Jim Wilson/The New York Times

August 24, 2023

XU | Long Way Without Friends: A Moment in 90s Rock

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As someone born after the year 2000, could I genuinely be nostalgic for the 90s? Or anything that came before? I think about that every time I listen to my dad’s music, downloaded into his thick iPod classic. I can almost recite the lineup: Alan Tam, Jacky Cheung, Dave Wong, Chyi Chin. A rock band named Black Panthers (unrelated to the party, sadly) spearheaded by Faye Wong’s ex-husband, Dou Wei. And, of course, the legendary Hong Kong rock band Beyond. My father hums along in the car, and I wonder about nostalgia.

Beyond is a household staple for anyone who grew up listening to Cantopop in the 90s. The track that put them on the radar is probably “海闊天空 (Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies),” which alludes to Nelson Mandela’s struggle for freedom and anti-apartheid. The band toured widely in East and Southeast Asia, including Japan. Granted, Cantopop still has such widespread diasporic influence and importance, but what Beyond achieved was singular. It was a milestone for Chinese rock at the time, and no band has gotten even close to their prominence ever since.

Apart from Cantonese, the band also put out Mandarin and English versions of their music. Back in the days, it was common to adapt songs across languages — Japanese to Cantonese, Cantonese to Mandarin, Cantonese to English. There were no barriers. Everything was possible. Though Hong Kong-based, Beyond was soon embraced by a transnational, diasporic audience. The track “Long Way Without Friends” is an English version of Cantonese track “東方寶藏 (Eastern Treasure),” which appeared on Beyond’s first album ever in 1988. The song starts off with a Gong, soon kicking off a cymbal-carried drum beat and crisp, buzzy electric guitar. The band members pose in white keffiyehs on the cover of their album 亞拉伯跳舞女郎 (Arabian Dancing Girl), one of them holding a sitar. For many listeners, the band engaged with an expanding world. The track “Amani” is partly in Swahili and broadcasts “peace and love,” resonating with a kind of innocence and goodwill in the earliest days of globalization.

One of my favorite songs from Beyond is “永遠等待 (Waiting Forever),” a hard rock track that really encapsulates the band’s energy. Passionate, angry at times and always melancholic, the band’s music never fails to electrify the moment. “永遠等待 (Waiting Forever)” goes the distance — as the title might suggest — filling the short span of three-and-a-half minutes with consistent drumming, shredding and some sharp keyboard chords in the background. The sound is amazingly balanced.

In my opinion, Beyond’s more introspective songs are some of their best and most mysterious. The band features some epic synth action in famous track “大地 (Vast Land).” Different from “長城 (The Great Wall),” an allusion to Chinese politics, “大地 (Vast Land)” is a sentimental musing about homeland. Dressed in denim jackets, leather vests with fringes and killer patterned sweaters, Beyond were the prodigal sons of their day and age.

To complete the picture, this musical moment in Hong Kong was adjacent to a group of Taiwan singer-songwriters and some more earthy folks from the mainland. Singers like Lo Ta-yu garnered widespread popularity writing and performing tunes about childhood, the countryside and modernizing Taiwan. Songwriter Li Tai-hsiang collaborated with singer Chyi Yu in a mix of Taiwanese folk and pop. In the mainland, rock musicians like He Yong and Zheng Jun articulated a different, more abrasive strand of rock that lent more to punk. Dou Wei joined the band Black Panther, putting out an album in 1988 that established his seminal status in the realm of Chinese rock.

Ten years into Beyond, in his prime, lead singer Wong Ka Kui falls off a platform on the set of a TV show in Tokyo. Perhaps like the death of Leslie Cheung, the tragic event solidified a loyal fanbase who grieved over what another ten years of Beyond could have been. Dou Wei left Black Panther three years in, to pursue personal projects, watery instrumental music with soft vocals. They came out to critical acclaim. Black Panther kept going without Dou, but nothing was the same anymore.

I am not urging for a return to the past. That kind of revival is never possible. Beyond’s work reflected the best of the times, a nascent, emerging vision of the multicultural world as a whole. In appreciating the reverberations between artists, in this musical moment, I can almost don the eyes and ears of a listener in the 90s. Except I have no CDs, nor cassettes, and I stream all the music from something called Spotify, which still amazes my dad. I admit I am living vicariously, but longing for a time that I never lived sometimes permits the most enriching imaginaries.

Skylar Xu is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. They can be reached at [email protected]. Seeing Double runs alternate Thursdays.