Western culture `Whams' into China with rock-and-roll, films, and discos

BEFORE notices appeared in Peking's newspapers last week, almost no one here had heard of the British rock group Wham. ``Wham is famous in Britain, isn't it?'' asked a young man who had been waiting in line from 6 to 10 Friday morning to pay five yuan ($1.75, or two days' wages) for a ticket. The question no longer seemed important to those who had been there since 3 p.m. the day before. They were dazed from lack of sleep.

``Do you like Western rock music?'' a foreigner asked another young man.

``Well, I don't know, I haven't heard much of it before,'' the youth replied.

``After Wham, which Western rock group would you like to see come to China next?''

``Oh, any one will do,'' said the youth.

``Would you like to hear the Rolling Stones?''

``Of course. . . . But who are they?'' He may know before the year is out.

And by Sunday night, there was no longer any question about Wham's identity, as China came face-to-face with its first top-rated Western rock group. In the Worker's Gymnasium here an audience of 12,000 clapped to the heavy rhythms of the British group.

For an hour and a half, British rockers George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley strutted around an elaborate stage with two sometimes scantily dressed dancers and a slick backup band.

There were times when the largely Chinese crowd was as stunned by the foreigners in the audience -- whistling and dancing by their seats -- as by the multicolored light show and the music.

Several Chinese who got up and danced were escorted away by uniformed security guards. Many wiggled in place. The foreigners were merely told to sit down, though without results. 3 ``You call this art?'' asked one middle-aged Chinese. Others were more or less quietly enthusiastic. Most seemed to absorb the energy while delighting in the novelty of it all.

One severe-looking, middle-aged woman, in the usual baggy blue jacket and trousers, often rocked forward in her seat while slapping her hands to the music with complete abandon. Her grandson stared in bewilderment from his mother's lap in the next seat. It was a strange experience for almost everyone.

The trickles of foreign influences penetrating China are steady and unrelenting. In a commentary on China's ``open door'' policy in last week's issue of the Peking Review, Li Honglin wrote that China cannot afford to lock itself up again. Whatever steps the government takes to filter foreign influences on the popular culture will almost certainly result in more exposure to Western life and values than anything this country has seen in the past.

Wham's visit, along with an American film festival and other events on April's social calendar may seem like springtime for Western culture in China.

After last year's short-lived campaign against the ``spiritual pollution'' of foreign influences in arts and literature, government policies have become more liberal again. But recently the government has shown more concern for managing foreign influences rather than blocking them entirely, or letting them pour in indiscriminately.

In the language of Mr. Li's Peking Review commentary, outside influences need to be ``filtered'' to protect China's culture and society and to guard against the ``dirty things'' of capitalism.

Like the Wham concert, the American film festival which opened last week has at once baffled and entertained Chinese audiences at 29 theaters in Peking.

At the opening, Academy Award-winning actress Sissy Spacek joined 5,000 government officials and film workers at a special showing of ``Coal Miner's Daughter'' with Chinese subtitles. Five American films are now making the rounds in Peking and will be shown in four other cities. These include ``Star Wars,'' ``The Turning Point,'' ``On Golden Pond,'' and ``Kramer vs. Kramer.''

At least 20 million Chinese will see the films in the next two weeks, according to official estimates. As with Wham's one-night performance in Peking, tickets quickly sold out.

This is the second American film festival in China. It was originally scheduled for 1983, but was postponed because of the defection of Chinese tennis star Hu Na. The first festival was held in 1981.

The government has been hard at work, determining what is acceptable cultural fare for Chinese audiences. Reportedly, many rock groups have applied to come to China and the All-China Youth Federation, which invited Wham, is having discussions with the Rolling Stones about a possible China tour.

Federation official Zhou Renkai said Wham passed muster as ``very healthy for youth.'' His judgment was based on videotapes of the group which were previewed by Chinese officials.

It was also reported in a Shanghai newspaper that Taiwanese pop star Teresa Teng has been invited to perform in China. Miss Teng's songs, which are very popular here, were once banned as counterrevolutionary and decadent, partly because of her allegiance to the Nationalist government on Taiwan.

If the government has little trouble deciding what rock groups and foreign films are appropriate for Chinese audiences, there are other sources of ``culture'' which are harder to manage.

One of the most controversial forms of entertainment in China today is dancing. A ``disco'' craze has swept the country, though the Chinese form of the music bears little resemblance to Western-style disco. It is rather an awkward form of ballroom dancing.

Official attitudes toward disco and other free-form dance styles are somewhat ambiguous, judging from the restrictions on where and when people can dance.

One Peking-based rock group named ``The Mainland Band,'' made up of foreign students from a half-dozen different countries, gave a government-sponsored performance in the industrial city of Wuhan last month. At one point they invited the audience to dance, and more than 100 people came forward. Security guards tried to stop them but were outnumbered.

The videotape businesses has also proven difficult to regulate. It has sprouted up in cities and small towns throughout the country, especially in southern China which has closer access to Hong Kong markets. Videotape shows are public events, with feature-length films and television programs at an admission price of less than 10 cents.

On a recent Sunday night in Confucius' hometown of Qufu in Shandong Province, several hundred people crowded into an unheated auditorium to watch a Japanese samurai film on video monitors. It was the only nightlife to be found, and the soundtrack was broadcast from a loudspeaker onto the town's main commercial street to draw crowds.

Late last month, the Communist Party Central Committee of Hunan Province called for stricter controls over that province's 705 videotape-playing ``business teams'' which had been licensed by the provincial government in the past two years.

``Those who show obscene and decadent videotape programs whose contents are reactionary must be punished,'' the party committee said.

From the tone of the report, apparently punishment was in order for someone.

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