ong “Gem” Baoshi is a rapper from Changchun, in Northeast China’s Jilin Province. He’s 33, but calls himself Old Uncle, and his catchy rhymes have taken the country by storm. His 2017 vapourwave track “Ye Lang Disco (Wild Wolf Disco)” was this year’s megahit. It has three billion plays on short video app TikTok, making it among the most searched and played songs across all China’s music streaming platforms.
“Wild Wolf Disco” describes a northeast China disco in the 1990s. The track references the trendiest pop culture symbols of the time, including pagers, breakdancing, brick-sized cellphones, disco balls and Hong Kong pop stars. The song sparks waves of nostalgia and longing for a time gone by.
“It’s like Forrest Gump in the form of rap. The whole song is like a roaring flow of debris – the bricks and stones, leaves and twigs of Chinese society over two decades, carrying both the remembered and the forgotten – that surges and rushes before our eyes all at once,” writer Huang Zhangjin commented about the song on Weibo.
Having witnessed the short-lived rush to China’s Northeast in the early 1990s, and the cruelty of the following massive layoffs and economic stagnation, the rapper faithfully describes the pride and loss of China’s rust belt through beats and poetry.
Born in 1986 to a merchant family, Gem can recall with detail the glittering days of Northeast China in the early 1990s. “It was a time of hope, as if you could strike gold anywhere and make money from anything,” Gem told NewsChina.
Gem’s parents were among the first Northeasterners bold enough to venture into the private economy. They started a spice business in 1993 and succeeded. In 1997, the family moved to a high-end apartment and furnished it with a big executive desk and a fancy boss chair.
When Gem turned 10, his father began taking him to nightclubs to meet his business associates. Wrapped in fur coats and conspicuously holding their brick cellular phones, they were all young and full of hope.
In the dimly lit bar, people drank, sang and bragged about how well they were doing. “They seemed so ambitious. It was like they could earn a fortune from anything,” Gem said.
But the family’s fortunes did not last long. In the late 1990s, the transition to a market economy saw massive layoffs throughout the northeastern provinces. The economic reforms affected millions of households. After a string of failures, Gem’s father was finally broken.
“He fell into depression,” Gem told NewsChina. Gem would return home to a dark room thick with the stench of smoke and his father sleeping in bed. The nightstand ashtray was a mountain of cigarette butts. “I said to myself, I would never screw up my life like he did,” Gem told our reporter.
Gem rebelled. “My mother was extremely strict with me. Her discipline, our poverty and the depressing environment at home all made me feel like everything was shit. I couldn’t find happiness anywhere. Being with my friends consoled me a little. Skipping class, hanging out or whatever else, anything was better than being good at school. I really thought so in those days,” Gem said.
Rap became an outlet for expression. He first learned about hip-hop at 17 through a Chinese rap group called Hide, and was instantly hooked. As a teen, he read experimental poetry and novels. He was deeply attracted to the free spirit of urban cultures of rap, breakdancing, graffiti and DJing.
Gem and his high-school friend, Ganana, started the crew Zen in 2005. They teamed up with Huan, Nudol and Fly’in Dog as the Quinpal Squad in 2007, and started label Quinpal Squad Culture two years later. The band released their first album, Quinpal Squad is Back Again, in 2011.
Many indie rappers in China harbour a strong “underground complex:” Any rapper’s attempt to gain popularity through mainstream pop or TV talent shows was an act of contempt among other indie rappers. In other words, selling out is not cool.
“I don’t have an underground complex, because I can’t afford it,” Gem told NewsChina. “I didn’t come from a middle-class family. It wasn’t my fate to be an artist without a care. Making money takes up a large part of my life.”
In 2008, Quinpal Squad and several other hip-hop crews were invited onto Day Day Up, a popular show on Hunan Television. Directors told Gem to perform the track “My Home is in the Northeast,” a trite song completely lacking in grit and attitude. It wasn’t Gem’s style.
He was now facing the same dilemma as other Chinese rappers: going mainstream could mean losing your edge, or remaining underground and sacrifice your chance at the “big time”.
In his 20s, Gem struggled between dreams and reality. He wasn’t making a living off his music. Other members of his group, however, chose to get real. One got a job working at a TV station, one for the local railway management bureau, and another opened a street dancing school.
“The only thing I knew for certain was that I loved rap, even though there wasn’t a market for it. I wasn’t interested in anything else and didn’t know anything else,” Gem said.
He tried for a government job but failed the civil service exam (which later became an object of mockery among his rapper friends). He eventually got a job as a manager in a shopping mall for 3,400 yuan (US$479) a month.
In 2014, he married a woman from Chengdu, Sichuan Province and they had a son, but the child suffered from poor health from birth. The family moved to Chengdu to get him better treatment. Gem was nearly 30 with no marketable skills in a new city. He worked any job he could, selling faucets, wholesaling mobile phones and driving for a ride-hailing app.
He spent his free time writing songs at home, but in Sichuan couldn’t find anyone else to collaborate with. Gem was an outsider to the local hip-hop scene. He tried to get in touch with local rappers but no one paid attention to him. The hip-hop coming from Sichuan and Chongqing is a major force in China’s underground music scene. And compared to Gem, this younger generation is more professional, trend-sensitive and forward-looking.
Ganana, his former crew member, recalled a reunion with Gem at a music festival. “At the hotel, he told me how he was still writing. He asked me to keep writing and keep expressing myself even if I give up rap, otherwise our lives would be wasted,” Ganana told NewsChina.
A chance for Chinese rappers to make money off their art came in 2017 – and Gem missed it. Rap of China was the nation’s hottest talent show. Chinese rap gained unprecedented attention from the mainstream. Young rappers like GAI, PG One, After Journey, Jony J and Tizzy T became household names overnight.
Gem was driving for ride-share app Didi at the time. He missed the registration deadline. “I hated myself for missing the chance. The wave came and I didn’t catch it,” Gem told NewsChina.
With the support of his wife, Gem pursued music full-time. But without a steady income, he was prone to anxiety. Gem holed up at home to write. He slept all day and wrote all night. His room was dark and reeked of cigarette smoke. He had become his father. And at his lowest moment, he found vapourwave.
Rooted firmly in the 80s and early 90s, the genre heavily samples Japanese city pop, smooth jazz, retro elevator music, R&B and dance music. Vapourwave is fuelled by nostalgia.
Over the next two years, Gem wrote a dozen tracks that blended vapourwave with the culture of his Northeastern China. Among them, “Wild Wolf Disco” shot him to stardom.
Gem joined the second season of Rap of China this summer. He made little impact on the show initially, but was voted back by viewers in the resurrection round. And with “Wild Wolf Disco” gaining popularity, the public had turned its ears to this veteran rapper from China’s rust belt.
Gem observed that most of the rappers who found success on Rap of China had a pronounced persona. Some came off as rough and tough on stage. Others were more laid back and chill. Gem took on a warmer, more avuncular character. He chose the nickname Old Uncle as a way to represent his roots. “Old uncle, in the northeastern dialect, refers to the youngest uncle in the family. He takes care of you, protects you and never hurts you,” he explained.
Gem’s “Wild Wolf Disco” was the focus of the hip-hop community. One music critic described it as “literary realism in rap.”
With its Cantonese hook and northeastern-accented rap, the song touches on the socio-economic landscape of the northeast in the early 1990s, a time when pop and films from Hong Kong painted the picture of modernity for many on the Chinese mainland.
Gem conjures a collage of 1990s images: pagers and giant cellular phones, disco and roller skating, Hong Kong stars like Chow Yun-fat and Stephen Chow. They spark instant nostalgia for a time when Northeasterners experienced pride and hope, but also perplexity and disillusion. Dubbed “The Republic’s eldest son” by Mao Zedong, the Northeast was once the pride of China’s industrial development. It was the first region to industrialize and had the highest urbanization rate.
Deeply rooted in the planned economy, the northeast was more dependent on State-owned enterprises (SOEs) than other areas. For decades, SOEs provided secure, well-paid employment to northeastern workers whose “iron rice bowls” were the envy of the nation.
As China’s economy started to modernize and shifted from heavy industry toward services in the 1990s, plants were downsized. Millions were put out of work. And as the regional recession continued, feelings of hopelessness settled in. The economic slowdown only sped up the exodus of young people as more headed to the megacities for work.
“Only those who have had experienced the pains from the economic stagnation in the wake of the social transition in 90s Northeast China, particularly those restless and lost young people, can truly understand the nostalgia and bitterness in this song,” read a post by Weibo user “Meng.”
“These coarse and seemingly shallow lyrics strike us in our hearts, forcing us to face a past we can never return to. This place experienced both pride and depression. It fuelled generations of people’s expectations for the future but also doused their sparks of hope. People in the Northeast hide their woes in humor and self-mockery. Thanks for this song that finally gives me a chance to stop running away but look straight back and sincerely remember our past,” Weibo user “CChris” commented.
Besides “Wild Wolf Disco,” many of Gem’s songs, including “Your Old Uncle,” “Old Uncle Rocks,” “Love Gambler,” “Young Blood” and “Classmate Party” collectively paint the portrait of a typical, middle-aged northeastern man who has experienced loss and failure and relieves the pain through humor, self-mockery and exaggeration. But at the same time, this man still harbours a Quixotic pursuit of the dreams from his youth.
In “Classmate Party,” Gem depicts a scene in which Old Uncle reunites with a bunch of his old classmates at a nightclub. During the party, the song’s protagonist feels at a loss as topics jump from stocks, insurance and fund management to children’s education, plastic surgery, high-end cosmetics, Louis Vuitton and overseas travel.
In the semi-autobiographical song, classmate Ma Laosan, a businessman of moderate success, asks Old Uncle what he does for a living. He answers, “nothing but writing some rap tunes at home.” The classmate is astonished. “Are you kidding me? Are you saying you’re still breakdancing at this age?” he asks.
Fur coats are a heart-warming symbol of the northeastern lifestyle. In “Wild Wolf Disco,” Gem raps “No matter how hot it gets, I’ll never take off my fur coat.” The reference strikes home with millions of northeasterners who left for the warmer southern provinces. It’s a symbol of self-identity wrapped in a pride that will never fade, no matter how far away they are from home. As Gem raps in his 2018 song “Young Blood”: “I thank my blood and keep it raw/I was born in the Northeast and I’m always proud.”