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Wham! Invades the Mainland

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Marco Polo wouldn’t have believed it—he thought China was the most wondrous land on earth. Live, onstage at the Workers Gymnasium, two boyish Brits, one of them bare-chested, crooned Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go to 12,000 Chinese whose previous idea of a hit tune was that ’80s classic, Socialism Is Fine.

This was Wham!, the first big-name rock group to perform in China, playing the songs that millions of Western kids adore and tens of millions of Chinese kids can’t possibly understand. Let’s be honest. Is there a Credit Card Baby anywhere in Peking?

For this concert and the one that was scheduled to follow a few days later in Canton, music fans paid cash. The price of a seat was five yuan ($1.75), the equivalent of three days’ wages for The average urban worker. Hundreds stood in line for hours, a few of them all night, to see a group many hadn’t heard of before the concert was announced. Those waiting very long needed permission from their work units to be off the job. (“It’s 11 p.m. Do you know where your lathe operator is?”)

While their new fans were in line, George Michael, 21, and Andrew Ridgeley, 22, did the obligatory tour of the Great Wall (Michael: “It’s incredible, unthinkable!”) followed by the obligatory Banquet With Many Toasts (Michael: “A giant step for the youth of the world”). The pair were not just pleasing their hosts. They were also getting footage for a docufilm the group hopes will defray the cost of the trip—more than $1 million advanced by the film producers and the recording company, Columbia.

The government paid nothing to Wham!, and gate receipts went to the All-China Youth Federation. Still, Chinese officials undoubtedly had mixed feelings toward Western rockers after a trumpeter in the 109-member entourage acted a bit strangely on the flight from Peking to Canton. The man grabbed a knife and unaccountably stabbed himself in the stomach, causing a commotion that temporarily sent the plane back to Peking. Neither Michael nor Ridgeley was aboard.

Wham! is not the first popular music group to perform in China. In 1981 Jean-Michel Jarre, a French electronic-music composer, performed in Peking, and the California rock group Morning Rise gave concerts to selected audiences a year later. The reason Wham! was chosen to be the first megagroup to play China is known only to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, a group that hit the big time with a bullet years ago. Michael and Ridgeley both live at home with their parents, but they have little else in common with their Chinese contemporaries.

For the concert in Peking, Wham! ignored local sensibilities by including the suggestive song Love Machine and a racy video, although they kept the hip-swiveling to a minimum. Michael critiqued his concert performance as rather subdued: “I didn’t do anything sexy, which is not my usual act.”

Cooperation like that is one of the reasons the youth federation, which sponsored the tour, declared the group’s music “very healthy for youth.” It’s just possible the federation never got a good preconcert look at Pepsi and Shirlie, the Wham! dancers who sashayed around in brief, body-hugging black leather skirts. British and Chinese VIPs, including General Xiao Hua of the Central Committee, watched and sipped tea.

Most of the other members of the audience sat stiffly and glumly in their folding chairs, but some foreign students began dancing in the aisles. They were joined by young Chinese fans brave enough to challenge the uniformed police who were ordering them to remain respectfully in place. The imperialist dancing dogs were diplomatically left alone, but some young Chinese who got carried away with the music got carried away by the police.

The audience tried, within reason, to get into the spirit of the evening. After each number fans applauded politely. When Michael asked them to clap along with a song, they continued to applaud politely. That’s when he realized there was “a huge cultural difference there was no way we were going to cross in just an hour and a half.”

One very traditional looking woman, dressed in a drab blue-and-gray Mao jacket and baggy pants, was asked what she thought of the entertainment. She had just listened to Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go while an electronic strobe light played on her face. “It’s okay,” she said. When you’ve grown up listening to the sayings of Chairman Mao, lyrics such as “Don’t leave me hanging on like a yo-yo” aren’t as meaningful as they are to Westerners.