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The Freak Opera of Asian Dope Boys

SmSh speaks to club collective Asian Dope Boys ahead of their show Saturday night at Arkham.
2016-05-19 14:48:19
Introducing: ASIAN DOPE BOYS, the latest mildly deformed brainchild of young agitator/artist/director Chen Tianzhuo. The last time SmartShanghai checked in with him, Tianzhuo was working on "a seriously fucked hip hop and voguing opera". Looks like he's been riding that concept a bit further out into the ether.

I saw photos from a recent performance Asian Dope Boys gave at legendary Berlin club Berghain and… Holy. Shit. Interest was piqued, to say the least. My man Mao Mao (above), who performs under the moniker Beio, looks like a Buddhist demon king that came to life, did everyone's drugs, and went on the hunt for man-flesh to re-up his body mass. Asian Dope Boys co-founder Yu Han, known to the fans as China Yu, looks like an Epicurean harlequin, an imperial courtesan-wraith screaming out of some Qing Dynasty horror story.

Sick. Tell me more.

Actually, Asian Dope Boys is less a performance concept than a label, stemming from Tianzhuo's desire to break out of the narrow-mindedness of institutional art world schmoozing. (For a more capital-A "Art"-type of deal, check out Tianzhuo's Trayastrima exhibit/performance, opening on Saturday at Chi Art Space in K11.) They'll officially midwife this strange new vision into the Shanghai scene with a party on Saturday at Arkham featuring live dance and music performances from Paris' House of Drama, musician/butoh dancer NSDOS, French hip hop producer Nodey, and Beijing DJ Shackup.

Ahead of that, I asked Tianzhuo and Yu Han to introduce the dope:


Chen Tianzhuo (bottom center), Yu Han (top right), and Beio (top center), aka Asian Dope Boys

SmSh: First can you introduce yourselves? Who are you, where are you, what do you do, etc…

Chen Tianzhuo: We're Asian Dope Boys, a Chinese label. We want to bring underground and alternative things from all over the world to China, and at the same time throw our own parties, produce our own merchandise and publications, or any other work that's fun or interesting to us.

Yu Han: I'm Yu Han, I live in Beijing, currently doing the Asian Dope Boys label.

SmSh: How long have you been working together? What attracted you to each other's work initially?

Tianzhuo: Yu Han and I first collaborated on my video work "19:53", he was an actor in it. Afterwards we collaborated on performances at Palais de Tokyo in Paris and Berghain in Berlin, he also joined as an actor and performer in those. After that, I had the idea to start a label, and I thought he'd be really good to work with on it. He's very passionate about this kind of work, and we're already familiar with each other's temperaments.

Yu Han: We've been working together for over a year now, since I took part in Tianzhuo's piece "19:53". I really liked working on that. Later, the experience of performing at Palais de Tokyo was really stimulating, it felt right. I liked that even more. Tianzhuo always posts stuff online that I think is really fancy. For him, it's probably my body figure that attracts him.

Yu Han

SmSh: How did you get the idea to form Asian Dope Boys? What was your concept for it at the beginning?

Tianzhuo: I had the idea when I was traveling in India. I felt that in addition to my work as an artist, I was also interested in doing a lot of other kinds of projects. Limiting myself to art is really boring, doing other kinds of projects would be more interesting. Plus the audience within the art world is quite lame and closed-minded. Outside of art itself, they don't know much about anything else, and don't even care to. So I wanted to do something for an audience with broader tastes and interests to enjoy. We also want to make a label that's led by our own taste, not something that's led by commercial concerns or going after a specific target audience or whatever.

Yu Han: It was Tianzhuo's idea initially. As I understand it, the concept of Asian Dope Boys is just to do things that we all love. It's our crew.

SmSh: Asian Dope Boys is a pretty rad name… how'd you settle on that?

Tianzhuo: It's my Instagram name, I just thought it perfectly suited our crew, which includes Beio, Yu Han, and the other people we've collaborated with.

SmSh: You've performed with this crew at Palais de Tokyo and Berghain, and now you're bringing them to underground dance club Arkham in Shanghai. How do you blend club culture with avant-garde dance, performance art, etc? What can the audience expect from the event that sets it apart from a typical club night?

Tianzhuo: It comes down to the particular nature of any given venue, and what style of performance would best fit it. The performance we did at Berghain isn't that similar to what we're doing at Arkham. Most of the time a performance depends a lot on the venue. The performance at Berghain was more like a theatrical stage show, while the event at Arkham will be more like a party. Our upcoming club performances take a lot of influence from rave culture. You could say that the club is the frame for presenting the work, or the club space is the medium and nothing more.


SmSh: Can you introduce some of your collaborators? I know you're working with House of Drama from Paris, and other French musicians and producers. How did you assemble this cast of characters?

Tianzhuo: All of them are already really lihai [extraordinary] in their respective fields. It's like if you're shooting a movie, you need to assemble a suitable cast of performers and a suitable soundtrack. When all of these artists converge in this performance, each contributes their personal touch and expertise, be it dance or music.

SmSh: What is your role in all of this? Do you do all of the costume design and choreography yourself?

Tianzhuo: My role in these Asian Dope Boys performances is director. For my own performances I do all the design myself, but of course for this I can't do every single piece of costume design or choreography. House of Drama is bringing their specialized experience in choreography. They're basically doing their own performance within the frame of the Asian Dope Boys party.

ADB collaborator Aisha Devi

SmSh: In addition to the club show, you'll also present an "opera" at Chi Art Space. How will the performance be different in an art world context as opposed to a club context?

Tianzhuo: These are two totally different things. The opera is actually an opera. It's two hours long, the audience will be seated while watching it. It has many chapters, it takes place on a theater stage. It has an introduction, stage dialogue, stage performance, dancers and singers, and a curtain call. It has a narrative tying all these elements together, though the narrative isn't necessarily very clear-cut. The club event will be organized on the basis of a party, each member will do their own individual performance, all united under the label of Asian Dope Boys. The content of the club performance is more entertainment-oriented.

SmSh: In your call for participants for the opera performance you said that the freakier you look, the better chance you'll have of being selected, and specifically said that if you're really fat your odds are good. Why?

Tianzhuo: I was just worried the people answering the call might be too boring. People who think themselves to be imperfect in any way might not dare to sign up, but we're really going for imperfection. Applicants who are really professional are probably too boring.

Yu Han: And because I myself am fat and have no dance experience.

SmSh: Will Asian Dope Boys be an ongoing party / performance series? What do yo have planned after these events are over?

Tianzhuo: Since Asian Dope Boys is a label, we'll definitely have some follow-up events, physical products, parties, publications, etc.

Yu Han: Asian Dope Boys presents art, music and dance performance in the format of a label, but our label's style is first being established through visuals and sound. Later, Asian Dope Boys will release books and various other kinds of merchandise. We'll also use it as an antenna to seek out interesting things happening in other domains.


Catch the Asian Dope Boys + friends this Saturday, May 21 at Arkham. Chen Tianzhuo's Trayastrima opera/exhibit will be on view at Chi Art Space in the K11 mall from May 22 through June 30.