P.K.14: Beijing Underground in Translation

Formed in 1997, the band P.K.14 (Public Kingdom for Teens) to the Chinese underground is what Talking Heads is to post-punk, college rock, or the “alternative” movement in the U.S. (when “alt” still stood for financial and artistic independence from major record labels and “indie” wasn’t a marketed look). But they sound dark and moody and British, a cross between Pulp-era Jarvis Cocker, with the tortured voice wavering between a rich baritone and tenor, and Television Personalities, with their (still dark but) feel-good “part-time punk” melodic sensibility. Add to this band-founder Yang Haisong’s lyrical knack (written/sung in Chinese), P.K.14 is like a yet-undreamt dream come true.


<< Left- 2001; Right- 2011 (Yang is first from left in both) >>

There are such exciting things happening with independent music in China, especially in the Beijing underground. Many of the current bands, including the most well-known Carsick Cars, bear the influence of 90s US/Aussie/Kiwi indie rock (particularly Pavement), in addition of course to the classic 60s lo-fi sounds of Velvet Underground. P.K.14, the pioneers, somehow buck the trend before the trend even took off, with their affinity for British gloom. Yang and his wife, Sun Xia, also have a fuzzed-out twee/noise pop act called Dear Eloise, featuring cool female vocals by Sun. They’d fit right in on Creation or Sarah or Slumberland Records.

So that’s the short intro. If you want to know more, there’s been a lot of great work done and pieces written by people who actually live in Beijing and are part of the scene. Also a wealth of materials available for streaming from labels  兵马司|Maybe Mars and tenzenmen and 根茎|Genjing.


When I first discovered P.K.14, I became obsessed with this song, 多么美妙的夜晚 |How majestic is the night. I would keep replaying the music video then switch to the audio-only file and repeat that. This is one of the few things, literary or otherwise, that I’ve felt strongly about wanting to translate. I started to do so months ago and abandoned the project after a few verses. Then one day I drank a lot of yerba mate, remembered how much I adore this song, and decided to get it done. As utterly horrid and impossible as translating Chinese to English always seems, I’m pretty satisfied with this version. It is a loose but (I hope) not gratuitous translation. The original lyrics really add to it, but sound needs no translation, so listen:




//但你知道在一公里外的某个地方 (某个地方)



//但你知道在一公里外的某个地方 (某个地方)
刚刚开始… 刚刚开始…
刚刚开始… 刚刚开始…//



“How lovely & strange is the night” [Orig. “How majestic is the night”]

How lovely & strange is the night
Leaves tremble after shadows
Moonlight shoots down through the wind
So transparent it terrifies

Caught all over yellow roots of grass
Those frozen tears of yours
White frost arrives in the middle of night
Other than wind, still more wind

//But you know that a mile out somewhere (somewhere)
Some horrors have only just begun//

How lovely & strange is the night
You lie down but can’t fall asleep
The world is inside your body
Yet not worth even one thought

How lovely & strange is the thought
So magical it terrifies
All these thoughts are mine, you say
Nobody can steal them away

//But you know that a mile out somewhere (somewhere)
Some horrors have only just begun
Just begun… just begun…
Just begun… just begun…//

Smoke is blown out, time slowed
Spirit poured into a clean glass
Gas is lit, electric lamp pulled bright
Music emerges according to its turn

A book is opened, then closed
Sound of leather shoes stepping on the floor
Always makes you nervous ah–

Here’s a bonus,


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