Music | April 10, 2020 9:46 am

China's Once-Booming Community of Expat Hotel Bands Has Gone Silent

A legion of foreign musicians are now exiled from their adopted country, wondering if they'll ever return

soulshake beijing beersmith
The band Soul Shake performs at Beersmith, a pub at the Hotel Jen Beijing by Shangri-La
Charles Huang/Beersmith

This week, the People’s Republic of China lifted its 76-day lockdown of Wuhan, the center of the coronavirus outbreak. At the same time, the government is banning foreigners from entering the country indefinitely, a move that has abruptly silenced a perpetual nightlife moneymaker for China’s hotels: live music. 

The outbreak coincided with Chinese New Year, when hundreds of Western musicians working China’s luxury-hotel circuit were vacationing overseas. Hotels shuttered while most of the country’s Chinese and expat population was traveling, and work contracts subsequently dissolved for the bands performing there. 

So in March, when the swanky Hotel Jen reopened Beersmith, its brewpub featuring longtime resident rock band Soul Shake, Chinese and expat regulars were surprised to find the stage empty. They didn’t know the group, known for its lavish Prince and Queen tribute shows, was still locked down at home under its own travel restrictions in the U.K. and New Zealand.

“They’re desperate for us to come back, but there are so many factors,” says singer and band manager Tom Knight, now marooned in Whakamaru, New Zealand, whose borders closed to travel last month. “Right now, it’s day-to-day.”

Since March 28, China has suspended entry to foreigners, even those with work visas and residence permits, as a measure to contain incoming coronavirus cases. The latest regulation, combined with limits on public gatherings, has hotel operators scrambling to predict how and when they can financially justify hosting live music again. 

Until recently, signs had pointed to a shift in China, with the government easing lockdowns and adopting a gradual return to business. But restrictions remain. While Chinese audiences have long flocked to hotel bars to see Western bands play current pop and classic rock, the hospitality industries of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou will be lucky to bounce back by summer according to talent agents.  

“It’s so hard to tell you when live entertainment will start again,” says Freddy Dodwell, general manager of Segrace Entertainment China, which handles visas and contracts for musicians. “But I can tell you China will be the first place where it starts to pop.” 

Without an active roster, agents are “basically trying to be a help-line for the musicians,” and talking them through financial-aid applications and part-time work opportunities, says Joe Warner, owner of U.K.-based Hear and Now Entertainment, which provides bands to Asian and Middle Eastern hotels. “When the contracts do come back, all the bands are going to be super prepared.” 

One band never left town. Four members of the Rosewood Beijing’s house funk group Groove Academy are still performing at the hotel’s MEI bar — though without a physical audience. “We are dying to play in front of people again,” laughs American bassist Hank Insell, who posts the group’s sessions on Facebook, similar to the way that artists from Neil Young to Erykah Badu have been hosting virtual concerts while sheltering in place.

unique all star rosewood beijing
Members of Groove Academy, the Rosewood Beijing’s house band (Rosewood)

For all of these performers, the coronavirus pandemic has represented the loss of a major opportunity. China’s hotels have offered DJ Naomi Di Dámaso a salary that she would never earn back home in Venezuela, where an economic downturn and medicine shortages have been a part of daily life for years. Working in China helped Di Dámaso support her family’s relocation from Venezuela’s “bad situation” to Italy last year. “I miss China every day,” she tells InsideHook from lockdown. 

“I’ve made my life in China,” echoes guitarist Jesus Sisco, also Venezuelan, whose bands have covered pop hits in the People’s Republic for four years. “The environment is really good for foreign musicians.” 

But that environment has also never been more unpredictable, artists say. “Because we work on contract, we never know how long it will last,” says Lina Vosk, a Ukrainian singer who has performed with her boyfriend at several China hotels. “We were always saving as much as we could to pay the bills; that’s how we’ve survived.” 

Soul Shake’s Tom Knight says he applied for government aid after New Zealand closed public venues and banned gatherings. Before, he was gigging around his hometown as often as he could. “The biggest part for me is giving back,” says Knight. “Even if you get no money, at least you’re performing and doing something that’s gonna give you that expression, give you that break, give you that energy.” 

Last year, live entertainment in China accounted for only about $2.5 billion of its $50 billion music industry, according to Song Ke, a former head of Warner Music Group. “It’s true that China is a rapidly growing live entertainment market,” he recently told the China Music Industry Forum. “But we are facing challenges.”

One of the biggest obstacles? A structure supporting live music, aside from festivals, “hasn’t quite taken shape yet,” says Alex Taggart of Outdustry, a China-based music industry services firm. “China is notoriously lacking in a sustainable middle class of promoters and venues.”

In a case of odd timing just before the outbreak, Beijing announced its pursuit to become an “international music capital” within five years. But details beyond that ambition are unclear, as the physical distance between musicians and fans has never been greater.  

One thing that is clear is the desire to host and nurture foreign talent. Soul Shake guitarist Danny Dunn, who has worked all over the world, tells us that the Chinese are by far the most welcoming audience for Westerners. “Here, you have a community in a big city; there’s no judgment,” he says. “It’s not like a holiday resort or a cruise ship, where people come for two weeks and they half-listen. People here come to actually enjoy it.”

There’s no indication of when that will happen again. China has not determined when it will lift its ban on foreigners, and until it does, the country’s expat musicians (now entering their third month of unemployment) will be stuck half a world away, optimistic for an encore. 

“I can’t wait to come back to the country that gave me a second life,” says Di Dámaso.