WHAM! in China (Part Two) was written by Peter Martin and published in Smash Hits on May 22nd – June 4th, 1985.
We’re halfway through Wham!’s historic tour of China – the first ever by a Western pop group. Peter Martin and Chalkie Davies joined the group in Peking, where they played their first shows – to a mixed reaction – and started filming their documentary. They’re now en route to Canton, but all is not well…
3.00pm, Monday April 8: thousands of feet above China on CAAC flight Number 1301, something is going terribly wrong. Roars of pain erupt from the back of the flight cabin. Startled, stomachs sinking fast, the passengers cautiously peer down the aisle. A man is having a fit. His screams get louder, his body wracked in pain. I’m only two seats in front – I can see a small knife in his hand, poised in front of his stomach … and it looks as though he’s about to stab himself.
There’s a horrible, consuming air of panic now. The flight crew are rushing around trying to calm the passengers. Members of the Wham! party – they’re all here apart from George and Andrew and the two managers – look at one another anxiously, not quite knowing what to do.
Now the man is being restrained by the two Wham! minders, Ronnie and Dave. They’ve got the knife and are holding him by the arms and neck. His spasms get more violent, his screams more demonic; he’s like a man possessed, Shirlie and Pepsi, who were sitting next to him, are standing on the window seat and holding onto one another nervously.
Suddenly the plane dives. Stomachs churn, heads spin. The plane begins to creak. It actually sounds like we’re turning back. Diving, diving, diving, we’ve just broken the clouds.
Land comes into vision like a zoom lens snapping into sudden focus. Meanwhile the noises from the back of the plane get more and more distressing – he sounds like the girl in The Exorcist.
With a loud bash we’re down, the plane reeling as each side of the undercarriage hits the tarmac. One last mighty screech and we stop, dead. The aircraft then taxis to the terminal. Eventually a Chinese doctor comes on board to give him an anaesthetic. The screams subside and he’s carted off in an ambulance, leaving the rest of us feeling completely shell-shocked.
But who is he? It turns out he’s actually Raul D’Oliveira, Wham!’s 33-year-old Portuguese trumpet player. Apparently he just suddenly flipped. Talking to members of the band later, it seems he’d been acting a bit weird for the past few days, thinking he was “the devil”, and suddenly – without any warning – he just cracked up mid-flight. Tomorrow’s newspaper reports will go completely overboard about the incident – one will say the pilot was attacked by a mad hijacker; another that he tried to commit “hara-kiri”; another that the plane crashed and “all the passengers died”. It’s not that disastrous but it’s still a pretty shaken bunch of people who settle back into their seats as the plan turns round and heads for Canton once more.
First keyboard player Mark Fisher collapsed in Hong Kong (“exhaustion” – it’s been a seven month tour), now Raul’s out of circulation and Wham! are reduced to a 10-piece. Coupled with this the Wham! film director Lindsay Anderson fell while walking on The Great Wall and is now confined to a wheelchair. People are starting to think the whole venture’s jinxed or something.
Talking to Shirlie in the Canton hotel disco later that night, she says, “I just think what we’re doing here is bad. I don’t want to sound funny or anything but I just don’t think it’s right that we’re playing here. People here are sad, they want freedom but they’re not allowed to have it and, in a way, we’re giving them a taste of something they can’t really have. I just think it was awful the way that boy was taken out of last night’s concert and beaten. That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t come here. It was just so sad. I just want to go home.”
And that, I’m afraid, is the general opinion of all the 70-strong Wham! entourage at the moment. Spirits have to be raised so we pile into the hotel next door to see if their disco’s still open. It isn’t. That means it’s a fridge party or nothing. This turns out to be the standard night out for the rest of the week: bit of sightseeing in the daytime, get depressed by the obvious poverty and hardship so many Chinese have to endure, go for a drink, go bowling, have more drinks, go to the disco, go to the bass-player Deon’s room and bring the contents of your hotel drinks’ fridge with you. And go to bed around 5.00am. Look ill the next day and start all over again. Pretty rock ‘n’ roll, eh?
Tuesday is a free day so most of the party go to market. Here they see skinned dogs strung up in rows, headless cats in bins, eagles in cages all ready for eating. Rats, ant-eaters, ants, armadillos, pigeons, sparrows and even tigers are sold for the same purpose. You can even buy “boiling frogs” by the dozen. Colonials here joke that the “Chinese would eat anything with legs as long as it’s not a table or chair”.
Things are brightening up. George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley are here and we’re all off to a football match: the Wham! band vs. the Wham! Chinese road crew. It’s an 11-a side to be played on the ground of the Chung Sahn Memorial Hall where Wham! will play their final Chinese concert tomorrow night.
Andrew turns up in a proper kit – Tottenham, I think. George turns up late (10 minutes into the game). The film crew are here, of course. The Fleet Street reporters have gone home, apart from the Daily Star and Daily Express journalists who’re still in Peking but have been invited up here because “they’ve been the best of a bad bunch” (and, I suspect, because it would really annoy The Sun and the Mirror who weren’t quite so well behaved).
Anyway the game’s a bit of a shambles, most of the players just booting the ball as far away from themselves as possible. Andrew, posing like no-one’s business, ends up scoring two goals; Paul, the other trumpeter, scores four and that’s only half-time. The team decide to “let the others try and catch up – otherwise they might not unload any more equipment!”
By the second half, the crew’s team have put away a couple of goals, and a large crowd is gathering at the surrounding wrought iron gates. The Wham! team score two more making it 8-2. 10 minutes from the end, George comes off for a drink. Chatting to him by the coats they’re using as goalposts, I casually point out that there’s someone behind him with a ball and it looks like they’re just about to score. He just turns round and wellies it down the other end, drink still in hand, saving the goal (what a hero).
The whistle’s just gone and 8-2 is the final score. The winning team line up for a photo, the film crew are dragged back to do a shot of ‘cheerleaders’ Shirlie and Pepsi with a bunch of terribly cute children. And then it’s back to the hotel.
6.00pm: there’s another banquet, this time thrown by the Chinese Culture Exchange Centre, Guangdong branch. It’s here where George gets dragged up to help with the after-dinner entertainment, the magician. He has to tie her hands and she has to get out of it – sophisticated stuff, eh?
According to George, “the food was awful. I hadn’t eaten all day and I was starving hungry after the football match and all we got was a cold buffet!”
Back at the hotel George heads for the sauna – the football match has done his back in again. He gets filmed in there, apparently “pouring his heart out to the camera about being a superstar and things like that”, according to producer Martyn Lewis. He also gets filmed while having a massage. A massage here, incidentally, means getting walked on by a Sumo-wrestler. If that didn’t do his back in, nothing will. And, according to Lewis, in this scene there was even a “hint of buttock”. We shall see!
And then it’s back to the bowling alley. George can’t play, of course – the bad back again. Instead we sit and watch the others. Andrew, as usual, is doing his utmost to steal the show – this time he’s wearing a proper bowling glove and ‘throwing a few shapes’. That doesn’t stop him forgetting to let go of the ball and ending up flat on his back in the next alley. Tee hee.
“Good excuse isn’t it?” smiles George. “Having a bad back can come in handy sometimes. I think I’d be useless at bowling and I don’t think I want to find out – well, at least not in front of this lot.” He goes on to talk about the first concert.
“Just after the concert I was a little disappointed. In a sense I thought we’d failed because only the Westerners were getting into it. But that wasn’t entirely the case. It wasn’t only afterwards I discovered there had been that “dancing is disallowed” notice. I just take that announcement as an insult to Wham!. It’s like the authorities were saying you could only observe Wham! and not take part, which was not the premise on which we came. That just wasn’t the point.
In a way, I think we’ve been exploited by the authorities here. Okay, we’ve exploited it for publicity but they’ve taken us for a lot of money as well. The result of all this, I think, will be that they won’t let anyone play here again. After Wham! I think pop music in China will come to an end.”
That said, we both try to think of who else could possibly get invited.
“Culture Club, purely in terms of music and presentation, I suppose,” he says, adding that Boy George’s old transvestite image wouldn’t have gone down a storm. “Frankie are too much of a threat. Spandau are too rock and roll.” Queen and Duran Duran, he reckons, wouldn’t be accepted because the British papers are always trying to cook up scandalous stories about them. “They want a group who, I suppose, have a clean reputation – wholesome – and that’s kind of why they chose us.”
So how did the Chinese react to the Wham! concerts? What were the reviews like? “They were so funny. We wouldn’t allow any local photographers in so they decided to kind of stitch us up. They put things like ‘Wham! failed because there weren’t enough solos’, and that our films contained ‘Wham! propaganda’. It’s all so stupid.”
He’s not exactly in love with Canton, either.
“It’s very close, humid. Apart from that I haven’t experienced much of it yet I suppose.”
Now we’re getting to the crux of the problem. The humidity, it turns out, is making George’s hair go funny. His normal bouncy blo-wave is being reduced to a damp, wavy mess by the condensation. As a result he’s bunged a load of wet-look gel on it to make it look properly curly. Very Kevin Keegan. But the problem is that he doesn’t want to be filmed close-up when he’s in this state.
So he’s hit on a plan: to take the film crew back to Shepperton Studios in Surrey to do all the Canton close-up shots. The cost is undisclosed but it could run into hundreds of thousands – all that for a hair-do. That tops the one about him wanting to re-shoot the “Careless Whisper” video because he’d just had his hair cut and liked the new style better. Pop stars, eh? What can you do with them?
Thursday is the day of the concert. It’s also the day when the underlying reason for the trip is revealed at a press conference. George and Andrew stay in bed and leave it up to the managers to tell the story. It seems that two Wham! tapes will be released in China. One, on April 18, will feature the best of the “Fantastic” and “Make It Big” albums.
Then, on May 1, a second cassette will be released. On Side One it will feature five Wham! songs by Wham!; on Side Two it will feature five Wham! songs by Cheng Fang Yuan, China’s most popular female artist. She will sing all songs in Chinese. The tapes are being pressed in China on an initial run of 600,000. It’s all done in association with the Chinese Culture Exchange Centre and International Yamagen (a Hong Kong company) and they expect it to sell at least two million (the amount Cheng Fang Yuan sells every time she releases a solo tape). In China, there are 400 million people between the age of 14 and 35. The potential market is staggering.
7.00pm: we all head for the concert hall, built over 100 years ago and entirely constructed of wood without the use of nails. Here George and Andrew meet Cheng the Chinese singer (and get filmed and photographed with her). Andrew’s Dad Albert thinks she’s “lovely”. He’s also dead pleased to be here. “I’m very proud of our son and I’m very pleased that he’s been kind enough to invite us out here to see him perform. I consider it a real privilege.”
George’s Dad is equally pleased to be here and appears totally fascinated by China’s strange culture.
“I think it’s much more westernised here in Canton than in Peking. I suppose that’s due to them being so close to Hong Kong. It was amazing – I met this Chinese man today who spoke perfect English. He learnt it from a dictionary and from the radio. He claimed that people here are ‘for the west’. In fact he said 99.9% are ready for the change, almost looking forward to it. You’d never guess by looking around.”
After the photos, Cheng goes onstage to introduce Wham!. “I am their devoted fan,” she tells me. “Young people here will like them very much. Their music is very loud, though. I think the people of China will go crazy for them.”
Chatting to the audience, mainly little girls, it seems they all like Spandau Ballet, Culture Club and Duran Duran, “but Wham! are best”.
This time, when the lights go down there are screams, and lots of them. And people actually stood up! But again they are physically forced (very politely, of course) to sit back down, which they do, for now at least. As the concert goes on, all the hits – familiar to most – are reeled off. A mass of screaming, standing girls emerges in the middle of the hall. They cannot be forced to sit down. George sees this and really turns on the pressure, pulling out all the stops.
Slow, more and more people stand and clap and cheer, even dance. By the end over 50% are joining in. The concert is undoubtedly a resounding success. Manager Simon Napier-Bell leaves the hall with these words: “The last 30 minutes have been the greatest of my life.”
A few encores later and they’re off, leaving the audience still begging for more.
Later, George seems just as satisfied.
“It was only just before the end I realised it was our last concert in China, the thing we’ve come all this way and gone to all this trouble over. I had to make it work if it was the last thing I did. Thankfully it turned out a success.
Now I’m just looking forward to going home. I can’t wait for a nice cup of tea – the milk here’s terrible.”
- Wham! In China (Part 1), Smash Hits Magazine (1985)
- Wham! The French Connection (No. 1 Magazine, 1984)
- George Michael Interview in The Face (August 1985)
- After George Michael Strained His Back (Smash Hits, 1985)
- Welcome to Wham! Land (Bop Magazine, 1985)