It was a culture shock to rival the best of them. The bouffant, coiffured hair, exuberant dancing and extravagant image of Britain’s leading pop band, and the Communist Party’s dour insistence on uniformity.
When George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley undertook a historic tour of China in 1985, they may have baffled many of the locals, but they might also have had a lasting influence on a country still emerging from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution.
Around 15,000 people were packed into the People’s Gymnasium in Beijing on April 7 to watch the first Western pop act to ever visit the country. Press reports at the time describe many of the audience as unsure how to react – partly because the authorities were deeply ambivalent about the whole affair, and police kept telling people not to stand up. An account on biography.com describes the mood as a mixture of joy, confusion and paranoia.
But around the country, a young generation who were throwing off the shackles of Communist austerity saw an inspiration in the duo.
“I was dancing to their music in underground disco and rock parties in my art school in Chongqing,” said Rose Tang, who went on to become a student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. “Wham’s music and their hair styles were all the rage among art students….”
Tang, who now lives in Brooklyn, said Wham’s music helped her on the path to activism. “The music was really instrumental in cultivating our rebellious spirit,” she said.
The band’s manager, Simon Napier-Bell, had reportedly spent 18 months persuading Communist authorities that the country was ready for Western pop culture, as the country opened to the world and tried to attract foreign investment. In Beijing, though, many of the audience were either members of the Communist Party or their younger relatives: most were probably hearing the band’s music for the first time.
According to a British Embassy report published by The Guardian, Michael struggled to get the crowd to clap along to Club Tropicana, instead getting a round of polite applause. There was, the report decided, “a certain lack of mutual understanding.”
But some younger members of the audience did dance – or try to.
“Whenever people got up to clap or dance, the cops would make them sit down,” tweeted Richard Hornik, a former journalist who attended the show.
In a 2005 BBC interview Napier-Bell blamed the awkward situation on his decision to send a break-dancer into the crowd during the show, which appeared to horrify the authorities.
“In the interval, they announced on the loudspeaker that nobody could stand up, everyone had to sit down through the whole show – which was 100% my fault. I really killed the atmosphere.”
The crowd downstairs also mistook TV cameras for secret police filming them, he said. “There were 7,500 people downstairs intimidated by the lights and the police standing around the outside, and upstairs you had 7,500 people getting more and more wild and crazy.
An hour-long video documents the tour: in it, the pair visit the Great Wall, play soccer, meet Communist Party officials – a vice minister tells them he too is a musician and composer, and hopes art can promote friendship between their nations – and wind up at a reception at the British Embassy, where they appear almost equally out of place among the upper class, cricket-playing diplomatic elite.
They are gawped at by locals in blue, green and grey Mao suits, and praised by concert goers, who describe the event as “inspiring” and “something like romantic,” or earnestly express a desire to have better understood the lyrics.
As the BBC’s Celia Hatton reported in 2015, concert goers were also given a free cassette tape, with Wham’s original material on one side, and a Chinese singer’s version on the other, with lyrics, as she says, given “some added Communist flair.”
“Wake me up before you go go,” this Chinese version went. “Women are on the same journey and will not fall behind.”
Cheng Fangyuan, a rising star in China’s Oriental Dance and Song Troupe, recorded the Chinese language versions. “That was the first time we’d heard music that loud,” she told China’s Caixin Online on Monday. “Most Chinese audiences didn’t know how to react to this kind of music and performance.”
In the video to the band’s song Freedom, the pair talk about the culture shock they and their Chinese hosts experienced, overlayed with more footage of the tour.
A later show in the southern city of Guangzhou was more successful: southern China was more open politically and more exposed to Western influence – and more familiar with Wham’s music.
In an interview with the Taipei Times, Napier-Bell said the concert had helped attract foreign investment to China, and claimed a degree of credit for success of the country’s reforms.
“In the end everybody got what they wanted from it — Wham became the biggest, most famous band in the world and the Chinese got a concert that proved they meant what they said about opening up,” he said.
It may also have inspired China to develop popular music of its own. The man known as the godfather of Chinese rock, Cui Jian, reportedly attended the concert and emerged musically a year later.
But after the band packed up and left, the authorities in Chongqing were still grappling with the tour’s legacy, writer, artist and activist Tang said.
“The school principal often came to our parties to turn off the boom boxes, telling us to avoid ‘Western spiritual pollution,'” said Tang, who said it took her years before she even understand the lyrics to songs like Careless Whisper and Freedom.
On Chinese social media on Monday, users remembered Wham! as the first cassette they had ever bought, their first memory of British popular music, and their generation’s favorite music.
“RIP. He is so young. God maybe wants to listen to music this year,” one person wrote.