chengdu edm

A look at Sichuan's thriving electronic music scene.

This article was originally published on Neocha and is republished with permission.


Rave culture has come a long way from its beginnings in North America and Europe. These all-night dance parties are now commonplace across the globe—even in the East, rave culture has entrenched itself within the underground music scene. In the Middle Kingdom, Chengdu has become the heartland for Chinese electronic music. During the New Year holiday break especially, the Sichuan capital can feel like the Ibiza of the East, popping off with music events, world-class DJs, and jam-packed nightclubs for the entirety of the break.

However, due to Covid-19 travel restrictions this year, the Lunar New Year ragers were a bit different. Instead of bringing in international DJs, Chengdu clubs and promoters relied on China-based talent, of which there is no shortage. At one such nightclub, TAG, the week-long ragers it had become known for continued without a hiccup. Over eight nights, 50 Chinese DJs and producers hit the stage. Each event began at 10 pm and raged on until 7 to 8 in the morning. For this year’s final event, the club threw a 36-hour-long rager that tested the endurance of the city’s partygoers.

But TAG is only a small corner of Chengdu’s thriving electronic music scene. Head east from the club’s location on Jinxiu Road and you’ll reach Kehua Road, where popular nightlife destinations Funkytown, Cue Club, and GUANXI are located. Further north, across the Jinjiang River, lays AXIS—the nucleus of the city’s avant-garde music scene. It’s difficult to find Chinese cities where these disparate genres are so widely embraced and celebrated; even in first-tier cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, the underground music scene doesn’t feel quite as well-rounded as Chengdu. A popular saying in the city’s underground music scene goes something like, “In Chengdu, if you chuck a beer bottle into a crowd, chances are it’ll land on a DJ.”

In recent years, nightclubs, DJing, and independent producers have exploded in China, but Chengdu has undeniably led the way. There are too many events to even keep track of nowadays. Techno, house, breaks, avant-garde, bass, trap, afrobeat, disco, funk, and more command dancefloors across the city. There’s no genre that’s considered lesser—there’s always a DJ who’s more than happy to incorporate it in their playlist. In turn, Chengdu has become a bastion for electronic music of all varieties and a must-visit destination for electronic music lovers across the country.

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The Genesis

Food is central to the Chengdu lifestyle, and the city has cemented its reputation as one of the culinary meccas of the country. Of all the flavors the region is known for though, spiciness reigns supreme. But it’s not limited to food—the city’s young creatives seem eager to spice things up in every aspect of their life, whether it be in art, music, or fashion. There’s also a certain inclusivity to Chengdu, and the city has become home to passionate creatives of all stripes. As long as you love what you do, there’s a place for you there.

For Chengdu native Vengo, he loves nothing more than partying. He’s been a familiar face in the scene even before electronic music began gaining acceptance within the city’s underground music circuit. All-night ragers with friends and good foods are par for the course every weekend. But he believes the laidback lifestyle often associated with Chengdu isn’t only limited to his city—it’s something that’s common throughout the province and has been a part of Sichuan culture since before his generation.

“Chengdu is a place where you can unwind,” he says. “Compared to other first-tier cities, there’s not much pressure here. There are opportunities for young kids to experiment and express themselves. People respect the need to have a good time. Being free and living fast are common parts of the local kids’ lifestyles, and that fits right into the city’s club-culture DNA.”

Vengo was first introduced to underground club music when he visited Xiongmao Club (meaning “Panda Club”) in 2011. “I was working in media at the time,” he says. “The club was doing quite well and attracting a lot of rock music lovers who were beginning to discover electronic music.”

At the time, rock music ruled Chengdu, but electronic music was starting to find traction within the underground music circuit. Xiongmao, as one of the few venues focused on electronic music, was a rarity at the time. The club brought in big-name acts such as DJ Shadow and DJ Krush, which turned more people onto different electronic music genres. YENK, a Beijing-based creative and one-half of the graphic design duo MENSLIES, was also first exposed to electronic music at Xiongmao when he was attending Sichuan University. Today, he’s found many opportunities in the Beijing electronic-music scene with his design work, and he gives a lot of credit to Chengdu for being the gateway into the culture. “A lot of people were inspired by Xiongmao,” he says. “Many artists, musicians, and designers forged their earliest connections in that space.”

In 2012, Xiongmao shut down. It was at a far-from convenient location and there was ramping financial pressure in operating such a non-mainstream venue. Despite its closure, its existence was foundational for the city’s burgeoning electronic music scene.

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.TAG 俱乐部 Bell Towers 演出现场

Shades of Diversity

Living comfortably is a core philosophy for Chengdu locals, and it’s a viewpoint that’s shared by all within the city. People are tolerant and respectful, even when faced with something they’re unfamiliar with. Located in southwest China, far from the watchful eye of Beijing, disparate subcultures and lifestyles have found refuge in the city. In 2010, the first publicly announced same-sex marriage in China happened in Chengdu. On a popular reality TV show, Chengdu-born celebrity Li Yuchun showed the country that androgyny can still be beautiful. In recent years, Chengdu’s LGBTQ+ community has grown larger and larger, and many now consider the city as China’s “gay capital.”

LGBTQ+ culture is now an intrinsic part of the city’s underground electronic music scene. Global dance culture owes a lot to the gay communities that incubated these once-fringe genres, whether it be the disco raves that took place in Stateside warehouses, the vogue dancing of New York’s drag ball culture, or the birth of Chicago house in the members-only gay club The Warehouse. Nearly every genre of electronic music is tied in with the LGBTQ community. With these roots, perhaps it’s not surprising to see tenets such as equality, love, and peace being core to contemporary rave culture.

Queer parties have also found footing in China in recent years, such as Medusa and HTTP in Shanghai, and G2Gather in Beijing. Of course, similar queer parties—such as Seafood, Chilldo, and more—have also catalyzed Chengdu’s nightlife.

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“池糖 Chilldo” 活动现场

Huizit, one of the co-founders of Chilldo, says, “Sichuan has no local lineage so to speak. Chongqing and Sichuan culture was all formed after the large waves of migration from people from Huzhou-Guangxi. The region has long been a place where outside cultures can thrive, so the region’s inclusive nature is deeply ingrained in its identity. It’s a place that’s receptive to all types of cultures.”

Huizit had the opportunity to live abroad in Europe and the U.S., where Ballroom and Chicago House were booming. The LGBTQ parties where these sounds were played at offered a sense of belonging, and they wanted to bring this same experience back home in China. “When I came back to China, there were a lot of gay bars, but not many people were thinking about how to truly advance the movement,” they say. “Flying the flag of Pride, they were businesses that were first and foremost interested in making money. So, when we were coming up with our queer party, we wanted to think what we were truly bringing to the table aside from just music and alcohol.”

In 2020, pre-sale tickets for Chilldo’s first event were immediately sold out. Since then, their events have scaled exponentially, and they’re even extending their endeavors outside of parties, with LGBTQ-centered art exhibitions, performance art workshops, theatre plays, creative markets, and more all operating under their banner. Other events include movie screenings, talks, and more. “Inclusivity is the main theme we’re looking to promote,” they say. “Not only with gays, but for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. We want to create a space where everyone can feel safe.”

Queer culture now occupies a large corner of Chengdu’s dancefloors, and it’s taught a lot of people that no matter our differences, music can unite everyone. This development is something that Huizit is encouraged by. “Chengdu’s queer culture is fantastic,” they say. “A lot of people have found out about our parties and many are interested in participating or helping us. Even though there are still a lot of problems to be overcome, we’re gaining a foothold. I see a bright future for Chengdu’s Pride movement.”

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.TAG 俱乐部 DJ 台

Pop Your White Collar

After the shuttering of Xiongmao, Chengdu-native Ellen Zhang saw an opportunity. In Beijing, where she moved for work, she frequented clubs with friends every weekend, and upon traveling back to Chengdu one break, she realized that Xiongmao’s absence meant there was a massive void in the city’s club scene. She wanted to change that. “My friends and I have kept a close eye on how China’s underground music scene has been developing, and we all believe that techno is the future,” she says. “Chengdu needed a place for the genre to flourish.”

With this philosophy in mind, she and a few close friends opened Hakka Bar, a small space where they could play the music they liked. But this lounge wasn’t enough—they envisioned something far more ambitious, a larger venue where techno and other electronic music genres could truly thrive. In 2014, TAG was born.

In south Chengdu, on Jinxiu Road, an area marked by universities and research institutes, is where TAG is located. It’s where you’ll find the Poly Center, a trio of high-rises with both residential and office spaces. On the 21st floor of Building A is where TAG is located.

TAG’s location isn’t by chance or circumstance—the Poly Center was the unlikely nucleus of Chengdu nightlife a few years ago, with a number of nightclubs in the complex. The white-collar workers who work in the building won’t be found once the sun goes down, replaced with rowdy party go-ers that crowd every elevator. TAG was the first club in the area to solely play underground electronic music, a vastly different space than mainstream clubs such as Jellybean, Blue Hall, and NASA. The music in TAG wasn’t exactly for casuals clubbers; it was a space for bonafide electronic music heads. The space is split into two, with a speakeasy called Hidden Bar located directly above. On the main dancefloor, techno, electro, and trance thump through the night, but in the Hidden Bar, the music selection and vibes are more laid back. Even counting both spaces, the venue is small, with a max capacity of 200, but the intimacy makes for a special experience.

“We had no experience with operating a nightclub when we opened,” Zhong recalls. “It’s not easy to make money promoting something out of the mainstream in China, so we had the worst-case scenarios in mind when we opened. We all went in with a naive mindset of only wanting to bring high-quality electronic music to the city.”

Zhong and the team wanted to introduce these underappreciated genres to new ears and cultivate a community of people who were genuinely excited about electronic music. Beyond the music itself, the space encouraged the principles of Western rave culture, promoting equality, love, and inclusivity.

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.TAG 现场

The club was welcoming to all, but there are certain guidelines patrons are expected to follow. Fighting is strictly out of the question. Unlike typical clubs, there aren’t any VIP booths and photography isn’t allowed. Overly rambunctious customers that affected other patrons were kicked out. Over the course of seven years, the space has forged countless friendships and become bred a new generation of electronic music lovers. “Our club is an extension of our vision, but it’s communicated in a subtle way,” Zhong says. “And that is to encourage in-person interactions. At TAG, people love and respect one another, and these ideals can influence others.”

Over time, TAG has become a popular stomping ground for electronic music lovers, party enthusiasts, artists, and the LGBTQ+ community. It’s become a safe haven where people of different backgrounds can feel like they belong. It’s become one of the most exciting nightclubs in all of China, considered to be a must-visit destination for DJs at home and abroad. DJs such as Herrensauna, Mama Snake, SVBKVLT, Macro, Shuttle, Henning Baer, and more have all headlined at the venue.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing to get here. In 2017, the government came knocking. All nightclubs in the Poly Center were demanded to be shut down, but Zhong managed to meet their demands and keep their doors open. TAG somehow became the sole surviving nightclubs from the crackdown. And since then, despite rising rent, the club has persisted. “It’s not easy to build a home that belongs to us,” Zhong says. “But it’s a space that gives me a strong sense of mission; I want to keep the club open no matter what.”

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“一同 (YíTóng)“ 咖啡

On the Air

Less than half a kilometer away from the Poly Center is an aging business plaza. A row of questionable restaurants, mahjong houses, and a cheap motel dot the first floor—it’s hard to imagine this being another hotspot for the city’s club-goers. Taking the elevator to the 12th floor, a narrow, open-air hallway lined with potted plants offers entry into another oasis of Chengdu underground music. Along the hallway, open doors lead to rooms filled with DJing equipment and speakers. One of these rooms houses Chengdu’s Convenience Music, which hosts a variety of music events that include electronic music workshops to panels with producers. It’s also where Hakka Bar is located. On a day with nice weather, it’s not uncommon to see some of the top producers in the city gathered here having drinks and shooting the breeze.

Next door to the Convenience Music space is Yitong, another operation helmed by Zhong. Inside, a ceiling-to-floor pane of glass divides the space in half. One half is a record shop and cafe, and the other is a studio where Chengdu Community Radio is broadcast from. CDCR.live is a music livestream platform that aspires to bring showcase Chengdu music to the world, and vice versa.

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Chengdu Community Radio 直播现场

Live music streaming has become one of the go-to methods of promotion for underground electronic music across the world, following the precedence of Berlin’s HOR and Hong Kong Community Radio. Being able to listen to live music and put a face to the DJ you’re vibing with are invaluable parts of spreading the music.

The founders of cdcr.live are Kristen Ng (a.k.a Kaishandao) and Aymen. Ng is a Chinese New Zealander and Aymen is from Belgium. Ng says, “Chengdu has long had a vibrant underground music scene, many rappers and rock bands from the region have become big names throughout the country,” she says. “The city’s earliest underground music scene can be traced back to 1997, and it’s kept growing since. Artists from southwest China, northwest China, and even Xinjiang all congregate here. This unique mosaic of people and sounds is why I chose to stay.”

When she met Aymen, their mutual love of underground club culture and livestreaming as a medium inspired them to launch CDCR.live. Even though it’s unprofitable and takes a considerable amount of their time and energy, the hard work is worth it. “When I lived in Wellington, the radio kept me up on the latest music and local happenings,” Ng recalls. “CDCR is providing something similar. It feels incredibly rewarding to bring people together, in being this bridge between music lovers and musicians. Our mission is important.”

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Cue Club 现场

Chain Reaction

These pioneering underground music venues at the Poly Center have proved to be a launchpad for the scene. More and more venues supporting underground music have popped up across the city since then, and with the proliferation of these non-mainstream genres, more and more kids are being turned on to sounds they’ve never heard before. People like Postunk, one of the managing partners of Cue Club, believes this is a great development. He is one of those who were influenced by those parties at the Poly Center back in 2016, so much he decided to turn it into his profession, starting from the bottom as a regular nightclub staff. He spent nights sneaking peeks into the DJ booth to learn the ins and outs of how to work a CDJ. This period of time also allowed him to meet many like-minded individuals, all of whom proved to be invaluable connections when he finally decided to organize parties of his own. Postunk believes the Chengdu youth have a strong sense of community. Strangers can become friends at the drop of a hat. People are eager to meet similar-minded individuals, learn from one another, and work together. “The Chengdu nightclub scene isn’t as hedonistic as you might think,” he says. “It’s more like an academy, where people with similar creative interests gather. People congregate and everyone has their own goals. The club is often just a bedspring for bigger things.”

Following this philosophy, Cue was established as not just a place for partying. Workshops are often held in the space during the day, with topics ranging from DJing and music production to fashion and visual arts. They also have open-deck nights, which means everyone is welcome to step on stage and show people what they’ve got. These are all tied to Postunk’s vision for what club culture can be. “I hope kids can not only find a sense of connection at Cue, but I want them to learn and grow together,” he says. “Inspiration is inevitable when different ideas intersect.”

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Berlin of the East

For those who’ve been to Chengdu, comparisons are often drawn between the city and places like Berlin and Tbilisi—places widely regarded as electronic music havens. Zhong believes that these comparisons aren’t without reason. Cheap costs of living and a fairly lax local government have allowed Chengdu’s underground music scene to thrive, but the open-mindedness of the city’s youth is undeniable the primary catalyst. “People who like electronic music have similar personalities more or less—they’re all friendly on the dance floor and are mindful of keeping the space inclusive,” she says. “It’s about becoming a space where you can escape from reality. I believe this is a sentiment by electronic music lovers around the world.”

While there aren’t any office-building ragers in Berlin or palate-scorching hotpot in Tbilisi, these locations have undeniably lent their influence on Chengdu. Those who’ve visited these raves or are simply fascinated by the culture are bringing these experiences to China with their own interpretations, and the scene shows no signs of slowing growth. The individuals featured in this story are undeniably important pillars of the Chengdu scene, but they’re only parts of the foundation. There are many more people toiling away—determined, undaunted, passionate, and hopelessly in love with the music. Zhong says, “Love is the cornerstone of building a music scene.”


Contributor: Pete Zhang
Images courtesy of Ellen Zhang, Tao Yun, Huizit and Chiyokoo

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