Wujun Ke introduces “Dongbei vaporwave”, the retro electronic rap of China’s northeast
When a friend introduced me to the Chinese viral hit “Ye Lang Disco” (“Wild Wolf Disco”) in September last year, I was not sure what the hype was about. Then, like thousands of internet commentators, I fell victim to the earworm. I was captivated by the song’s refreshingly folksy and unassuming sense of humor. Gem (董寶石), a rapper from Changchun, performed the song in the 2019 season of Rap of China, a popular televised rap competition. Soon after, Gem found breakout success on Tik Tok (known in China as “Douyin”) with this vaporwave-influenced track.
As a music genre, vaporwave arises in the context of post-industrial, heavily-networked societies and has been noted for its nostalgic sampling of Muzak (the background music played in many retail stores) and early computer aesthetics. As a critique of capitalism, it is more playful than denunciatory. As musician and academic Laura Glitsos writes:
Vaporwave digs up those waste products of consumer culture, that which capitalism discards, and brings them to the fore: old VHS tapes, technologies that never reached the market, the grating tones of corporate instructional videos, advertisements from the 1980s.
Glitsos claims that the vaporwave music and aesthetic is a form of memory play where remembering is self-consciously spurious: the music might evoke a memory the listener has never experienced themselves. Because China opened its markets to global capitalism under Deng Xiaoping’s administration in the 1980s, this imagined nostalgia typically draws on references from the late 1990s to early 2000s — the height of optimism for the consumer economy. Tik Tok videos sampling the song often feature ultra-fashionable Chinese youth reproducing steps that were popular decades before they came of age.
First released on his 2017 EP Your Uncle (你的老舅), the album title refers to Gem’s public persona of an aging yet cheerful and avuncular man. In October 2019, it was given fresh life when Hong Kong pop idol William Chan Wai-ting covered it in his native Cantonese. A viral sensation, the song has spawned countless covers in various regional dialects, reaction videos, and parodies of the choreography across Chinese social media platforms.
In interviews, Gem has characterized his sound as “dummy rap” (傻子說唱) or “comedic rap” (戲劇說唱). Although vaporwave has self-consciously avoided any signifier of the local, Gem infuses his music with regional references and a self-mockery specific to his native dongbei, the northeastern region of China that includes Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. The song is a gesture to the social cost of de-industrialization of China’s northeast. Previously a puppet state of the Japanese empire, the Northeast became a stronghold for the communist takeover in 1928 and then a pillar of Soviet-style industrialization in the Mao era. The reform-era has brought the gradual decline and abandonment of the factory ecosystem, resulting in mass layoffs of workers from industries that had once guaranteed lifelong employment and benefits. In an interview with TRILLSXXT, Gem said, “My songs are about the decline of the Northeast and a desire for rebirth. It’s kind of my wish for my hometown.”
The song features dongbei-specific colloquialisms that toe the line between innovative and outdated. As a top-voted Youtube commenter noted in Chinese, “Tackiness taken to an extreme is paradoxically cool”. While tu literally translates to dirt, it is also a pejorative for tacky, rustic, outdated, and often associated with rural or small-town aesthetics. In the reform era, the Northeast is perceived as having fallen behind the times and as less modern than coastal cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. The music video begins with a comedic bit where the protagonist says he’s losing signal on his dageda — a clunky, first generation mobile phone. The first iteration of the music video, low-budget and edited by the artist himself, features a series of video-samples of 90’s dance moves and film clips.
My songs are about the decline of the Northeast and a desire for rebirth. It’s kind of my wish for my hometown.”Gem
The lyrics takes us back to the 1990s and follows the protagonist – an aging man at the precipice of a midlife crisis – to the disco. He is perhaps 40 or 50 years old, retired from dongbei state enterprises and taking whatever temporary gigs he can find. Narrated from a first-person perspective, he imagines himself as forever young with slicked-back hair and a pager on display:
大背头 bb机 舞池里的007 Rocking that pompadour and pager, call me Bond on the dance floor
东北初代牌牌奇 dj瞅我也懵逼 I’m the first to dance it off in Dongbei, I could wear them DJs down
不管多热都不能脱下我的皮大衣 Gotta hold onto the mink even if it’s 120 degrees
全场动作必须跟我 整齐 划一 Right now y’all move with me
In this remembrance, he shows off his leather coat, pager and cell phone – luxury items that few could afford at the time. We are given a portrait of a man who is proud of his self-presentation and rooted in his milieu, though his stylishness is at risk of being made obsolete by sweeping socioeconomic changes looming on the horizon.
The song’s hook name-checks dance moves that would be recognizable to anyone who frequented a disco in the 1990’s: the Guo Fucheng (郭富城) — a dance move popularized by Hong Kong pop idol Aaron Kwok – the dragon, the rainbow, and two index fingers pointing into the air. In the multi-splendored lighting cast by the disco ball and orgiastic mood of the discotheque, he is transported back to his prime. In this musical interlude, time is suspended, the party never ends, and an archetypical Northeasterner like Uncle Gem can imagine himself as the life of the party rallying everyone on the dance floor.
来左边 跟我壹起画个龙 To the left let’s draw a dragon
在妳右边 画壹道彩虹 走起 To the right let’s paint a rainbow
来 左边 跟我壹起画彩虹 To the left now do the rainbow
在妳右边 再画个龙 To the right it’s dragon time
在妳胸口上比划 壹个郭富城 Draw a lil’ MJ on your chest
左边儿右边儿摇摇头 Move your head left and right
两个食指就像两个鉆天猴 Now you raise them fingers high
指向闪耀的灯球 Up to the shining lights
The chorus, crooned in second-hand Cantonese, describes a budding romance between our lusty protagonist and the most beautiful girl in the club:
心里的花我想要带妳回家 You are my sweetheart, I’ma take you home
在那深夜酒吧哪管它是真是假 In that lil’ late night joint, ain’t we all livin’ the dream
请妳尽情摇摆忘记钟意的他 Come on, groove that body, groove it wild, I need you to stop thinking about some other man
妳是最迷人噶 妳知道吗 You are the finest in the crowd
Gem’s mispronounced performance of the Cantonese hook is also a throwback to the 1990s and early 2000s, when music production was centered in Taiwan and Hong Kong and Canto-pop was considered the epitome of modern. That time has passed, and China has now entered a less optimistic version of global capitalism. The song’s ahistorical, end-of-times aesthetic breeds a wistful longing for the past, an attachment contoured by the retro-futuristic ambience of the vaporwave genre. On the popular online discussion forum Reddit, the chatroom description for r/vaporwave weaves a poetic, if doomed, vision of a fully digital, post-human future: “Global capitalism is nearly there. At the end of the world there will only be liquid advertisement and gaseous desire…” Gesturing to the liquidity of finance capital as well as the aesthetic forms that capitalism takes, vaporwave captures a nostalgia that has spread internationally to resonate with Chinese audiences.
Three decades after integrating itself into economic and cultural networks of global capitalism, China, like the US, has reached a state of affective exhaustion. The flatness and numbness of postmodernism begs for spectral resurrections: ghosts of Canto-pop haunting the hooks of Chinese-dialect rap, deadpan comedy infused with ironic self-mockery. Instead of looking towards the horizon of an aspirational cosmopolitanism, “Ye Lang Disco” salvages the moods, dance moves, conversations, attitudes, and artifacts of the 1990s and then remixes them in a celebration of dongbei culture. This appropriation of local stereotypes questions the validity of the global progress narrative and salvages the value of what has been left behind in a globalized world. Gem’s obsession with memory signals a desire for the dynamism of history, a nostalgia that may drive the kind of creative rebirth that he hopes to see. ∎