If you've been to a show at Yugong Yishan, then you've seen Lü Zhiqiang, even if you haven’t consciously registered him.
Soft-spoken and almost impossibly polite, the live house's founder—nicknamed Gouzi because he was born in the Year of the Dog—tends to hang back and observe performances with the expression of a bemused parent. Yugong is almost 8 years old, and there's no question it's one of the most popular kids in its class.
Lü and his wife, Doro Adams, are known for booking the best of China’s performers and bringing in a diverse range of overseas performers to boot. How, then, does he always appear so calm as to be nearly invisible?
It’s an illusion, he claims.
“I lose my patience daily,” he says, totally unconvincingly, on a cool spring night while sipping whiskey on the rocks in his office. “There’s something every day to deal with. We have more than 20 people working here. Everyone’s gotta get paid, and it’s hard to make money. There’s a lot of pressure.”
The child of “regular workers” in Haidian District, Lü became enamored with Michael Jackson—specifically his dance moves—in the late ‘80s. He and his friends scrutinized the King of Pop’s music videos, practicing every step until they were so good they won an award and were taken on a six-month tour of the country. But then, along came an MTV video recording delivered from overseas by a friend. It was Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
“I thought, ‘Woah, music can be played like this!” Lü says. “I started listening to Run-DMC, The Smiths, and more and more music after that,” he says.
He began playing guitar in San Ba, a heavy metal band, and in the ‘90s started organizing parties and rock concerts, renting hotel venues and sound systems and ferreting out hot new bands. One of them, The Face (Mian Kong), is having a reunion concert at Yugong as we speak, the walls filtering the muted chords to create the perfect backing track for a conversation with one of China’s most recognized musical enablers.
That’s not to say it didn’t take a while to get here.
“Every time we lost a lot of money, because a lot of the people who came were our friends,” Lü says of those early shows. “We’d have 200 people in the room, but would have only sold five tickets.”
In 1995, he took off for Berlin, returning four years later with a new sense of the music the world had to offer but no set strategy on how to hear more of it. In 2003, as SARS struck down club after empty club, an opportunity arose. A friend whose bar had closed asked Lü to help him find a new tenant.
“I asked a bunch of friends, but no one was willing to do anything, and in the end I rented it myself,” Lü recalls of the “accidental” opening of Loupe Chante. “After about half a year, when we would have bands come play you couldn’t find a place to stand inside. The street would be full of people.”
Within a year they had developed a loyal crowd of regulars (including Doro). But they had also outgrown the space, and so they decamped to Gongti, where they carved Yugong Yishan out of an old pool bar and started bringing in acts like Xiao He’s Beautiful Pharmacy (Meihao Yaodian), Joyside, Reflector, Hanggai and Lonely China Day. International Noise Conspiracy gave the club its first major foreign show in 2005, and things rocked along solidly until they got word the place would be chai-ed to make way for the Tun San Li complex in 2007.
“It wasn’t too upsetting,” Lü says. “We’d already started thinking about moving to a bigger place anyway.”
The new Yugong—located in the historic Duan Qirui government headquarters at Zhangzizhonglu—lured in new crowds.
“In 2003, at the old Loupe Chante, we had 200 or 300 people who were regulars. At the first Yugong Yishan, we had about 2,000 regulars. And now we have about 5 or 6,000,” Lü calculates.
“The fundamental standard is quality,” he says. “If I feel a band is good, I’ll choose them. It doesn’t really matter what their musical style is. If I think they’re good, then that’s enough.”
You’d think he’d be on top of the world, but while he’s happy to drop the names of bands he helped give a leg up and can rattle off a hefty list of charity events they’ve held at the venue, Lü remains pragmatic.
“It’s really difficult to be able to put your hobby and your job together. For a person to really be able to love what they do and for that to be enough to take care of your family, then that’s enough,” he says, and pauses.
“Also, I feel like what we do is helpful for Chinese music and artists, and that’s enough. That’s pretty good.”