Okay, you can be honest with me. Spit it out. You did not come halfway across the world for this, how they call it, “Banana Pancake Trail”? I know exactly how you feel. I can tell how much you would like to throw a chair at that guy who’s mesmerizing a full table of other exemplars of the backpacking species with his bragging rights, just over there. His tales of having seen this and that tourist attraction on the ultra-cheap contradict with the reality that his clothes would pay for two months’ worth of food for a local family.
You feel like you would be better suited outside, grasping for a change of air, like an amphibian in dire need of a habitat change. At least, back home you would know where to go bang your head, turn your anti-social behavior into loud drunkenness, and raise the horns to the Devil’s music.
But how can you do it in Asia-town? My friend, today is your lucky day because I’ve been there, and done that, and I am going to give you six places to find the rock underbelly in some of East Asia’s sprawling cities. If you thought they didn’t rock, well, you should get back into that hostel lounge, sit next to the bragging guy, and start clapping your hands.
1) Soundmaker, Penang, Malaysia
Literally hidden at the second floor of a tattered building along Pengkalan Weld, about half a mile down the road from the Jetty, this is the place to rock in Northern Malaysia. Check their show listings before you go because this place is not a bar, therefore, it is not open when you want. Rather, this is a real do-it-yourself underground venue,where heavy metal, punk, death metal and alternative rock spray the walls with sweat.
The showroom is decently sized and the sound system is quite good for an underground enterprise. The fact is that in Malaysia — a country who forced a ban on metal music in 2001, and whose Islamic party has given a hard time to Elton John because he is openly gay — you cannot really get much better than this. Soundmaker is the place to rock away your sleepy weekend afternoons and early nights, as no show can go on after 12 a.m. As a tip, buy some beer at the Chinese food court downstairs, as there is no bar inside.
Beijing had an amazing alternative rock and punk club called D-22 in the Wudakou student district where the Chinese bands of the ’90s made the history of Beijing punk. Unfortunately, it closed last year. D-22 an institution for Chinese underground rock, and has been the backdrop of many of my more interesting Chinese nights. Now, the megalopolis’s new focus of rocker attention is Yuyon Yishan.
As a reflection of the cosmopolitan and never-sleeping Beijing art scene, the club offers a mix of proposals coming from the realms of rock, electronic music and much more to keep your feet moving and your head banging. And in case your recent activities included Great Wall hiking, be warned, this may not be the best place to rest your aching legs.
With Bangkok’s reputation for vice and all sorts of other mischievous evils, it comes quite as a surprise that its music scene is so dead. Luckily enough, not too far from Khao San Road tourist enclave, you can find a pretty particular example of postmodern subculture in Pinklao: the Overstay.
This 6-story building functions as a rock/alternative venue, and a very cheap hotel with artsy character and an alleged ghost haunting the upper floors to spice things up. Come to enjoy live bands from all sides of the rock/alternative/electronic spectrum, and bring along your instrument for the occasional jam sessions. And if you’re hungry, you can try out the open kitchen to cook up some vegetarian food for your new friends.
In a place called the “fire house,” you may expect amplifiers to burst out sparks of white heat and set your eardrums on fire. If you know what a real punk house is, and I mean an independent space where DIY is the law, welcome to Rumah Api, one of the places in Kuala Lumpur that dares to object to the city’s rampant, over-constructed technologic wealth and high-class loving youth.
A stone’s throw away from the Ampang LRT station in the northeastern part of the city, Rumah Api is to Kuala Lumpur what CBGB was to New York during its heady punk days. Catch a dose of local and international punk, hardcore, crust, thrash and grindcore bands sweating — literally, as the only wall fan provided resembles a World War II airplane’s engine — on the nonexistent stage, and mingle with the most alternative youth in the capital. This place has plenty of character, but you gotta have some to enjoy it too. Otherwise, please keep on reading your book at the guesthouse or do not sway too far from Petaling street, I have warned you.
The self-described “longest running Rock ‘n Roll bar in Indochina,” Sharky’s Bar has been entertaining Phnom Penh for the past 17 years. Which, let me tell you, is a great accomplishment in terms of having given a space for rock music to a country that had seen many of its best musicians exterminated by the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal fury.
Situated not too far from the riverside at Road 130 in the Kahn Daun Penh district, Sharky is a cosy, American-style bar with pool tables and plenty of beers on tap. Come for the fun “beer pong” every second Tuesday, and expect to find local and international bands playing their brands of bluesy, rocking or rolling fury on stage.
Dali keeps transforming since I first visited, and Bad Monkey Bar is one of the better improvements to the city that I’ve seen. This club brews its own beers and sits in the main center of the Old Town, a perfect location to break your journeys to and from the mountain side and the lake. The setting of Dali itself is awe-inducing, and a night out here is a great way to top your stay with some doses of unhealthy international and Chinese rock, punk and more.
Marco Ferrarese has visited 50 countries and lived in Italy, the United States, China, Australia and Malaysia. He started vagabonding as a punk rock guitarist in Europe and North America, hitting the most famous and infamous stages across the two continents. In late 2007 he relocated to East Asia. He is currently a PhD candidate at Monash University, Kuala Lumpur, researching the anthropology of punk rock and heavy metal in Pacific Southeast Asia. He posts a weekly column at Rolf Pott’s Vagablogging and writes about hardcore Asian travel and extreme music in Asia at MonkeyRockWorld.com.
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