China’s grungy ambassadors to Mongolia


History was made last week when a grunge rock quartet performed in Ulaanbaatar. 

Still, they were China’s first band to ever play in Mongolia’s main public square during this auspicious festival.

What might seem like a few small steps for the globalization of rock is actually a giant leap forward for Mongolian-Chinese relations, otherwise fraught with tension almost since the beginning of time. Everybody knows the Great Wall was built as a barrier against the Mongols; they invaded anyway, and the two neighbors have been battling ever since.

So China gets little love in Ulaanbaatar, despite being Mongolia’s largest trading partner and a catalyst for a mining boom that has made Mongolia’s economy one of the world’s fastest growing. Anti-Chinese graffiti is dabbed on the streets of Ulan Bator, and an alarming rise in neo-Nazi groups and the anti-China violence they espouse has alarmed officials on both sides of the border.

“Everybody warned us about the danger of going to Mongolia,” said Qiang Fan, guitarist of Banana Monkey, during a show in Beijing before the Mongolian tour. “We’ve never played outside China. We’re a little excited and a little scared. A lot of people say the Mongolians hate the Chinese, but we don’t know.”

His education came quickly and in shocking fashion. Soon after Banana Monkey finished its short set at the capital square, Mongolia’s most famous rapper Gee launched into “Hujaa,” his fervent anti-China diatribe. Hujaa is an extremely derogatory term for Chinese that has enormous currency in modern Mongolia.

“I think it opened their eyes,” said Brian Offenther, who brought Banana Monkey to Mongolia, and organized a week-long Rock Naadam tour that included TV appearances, charity events and shows at clubs in the capital and the northern city of Darkhan. “But all in all, I think it went very well.”

A native of Florida now living in Shanghai, Mr. Offenther previously volunteered with the Peace Corps in Darkhan, Mongolia’s third-largest city. Later, he managed bands and covered nightlife in Ulaanbaatar, where he discovered what xenophobia could be like. A Mongolian Nazi once pulled a knife on him at one rock show. “He said something nasty about foreigners in Mongolia.”

Mr. Offenther has brought Mongolian bands to perform in China before, and has even taken Shanghai bands composed of Westerners to Mongolia. But taking a band of Chinese men to Mongolia is something he had never done before, and he admits he was unsure of the idea for a long time. “When you live in Mongolia, you are exposed to attitudes about the Chinese, which are quite negative,” he said. “They see China as this giant that is swallowing up Mongolia.”

Jack Weatherford, an American cultural anthropologist, explains why this mistrust goes back a thousand years. Some of the oldest carved stones in Mongolia “basically warn against going to China.” He added that a local insult is, “you’re not Mongolian. It can be worse, like, you are not human, you are Chinese.”

Nearly 90% of Mongolians have negative attitudes about China, according to a poll by the Sant Maral Foundation. Some even fret that the Chinese will steal Naadam, also celebrated in China’s Inner Mongolia province. Last year, a massive stadium opened for Naadam in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, at a reported cost of $100 million. Formerly part of Mongolia, Inner Mongolia boasts six million Mongols, which may be twice the population of Mongolia but is a tiny minority in that province due to massive Han Chinese immigration. That makes Mongols among the smallest ethnic minorities in China.

Strangely, this provided greater encouragement for Mr. Offenther when he was pondering this cultural crossover. “Most Chinese have never been to Mongolia. If you tell them you were in Mongolia, they say, oh yeah, Huhat (in Inner Mongolia). They don’t even realize there is a whole country of Mongolia.”

So what did Banana Monkey make of the experience? It played to a crowd of 3,000 Mongolians, and 10 times more on live television. Qiang Fan, the guitarist, termed it all educational and uplifting. “Everyone we met was friendly,” he said. “I hope there will be more Chinese young rock bands playing there, bringing our new culture to young Mongolians.”

Mr. Offenther hopes to make Rock Naadam an annual event, and increase cultural exchanges. “I’m not naïve. I know rock shows won’t cure 800 years of cultural differences,” he said. “But I’m hopeful.”