Yu Quan are a popular male singing duo who have routinely topped the charts in China for the past ten years. They have model-ish good looks and perfectly coiffed hair. In their videos, they grimace a lot and strike dramatic poses designed to tweak teenage glands. Though they've had upbeat hits, the big favourites in their catalog are the earnest ballads.
What's remarkable about these ballads is how many of them sound like they were created from the DNA of Wham! The hushed verses. The soaring, emotive choruses. Even the occasional sax solo. This not only goes for Yu Quan, but for many contemporary Chinese boy bands such as Top Combine, Fahrenheit and Seventeen and singers like Jonathan Wong and Eason Chan as well. They're all the offspring of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley.
Not literally, of course (though the timeline would support that whimsical thought). But in 1985, when Wham! broke ground as the first western pop act to play Communist China, they planted the seeds of a music and fashion revolution that is still in bloom.
There were precedents for this kind of musical insemination. When The Ventures visited Japan in 1962, they started an electric guitar craze called "Elekiboom." And of course, wherever The Beatles went, from France to America to Australia, they created waves of clone-like beat groups.
The difference is that those countries already had indigenous pop music scenes. They could assimilate and adapt influences. The China of 1985 had nothing. It was a blank slate. Which cast George and Andrew as pioneers - a kind of Lewis and Clark with pastel suits and fake tans.
The lack of musical infrastructure also made getting the gig a huge challenge. Over an eighteen-month period, the duo's manager Simon Napier-Bell took regular trips to Beijing. From his hotel, he'd telephone the cultural ministries hoping to find someone who spoke English. His standard message: "Tell them Simon Napier-Bell has called to take them to lunch."
"It was two years of lunches," Napier-Bell later wrote. "I fed the whole government. 143 people three times each."
He eventually persuaded the Chinese that the best way for them to secure foreign investors was to show an openness to western influence. And what better way to do that than have Wham! perform in Beijing.
Funny side note: When Napier-Bell discovered that Queen was also trying to get into China, he made up two brochures for the cultural ministers. One featured Wham fans as clean-cut middle-class teens. The other showed Freddie Mercury in a variety of flamboyant stage clothes. The Chinese went with Wham!.
The concert's success was more symbolic than literal. The 15,000 people who filled the Workers' Gymnasium were prohibited from standing, and those in the floor seats thought that the film crew were secret police and sat frozen in the lights. When George Michael tried to get the audience to clap along, they answered him with a confused smattering of applause.
While Wham! helped lay a foundation for an east-west cultural bridge, the enduring musical imprint they've left in China has been unexpected. Especially today, when the country is besieged by outside influences, from Lady Gaga to Kanye West (who played at Workers' Gymnasium in 2008). They also have two different Pop Idol-style TV shows, and their charts are full of western sound-a-likes.
But there, beating beneath the vast, burgeoning Chinese music scene is the unmistakable pulse of Wham! - a fact that just may qualify them to join the ranks of Elvis Presley, The Velvet Underground and Led Zeppelin as one of the most influential acts of all time.
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