A treasure trove of discarded tapes brings back a lost Shanghai
Social media and streaming services have come to dominate the way people around the world consume music over the past few years. So when I moved to Shanghai, I was delighted to find a thriving little cassette market in the local indie music scene.
As a musician growing up in Taiwan, my music experience mostly revolved around CDs and downloading tracks to an iPod Mini – cassette tapes seemed quaint and old-fashioned in comparison. I loved the idea of creating “retro” mixtapes using my existing digital music library. When I told a fellow musician about this project last year, he directed me to the pages of several Beijing-based analog publishers on the WeChat social app.
I started buying dozens of used cassettes, planning to record my own music on them. But when the tapes arrived, I found that they were already filled with music – mostly tracks from the 1970s, 80s and 90s. I was captivated.
Left: A pirated old version of an album from Abba’s tour, with a handwritten track listing by the original owner; Right: Individual cassettes from Hsu’s collection. Courtesy of Philip Hsu
The tapes offered an audio snapshot of another era. A tape from a voice recorder contained rehearsal notes for a Chinese opera; others were filled with disco and dance hall tunes from the 80s, which had apparently been recorded in college audiovisual rooms. Even more featured albums from a host of mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwanese artists from the 1970s onwards, most of whom I knew little about.
Friends who collect rare music have told me that the tapes themselves — especially unmarked ones — usually won’t sell for cheap unless their provenance can be confirmed. But that didn’t bother me. I was more interested in the fact that all of these artifacts – and the music recorded on them – had survived. Cassettes seem to have had remarkable staying power in China, even more so than MP3s, CDs and vinyl records.
Much music failed to reach Chinese audiences in the 2000s. Due to the disruption caused by Napster and other pirate music download services at the time, major CD labels had to be strategic as to what music to release in China and when. Music released in China was also limited due to ideas about what was appropriate for audiences: yes to Britney Spears, no to her cover of “Santa Baby”; yes to NSYNC, but no to sassy Justin Timberlake.
Tapes from earlier eras, however, continue to appear. In some ways, I felt these tapes were like an audio version of the Beijing Silver Mine – a giant archive of abandoned film negatives from the Chinese capital. They provided an intergenerational bond for Chinese music across a wide range of societal tastes and interests, which fans and musicians could rediscover and redefine.
To share this wealth of material with the world, I am now digitizing my tape collection and uploading them to an open file sharing account (accessible by clicking here). Anyone can browse the collection, listen to the tapes and download the files for free. They can also upload digital versions of their own tapes directly to the folder.
I named this project the zusi band history project, after the name of my music technology company. Over time, I hope this will evolve into a collective effort, with people all over China sharing their own tapes. Tape History does not collect usage data, monetize, or track user activity; it just provides simple functionality and access – a near-infinite stream of point-and-click music.
There are currently over 100 tapes in the collection – most of them unmarked – and the number continues to grow. Most were purchased from second-hand markets, where tape collections from aging parents or children who have left home eventually end up. People sometimes ask me if there is a curation process beyond listening to and converting everything in real time using a reliable conversion recorder. The answer is: sort of.
The Shanghai lockdown gave me a head start. I started cataloging music according to artist, genre, language and dialect, and whether the tapes were marked or not. This allows listeners to start by listening to artists of relative fame before diving into the unmarked tapes. That said, many of the unscored mixtapes – which I’ve dubbed “blind boxes” – musically outperform the official retail cassettes, in my opinion. Their novelty, as well as the care taken by their original creators when mixing them, make them a real pleasure.
Many Chinese consumer market tapes were probably distributed smuggled around this time. Cassettes in the collection often contain excerpts from live radio or television broadcasts of performances by Cantopop stars. In many cases, they were originally language learning tapes filled with English or Mandarin phrases, but were recorded by their former owners decades ago.
Photos and audio from one of the tapes, featuring “Unforgettable First Love” by Teresa Teng. From the collection of Philip Hsu
As for my personal preferences, I have a soft spot for Teresa Teng – or Deng Lijun – Taiwan’s first post-war international music superstar. However, my favorite tapes from the collection are two bootleg mixtapes, which are titled only “Lone Star” and “I Finally Lost You”. Both feature gorgeous vocals and mixing. Opening the boxes of tapes and reading the names of the songwriters, lyricists and composers allows you to truly understand the love people put into these tapes and music. It’s a far cry from the throwaway candy culture that later materialized in some genres.
Photos and an audio extract from the mixtape entitled “Lone Star”. From the collection of Philip Hsu
Photos and an audio extract from the mixtape entitled “I finally lost you”. From the collection of Philip Hsu
The blind boxes are also full of groovy surprises. As a millennial, I’ve rarely heard Paula Abdul’s name mentioned except in connection with American TV talent shows; hearing it, Cyndi Lauper and Bon Jovi turn on a disco playlist created in 1980s Shanghai really opened my eyes to the cross-generational and cross-cultural power of music.
Some strips also contain handwritten notes or hand-drawn scribbles, which often provide fascinating little insights into life in China at that time. A cassette marked “1981” contains a compilation of hoppin’ dance music to accompany a company’s annual dinner, where – the creator notes – “a motorcycle was good at”. An American English tape is partially replaced by proper British English lessons, but the two only manage to educate between the songs of Xiaohudui (Little Tiger Team) – a Taiwanese boy band from the late 80s. And after reviewing a collection of unlabeled tapes, I decided to categorize them as “Happy Go Lucky” – they seemed to be the precursors to today’s LGBT-friendly dance music mixes.
These 1980s mixtapes reflected a Shanghai still in full exuberance of economic openness. Unfortunately, a much darker mood permeates the indie music scene in today’s China, due to the prolonged pandemic measures. Nonetheless, Tape History helps people find solace in music between time periods. All are invited to add their music, retro or contemporary, to the project.
LiveChinaMusic, China’s oldest English-language magazine covering independent music, has already contributed to Tape History with an iconic Chinese independent music digital mixtape. LiveCN’s Will G., who previously worked for a Beijing-based tape label called Nasty Wizard Recordings, had this to say about the Tape History Project:
“Although we’ve been making digital mixtapes for over six years, there’s something fundamentally satisfying about bringing our love of music to physical form; a timestamp of what our ears were ringing at any given time. In a way, it’s a way to connect the past and the future, a chance for us analog lovers to capture a piece of our youth, reformatted to our musical tastes today.
“Also worth noting is the role that mixtapes have played in the music industry. Whether it’s a doorway… to a punk rocker’s education or a cure for a romantic bachelor, mixtapes have changed the way we digest music. And being able to capture, bring to life, and archive those mixtapes can help us appreciate and perhaps tap into the intimacy and connection the tapes have provided for a generation.
The band’s history also helps me better understand how musical styles and composition developed in China. Those like me who are familiar with Jay Chou, Yanzi and other Chinese pop megastars of the 2000s may not realize how important the works of Karen Mok, Wang Fei, Jason Lau and previous Canto crooners were creative. Indeed, before starting this project, I had no idea that my father – who was himself a musician during his college years – had so much to say about the Hong Kong boy bands of the 1970s.
As the project grows with more old and new tapes, Tape History plans to “release” retro tapes on WeChat twice a month in addition to contemporary fan submissions. Hopefully the age-old tradition of just putting on a tape and listening (until the B-side) will also make a comeback, unlike our very fragmented media landscape today.
Publisher: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Visual assets by smartboy10/VCG and Philip Hsu, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)