We'll Never be Together
November 30, 2023

Beijing is a frequent subject of my nightmares. In these dreams, jungles grow in the middle of the city, with a thousand entrances bordered by labyrinthine walls. Roads along the elevated rail extend into a dark mist that’s descended over fields of tall, yellow grass. Despite having been to Beijing multiple times, I’m not quite sure it exists. My subconscious has built it up into something unreal. I’m sure if I ever go back, I’ll find it to be disappointingly ordinary.

Beijing was the first really big city I'd ever spent much time in, so what enamored me was the kinds of things you only find in big modern cities (and specifically East Asian cities) like massive shopping malls on every street corner and two-floor McDonald's, with their second-floor dining rooms featuring massive windows overlooking the streets below. Even the simpler sights, like teenagers sitting in convenience store dining rooms together after school, felt so new to me.

Baltimore (where I grew up) didn't have any of that. All it had was urban decay. Boston (where I lived the year I went to Beijing) had a tiny downtown area that felt like a real city, but if you walked in any direction for more than five minutes it all disappeared.

In Beijing, I could start on one side of the city and ride the subway for two hours to the other side, and when I got out I still felt like I was in a massive city rather than a mere suburb. Even Shanghai doesn't have that kind of scale.

Looking back on this all now, I feel like I squandered those brief moments, trapped in Beijing. When I was 21, despite knowing enough Chinese to at least sort of converse with people (especially if we were communicating solely via messages), I didn't know that much about China. Especially not on a visual or tactile level. What I knew came from books, often very old ones. Despite being pretty familiar with Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinema by then, the only mainland movie I know for certain I'd seen when I stepped foot in Beijing was Farewell My Concubine. I hadn't seen Jia Zhangke's films, relishing in the material minutiae of Northern China (though mostly not Beijing). If I'd seen Zhang Yang's Shower (洗澡), I probably would have forced myself to work up the courage to go to a bathhouse. I hadn't seen Li Yu's Lost in Beijing (苹果), which I'd watch years later, sitting on the floor in my Madison, Wisconsin apartment, via my thrift store DVD player and tiny CRT. Troubleshooters (顽主) wasn't even on my radar. Its contemporary depiction of 80s Beijing, somewhere between realism and fantasy, is reminiscent of the Rome in Fellini's La Dolce Vita. That Beijing shocked me the first time I watched it, even after having already seen the “real” Beijing. It contrasts with the much more nostalgic 80s Beijing that shows up in the band New Pants’ (新裤子) music videos.

I didn’t find out about New Pants until years after going to Beijing. I’d listen to their songs over and over in Madison, trying to play along to the melodies on my guitar. Videos like Two Girlfriends (两个女朋友) and Bye Bye Disco scouted out the most 80s-looking locations that remained in the mid-2000s, after the city had already experienced irrevocable change, as a medium through which the band's two main creative forces, guitarist Peng Lei (彭磊) and keyboardist Pang Kuan (庞宽), could meditate on their childhood. If I'd seen those, maybe I'd have set a quest for myself to squeeze out every drop of the 20th century I could out of my time in that city, not unlike my stay in Seoul, which was mostly spent in old malls, wondering at the contrast with the massive new sparkling buildings a short walk away from them.

Of course, it's all a little silly to be talking about the old Beijing, as though that word has a concrete definition. For instance, when Peng Lei and Pang Kuan were growing up, the Beijing city wall, which Wang Xiaobo writes about so fondly in his essay Beijing Feeling (北京风情), was already mostly demolished. Wang Xiaobo lamented that the younger generation, who grew up without such a massive city-defining landmark, would have no way to understand the material culture referenced in earlier literature set in the city. The main legacy of the wall now is that the stops of Beijing subway's line 2, a big loop that roughly coincides with where the wall was, all end in the word gate (门).

So when I think about Beijing, and when I think about people from Beijing, there’s a sort of inevitable anachronism invading all my thoughts. Different worlds seem to occupy the same space. I imagine the sort of trendy girls I saw on escalators of Beijing’s subway or looking through books at the massive multi-story Xinhua bookstore near Tiananmen Square, with cartoon plushies dangling from their purses. Yet when they talked, they had accents that seemed to belong to someone who could beat me to a pulp if they so desired, every word getting a superfluous “r” added to the end of it. Beside them, I imagine the weirder people, with dyed hair and clothes in a weird post-goth style I’ve never seen outside of China. Then I imagine Wang Shuo’s novels of the 80s, with no-good male troublemakers serving as their protagonists, engaging in pursuits those around them consider wasteful and anti-social. A Chinese word for this particular type of person is Liumang (流氓) which also has vaguely sexual undertones. For instance, my girlfriend often calls her perverted dog, brimming with sexual desire towards all the other dogs he encounters, a little Liumang.

This is one of the reasons my thoughts keep returning to New Pants. These anachronisms and multiple words all seem to find their way into the band’s music.

The Peng Lei of my imagination wears tracksuits. His hair still covers his ears and is dyed red, just like it was when he had his first tour in Hong Kong. He wears glasses and is already hunchbacked — just like all the other young guitarists who adjust their straps so the guitar is way too low, practically down to their knees. It’s like smoking — just because it looks cool through your tiny TV doesn’t mean you should do it yourself. The damage is already done. He hardly plays the guitar standing anymore (remember — this is my imaginary version of the man), yet he’s still living a life of bad posture. He sits in his tiny bathroom-less apartment, surrounded by used electronic instruments. The cement walls are grey, and the ground is covered in dust. It’s the kind of room you’d find in a scene from Newsroom Stories (编辑部的故事), starring China’s most famous bald person, Ge You. Orange light filters in from outside. When he has to pee, he has a little pot (尿盆) for that. It’s red and white, with flowers and a decorative 囍 on it, the Chinese character for “double happiness”, a motif you often see around weddings.

Besides being a musician, he's also a painter and director. He's made many movies, like Follow Follow (乐队), about two girls trying to start a band, and Panda Candy (熊猫奶糖). He's also directed and/or animated many of the band's music videos.

When Peng Lei sings, it sounds like he has a fishing hook stuck in his mouth. Someone, from somewhere far away, thinks they’ve got a fantastic catch. They’re pulling with all their might. Peng Lei’s bottom lip, the one with the hook in it, is twisting and stretching, just like the frequency of his vocals. He’s getting dragged across the sidewalk, through the seas and mountains of people, though he keeps singing about orgasms that will never come, inevitable breakups, or whatever else it is this music is about.

This image of Peng Lei that I carry is patched together from glimpses of a 20-year-long career. Those glimpses were gathered and curated for me by strangers. I experienced them all out of order — and in much less than 20 years.

For that reason, it’s hard for me to write about him. He’s existed in what seems like many worlds to me. Like a manifold, I can only wrap my mind around one of those worlds at a time — a local vision of his existence — but somehow those worlds all connect to create some global structure that I’m sure is quite natural for him, but unfathomable for me. I end up with many disparate paragraphs — sometimes even just sad orphan sentences, abandoned by whatever strange creature it is living in my brain that goes around birthing sentences. I have no idea how to connect them.

In my mind, New Pants exists in three periods. Their first period could be characterized as punk, and I don’t think it would be controversial to call their third (and current) period “Alternative rock”. That leaves their second period, which is harder to describe in a single word. Instead, I’ll define it more concretely as the two albums Dragon Tiger Panacea (龙虎人丹) and Equal Love (野人也有爱). Each period has a theme of sorts, songs that you’d expect to hear at any of their performances: in order, those themes would be Our Era (我们的时代) for the punk period, Bye Bye Disco during the middle period, and People Without Ideals Feel No Sorrow (没有理想的人不伤心) for their current incarnation. Notably, for people who haven’t listened to early or mid-period New Pants, Our Era and Bye Bye Disco might be the only songs from those respective periods that they’ve heard. The early and modern period songs are filled with lyrics. Early songs describe feelings, newer songs tell stories.

What is their mid-period like then? For me, it’s the contrast between those two genre-less albums, Dragon Tiger Panacea and Equal Love. One meditates on that no-longer-existing “old Beijing”, lost somewhere between memory and imagination. The other is a “new Beijing”, or perhaps even “new China”, much more like the one I visited when I was 21, or that I imagined when watching the trailer for Peng Lei’s movie Panda Candy (熊猫奶糖), where he follows a group of lesbians across China. Somewhere between those two albums lies a world that can’t be put into words. I yearned to visit that world, back when I first started listening to this music. What I found most disconcerting though was that there was no way for me to know if that world I felt had any basis in reality, or if it was just a product of my own delusions.

Dragon Tiger Panacea is about singers who will never sing again, whose voices are trapped in that invisible electromagnetic world we interface with only through the radio. It’s about people we knew once, who gave up whatever hopes they had here, to go to Japan and wash dishes in the back of a kitchen. It’s also about the moment in the 80s, when Disco was a thing in China, trying to dance one’s heart out, among the freaks and liumang, while there’s still time. It’s about being trapped in one’s room, waiting for love, waiting for orgasm. It’s about one’s shy, timid girlfriend finding a second boyfriend. It’s about Bruce Lee.

More generally, the album is about the 70s and 80s, about the West, as perceived by these kids growing up in China, catching glimpses of it through MTV, and it’s about Beijing itself — the dusty roads, building interiors, and weirdos on the street one is surrounded by growing up there. It’s the same themes that find a way into Peng Lei’s paintings and movies.

On the other hand, Equal Love is about the mid-2000s. I’m not sure how it felt back then when it came out. Listening to it now though, it feels so futuristic. It is cellphone screens, trains, internet cafes, “livehouses”, and the white tiled floors of shopping malls, late at night, minutes before closing.

The album is a guitar trying to escape from a wall of drum machines. No matter how loudly the guitar screams, it is slowly pulled back into its prison of darkness. The tone of that guitar is a skyscraper collapsing in on itself. Orange flames rise against the dark blue night sky. Knives of heat breaststroke their way through the cold winter, looking for a body, a host.

One of the songs that sticks out most to me from the album is Double Happiness (囍). When I listen to the song, I imagine Matendōji’s (魔天童子) digital simulation of heaven running on the NES (or 小霸王, the most successful Famiclone in China). Heaven isn’t some abstract representation of paradise, but a place like any other. Perhaps it’s luxurious, perhaps it exists at a scale unfathomable to humans, but when you step inside of it, you see how cold the pixellated stones that compose it really are.

Being a simulation, we can experience this heaven only as a cross-section. It’s an NES game. You’re always traversing through it, each part fading away as you proceed further. Enemies are everywhere. You can’t just sit still and soak in the sensory information all around you. You have to keep pressing buttons. Before you know it, the level is over, and now you’re in hell.

Double Happiness is quite similar, though this particular digital heaven is communicated solely through audio. Music moves forward automatically. There are no buttons to press, other than the pause button, and that turns the music off completely. The song has barely even begun before it’s over. Its electronic buzz may stay inside you, but the colors, the tactile information provided by your fingertips against the golden red walls, that’s all gone.

Where did the sound of Dragon Tiger Panacea and Equal Love come from? Why did New Pants give up on the punk of their earlier albums? Of course, calling that early-period punk feels a little reductive. They already were experimenting with electronics. Songs like Computer and Fashion1983 are already brimming with spectacular weirdness. Yet there’s a clear divide between their third album We Are Automatic (我们是自动的) and Dragon Tiger Panacea both in terms of sound and timing — there’s a four-year gap between them. What happened?

Well, perhaps the simplest explanation is that they lost their drummer.

Shang Xiao (尚笑), now a successful author living in Japan, appears in a few of New Pants' early videos, but he’s never the focus. Maybe that was because he’s short and fat. Back then their bassist Liu Bao (刘葆) had long hair, despite going bald a few years later. He at least had a few short moments to appreciate his handsomeness. When Peng Lei talks about Shang Xiao in later interviews, he often refers to him as their goofy drummer from the early days. He shares anecdotes about Shang Xiao racking up a massive bill watching pay-per-view porn at their hotel in Hong Kong, or getting dumped by his prostitute girlfriend and writing the lyrics to I Don’t Want to Lose You (我不想失去你).

Sometime during the early days of the band, Shang Xiao started dating a Japanese exchange student. Shortly after she went back to Japan, Shang Xiao decided to go to Japan too.

I read his memoir, Between Consciousness and Numbness (在清醒与麻木之间), in the days leading up to going to Shanghai, when I was stuck in weeks of uncertainty due to the pandemic and China’s notorious Zero-Covid policy. I wasn’t sure I’d ever actually be able to enter the country.

What is the book about? Well, what comes to mind is playing Final Fantasy on the Playstation 2 late into the night, moving from apartment to apartment, washing dishes in the back kitchen of a restaurant, graduating to cutting vegetables, then getting a new job at an airport cleaning plane cabins. He spent the new year a the Japanese exchange student’s house, the one he liked, with her rich parents. Her parents didn’t like him. She moved to Tokyo and they lived together. They broke up. He moved in with friends. He applied for college in Japan and studied Japanese literature, despite being over half a decade older than all his classmates.

It’s a fascinating book, but it has no plot. It’s a series of images, feelings, and memories.

Without a drummer, New Pants had to resort to using a drum machine. I suppose it was that forced reliance on electronics that made it easy to take the next step and abandon punk entirely. After Dragon Tiger Panacea, Liu Bao felt they’d turned become a pathetic sissy band. He ended up joining Misandao (蜜三刀), which I suppose one might characterize as the opposite of whatever New Pants had turned into by then. So Peng Lei and Pang Kuan were even more free to go down the road they were on, resulting in Equal Love.

It's those homoerotic dances that Liu Bao hated so much that pushed me over the edge towards true New Pants admiration. I've written about Pang Kuan so little in this essay, but it has to be noted how massive his contributions were. Just watch the video below of him twisting and contorting his body while singing about love bringing him back to California, a place I'm not sure any of them had been to at the time this song was recorded. (That said, Peng Lei's unceasing bouncing during the slap circle also has to be admired.)

Yet, like I said before, even in their early music, there’s mystery swirling all around. There are songs with simpler sentiments, like We Don’t Listen to Pop Music (我们不听流行音乐). But there are also songs like Robot Cat (机器猫), about someone who does nothing and wants nothing, other than to be with the titular robot cat. One might say these lyrics foreshadow Giant Panda (大熊猫). Were these sentiments expressed by a child, we’d call them innocence. Instead, they blossom into perversion.

The lyrics of the song Computer from their earlier album Disco Girl consist of only

计算机 别伤心
Computer, don’t be sad
有我在 一切放心
I’m here, everything’s alright

and the word “computer”, repeated as synthesizers swell and bubble in the background. Who knows what they’re supposed to mean. Yet I find myself, years later, whispering them to myself unexpectedly.

New Pants was the first band that I felt like I was truly liking all by myself, rather learning from the taste of people more learned in matters relating to the auditory arts than me -- people who already knew all the cool-person bands. Unfortunately, I suspect this is directly related to them being Chinese. When I was a teenager starting to get interested in Japanese music, it felt like there were so many guys on the internet who saw themselves as experts on J-rock or J-pop. Some of them even lived in Japan and spoke some Japanese (often greatly exaggerating their command of the language). Whenever I listened to older bands like RC Succession or BOOWY, I was just following in their footsteps, listening to music that had already “been made accessible to Americans”, whatever I mean by that.

Of course, coming to like New Pants by myself is different from finding them all by myself, which is certainly not what happened. Some girl on the internet told me about them. She shared their song You forgotten how beautiful you are (你都忘记了你有多美). In fact, when I started listening to New Pants, they were one of the most popular bands in China. They had just won the Rock competition TV show The Big Band (乐队的夏天).

I thought You forgot how beautiful you are was alright, but it wasn’t life-changing. It felt like decent pop-rock. When I looked up their other songs and found People Without Ideals Feel No Sorrow, I liked that a little more, but I still felt like I was buying into some cheap trick for liking it. In fact, in Peng Lei’s memoir, which I read a few years later, when describing the songwriting process for People Without Ideals Feel No Sorrow, he says he noticed a lot of the sort of songs the kids like had slow quiet verses, then they got loud for the chorus. To be popular, the band needed songs with moving lyrics. So he wrote a song that matched those specifications, and it ended up being the biggest hit the band ever had. So I suppose in a sense, my instincts were correct that this was cynical commercial music.

Yet I kept listening. At the time I had just dyed my hair pink. I got a futon for free off of Craigslist, which took up the entire floorspace in the tiny room I had in my mom’s house. Whenever the radiators were working, it felt so hot in there. I listened to an unplugged concert they did, which included the song Two Boyfriends (两个男朋友). The song was a simple breakup song, but the vehemence in Peng Lei’s voice when he screamed 我恨你和他亲热 (“I hate the warmth between you and him”) moved me. Then they played the song Famous Director (著名导演) and I realized these people were freaks. I listened to the albums these songs came from. I suppose at some point during this process I became a fan.

Around the time I moved to Boston, back in 2018, I got into a conversation once with someone from China about books. She said she liked Murakami Haruki. I asked her how she first started reading him, and she replied “Murakami is very famous in East Asia. He’s like F. Scott Fitzgerald is in America. Everyone knows about him from birth.”

For a brief moment, I felt like a poser. I first heard about F. Scott Fitzgerald (as well as Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver (the double namesakes of RC Cola)) from Haruki Murakami. I read The Great Gatsby because the protagonist of Norwegian Wood read it over and over as a freshman spending time alone at his college campus. A few years later I’d have to read it for high school, so sure, I would have learned about the guy sooner or later. I didn’t grow up knowing though. Maybe kids with parents who read did, but that wasn’t me.

This has been a general pattern in my life. I only really end up learning about “Western” stuff if a Japanese or Chinese person brings it to my attention.

I read an interview with Kahimi Karie when I was 14. She talked about reading French novels as a kid and thinking “This — this is me.” When I read those words, I wondered what a feeling like that is like. She’s sung many songs in French and English, perhaps more than in her native language. She lived in Paris for many years, and according to Wikipedia, now lives in New York. When I listened to first Japanese music, then Chinese music, and when I read Tanizaki, Murakami, Cao Xueqin, and Wang Xiaobo, I tried that feeling out.

As a 14-year-old I assumed if Kahimi Karie could have those feelings towards the West, that it was perfectly possible — perfectly natural — to have a relationship in the other direction. I’ve since found that Western music and literature don’t explore this particular theme all that much, for reasons that are now obvious.

New Pants’ music, however, is filled with meditations on this estranged admiration. It’s perhaps one of the most enduring themes throughout their career. They’re a Chinese rock band, after all, inspired by the likes of The Ramones, New Order, and The Petshop Boys. They've lived a life separated from all their adored by at least one ocean. A newer song of theirs, Someday I’ll Lie to You (总有一天我会欺骗你) has a particularly pessimistic view on this, in contrast to many of the songs on Dragon Tiger Panacea, most notably, You Are my Superstar (你就是我的明星).

When I talk to Chinese people, it's a little embarrassing to admit how decisive that world I encountered through New Pants music was in my decision to come here. Especially when it's their newer music that most people would think of now when I bring up the band. I find those songs to be placeless, despite their longer lyrics and higher production values for the music videos. When I've talked to older people who listened to mid-period New Pants as the albums came out, they seem to generally find this music to be fun and silly, certainly not life-changing. I can't point to any one aspect hidden deep within this music and say "That -- that's what moved me so much." It's the smallest details, the tiny turns of phrases, single scenes from their music videos or Peng Lei's movie Equal Love (野人也有爱) (which was bundled with the album), that captured my imagination and made me want to come here.

It's of course a pity I ended up in Shanghai rather than Beijing. Even after coming to China, that music still feels so far away from me. Even if I lived in Beijing, I’m sure I’d still feel that distance, a kind of temporal distance rather than a spatial distance. Still, I can carry this music with me no matter where I go, and meditate on that distance, whenever I feel inclined to do so.

Maybe everyone needs one band that they stick with for years — one band that they keep coming back to — especially people who are always listening to new music (like me). Maybe it’s best that it’s an old band, a band from another place in space in time, a band with an established discography that is already set in stone. The world around you may change, and your taste in everything else might change, but this music is still here, just as it was when you first discovered it. If someone puts a gun to your head and gives you three seconds to say what your favorite band is, you’re prepared. In calmer circumstances, say, when you’re out eating fancy salads with your beloved friends, in the mood for philosophical conversation, you can debate what it means for a band to be your “favorite.” But in the moment, when you screamed out the name of that band, you won’t feel like you were just lying to get out of a gun-to-your-head scenario. You faced this particular gun-to-the-head with dignity.

Edit (Dec. 5): I wrote another post about the band, the challenges of writing about music in general, and the weird shame I've been feeling since I finished this essay.


Most of what I know about Peng Lei, Pang Kuan, Shang Xiao and New Pants comes from the following three books:

I translated a few of New Pants' songs, which you can find here.