Meet The Man Behind China’s First Heavy Metal Band

Feb 4, 2019

American-born Kaiser Kuo is one of the godfathers of Chinese rock. The son of Chinese immigrants, he co-founded the band Tang Dynasty in the late ‘80s. The group brought the long-haired, head-banging metal aesthetic to the Chinese scene. 

Tang Dynasty soared in popularity in China, and its music video landed back on TV screens through MTV. After playing guitar on and off with the band for 10 years, Kuo went on to perform with Chinese metal band Spring and Autumn.
 

We have this tendency right now to kind of run away with Orwellian nightmares about China.

Aside from his life in music, Kuo is a prolific writer who documents the many paradoxes of life for Chinese citizens: the tensions between history and modernization, and growth and inequality. Kuo penned a column for the English-language publication The Beijinger for 10 years before going on to found the popular Sinica Podcast, which explores Chinese current affairs.

Kuo worked as director of international communications for tech giant Baidu before making the move to the Triangle with his family in 2016. Host Frank Stasio speaks with Kuo about his career in tech, contemporary issues in U.S.-China relations, and what it was like to be part of the ‘80s Beijing rock scene. 

Interview Highlights

Kaiser Kuo on feeling included and welcome in his hometown in New York state:

It was a terrific place, you know. We experienced very little by way of racism ... It, I think, was so soaked in like the good American civic virtues. [One] evening — the very day my parents had been naturalized as U.S. citizens —the doorbell rang during dinner. I hopped up and went and answered it. And there was our whole neighborhood. They'd turned out with flags and drums, and they were just singing patriotic songs, and they just marched our family around the neighborhood in an impromptu parade.

On the success of Tang Dynasty and the band’s first album:

Everyone had it. It was hard for a while there to get into a cab without hearing your own music, which was really strange. And this was a music that was so utterly alien to China, so we'd come up with a kind of device to make it work, a kind of vehicle. And part of it is the name itself, but also just working kind of recognizably Chinese elements into the music.

On Western coverage of China’s “social credit system”:

So there is no real social credit system yet in China. And then this is part of the problem in the way that it's been reported. There are plans. For one: There have been a couple of pilot programs in small cities. There are private initiatives by these individual companies, but there isn't one nationwide sort of blanket social credit system as it's been imagined. We have this tendency right now to kind of run away with Orwellian nightmares about China. There is a lot of what you'd call techno authoritarianism. I mean, technologies are put to use in ways that Americans would find very, very uncomfortable … Still, let's be careful about how we talk about the realities.

On how the emergence of a new middle and upper class is changing societal dynamics in China:

I wish I could be more sanguine about it. But the fact is, the sort of madcap, breakneck get-rich [ethos] of the last however many years, it has in many ways really put a strain [on] traditional values. [It's] made China into a very low-trust society. There's a sort of ethic of brutal, me-first pragmatism and it's not pretty. I think it's a place where there's very little trust among individuals that makes it difficult to even do something as simple as making friends, or there's a suspicion always. It reminds me of the Gilded Age in the United States.