It is May Day in China, but the Chinese people are unable to celebrate the true meaning of the holiday.
May Day isn’t about the canonization of Saint Walpurga. It’s not about walking around a maypole with streamers. And it’s certainly not about labour.
No, May Day, in the People’s Republic of China, is about music.
Since the late 1990’s, music festivals have been held around the country over the four-day May Day holiday. The first Midi Music Festival was held in Beijing from May 1-3, 1997. The festival has been expanded such that it now holds performances simultaneously in multiple cities. More festivals followed. In 2013, the Strawberry Music Festival, which is put on by Modern Sky Records, was held during May Day holiday in Beijing and Shanghai.
2013 was a great year for music festivals. In addition to Midi and Strawberry, Dali held the Erhai World Music Festival for the first time. Best of all: I was there!
Dali is an ancient town situated between Mount Cang and the high-alpine Er Hai Lake. It was the capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom from 738-937 AD and the subsequent Dali Kingdom. Now it’s a beautiful tourist town with stone streets lined with blossoming trees, canals, and white-walls painted with murals.
I was working at a bar on Foreigner Street in spring of 2013. I stood outside of Tang Dynasty every night from 8 pm to 11 pm waving at people and inviting them in. It was a fun job, and one that provided me with free beer as well as a high wage (for the city) and free housing at the run-down guesthouse behind the bar.
Dali Erhai Music Festival was a held at a park on the banks of the Er Hai Lake kilometers to the south of the walled ancient city. Some people set up tents on the grass and stayed for the full three days. The grassy peninsula was also where the pot smoking happened. Marijuana use and sale is punished with strict penalties in China. But in Yunnan, being far from Beijing and close to the Golden Triangle, there is relatively lax enforcement of such laws. (It is said that in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, people could smoke openly in the ancient city. That era has wafted away in time.)
The 2013 festival showcased some big names: Black Panther, the first metal band in China; Brain Failure, a punk band that has done colabs with Big D and the Kids Table; Reflector, a pop-punk band that was the first Chinese band I had ever seen in concert; and Misandao, a skinhead punk band with songs and lyrics you’d never expect to hear in China (and would have been impossible in Mao’s dictatorship of the proletariat). Misandao’s frontman Lei Jun died in May 2015, so it was one of the last music festivals they ever played.
Chinese guys and gals waved flags and fists up in front of the stage. BMXers jumped off ramps in the parking lot, and hippies sold crafts (much of which they purchased on Taobao) on blankets. To be sure, a few of the bands (Misandao, for example) embodied working class anger and revolutionary ardor.
But for the most part, there was no sign of the spirit of 1889; it was the spirit of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, that which left political and economic dogmas by the wayside and brought out the reforms that would lead to a growing middle class, that would open the world up to allow the proliferation of foreign music on tape, foreign brands, and foreign culture.
This year, there can be no music festivals. But the spirit of May Day is still alive in the youths singing at newly-opened karaoke parlours.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, USA Today, the South China Morning Post, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.