They started building Shenzhen, a tier-one Chinese megacity, 41 years ago, over a fishing village across from Hong Kong. In Wu Xiaobo’s history of China’s economic development over the past 40 years, China Emerging, Wu points out that Shenzhen’s creation as a Special Economic Zone coincided with Deng Xiao Ping’s decision to open the country up to foreign investment. Deng followed Zhou Enlai’s belief that rapid modernization and entry into the world market was essential for China to rise again. He expanded the concept of socialism to ensure the continuing welfare of the Chinese people.
Those were the good old days, when China and the USA were better friends. There is a photo of Deng in a cowboy hat, in Texas, on an official state visit. General Motors, one of America’s most iconic companies, was the first foreign company to set up in China. Wu tells the story of how Thomas A. Murphy of GM proposed a system of joint ventures that would allow China to gain wealth rapidly from foreign companies, and this soon became a way for China to profit greatly from foreign partnerships. Shenzhen, however, was rapidly developed by business folks in Hong Kong, who were allowed to purchase land at great bargains and to start companies and open factories. Shenzhen soon morphed into a trading center, based on the principle of dao-ye, buying low and selling higher. With the high-tech boom of the 2000s, it was realized that Shenzhen was the perfect place to create a Chinese Silicon Valley.
As miraculous and rapid as its economic development has been, Shenzhen has lagged behind culturally. Now, however, as Shenzhen has begun to establish an identity, folks are stepping forward to create the kinds of cultural venues that can make the city more attractive to a more international community. Interestingly, many of the folks doing this are Chinese women. One woman, who prefers to just go by the name Moss, has helped create a blues/jazz/soul bar with her business partner Mr. Liu, which would not look out of place in Chicago’s Wicker Park, Williamsburg Brooklyn or Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The bar is swanky. It was the last thing I expected to see in Shenzhen but I believe that Shenzheners will see more and more venues like this. It has a sedate, composed, warmed-cognac type of ambiance that evokes memories of the glory days of cool and better times. My interview with Moss:
How did you discover blues, rock and jazz?
Around 2010, I fell in love with Amy Winehouse's unique voice, then accidentally discovered Janis Joplin and now I love her like mad. In 2012 I met a girl in England who inspired me and gave me a lot of unique perspectives on British rock music. Gradually, I began to look for the roots of this music, and discovered blues, soul and Gospel.
What has this type of music meant to you? Why do you think Chinese young people might like it?
I love soul music, as soul music to me means power and passion, it transcends the limitations of its listeners and its strength is very dear to me. Soul music is even less popular in China than jazz, but thanks to performers like Fang Datong, Yuan Yawei, Suri and Shunzi, soul music came to China through pop music, and many young people like this. They combined their music with an R&B style. I believe that music should have a positive social mission, as this music has.
I have written about 275 songs and performers each night on social media, on the good night play-list of Roots House, since its inception. I will continue to write this every day to help share this type of music. It is more about emotions I want to express and I want to bring real emotional impact to others. Music also always has the power of soothing or consoling people. I hope Roots House can present sincerity and strength to anyone open to this music.
Can you think of any funny or interesting experiences you’d like to share about your travels in the USA?
Perhaps the most interesting part was my insistence on driving to Port Arthur, Janis Joplin's hometown, which is a beautiful and quiet port city. When I went to her local memorial museum, the curator was very excited. He said that I was the first Chinese person who had been there, and he put our photo on Facebook.
Who did the interior design for Roots House? It has a Rat-Pack retro feel but is shiny new in appearance.
When I started the decoration of Roots House, I was very confused. I had a lot of ideas in my mind, but finally it turned into the design you can see now. It changed along the way, and even I was surprised by the appearance of it today. But any color, any material, any arrangement is what I put together bit by bit. I think it belongs to a very inclusive age, it is neither modern nor very retro; It elicits a sense of calm, and deep inside it has a feeling of warmth. It’s a place of tolerance and good expectations for the future.
How easy or difficult has it been for you to book acts? Whom do you want to book in the future?
The music environment in Shenzhen is not as diverse as that in Beijing, Shanghai or even Chengdu. Roots House has gone to great lengths to invite the best local musicians to perform live. When we opened, we even invited Derrick Walker, a bluesman born in Oklahoma but now living in Sweden to perform for a month. We just wanted to bring the pure blues to Shenzhen. In the future, when it comes to the quality of music, we will definitely keep a very selective and strict control, but all young and creative new musical forces are welcome here, and I hope this stage will always be open to those who really love music.
Who would you say most of the people are who come to your club?
The audience at Roots House is very special, even beyond my expectations. The guests have ranged from children as young as a few years old to people in their 70s. I like this feeling very much, and I hope people realize this club is open and inclusive. But perhaps right now the young people who come back from studying abroad and from Beijing and Shanghai understand and accept it more easily than other groups.
I saw a performance at your club which featured a young woman, singing jazz songs, who had just graduated from Shenzhen University. Can Chinese students study rock and roll or blues in China? I know many Asian students seem to come to the USA to do this.
Now there are many music education institutions in China. Shenzhen itself has the Jinzhong Conservatory of Music in Shenzhen University, which specializes in jazz education. I believe there will be more and more mature institutions in Shenzhen to bring other kinds of music teaching besides classical music to local young people.
You have shown films at your club as well. Any plans to do more than music in the future?
It should be an open venue. We've had an Aretha Franklin exhibition, swing balls, a weekly movie, vinyl day, etc. I hope that in the future there will be small stage plays and even talk shows here. It will be an inclusive and open venue. In this process, I will also have a lot of new ideas emerge, and I really hope the activities here become even richer in content. I hope that whether for a few years or even decades, Roots House will advance and engage in the process of continuous exploration. I hope that even if it just exists for a day, it can bring something special to this city, which is the meaning of its existence.