the incredible spread of punk rock in Asia!!!!

By Sirat Buck

This had to be invented

You might think this an odd and stupid thing to claim, but someone actually did create, or maybe we should say dreamt up, the “Pogo” dance. It just didn't happen, but took a genius to jump up and down in one place and call it dancing. Take a bow Mr. Sid Vicious, bassist of the earthshattering punk band The Sex Pistols. In 1994, years after his infamous death at the Chelsea Hotel, Sid's pogo dance swept through Northeast Asia, and particularly Korea. Meanwhile punk has spread, slowly and powerfully, through Asia and continues to rise in popularity into the 21st century. Korea’s punk scene is fairly recent, while the Japanese punk scene is large and has been around a long time. China’s punk scene continues to thrive, though both fans and musicians alike are starting to wonder where the future of punk in China is going. Malaysian punk has been around since 1977, but didn’t begin to develop a particular Malaysian sound until 1987. Furthermore, in Indonesia, punks are fighting to keep their Mohawks and the whole of their lives from government control. I do not claim to be an expert on punk in Asia, but I will claim that punk is a way of shouting back at the world when the world doesn’t make sense. It is the raw response to injustice, when our desire for joy is denied. As we slip from country to country you can see that punk is a beacon call for political and social freedom, just as it has been in the U.S. and England and everywhere it’s raised its anarchic head.


Around 1994 Drug opened in the club district of Seoul and was the main supporter of punk in Korea and the reason why there are so many fans today. Drug presented such acts as Crying Nut and No Brain and helped develop an audience for them and other punks. It was a safe haven for young Koreans to relax and a stinging rebuke to a society where school, exams and conformity are prized.

These nuts are crying
At Drug’s entrance was a huge picture of the Clash’s album, London Calling, with a sign that read “DRUG” underneath it. In a Drug produced cd, Korean Punk Compilation, there is a note explaining what the bands at Drug were trying to do.
We don't know what punk is. But we’re creating punk. We don't advocate anarchy or violence. We’re simply letting the energy of our youth blaze at Drug, a small club in the republic of Korea. Some people say that our music isn't punk, we don't want to argue with them. We'll call it what we want, we decided to call it Chosen Punk.
Many bands in Korea don’t care if the outside world or the general public actually thinks they are punk. The lead singer of 18 Cruk claims that he doesn’t mind if he follows a dictionary definition of punk. If people call him punk, he’s okay with that; but if people don’t call him punk, he’s okay with that too. It’s the spirit that counts. The most important thing to most punk bands in Korea is just expressing what’s on their minds and singing about what happens in their day-to-day lives. Crying Nut refers to their music as authentic fake punk. They are simply doing what they want and that’s all they want from the punk label, although it obviously comes with more baggage than that. These bands take pride in the fact that they are Korean before they our punk. They see punk and they acknowledge that it is foreign and so they call themselves “chosen punks.” Even though some of their fans wouldn’t agree, there is something special about the way they merge a local Korean identity with the international spirit of punk.

When Drug first opened there was only a small amount of people interested in the music, but then Crying Nut appeared on T.V. and the scene changed. Drug turned into a place where girls would come to swoon over the musicians. The “real” punks became alienated; their home and club had been taken over by hipsters and sellouts. In despair and disgust, they started to gather in a small dwelling called Skunk Hell. Skunk Hell was the brainchild of a street punk band named Rux. As people started to abandon Drug, the owner tried desperately to maintain Drug’s punk identity by getting bands like Rux to play there, but alas, it was over, and Drug od’d on its own success. The owner eventually sold Drug to Skunk Hell and somehow the spirit of punk overcame the scourge of mindless pop.

Home to Korean Punks
Presently, a real tension is beginning to develop between being punk and being Korean. According to Theme Magazine, Korean punks spend most of their time drinking, sleeping and being unruly, but they have tons of things to be drinking about. Jon Dunbar’s article, “Punks in Korea” details why so many Koreans would want to drink themselves into a stupor:

Everyone has some reason to drink. Some hate their jobs, some don’t have jobs. Korea’s economy is faltering, and too many companies are outsourcing labor and manufacturing jobs to nearby developing countries. Their government is democratic but unstable and continuously undermined by the traditionalist opposition party. For fifty years the country has been in a cold war with their brothers, who are held back only by an unapologetic US military occupation. And the worst part: South Korea’s mandatory military service.

It is clear that in Korea punk represents a break with a society in the grips of a stifling social conformity and a myriad of economic and political problems. An engagement with punk is an obvious way out.


The Agony and the Ecstasy
So what is punk like in Indonesia? The punk scene started in the early 90’s around a small Jakarta based community called Young Offender and met at an underground club called Black Hole. Local punk Eka Annash described the club as a place where freedom happens. As he eloquently put it, “That was the only place where you could find bands that played music that wasn’t mainstream. It was like a tribe back then, a communion for these misfit kids and musicians where they could express themselves freely and not give a toss what people thought.” Interestingly enough, for such a local scene its reach was surprisingly international. The punks who were able to travel to American and Britain brought back magazines, music and accessories and through these distant cultural artifacts punk spread throughout Indonesia and quickly became one big “fuck you” to the dictatorial Indonesian government.

Sometime in December of 2011, in the conservative Sharia-ruled province Aceh, authorities stormed in and interrupted a concert and detained and arrested sixty-four young punks. What was their crime? Simply being a young punk. Being punk according to the Aceh government and Islamic law is immoral. When the police stormed in, they just looked for anybody sporting Mohawks, tattoos, tight jeans or chains—talk about profiling! The Aceh police chief’s response was simple and direct: “They never showered, they lived on the street, never performed religious prayers. We need to fix them so that they will behave properly and morally. They need harsh treatment to change their mental behavior.”

Here's a free haircut from the Indonesian Government
So what were these harsh treatments that would supposedly change their mental behavior? Nothing more than a ten-day rehabilitation camp, where the authorities took fifty-nine men and five women and shaved their heads, made them bathe in a lake, stole their clothes and forced them to pray. We know from social science experiments that this is a sure fire way to promote moral behavior. The sad or maybe ironic part was that the punk concert they interrupted was intended to raise money for orphans and hundreds of fans from around the country had come to help and participate.

One girl cried as women in headscarves cut her long hair to a short bob haircut. Others were left wondering why they were arrested and some worried that they would lose their jobs. A local rights activist Evi Narti Zain said, “What the police have done is totally bizarre. Being a punk is just a lifestyle. They exist all over the world and they don’t break any rules or harm other people.” Of course, we’re talking about a country where lifestyle is a political statement and a way of maintaining political order. Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, deputy mayor of Banda Aceh had this to say, “They are out of sync with Islam. The big holes in their ears, it looks weird. We don’t want it to spread to the next generation.”

You can't stop a punk!
And yet many Idonesian punks follow Islamic law. One 21-year-old punk named Scooby, who was in the boot camp, said, “We’re all Muslim. We go to the mosque too. When we pray, we take off our piercings and put on prayer garb. When we go back out, we put all of our piercings back in.” Another punk claims the rehab was abusive and a violation of his human rights. Jarot Susanto said he was beaten and couldn’t fight back. In response, Faisal, one of the first Islamic scholars in Aceh to suggest outlawing the punk lifestyle said, “This is our community. And in this community, you’re not allowed to act like that. Tattoos? Piercings? Dyed hair? That’s weird for Aceh. We’re not ready for it. It’s not human-rights abuse. It’s guidance.”

Illiza, the deputy mayor of Banda Aceh also commented that the punks’ dysfunction is due to the rise in broken homes and orphans that was the result of the 2004 Tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia. She spoke of an unnamed boy who became a punk after he lost his parents in the Tsunami, “He lost his parents’ love. Maybe that’s why he became a punk.” She claims the rehabilitation camps made the punks happy because they were given a guiding hand, but punks were not fans of this type of guidance and love. If anything, the authorities’ hardball tactics have made the community stronger and more hostile to government actions. It’s a hard time for Indonesia punks, but on the plus side they are producing a lot of great music.

Punks of the world unite!
Although there are still threats of more roundups and camps Aceh punks have support from all over the world. Rob Hanna, the thirty-two year old owner of Seattle’s Aborted Society record label created “Mixtapes for Aceh!” Punks everywhere make cds and cassettes of their favorite bands and Hannah ships them to Indonesia. He has discreetly shipped more then one hundred mixtapes. It’s such a punk gesture, handmade industrial art to battle oppression. Hannah says, “Punks are a group of people that are easily marginalized and ridiculed. It’s easy to write them off as a bunch of drunk kids. In some cases, that’s true. But there’s also a very complex network that throws benefit shows, builds community centers and holds social-justice workshops. It’s bigger than ever. Punk is not dead. It’s actually bigger than it ever was.”

As Indonesian punks look for a future with no government, the deputy mayor Illiza looks forward to a future where punks are reeducated and eradicated. She said, “If we see them on the street, we’ll re-educate them again.” And as if to really drive the point home, she continued, “We should be educating all young people, including those preparing to marry and have children. If we’re successful, we could even prevent a punk from being born.” It’s as if punk was something in a child’s DNA that gets triggered in the wrong environment. Even though there are strong political attacks on punks, the Indonesian punk scene is still active. There have been many crackdowns, but there are still places for the bands to play and punks from around the world to visit. And even with all the commotion, punks will still take breaks for prayer and take their shoes off in clubs that belong to Muslims. Indonesian punks are fighting hard, especially the punks in Aceh.


Malaysia, like Indonesia, has a huge punk scene, one of the biggest in the world. It started in a small town called Dungun in the late 1970’s. Punk infiltrated Malaysia from British music magazines such as NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and Zig Zag, as well as from people traveling through the country. Punks started to get tapes, pins, studs and magazines from friends studying overseas and then traded what they had with each other. Punks from Europe and the US would sometimes send tapes and magazines for free. By the end of 1979 almost every secondary school had a group of punks.

Oddly, even though the punk scene was huge, there weren’t any Malaysian punk bands. Instruments were too expensive for anyone to buy. But around 1986 Malaysian punks started to create their unique brand of punk. Mamat Hitam from Kuala Terengganu created the first Malaysian punk zine called Huru Hara, which roughly translates to Chaos, Chaos. It never had a large circulation, but it was the beginning of Malaysian punk! Malaysian bands, however, didn’t really start to form and play in bands until the 1990’s.

Fly to Malaysia and get punk!
According to BBC News, “the Islamic department in the state capital has launched a campaign to rid the area of punk and skinhead culture after deciding they are un-Islamic.” Punks in the city of Kota Baru asked to hold an Independence Day gathering but were quickly turned down by the Islamic Development Department, which is quick to quell any punk event. A seventeen year old with torn clothes and dyed red hair was arrested, detained, read verses from the Quran, had his head shaved and told to return to a healthy Islamic lifestyle. This will not stop Malaysian punks. If the movement can last ten years without even a band, then it will take more than the Quran and some scissors to stop this scene.


Punk in China makes up a small part of the music industry and is almost completely underground. One would think that punks would be outlawed in China, but they are just ignored. While Aceh punks have to fight just to dress the way they want to, Chinese punks wonder if anyone is listening or cares. The lead singer of P.K. 14 says that to be punk you should be more dangerous and deep than other people: “We want to be a dangerous band, like Fugazi or The Clash or Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie's folk music influenced me a lot. But because the government doesn't care about us, we are not forbidden from playing. Maybe we are not dangerous. It's sad.”

Punk in China may not have much political relevance, but like punk everywhere the music is about day-to-day things—annoying parents, not eating breakfast, getting into fights. Obviously, there are clear political limitations over content in China. Anti-government songs can’t be published and songs with strong content are restricted and rarely get played in popular venues. Still, bands in China find ways to get around the authorities by singing in code. Everyone knows what they mean without actually saying what they mean. One band sings about the dangers of smoking Zhongnanhai cigarettes. Zhongnanhai is also the name of the residential compound of China’s top leaders. Another band sings a song about “the square of hopelessness” without ever mentioning Tiananmen. Lei Jun, the lead singer of Misandao insists that bands can confront the government. He said when he first saw groups like the Sex Pistols on DVD in 1994 that he was excited by the energy and the fact that they could say anything that they wanted. He believes just by dressing the way he does and by singing about the conflicts between people and the government that he is making a difference and speaking out. Yet he’s sanguine about the limits of art and politics, “Of course the government tells you what to do. It tells Americans what to do. The politics everywhere are ugly. It looks different here, but the nature of it is the same."

But how did punk start in China and where is it now? In 1986, Cui Jian came out with a rock song called, “Nothing To My Name or A Piece of Red Cloth.” That song is often recognized as the first true Chinese rock song. The song was the unofficial anthem of activists during the Tiananmen Square protests in the spring of 1989 and it paved the way for punk in China. The lyrics, given the situation, are somewhat elliptical:

That day you used a piece of red cloth
To blindfold my eyes and cover up the sky
I said I saw happiness
The feeling really made me feel comfortable
Made me forget I had no place to live
You asked where I wanted to go
I said I want to follow your road

Guan Kai a Tiananmen Square activist has said of the scene, "We have a lot of anger, but because of the high speed of the economic growth, it has covered the anger, the injustice." Kai, along with others, is concerned that punks are more concerned with style and don’t really have a social or political voice. Some critics believe it is because they were the first to be raised in the government mandated One-Child policy and that the parents of these children are more willing to let their kids live their lives freely. "They don't know what they want because they want so many things," said Lu Bo, chief executive of Scream Records and owner of a now-defunct club that helped popularize punk music in Beijing 15 years ago. "Those born in the '60s and '70s were told by their teachers and parents, 'This is the way you should lead your lives.' No one told this group. They're free to follow new trends."

Guan thinks that this generation of musicians doesn’t have the same sense of mission and that they won’t cross the line into political protest. Lei Misandao’s lead singer strikes a much more ambivalent tone, “When we were younger we believed in politics, but we found it to be useless. We used to have a song about police injustice, called 'The Soul of Chinese Cops.' But we're not politicians or the president. We can't change the system."

Is anyone paying attention?
It may seem as if Chinese punks of today are admitting defeat, but they may just be seeing their generation as it is and expressing themselves as they see best. Cui Jian, a Dylanesque icon to most Chinese punks says this about the scene, “Chinese punks want to show they're angry. That's enough. They don't have to make a big statement. The most important thing is don't lose yourself." Ya Yang Haisong, the lead singer of P.K. 14, thinks that Chinese people are looking for meaning in a country that is changing fast and, sometimes, in drastic ways. "The average man has to look for support, something to live for….The government told people you should live for money, a house, a car, a bigger house. So more people get rich and more people get poor. It's a bad situation. Some foreigners say China has a bright future, but I say there's no future. I try to sing about this, express this in our music….I am not a fighter, a protester, a politician. Music is what I do, I can only do that." So regardless if Chinese Punks are screaming at their politicians or singing for the working class, they are singing about what they want to sing about and that’s punk enough for them and it’s punk enough for me.


Zoom! Zoom! Punk!
Japanese punk has a long history. Punk first came to Japan in the 1970’s. Punk bands started to spring up and play around 1978. American and UK bands like the Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Dead Boys were the major influences. On October 1st, 1976 a club named Shinjuku Loft opened in the red light district of Tokyo. This was ground zero for punk in Japan. Shinjuku Loft first started out booking Glam Rock bands, but eventually punk bands proved more popular and the Loft became their place. The Japanese media, always on the lookout for trends international and otherwise, covered the scene with great interest. However, the music at Shinjuku Loft quickly split into two fan factions: “new wavers” and “rockers.” The new wavers were more mainstream and gravitated to bands like Sex, Pain, 8½, Speed and Bolshie. The rockers listened to bands like Friction, Mr. Kite, Mirrors, S-Ken, SS and Lizard! The bands at the club were getting so popular, college students and foreigners began to take notice. Soon other clubs started springing up, with some accommodating crazier and even more radical acts.

In 1979 the Shinjuku Loft produced an album, Tokyo New Wave ’79 and it was distributed by the Japanese Branch of Victor Records. Speed, the Mirrors and Lizard! also played the live show. The raunchier punks saw that album as a commercial sellout and decided that they would record their own. Shinjuku Loft also produced this live album on March 11th, 1979. The album became known as Tokyo Rockers and included Friction, Mirrors, S-Ken and Mr. Kite. Interestingly enough, CBS/Sony hired a young film student to document the show. Even records companies understand the wide scope of punk.

Here comes The Stalin!
Both albums were huge in Japan, but neither broke through internationally. More and more bands formed and created a new scene called, Kansai or No Wave. It was modeled after the New York “No Wave” scene, spawned a number of new labels and changed the sound of Japanese punk. As this scene grew, Japan’s first international punk sensation emerged and needless to say, The Stalin was something else.

The Stalin was the brainchild of a 32-year old socialist activist and Vietnam veteran, Michiro Endo, who wanted to have the loudest, wildest and most aggressive band in Japan. He chose the name The Stalin because the actual Stalin was one of the most hated people in Japan and he thought that might create controversy. He wanted people to think and to force them to do it in the most uncomfortable ways possible. Endo was known for known for stripping naked, rushing into the audience and blasting them with fire extinguishers. He was also fond of throwing human feces. Sometimes instead of human feces he would throw a dead pig or fish heads at his fans. He would also grab audience members, pull their hair, spit on them or beat them up while yelling into a bullhorn. At one point Endo was arrested for indecent exposure, which seems the least of his crimes. You may think this was ridiculous and that it would seriously curtail your audience, especially at live shows, but the wilder Endo got the more popular he became and even today he still has a huge cult following.

This man will hurt you
The Stalin inspired any number of copycat bands. They were a regular act at the Shinjuku Loft and were considered the most hardcore band in Japan until around 1982 when other bands like G.I.S.M., Execute, Confuse, Kuro, Ghoul and Cobra emerged on the scene and upped the ante. Punk was exploding in Japan and that was when the strangest turn of all happened—women joined the big fuck you and things got wilder. Shonen Knife burst onto the scene in 1981, paving the way for other female acts. They became an international punk sensation and eventually toured with Nirvana. Punk had gone feminist in Japan and like all punks before them, their act was a rebuke to an oppressive, dominant culture. They certainly weren’t replicating any notion of the docile Japanese woman. If you want to take a look at what they were like, Shonen Knife inspired a group called the 5,6,7,8’s that played at the House of Blue Leaves in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Punk has continued to have a strong presence in Japanese culture. One group, The Scrap, directly addresses the political issues of the day. Their song, “Rockaway Beach,” is a frontal assault on the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), operator of the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear plant. Each member of The Scrap was affected by the nuclear meltdown that was the unintended result of the 2011 earthquake. The Lead singer and lyricist Nobutaka Takahashi was evacuated, along with 78,000 other residents, because the plant leaked radiation, lots of it. Some of his songs are merely personal "My family far apart, looks up at the same sky, shattered by earthquake and betrayal. There is no such thing as the truth,” but when the chorus screams in English “fuck” over and over again, Takahashi sings, “"I can't go home, I want to tell people the pain, sadness and isolation I feel because I can't go home." Takahashi lost almost everything because of the nuclear spill—his belongings, his house and his job. If there is a need for rebellion, no matter where you are in the world, there will always be punk to say what must be said.

Japan has a long history rooted in punk. The Shinjuku club still exists and bands are everywhere around Japan. Punk is a way to make sense of the world around you when nothing makes sense. Punk in Asia is strong and relevant. All of this information is true. I think it’s interesting. I think it says something wonderful about the world, that there’s a reason to hope—that’s what punk means to me. In America, in England, in Japan, in Indonesia and all over the world, if there’s one thing you can count on, you can always count on a punk!

Not happy with the Nuclear Reactor
©CCA Arts Review and Sirat Buck


  1. Nice overview of several scenes. Well done--not easy to cover so much ground.

  2. Nice overview of several scenes. Well done--not easy to cover so much ground.