D-22 is a Chinese punk rock club that I frequented during my study abroad program in the Summer of 2008. I first learned about the place in a guidebook I receive for my birthday from an old friend. (Coincidentally, he is the same friend who introduced me to punk rock in the first place when I was 16.) I dog-eared the page and highlighted the address on my map, mentally planning a visit as soon as I had the chance.
I arrived at Beijing without knowing anyone, and luckily, so did most of the other students. After the first week of classes, I managed to convince a handful of them to make the trek with me. “Underground music,” I promised, “and cheap beer!” They were sold.
We took the bus to the neighborhood of 五道口 (Wǔdàokǒu) where Tsinghua and Beijing Universities were both located. Beijing is a sprawling city, and though landmarks are far and few in between, any local you ask will undoubtedly respond with, “Yes, it’s just up ahead” even if it’s another 30-minute walk. After walking for nearly that long, I remember stopping to ask a local student if he knew where D-二十二 (D-Twenty-Two) was located. He gave me a blank stare and shook his head, and it was not until I used its proper name, D-二二 (D-Two-Two), that he made the connection.
There was a parking lot in front of the club, crowded with groups of smokers who were nondescript save for the fact they were clearly regulars. The entrance was sparsely marked with a beat-up chalkboard, listing the bands performing and the cover charge for that night.
The [space inside] is long and narrow, with the bar on the right and the stage at the far end as you walk in. There is a balcony that runs from behind the stage right up to the front of the club. The walls of the club are painted a muddy red typical of old Beijing, and all along the balcony we have hung up the Matt Niederhauser posters of the best bands and musicians that have come out of the club.
The co-owner of the club is Michael Pettis, a Columbia alum and former trader from Bear Stearns. After 14 years on Wall Street, Pettis moved to Beijing to teach finance at Beijing University and in May 2006, invested $200,000 with two other partners to create D-22. Later, Pettis brought on Charles Saliba, another Columbia alum, to help manage their new record label, Maybe Mars, that signed on some of the same bands from the club.
For Pettis, the emerging music culture of Beijing mirrors that of 1960’s New York. In both cases, “there was a small group of cool musicians and artists who had more or less given up on mainstream culture and went off to play for themselves, thinking that no one would ever pay much attention to them. But they were wrong." He also stressed on how the two scenes cannot ultimately be compared.
Beijing today is very, very different from New York in the 1960s. New York then already had a deep cultural history, but in Beijing it feels like there has been a huge gap in that history, and so everything feels very new, very unfinished, and very uncertain. The old China has been demolished and the new China is in the process of being invented, and no one knows what it is going to look like but these young people have to live in it anyway.
My summer of 2008 was exactly that: very new, very unfinished, and very uncertain. Spending an extended period of time in China was both alien and familiar to me, like a cultural homecoming to a place I’ve never been. I had just gone through my first year of college, during which I more or less drifted without discovering how I fit in or what I wanted to do. The study abroad program was a year’s worth of Chinese condensed into two months and it felt like I was experiencing life at the same breakneck speed. I had a better mastery of Mandarin, made new life-long friends, and traveled across China to Shanghai, Inner Mongolia, and Xi’an. And like so many other things when you are 19, it was also about a boy.
During my final week in Beijing, I returned to D-22 to see the band I was waiting for all along, Carsick Cars. (I always had a thing for bands with female drummers.) But the me stepping up the same entrance was different than the girl who arrived two months ago. To this day, D-22 remains a symbol of my personal growth – an awakening that I somehow missed during my freshman year at Columbia.
So, it with bittersweet remembrance of things past that I read about D-22’s imminent closing on January 13th. Pettis emphasizes that this is more of a beginning than an end: they are already working on a new venue and Maybe Mars continues to work with new artists. When asked about why he went from international finance to Chinese rock music, Pettis’ answer points to something all of us can relate to.
"I figured there’s only one opportunity in life,” he says, “to get involved in something so historic.”