17-Year History of SZ's Premier Live Music Entertainment Hub
Shekou, a relatively small community in the city of Shenzhen in Southern China, has become a major economic and technological hub. It's seen a lot of changes over the last few decades. Despite all the changes, there's one thing that has stayed the same...
People need entertainment and Shekou has been, and still is, THE place to get it.
The story starts in 1998, Tom Nordell, co-owner of China Beach, one of Shekou's very first expat bars located where Coyote's Mexican Cantina now resides, brought in a band from the Philippines to play for a few short months during the New Year.
"Tom really had an eye for food and beverage" recalls John Guy, founding owner of McCawley's Irish Pub in Sea World. "China Beach opened in 1996 and they were the first place to bring in live music from outside of China. He often brought over a big jazz band from Hong Kong two or three times a month on Sundays."
Unfortunately, Tom left in 2001 and the live music scene didn't progress much after that. But there was a place around called Good Fellas. Some of you may recognize the area from the photo below. It's about where QSI is now.
Good Fellas didn't have live music, but it's definitely worth mentioning from an entertainment perspective. Luckily remnants of Good Fellas are still in Shekou today. Tony Zhou of the Riverflow Group; which runs Club Viva, Pepper Club, and the Shark Restaurants was part of Good Fellas back in the day. "Yeah, we had the best music in town," he says. "I worked behind the bar at the time, it was a big hit in Shekou. Good people. Good music. Good Fellas helped us make what Club Viva is today."
In 2002, an American consultant for IBM decided to open a tiny hole-in-the-wall in the former Shekou bar street down near the ferry terminal. His name is Bill Doubleday. Luckily, I had the opportunity to interview him for this article before his retirement party/departure in early September of this year. "There weren't any good choices for a bar or restaurant here," says Bill. "I was at a point in my career that I was sick of the corporate politics and said that's it, I'm going to start a regular bar; a nice place where people could go and talk with their friends."
"In 2003, Paul Charlton walks into X-TA-SEA and says to me: I play music and my wife sings," Bill tells me as I ask about how live music started at X-TA-SEA. "Paul played by himself. His wife Janet and his new born son were back at her home in the Philippines, but within a year Paul, from the UK, brought his wife and his Filipino band mates to Shekou and called themselves "The Mixed Band."
The only expatriate bar still in existence today from before X-TA-SEA is the Snake Pit. It was originally established in 1987 by China Merchants Bank and given to a group of expat volunteers to run so that foreigners would have their own place to hangout. "I remember their Charity Events on National Days," reminisces John Strand, who's been playing music in expat bands in Shekou since 1998, and was at the 2nd Annual National Day event at The Snake Pit. "There was live music, drink specials, BBQs, Lion Dancers. Every band around was there and played for free. This was THE event of the year. If you were in Shekou on that day you were there." The Snake Pit is now privately owned and has been relocated to Coastal Rose Garden 2. There's no regular band there but special performances have been known to happen.
In 2003, John Guy opened McCawley's, the first Irish Pub in Shekou. "I was sick of the lack of choices since Tom left," he tells me, "People were demanding more and I wanted to give them the same kind of bar experience they could get in any other city around the world." It wasn't long before John brought in some music himself. He started with Bahouki, featuring traditional Celtic Music.
"John and Phil sourced us from Hong Kong," tells John Hutton, the Lead Singer, Guitarist, and Founder of Bahouki. "We only stayed a couple of months but we came back to play every weekend for six months and continued on special occasions for a long time."
Bahouki is no more, but John moved to Shekou four years ago from Hong Kong and now plays with the South Mountain Blue Grass Band; which can often be seen at The Boathouse in Coastal Rose Garden 2.
After Bahouki's departure, there was no organized live music in Shekou. "You might have heard a couple of expat bands come in and play but that was it," says Bill when I asked about the live music scene in Shekou at this time.
In 2005, brothers Larry and Michael (Mick) Cambronero joined The Mixed Band as lead guitar player and keyboardist, respectively. Shortly afterwards, they changed their name to Mind The Gap (MTG). Over the next few years MTG bounced around from X-TA-SEA to McCawleys, and back and forth again and can now be seen playing at The Stage Live Music; making them the longest playing, and arguably the most well know band in Shekou. There's been a line-up change, of course, but Larry, Mick, and drummer Richard Del Rosario are original members.
In 2005, Leon Durupt, a professional musician from Canada who had been working at a night club in Qingdao decided to move to Shekou. Now owner, GM, and almighty overseer of all things shiny at the Terrace in SeaWorld Square, he first joined as their Musical Director, and was the first to bring MTG some musical competition with his band, Sugar Rush.
"There was no regular band playing at that time in Shekou before us," says Leon, "no one except MTG. If you wanted to hear live music other than them, you would've had to go to V-Bar at what's now the Venice Hotel in Nanshan; which brought in some really eclectic musicians from around the world, or to True Colors in Luohu; which had some pretty amazing Chinese bands."
When Mind The Gap wasn't playing there, John at McCawley's would bring in other bands from abroad. One such band was a young touring rock band from South Africa called Warwick. Their stay was short-lived but they are a great example of the kind of fun entertainment McCawley's brings us when things die down.
In 2009 Dean and Charm left Sugar Rush. With a new line-up the band changed their name to T.A.S. and continues to play almost every night at The Terrace.
For a few years there Sea World was a mess from all the remodeling, but that didn't stop it from being the most entertaining place in Shenzhen.
Bolt Action is another band that was also born in Shekou and had amassed quite the following while playing at Enigma in 2011. They played their first show at McCawley's in 2008 at the invitation of Mind The Gap, then went on to play gigs at The Terrace, X-TA-SEA, The Rock n Roll Pub and Blu Bamboo (now The Stage). In 2010 they won the South China heat of The Global Battle of the Bands in Shekou, coming in second place in all of China, and they won the Shenzhen Champions of Tiger Beer Battle of the Bands 2013. They're still together and currently playing festivals around China and are available for private shows.
Expat drummer John Strand was playing regularly at the time in a band-for-hire called Crisis at the Rock n Roll Pub (now unfortunately converted to a luxury massage parlor) with Dave Stone who now plays in the South Mountain Blue Grass band at the Boathouse along with John Hutton and others.
Unfortunately, Paul and Janet left China in 2013 and when the band's contract ended at McCawley's, the remaining members of the band left Shekou. They spent the next two years spreading their rock n roll spirit with other parts of Shenzhen and Guangdong; including Nanshan, Futian, Guangzhou and even Foshan. Luckily, MTG returned to Shekou in May of 2015 and now have a permanent home at The Stage Live Music.
During MTG's absence, two new bands formed in Shekou to help keep the live music spirit alive. One of these bands is Alien Encounter at X-TA-SEA. Their 5-piece band with musicians rotating instruments and their two female vocalists brings a unique experience to live music in Shekou.
The other band that has filled the void since MTG left Shekou is the humorously named Fill The Gap at McCawley's. I wish I had more to say here. I'm embarrassed to admit that I can't bring myself up to the second floor to listen to them after the departure of MTG. I've gotta get over this, I know. I hear nothing but good things about this trio.
Jim Masdea arrived to Shekou about three years ago. He's the co-founder and original drummer of the hit band Boston from the U.S. He's in Shekou developing his own original materials and can sometimes be seen jamming around town. If you're lucky, maybe you'll see him playing; or better yet, maybe you'll get a chance to jam with him yourself!
Although they aren't a regular Shekou band, The Latinos play quite often at Coyote's Mexican Cantina. Whether it's a Mexican holiday, their anniversary parties, or other occassions, you can often hear them playing typical Mexican songs. A refreshing difference to the mostly rock n roll bands in Shekou.
When the Hilton hotel opened, they brought with them Tim Ambler, a versatile musician that would provide the hotel's lobby lounge with a quieter and more relaxing live music environment for those who didn't want to have to shout to talk with their friends. In July, Tim's contract ended and Aroha, a Korean and Kiwi duet, stepped in this August. They play a wide variety of easy listening songs in both the lobby lounge and at the Hilton's rooftop bar Eden Garden.
When The Brazilian BBQ chain Latina from Shanghai opened last year in Sea World, they brought with them a Brazilian musical flavor as well. Their shows and performances have been another great additional to the entertainment scene in Shekou. Special performances often include scenes right out of Brazilian Carnaval!
Another recent addition to the Shekou live music scene is Code 39. This powerful trio (from left to right: Gus, Sasha, Siana), has quickly taken Shekou by storm with their soulful sets of mixed songs described as fusion-acoustic-soul. They played random gigs around Shekou earlier in the year but can now be seen regularly at Paulaner Brauhaus in Sea World. If you're out and about listening to music in Shekou, you may even catch Siana singing impromptu sets with some of Shekou's most well-known bands.
Although they are no more, there's no way I can leave out Acushla and The Village. Many were saddened, even devastated, by the unexpected break-up of the band and the closure of The Village, a once great live music venue in the Sea Dynasty complex that often brought in a variety of musicians as well.
Unfortunately, that's life here in Shekou. The most amazing people step into this town and touch our hearts; yet it seems only for a short moment before they leave again. Maybe things will change. Who knows? In the meantime, let's head out to our favorite venues, raise our glasses to those we love, listen to some amazing music, and start making memories.
Bands Referenced in this article:
For showtimes, addresses, telephone #s and more, visit ShekouDaily.com
· Acushla at The Village in Sea Dynasty
· Aroha at The Hilton Shekou, Shenzhen
· Alien Encounter at X-TA-SEA in the Minghua Ship in Sea World
· Bahouki from Hong Kong formerly at McCawley's Irish Pub in Sea World
· Bolt Action - Band for Hire; formerly at Enigma in Sea World
· Code 39 at Paulaner Brauhaus in Sea World
· Crisis at the former Rock n Roll Pub in Sea World
· Fill The Gap on the 2nd floor of McCawley's Irish Pub in Sea World
· Jim Masdea: Co-founder and original drummer of Boston
· Latina's Brazilian Band at Latina Brazilian BBQ Restaurant in Sea World
· The Latinos at Coyote's Mexican Cantina in Sea World (Special Occassions)
· Mind the Gap at The Stage Live Music in Sea World
· South Mountain Blue Grass Band at The BoatHouse in Coastal Rose Garden 2
· Sugar Rush formerly at The Terrace in Sea World (Above Starbucks)
· TAS at The Terrace in Sea World (Above Starbucks)
· Tim Ambler formerly at the Hilton Shekou, Shenzhen
· Warwick formerly at McCawley's Irish Pub in Sea World