The city of Fuzhou has a superpower: Everything under its sunny skies transforms, slowly taking on the local quality of xiu xian (休闲, pronounced see-you-see-an). It’s a slippery word to translate. “Leisurely” comes close, but xiu xian is much more than that.
In Fuzhou, it’s an aesthetic, a philosophy, a way of being. Buildings can be xiu xian, with their moss-covered walls, rusting façades and banyan tree branches curling into the windows. Food can be xiu xian, with gentle umami pleasures and small portions. Drinks can be, too, like the mellow jasmine notes in the local craft lager.
Today, however, it’s music that is truly capturing Fuzhou’s xiu xian way of life – and none more so than the “leisure pop” of local trio The Romp. Formed in 2013 by Axing, a Fuzhou native, the band was initially only an occasional fixture, playing a few times a year and struggling for a stable line-up before going on hiatus in 2015, when Axing moved to Xiamen for work. His return in 2016 cemented the current three-member line-up. Axing’s high school friend KK joined on drums, while Kou Rou, also from Fuzhou, answered their ad for a bassist on the social network Douban.
Guitarist and frontman Axing, 29, togged out in matching green cap and shorts, leans deep into a couch at Mr Blue, an old café at the entrance to Kangshanli neighbourhood in the southern part of the city. It’s the band’s favourite part of town, a hilltop warren of early-20th-century houses and the title of one of their songs.
“Our Fuzhou is rooted in its history, in this slow pace of life and its timelessness,” says Axing.
The name “Fuzhou” (blessed settlement) has been in use since at least 700AD. Like many ancient cities, a gentle xiu xian vibe remains an irreducible part of its fabric, even as temples disappear and tower blocks rise.
The Romp’s music and attitude refracts this languidness into something relevant and contemporary. Their music is a guitar pop daydream, warm and welcoming like a Fuzhou hot spring. Axing conjures guitar lines and lyrics that are slightly goofy but always very chill. “I just want to waste time and be xiu xian,” he sings on one of their singles, “Milajiang”.
Something in that approach is resonating with China’s post-90s generation. Earlier in 2018, The Romp’s debut EP, Love, became “China’s Best Independent Release of the Year”, according to the influential Douban, which led to a run of major Chinese music festival appearances this summer.
“Their music really resonates with the local way of life, which is quite different from other cities,” says musician “Mojito” Jie Fu, 27, who plays in a xiu xian synth pop group called Favours. “You could call it a perfect representation of sang culture.”
Sang (丧), which literally means “funereal”, is an internet meme turned lifestyle among China’s youth, and is a rejection of ambition and the dogged pursuit of material comforts.
The boys of The Romp, meanwhile, shrug. They recognise the concept of sang: it’s just xiu xian taken to the next level. “We’re a very sang band,” Axing chuckles. “It’s easy to be, in Fuzhou. There are less large corporations here. There’s no need to be ambitious.”
“Maybe all the ambitious people just left,” interjects 33-year-old drummer KK.
“I think sang is a form of rebellion for us. It’s about finding your own meaning of what a good life is,” says Axing. For The Romp, that meaning came with a deeper engagement with their hometown. Their Fuzhou is a city of subtle pleasures and hidden treasures, and offers a balm to the country’s breakneck urbanisation.
So soothing is this balm, in fact, that even names of places elude the band. It takes around two hours of furious Internet searches at Mr Blue to reveal their map of Fuzhou. It’s a rough spiral that radiates out from Maker Live, the live music venue located within the Wemaker complex that started it all.
The Wemaker complex is in the middle of Yellow Alley, one of seven restored old alleyways in the heart of the city. Here, Maker Live is a 400-person venue that opened in 2016 and changed the face of Fuzhou music.
“Our best shows have been here,” says KK, “but I’m biased.” After all, he’s one of the four partners who run the venue and the adjacent drumming school. Deryck Chang, 27, is the brains of the business, in standard issue xiu xian garb of loose T-shirt and baseball cap.
“Most people [in Fuzhou] are still new to indie music,” Chang says. “But there is very much a community building here.” It’s a Monday night, and over 300 people have queued up for a gig by the folk group 房东的猫 (The Landlord’s Cat). “Earlier, people didn’t know where to go – now you have two venues and a bar all here. So you can drop by and see what’s up.”
That other venue within the creative complex is The Sigh, an achingly cool nightclub hidden up a flight of stairs and behind a curtain of neon, and the improv troupe to Maker Live’s professional outfit. “Our motto is that small is the new big,” says proprietor Dingmeng Chen, who briefly played bass for The Romp back in 2013. “We want to be where young DJs, amateur bands and artists can have a space to play.”
The Romp’s spiral map first goes past Gong Ye Road, which is the imagined setting of the band’s most popular song, “Carbonated Girl”. Further north is Sheng Ji, a loud, steaming “old-school” restaurant that Axing loves. A buffet line dishes out soups, stews and stir-fries, as cutlery clatters and wait staff shout orders across the hall. Kou Rou’s favourite place for stewed meat, LaoYang Fang Dian, is another block north, as is XiaoLiu, KK’s preferred spot for guo bian, the iconic Fuzhou seafood broth layered with thin rice-flour sheets. Both are unassuming, no-frills and unrelentingly delicious.
Just around the corner from LaoYang Fang Dian is Enjoy, a hip cocktail bar and lounge set within an old industrial complex. Owner Fenning Jiang, 40, talks fast and laughs easily. “I like The Romp,” she says, “They made Fuzhou cool, made our stories cool. I genuinely think they are helping kids imagine an alternative way of life.”
Eight years ago, Jiang opened Good Day, the city’s first alternative nightclub. Her disco parties and reggae weekends were met with bemusement back then but they created the groundwork for the alternative music culture now blooming in the city. “There’s more to life than cheesy KTVs and playing mahjong. We helped show that,” she says.
On the rim of The Romp’s spiraling map is Fang’s Burgers, a guilty post-rehearsal pleasure for the band. “It’s far, but we like driving out there,” says Kou Rou.
“For our generation, Fuzhou doesn’t live in the tourist spots,” explains Chen. “It’s the fabric of this city – this tapestry of stories and characters from the streets and from our lived experience” that informs The Romp’s songs.
Axing found the soul of the city in his time away from Fuzhou. It was a longing for home that now weaves its way into the band’s songs. For KK and Kou Rou, they channelled a lifetime of being local misfits into this moment, and this scene they helped build. Their three decades of lived experience feeling, finally, like it belongs. Like it’s important.
Now they can’t wait to tell the world about it.
Three to watch
Here are three bands from other second-tier Chinese cities with the perfect summer sound:
The White Tulips (Xiamen)
Playing twee pop with tropical, sun-kissed, beach-side melodies, The White Tulips paint a perfect sonic portrait of their pastel -coloured seaside hometown.
Chinese Football (Wuhan)
Twinkling, delicate and melodic indie emo, the band has a remarkable skill for creating earworms; and live, their grins are infectious and their grooves irresistible.
Gatsby In A Daze (Hangzhou)
Jangly, lo-fi indie pop with artsy high-brow lyrics – songs you’ll be humming even as the choruses fade.
A romp around Fuzhou
This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine