Shanghai Rocks, Switzerland Shakes – Michael Vonplon of Miro China talks about cultural exchange

michael vonplon shanghai outdoor

Text: Heini Strand
Pic: Michael Vonplon

One could say that Swiss Michael Vonplon is very much hooked on China. Initially Vonplon went to China in the mid-90’s to study language, and has been stuck to the country ever since. Nowadays he makes his living out of it.

Vonplon is the co-founder of Miro China, which provides a platform for Chinese and Swiss artists to do cultural exchange. In recent years Miro China has hosted many projects that get together artists from contemporary art and music scenes in China and Switzerland. China Drifting is one of these.

How did Miro China get started and how did you get involved?
”I founded Miro China in 2006. At that time I had already been inviting Chinese artists, mainly from music scenes but also from other art forms, for more than a decade through my Beijing-based event and party label Cheesebeat. Most of the people I work with nowadays I met during my time in Beijing in the mid-90s. At that time we were the first ones to organise techno parties in China. At first we did it only in Beijing and in small venues, but soon all over China, with lots of passion for music and its lifestyle. I wanted to get out and experience China’s new youth from close up. I wanted to experience their longings, their rebellion and their search for identity. I dreamt of a small but lively urban subculture, a music scene for young people to meet, exchange, realize and live their ideas.”

”About 15 years later a lot has changed in China since our first parties. I can say that my dream became reality and along the way I learned a good deal about China. In China it takes some time to gain people’s trust and confidence. It feels good that after all these years I’m still working with many of those people – in a more professional environment, but still with the same ideology.”

What are the main principles in Miro China’s work?
”For me it has always been important that China, the new global superpower, should come closer to the West. Not only in economic terms but also culturally. It is therefore vital to move beyond stereotypes and prejudice, and to create opportunities for exciting and possibly critical encounters. To build trust and mutual respect – which in particular Western businessmen find often difficult. Clichés and prejudices must be overcome. Besides, it is important to open doors for unconventional people and ideas within this process.”

Well then, how did your China Drifting project got started?
”I cannot really say how it started, probably naturally and through all those encounters between Chinese and European artists over all these years. It has always been a goal of mine to welcome luminaries from the world of music and art from China and Europe – in my case mainly Switzerland.”

”China Drifting evolved from my various previous projects. I wanted to create China Drifting a brand for cultural exchange with China and establish a festival with this content. To have both sides working together on a creative and playful event, to shape and design the content on same levels. China Drifting is an open platform for building bridges between the East and the West and for independent artist to join forces and open doors. It is also an experiment for sharing ideas between different artists, overcoming the language barrier through a common understanding for music and art. But it should also be an unpretentious party for people from different regions and with different backgrounds.”

Last autumn you took the China Drifting also outside Switzerland, elsewhere in Europe. Why was that?
”Probably simply ‘cause I’m aiming to connect with different people and institutions in different countries, and I feel inspired by people from different regions. I’ve always been good at bringing people together, to make them feel good and at ease. Probably the one and only gift I do have, hah. There are only very few people in Europe who understand China and its underground music scene. At the same time there are still a lot of prejudices about China and I would like to surprise people with the country and its rebellious side. Not with the China you know from media, the economic growth or traditional clichés, but with the progressive, open-minded and maybe sometimes also radical form of China.”

What do Switzerland and China have in common?
”Switzerland and China are pretty much as far apart as possible. In size, environment and the number of people anyway. That is what makes it even more interesting for me to support this exchange. On the other side there are lots of Swiss people at the forefront of cross-cultural ideas with China, especially in cultural aspects. I don’t know why, but I find that very stimulating.”

What in your opinion have been the highlights of Miro China’s work in cultural exchange?
”The Street Parade last year where more than 80 Chinese people visited Zurich and the China Drifting Festival the same weekend in a specially designed Love-Mobile. Besides that, all those music tours of Swiss artists in China and of Chinese artists in Europe. In a long run the highlight has been the open-air music festival at the Stone Forrest in Kunming in 2001 with approximately 10.000 people attending, dancing to the music til’ the early morning in a fantastic background. I will never forget the vibrant atmosphere throughout that night. And also the Party at the Great Wall in 1998.”

”In general it’s very fulfilling for me to see the many Swiss artists we’ve linked with the Chinese, and of whom many share ideas and collaborate in different forms. But at the end it is really the many Chinese friends and people I’ve met on my journey, they never fail to charm me.”

What do you think defines the Asian indie music scene?
”I don’t know much about the Asian music scene but more about the Chinese, which I find very refreshing at the moment. There are a lot of new bands coming out, also because they have more opportunities to perform live on stage and in the many festivals coming and going on in China. The music field is as chaotic as it seems exciting. Also it looks like the Chinese audience still crave for good music, you can feel it in concerts, which differs from here where people often seem too spoiled…”

What kind of Swiss artists are popular in China? And what about the other way around?
”It’s still a small number of people who know Chinese musicians in Switzerland and the other way around. But our productions with Chinese artists are better and better visited. People start to understand that the China Drifting and the other events we organise do present as thrilling music as could be heard in any cool club in London or Berlin. I’ve already invited Pet Conspiracy several times to Switzerland, and they have a good audience now. The same goes for DJ Yang Bing or singer Coco Zhao. They’ve visited Switzerland several times and have a good reputation here. Among many others I was also in China with my favourite Swiss band Ronin, they will perform in JZ Festival in Shanghai again this year, which is nice.”

Michael Vonplon’s video picks:

1. Cheebeat in China
A short documentary on the history of dance culture in China by event and music label Cheesebeat. Footage of their first dance party on the Great Wall of China on June 10th 1998. The first travel of many Chinese musicians to Zurich Streetparade 2001 and the legendary Music Open Air Festival “Cloud09″ in November 2001 (the first in China to date) at the Stone Forrest near Kunming.

2. Beijing Rocks
Documentary about modernisation in Beijing. Michael Vonplon lived among chinese friends in a Beijing ”hutong”, and they talk about memories of the days they lived together in fast changing Beijing at the end of the 90’s.

3. China Drifting Party
China Drifting Party, after the Streetparade 11. August 2012 in Zurich Featuring Peking Opera Maskerade, Coco Zhao, Pitchtuner, Pet Conspiracy, Michael Fresh, DelaBass, Yang Bing and an amazing party crowd.

4. Made in China
Made in China is a documentary about the underground youth culture in the post-maoist china. Shot in november 2000, the film takes you on journey to the culture underground of China at that time. It portraits people and friends of Michael Vonplon, without commentary 10 protagonists like a jazz musician, a dj, a radio commentator, two film directors, a writer, a fashion designer, a punkband and several artists finding ways of expressing themselves in the fast changing realities of postmaoist China.

The protagonists are: Coco Zhao, Mian Mian, Zhang Youdai, Ai Wei Wei, Brain Failure, Tian Peng (Supermarket), Xiao Weng, Miao Shu, Liu Xuan, Wang Quanan, Xu Zhen.

5. …and for something completely different!
”Last but not least.. my favorite song!”

China Drifting is Club Niubi’s partner in Switzerland.

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