George Michael passed away over Christmas weekend at the age of 53. While the English pop singer will be remembered around the world for his music, he will always hold a special place in the hearts of many Chinese as the first to bring Western pop music to China.
In April 1985, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley took the stage as Wham! at the Workers’ Gymnasium in Beijing, playing in front of 15,000 people who had never seen anything like them before.
At the time, China was still recovering from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Western pop music was banned. Nobody was walking around on the streets with bleached hair and wearing pastel jackets. If they had heard some “Wei Meng” (Chinese transliteration of Wham!) songs then it was likely on a contraband cassette tape that was passed around among university students.
One Beijing resident remembers that at the time, tickets were only 5 yuan. However, that still didn’t make it easy to attend the concert:
The rigid social atmosphere back then was the real reason I couldn’t go to the concert. At that time, if you played a guitar on the street, you would be considered a hooligan.
I only had blue, green and grey Cultural Revolution style clothes. If someone dressed in a different color, everyone would notice. Now we think that’s fashionable, but back then, something like that signaled trouble.
Many tickets were allocated to government officials. Obviously, this didn’t create for the liveliest of atmospheres as the audience remained mostly quiet and in their seats while Michael belted out hits like “Careless Whisper“ and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.
But it became a groundbreaking performance, leading to more and more Western pop acts being allowed to tour and perform in the country. It took Wham!’s manager, Simon Napier-Bell, 18 months to convince Chinese authorities to permit the gig, pitching them that it would show foreigners that China was finally open to tourism and investment. Eventually, his persistence paid off with Wham! beating the Rolling Stones and Queen into the country.
On YouTube, you can watch an hour-long documentary called “Foreign Skies” that documents Wham!’s historic China tour (which also included Guangzhou):
Or on Tencent:
You can also check out some of the individual performances, like “Careless Whisper”:
“Everything She Wants”: