Ever heard a German band singing Beatles hits in Chinese? Probably not. But that's exactly what "Nightmare of the Red Chamber" does. Their fans love it -- once they've gotten used to it.
Rockin' and rollin' in Chinese
"Dream of the Red Chamber" was written by Chinese novelist, Tsao-Hsueh-chin in the 18th century. Today it's still seen in China as the greatest of its novels, a reworking of the Romeo-and-Juliet love story and a portrait of one of the world's great civilizations.
But what about "Nightmare of the Red Chamber"? Well, it's a Berlin band made up of four sinologists -- Andreas Steen, Volker Häring, Peter Merker, Andreas Kraus -- and Filipino bass player Enrico Dalisay. He's the only member of the line-up who's not a Chinese studies expert -- not that that stopped him from playing with rebel Chinese rocker Cui Jian in the 1980s.
A bit of a nightmare
They're not without their admirers, but so far, none of the members have given up their day jobs. Drummer Andreas Steen is a lecturer in Chinese history and literature at the Free University in Berlin. In spring 2003, he became a founding member of Germany's one and only Chinese rock band, "Nightmare of the Red Chamber."
"In China, not that many people are into rock," he said. "And above all, it's a bit of a headache for the government. So we decided it would be fitting to call ourselves the 'Nightmare of the Red Chamber.'"
Pop as social critique
Their revamped version of the schmaltzy 1993 Chinese hit "Xiaofang" certainly gave a lot of Chinese a headache. The band are quick to stress that they should be taken with a pinch of salt, but they're also aware that in China, rock music can serve a serious political purpose as veiled criticism of the country's existing social problems.
Take the track "A Piece of Red Cloth" by the legendary Cui Jian (photo), a former trumpet player with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra now touted as the godfather of Chinese rock.
"That day you took a piece of red cloth/covered my eyes and covered the sky/you asked me what I saw," he sings.
"In Chinese history, red has a number of meanings," Steen said. "It's a traditional wedding color, and it's the color of the communist party. So with this in mind, you can read his song on two levels. It could be a romantic love song, and it could be a political allusion."
Silencing subversive stars
Chances are it's the latter. On Tiananmen Square in 1989, 15 days before the crackdown, Jian performed "A Piece of Red Cloth" with his eyes covered by a red cloth.
His appearances during this turbulent era were so inflammatory that the Chinese authorities unofficially banned Cui Jian well into the 1990s. He'd become an icon of a counter-culture, and the government maintained a continuing crackdown on unauthorized "underground" performances.
But times have changed. These days, in the new, "open" China, music has long been stripped of its rebellious edge. In a market economy, success is what sells -- and today, Chinese teenagers prefer the Gangtai pop from Hong Kong and Taiwan -- otherwise known as Cantopop.
"It's just more acceptable amongst the population," Steen said. "The Chinese tend to prefer the southern Chinese style, which is more melodious and tranquil. A Chinese friend once told me that the reason why the Chinese don't like hectic rock music is because the country is so overpopulated and life is already hectic enough."
He also pointed out that it would be a mistake to draw over-hasty conclusions.
"It wouldn't be fair to say that a certain type of music isn't popular in China because it's repressed," he said. "Rock is just very western."
Fans who "can't stop giggling"
As it happens, the Chinese Embassy in Berlin has already shown an interest in "Nightmare of the Red Chamber." That's encouragement enough for the band to start planning a concert in the former German colony Qingdao. But before the boys kick-start their international career, they'll continue entertaining the German fans with their Chinese covers of the Beatles, New German Wave and classics from the 1980s.
So how do the audiences react to hearing music they grew up with reworked into Chinese?
"There was a couple in the first row at one of our recent gigs who couldn't stop laughing," said Häring. "Everyone our age knows the music we sing, and hearing them sung in another language takes a lot of getting used to."