`You Can't Miss the Cadillac'

Rock-and-roll gets a visa, China sings the blues, and Hard Rock Cafe finds burgers tough to sell

COLIN SYN fashions himself as the new impresario of China.

Mr. Syn presides over a string of Hard Rock Cafes from Bali to Bangkok - and now Beijing. On May 14 in the Chinese capital, the Singaporean businessman opened his latest effort, a $5 million club featuring Hard Rock trademarks of hamburgers, hard-driving music, and rock-and-roll memorabilia.

The new restaurant shows just how far China has come since the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s when Western music was condemned as ``bourgeois.'' But, even in the best of times, selling Western music in China is not easy. Opening just three weeks before the sensitive June 4 anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the club is under close scrutiny by government officials nervous about the growing threat of political unrest in China.

Government censors, who still frown on rock-and-roll music and who allow Chinese bands to play only occasionally, had to clear all the music and videos played, as well as the memorabilia on the walls.

Visas for the opening night act, top-bill blues guitarist B.B. King and his band, were held up until the last minute. And, among the predominantly Western, invitation-only, opening-night crowd, the club got a black eye when Cui Jian, China's most famous rocker, was turned away by police. Anxious not to rock the boat, a spokesman explained limply: ``We ran out of invitation cards.''

Insisting that the ``Hard Rock Cafe is not political,'' Syn says he can live with the restrictions and make Western pop music a success here. This year, the ethnic Chinese entrepreneur, who runs eight Hard Rock Cafes in Asia, plans to open three more clubs in China - in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. In 1994, Syn plans to bring the Hard Rock Cafe concept, franchised from the American parent firm, to India, Dubai, and other countries in the Middle East.

Syn also has ambitions to branch out beyond the Hard Rock Cafes and bring Western classical music to China. Opera star Luciano Pavarotti is already scheduled for a concert tour on the mainland next year.

But, the Singaporean businessman admits he has to move cautiously in promoting the Hard Rock Cafe in Beijing. ``I plan to take it slowly in Beijing. I don't want to overexpose Hard Rock. We're not into heavy metal.... We want mature artists,'' he explains, saying he has singer Gloria Estafan scheduled for later this year. ``We want to appeal to older people so we don't have riots or any trouble.''

Safely, Syn says he plans to lure clientele from tourists and Western residents who hear about the club by word-of-mouth. He plans some promotions in Beijing hotels but is not allowed to advertise by the still-skeptical Chinese authorities.

But Westerners familiar with the restaurant say success is still down the road. During the 18-day ``soft'' opening of Beijing's Hard Rock Cafe, the club, which has a seating capacity of 400 at a time, has so far drawn 800 customers daily. To be profitable, it needs at least 1,000 customers a day, they say.

``Hard Rock Cafe has no image problem. We're here on one of the busiest roads in town. You can't miss the Cadillac outside,'' Syn says, referring to the 1960 bright red car hanging over the entrance. ``Tourism is growing very fast.... We're trying to get in early.''

Apart from dealing with government censors, selling the Hard Rock Cafe to a Chinese public unfamiliar with hamburgers and rock-and-roll will be an uphill task, Syn admits. Before the opening, Syn tried out the club by asking his 230 Chinese staff members to invite their whole families to eat at the cafe.

While 600 people showed up, Syn says they were befuddled by the musical blare and American fare. ``They just couldn't understand what the concept is,'' he says. ``All they could say is what a clean restaurant it is.''

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