BEIJING – It was strangely muted when George Michael, as part of the British pop duo Wham!, took the stage at the Workers Gymnasium in Beijing in April 1985, recalled one of those who attended that now legendary first Western pop act in Communist China.
Around 15,000 people watched Michael and band mate Andrew Ridgeley sing hits such as “Careless Whisper” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” — as police grimly stared at them.
“I’d never seen so many police in my life,” Mao Danqing, a now well-known Chinese writer who attended the concert, said on Monday.
The security presence was so intimidating people were too timid to make any noise during the songs, Mao said.
“When you see that many police you feel terrified. Everyone sat in separate sections and each section had police lined up in front, facing the crowd,” Mao said.
Michael, who became one of the pop idols of the 1980s with Wham! and then forged a career as a successful solo artist with sometimes sexually provocative lyrics, died at his home in England on Sunday. He was 53.
China maintained strict controls on Western music and film in the 1980s, just a few years after adopting historic economic reforms in 1978 following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The music of Wham! and their contemporaries remained banned and authorities tightly controlled reports of the concert.
The group’s manager at the time, Simon Napier-Bell, said it took 18 months to negotiate the two performances on Wham!’s two-week tour — the other concert was in Guangzhou.
Napier-Bell said in a book published on the 20th anniversary of the tour, “I’m Coming to Take You to Lunch,” that he undermined Queen’s candidacy for the tour by presenting Michael as a more “wholesome” alternative to Queen’s frontman, Freddie Mercury. The book’s title was a reference to Napier-Bell’s relentless wooing of Chinese authorities with lunch meetings.
A film documenting the tour called “Foreign Skies: Wham! in China” is available on YouTube. It shows Michael and Ridgeley getting chased by photographers along the Great Wall, chatting about cricket at a British Embassy cocktail reception, touring a traditional market and playing an impromptu game of soccer.
Mao, the Chinese writer, received his concert ticket from his university — one of several that were given allocations of tickets for students studying literature.
“We were like blank pages back then. I’d never seen anything like this before in my life,” said Mao, who said he was seated behind students from North Korea.
“In front of me, the foreign students jumped up to dance, the police quickly came and told them to sit down,” Mao said.
Despite the tense atmosphere, the Beijing concert has since become legendary among China’s rock royalty.
“They certainly had an impact on China,” said Kaiser Kuo, the front man of a popular Chinese metal band in the 1980s called the Tang Dynasty. “Everyone knew Wham! songs, even people who would go on to play music that diverged starkly from pop.”
Chinese took to social media on Monday to mourn Michael, whose 1984 hit “Careless Whisper” was particularly popular in China.
“That performance marked the beginning of China’s opening up its gate (to Western music),” said one user. “He changed China!”
Michael said in music video for the release of Wham!’s single “Freedom” in 1985 that “nobody had any idea what to expect from Chinese audiences.”
“I did feel that although we were very privileged to actually be put in the position, that we were acting as ambassadors of a sort.”