WHAM! in China (Part One) was written by Peter Martin and published in Smash Hits on May 8th-21st 1985.
There are no pop charts in China; only a year ago, discos were unheard of and dancing wasn’t allowed. Wham! are the first Western pop group to be invited to play there and their historic concerts were being hailed as “a cultural revolution”. Peter Martin and Chalkie Davies joined George and Andrew for a seven-day trip of a lifetime. This is the first part of their special report.
“I’d like to start by saying my partner Andrew and I are extremely flattered and honoured to be here today. We just hope our performance will represent a cultural introducing between young people here and in The West and help them see what goes on in the rest of the world.
“And I think I speak for everyone when I say this may be a small step for Wham! but a great step for the youth of the world!”
The date is April 5, 1985. The place is Peking, the capital of China. The event is a banquet held by the Chinese Youth Federation in honour of their guests, Wham!. The speakers are George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley.
For the next 10 days Wham! will be touring China. This afternoon they scaled The Great Wall that divides China and Mongolia. On Sunday the 7th they will perform at the Workers’ Gymnasium in Peking. On Monday they fly to Canton to perform at the Zhongshan Memorial Hall. Two days later they will fly back to Hong Kong – from where they’ve just got back after playing the local Colosseum Theatre. And in between all that they’ve got a football match, about a million banquets, two press conferences and a film to make. It is, in short, an historic trip.
It’s historic because China, a country with a one billion population, had no discos until 12 months ago, and dancing was “disallowed”. There are no such things as pop charts, no singles, no LPs, just cassettes – and they’re nearly all by Chinese artists. The only other music available is light Japanese pop music which sounds like the stuff they play with the TV testcard. Only the ‘privileged’ can afford any of this anyway, most not even being able to afford a simple transistor radio.
For centuries China has been under a self-imposed isolation and only now is it being swept away. For the first time the people of China are being allowed to have a real taste of Western culture. Already in the main cities you can find Coca Cola, Levi jeans, McDonalds, Sony Walkmans and now … Wham!.
Most people welcome the change. Some aren’t so keen, seeing it as a form of “spiritual pollution”. As a kind of compromise, Wham! were only allowed to perform after a strict vettting, the result of which rounded off a few of their more decadent edges like George Michael’s “sexy hip gyrations”.
Nevertheless the working title for their documentary film is Wham! In China!: A Cultural Revolution!. An appropriate title? We’ll just have to wait seven days to find out.
All is not well. Patience and energy are being spread very thin. Apart from the pressure that goes with the honour of being the first Western pop group to play China, Wham! have got an awful lot more on their plate. Literally every move they make is being recorded by the film crew. They go for breakfast – so do the film crew; they walk down the street – so do the film crew; they take a sauna – so do the film crew. For all I know, they probably get filmed going to the toilet.
And then there’s the Chinese themselves. Tourists are a relatively new thing for them, never mind pop stars who stroll around in tartan suits and tuxedos all day. The result is the boys are subjected to a constant barrage of blank stares every time they set foot outdoors.
And there’s Fleet Street. Wham!’s managers have invited four newspapers – Daily Mirror, The Sun, Daily Star, Daily Express – out here for maximum exposure back home. Each paper has forked out £10,000 each for the privilege, dead keen to have any story on Wham!. It’s a fiercely competitive business. When they were in Hong Kong, for example, The Sun, under strict instructions to “nobble” its competitor the Mirror, ‘leaked’ a story to Mirror man John Blake about ‘George Michael cracking up’. Blake filed the story and it appeared on their front page. The story was completely untrue and it lost Blake the chance of an interview. Well and truly “nobbled”.
After that and the previous week’s stories about ‘Randy Andy’s Bum-Grabbing Boozy Night Of Debauchery’ stories, neither George nor Andrew play ball with Fleet Street. The only occasion they cooperated was yesterday at The Great Wall, and then they only posed for photos for a couple of minutes and gave sarcy quotes like: “It looks like one long Barratt home” – George; and “I can’t see the point in it; who’d want to invade a country like this anyway?” – Andrew. The rest of the time Andrew just keeps his dark glasses on and looks moody, while George just keeps out of the way in his room.
I accidentally bumped into George at the hotel Breakfast Bar. He seemed very keen to give his side of the story. “All this Fleet Street business is one thing I never envisaged when we started. I mean all those stories about me collapsing – it’s just beyond me. It’s absolutely horrific. It’s like being bullied – bullied by Fleet Street.”
At 6.00pm we all have to meet up again. This time it’s at Peking’s oldest and largest restaurant The Peking Duck. Andrew turns up, George doesn’t, choosing to eat from room service as he’s a bit tired. Anyway, inside the private suite, we have the Wham! backing band plus Andrew on one table, the film crew on two tables (there are rather a lot of them, about 40 in all), the Fleet Street reporters on another (well away from Andrew) and other tables packed with important looking Chinese people, all stuffing themselves with mounds of stir-friend edibles.
The film’s producer, Martyn Lewis, raves about his “project”. He describes “Andy” as a “comic genius”. Why? Because after lunch they did some location shots down on Peking’s equivalent of Oxford Street, Waang Fu Jing. Andy did a bit of Jools Holland type roving reporting. He stopped the film crew outside a shop saying, “hey, this looks like C&A’s, let’s go in!” They go in and he buys a Mao suit, a kind of Chinese ‘street’ uniform, for 40 yeun (51 yeun is an average month’s pay, the equivalent of £18). Then he did a bit of a guided tour, cracked a few funnies and was off.
The film’s full of stuff like that, apparently, as well as live Chinese concert footage. Lewis reckons the film’s “natural length is 60 minutes and it’ll probably be shown on Channel 4 or something like that later this summer”.
Apparently the film is costing one and a half million pounds of Wham!’s money, but they’re regarding it as a way of recouping some of the £700,000 their two-week Chinese tour is costing them.
Around 9.00 all the food has gone. Everyone waddies out to the waiting cars. It’s here where Andrew gets – shock, horror, gasp – mobbed! Not by locals though, American tourists. They take photos, ask for autographs and make lots of noise. One American woman in a flowery dress looks very pleased with herself: “that Andrew Frisbee’s a true star!” she bawls at her tour coach. The locals look on in mild disbelief. Not only do they not know what Wham! really look like, they haven’t the faintest idea who they are. But that will all change tomorrow, for it’s tomorrow that Wham! will show China what they’re made of. Tomorrow they’re playing The Workers’ Gymnasium.
“One of the many reasons the Chinese chose Wham! to play and not other groups who’ve asked was because of what we represent: optimism and aspiration. Also we’re at the total opposite end of the scale to what China sees as the decadent rock acts of The West. You know – sex, drugs, scandal. The thing with us was that there was no angle. That’s why I suppose Fleet Street have had to make one up.”
So says George Michael. Even so, despite their so-called “whiter-than-white” image, it still took 10 months of negotiations to get permission to play here. After rigorous scrutiny of Wham! videos, lyrics (Chinese translations were asked for), photos of every costume that was to be worn, and even a Wham! show on their recent seven-month world tour, the Chinese Youth Federation considered the words to “Love Machine” “unsuitable”, as was George’s “sexy” hip swivelling. The Chinese don’t seem to encourage displays of emotion of any kind, so it’s not surprising they want to keep check on a pair of lads who have a reputation for stuffing shuttlecocks down their shorts. But, anyway, they’re here. In fact, in 15 minutes, they’re going to be onstage at the 10,000 seater venue. The place is a cross between a low budget spaceship and the Royal Albert Hall. The audience, almost all kitted out in muted fawn and blue Mao suits, sit there, silent and polite, not quite sure what’s about to happen. Over the PA they play Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson. It’s hardly audible and all in keeping with the safe ‘don’t rock the boat’ approach they’ve adopted throughout the entire proceedings.
The lights go down, bang on time, and the show begins. As a warm up we have a British dancer called Trevor who instructs the audience on how to body pop and breakdance, whipping them into a frenzy, or rather their equivalent of a frenzy, a kind of bottled-up excitement. Then, unbeknown to us, an announcement is made (in Chinese) over the public address system. It says: ‘dancing is not allowed’. Those standing sit down; those sitting calm down.
The lights go down once more, the 11 strong Wham! backing band take their places. The lights go up and George and Andrew bound down their respective staircases and they burst into an ultra-fast version of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”. It’s all very polished, almost too perfect, a very Eurovision kind of presentation. After six songs (the tracklisting’s printed in the programmes) there’s a 10 minute break for their ‘home movie’ slot (minus the big kiss from the “Careless Whisper” video which has been edited out) and six more songs, this time a bit looser – but not much – and it’s over.
There is no encore. The only people dancing are American soldiers and tourists. Not even all the Chinese clapped. Apparently when they saw George and Andrew trying to get everyone to join in and clap, they thought they were asking for applause and were offended. One man at the end even got arrested and beaten for dancing by the police.
By Western standards, it all seems a terrible anti-climax. But the Chinese audience, in their own restrained way, seemed to really enjoy it. One small Chinese girl, through an interpreter, told me they were “very good, better than the Peking Opera. Next year Wham! very popular”. Another said she was “so glad to be one of the people here tonight. I was so excited the music made me crazy.”
The Chinese newspapers are full of quotes and stories from George about last night’s concert. “We just couldn’t bridge the cultural gap”, he says. “There is a huge cultural difference which there is no way you’re going to cross in one and a half hours.”
He told me that the concert wasn’t like he’d imagined but, then again, he admitted he didn’t know quite what to expect. “I suppose I hoped that the audience might join in and dance, but I didn’t realise until later that there’d been an announcement about it. I think we’ve been stitched up over that – if they invite us all the way over here you’d think they’d at least let us put on a show our way. Basically we were fighting a losing battle last night.”
Anyway, there’s always Canton, which is where we’re heading right now. George, Andrew and their two managers are staying behind. The Fleet Street reporters are going home. We all say our goodbyes and head for the airport. Little do we know that, tomorrow morning, British newspapers will be carrying headlines like “Wham Man In Hari-Kiri Terror”. Only 15 minutes out of Peking, on the 2.45 flight to Canton, I realise that things have gone horribly wrong…
- Wham! In China (Part 2), Smash Hits Magazine (1985)
- Last Wham! Interview: No. 1 Magazine (1986)
- George Michael Interview in The Face (August 1985)
- Wham!’s Last Week, Smash Hit Magazine (July 1986)
- Wham!: Why We’ve Reached Breaking Point