shenzhen. It was a free show by a band called “The Red Stripes.” I mentioned it to a couple of fellow teachers, and we decided to split the Didi (Chinese Uber) cost and go.
The Red Stripes are a group of teachers from the UK who work at schools in Hong Kong and started a ska band on the side for fun. And they ended up being really good. Now they tour around Asia and have even put out an album, “The Ska East.” They were great live. They played a bunch of ska classics from The Specials, an amazing ska rendition of “Come On, Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and some fun originals that were impossible not to dance to.
During the show, I noticed a tall Chinese guy skanking (the name for the style of dancing to ska and some punk) on the dance floor with a backpatch of a fairly obscure ska-punk band from the late 80s from Berkeley, California: Operation Ivy. By this time, I had become accustomed to the fact that most Chinese had no idea what the English on their clothes meant. But I love Operation Ivy, so I simply had to ask. After The Red Stripes finished their set, I approached the Chinese skanker.
“Excuse me, do you really know who Operation Ivy is?”
He seemed startled. He wore glasses with thick, black frames, and had short, spiky hair.
“Of course!” he replied with a smile. I remained unconvinced.
“Really? What are some of your favorite songs?” I asked in an enthusiastic tone, trying hard not to sound condescending or incredulous. He proceeded to list off a number of their songs. My eyes widened.
By now, two of his friends came over to join the conversation. One wore a Clash t-shirt and the other a punk-looking shirt that read “Make food, not war!”
He said, “I’m in two punk bands. I’m actually in a band with these guys.” They introduced themselves as Johnny and Henry. The tall guy was Terry but his nickname was Terry-aki.
We chatted about music and bands we liked and realized that we had very similar musical interests. We all scanned each other’s WeChats and continued to chat over the next few weeks. Then, one day, they asked “Do you want to join our band, The Woks?” I was shell-shocked.
“What would I do?”
“You said you used to play bass and right now Terry both plays bass and sings. You could take over on bass so Terry could just sing.”
“Last time I played bass, you guys weren’t even born yet! And I don’t own a bass or any equipment or anything!”
“That’s ok. We’ll teach you how to play the songs. And you can use Terry’s bass until we find you one. And our practice space and the venues where we play provide all the amps and equipment.”
The Woks New Bass Player
And so I started rehearsing as the bass player for The Woks. Their set-list included covers of old punk songs by the Ramones, The Germs, Sham 69, Black Flag, and others. I also started going to local punk rock shows, both in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, with my new Chinese bandmates. I met tons of people with similar musical interests and made friends with people from all over the world. We have also starting writing and playing original songs, most of which I have written myself.
After a few months of weekly rehearsals, we were asked to play as the opening band for a visiting skate-punk band from Australia called COFFIN. I think I played pretty poorly, but it was an absolute blast and I was able to check-off, NOT erase, an item off my bucket list. I never imagined that I finally would be able to enjoy that experience–in China!
We have since played with a well-known Chinese punk band from Beijing called Demerit, a fun ska-punk band from Xi’an called Sucker, and a one-man French/Korean punk performer called Octopoulpe. Fellow BASIS International Schools teachers have come and watched us play and have also experienced some of the small Shenzhen music scene. I recently scheduled The Woks to play for the first time as the headlining band for a benefit show to raise money for a local animal shelter. We will be playing with two other local bands that are friends of ours with members from China, Europe, Canada, and the US.
Out of all the amazing new experiences I have had living in China, playing in a punk-rock band was the least expected and one of the most fun!
Jesse MacDonald is a History teacher at BASIS International School Shenzhen.