Remembering David Bowie From A China Girl

Like many people, the news that he’s no longer here with us, hit me hard. It’s nothing like knowing another celebrity has died, it feels like the world is no longer the same. The memories all came back, and I realize how much this distant figure has influenced and inspired me.

I’m not someone who has experienced his iconic periods in the 70s, or someone who grew up in a western culture where rock music plays a big part. I was born in the 90s in a small city in the middle of China. When I was little, pop music mostly meant cheesy love songs produced in Hong Kong and Taiwan. There were very few ways to access other kinds of music, until I got a computer and Internet in my 7th grade. Since then, I started to discover the vast magic world of music. It was the treasure mine I immersed myself in for all the summer holidays.

Apart from reading about music in Internet forums, I regularly bought a magazine called Light Music, which was perhaps the only mass distributed magazine focusing on western music in China at the time. One Saturday night in high school, I excitedly opened the latest issue and unfolded the poster. It was a family photo of David Bowie, Angie and their son. I had vaguely heard about the name before, the man in the poster looked bizarre but intriguing. My Internet pal sent me Heroes, saying that was his new favorite song. From there, I got to know this amazing man.

The image in that poster.

I was first struck by his various outlandish and androgynous looks. I don’t remember how many times I’ve watched Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which documented his last concert in the Ziggy persona, and was amazed at how elaborate and innovative the performance was. Every several songs, he went backstage and carefully transformed himself into another alien-like character. Nothing felt showy or out of place. Everything from his makeup, his thin white silhouette, to his gaze, his body language, comes together so well, that you really believe this man came from somewhere unknown, and is now taking us on a tour in his mythical world.

And I have to remember that was 1973. Even though I have little reference as to what it was like at that time, I could hardly believe Ziggy Stardust was a mass pop phenomenon in Britain. It was futuristic, out there, challenging and artful, but the mass population could still embrace and appreciate it. It’s unbelievable because even in the 2000s, in China, I could see very little chance that something like this could appeal to the masses. I believe one of the measures of human advancement, is the liberty to embrace and the ability to appreciate extraordinary art.

One time, the video of Life on Mars appeared on TV randomly, my mom squinted and said, “What a weird thing, is that a guy?”.

Before knowing David Bowie, I was already intrigued by the concept of androgyny. Artists like Brett Anderson and Brian Molko had shown me how blurring the lines could inspire a different kind of beauty. For someone who’s unfamiliar with the time period and cultural references, I was discovering the traces out of the time order by digging things online. I realized how David Bowie was the pioneer and the inspiration source of many artists I know. As a precursor, his style was even more creative, experimental, and extreme, blending well with the outlandishness at the same time. He is the androgynous icon.

With Iggy Pop.

Later I realized, being able to appreciate the beauty of androgyny, is not just a matter of aesthetics. As I got fascinated by it, the gender stereotypes slowly evaporated in my brain. When people ask questions like “Can men wear stockings?”, “Can a girl become a master of math?”, “Should girls ask guys out for dates?”, the answers are simple to me: “why not?” I’ve seen a man named David Bowie who has defied a lot of those rules, and created wonders. Many people conform these social rules without much thinking why they have to apply to each individual, while others don’t have the courage to take on an alternative view. The culture in China has always been conservative on these issues, where highly-educated girls with rising careers are worrying about being left over. Later I would move to California, and realize that, even there, my views are still considered progressive and liberal.

His music became an all-time favorite in my collection starting from freshman year in college. First time away from home in the strange big city of Shanghai, music was my companion most of the time. Life on Mars was on repeat during the raining seasons, Ashes to Ashes took me to another world during the busy class breaks. I also started to accrue a group of friends, online or offline, that shared similar interests. We were generally interested in pop culture, especially British rock music in the past four decades. We all watched the Bowie-inspired movie Velvet Goldmine, and dug references in it about the Glam Rock era. We collected photo albums of him in different time periods, and him with other artists we like. A lot of those friends are still in contact today. We shared griefs together online when the news of his passing broke out.

Once you know him, you start to notice his legacy every now and then. I saw online an installation show themed around him in Toronto. The Hong Kong fashion brand Izzue used his image for one season: the look is still considered cool in 2010s. I saw a viral video of a real astronaut singing Space Oddity in actual space. You also learn a bit more about his magic every now and then. He did visual art too. His paintings were as expressive as his music. He had his song Seven Years in Tibet translated into Mandarin by one of the best Chinese lyrics writers, and had another Chinese singer teach him word by word. In the end, his pronunciation was surprisingly accurate.

Izzue’s ad campaign featuring David Bowie. 2010, Shanghai.

Recently I have been reflecting a lot on my current life. After earning an engineering degree, recognizing the urge since childhood, I decided to transition myself into a creative. I do design for a living, and want to pick up art again. I want to create, but fear the possibilities of failure. I’ve been desperate to see progress and breakthroughs, leaving me more anxious and failing to focus on the work. The big news of him leaving triggered me to review his life story again, in the light of how a true creative kept disrupting pop culture. It’s always hard for artists to drastically change directions and reinvent themselves, especially after receiving huge success from previous works. A lot of the second albums from bands with shiny debuts are disappointing. Known as the chameleon, David Bowie never showed the fear. Despite all the highlights, he also had low points where one album after another was not warmly received, but he kept creating. He kept creating until the very last days of his life. He was in total control of what his farewell works would be. Creating and expressing were simply what he did.

I know I used to enjoy creating deeply, and I’ve always had the desire to express. But over time, I got drawn into competition of chasing money and Fame, and developed great fear for failures. I can’t enjoy what I do anymore, and I can’t feel the freedom to create. I work in Silicon Valley, but unlike some of my peers, I am not sure if founding a billion dollar startup is the ultimate goal I am pursuing. I am not sure what kind of life I want. Before this event, I vaguely figured out that I want to keep creating all my life, be it designs, artworks or organizations. His sudden leaving urged me to rediscover him. Again, he showed me how that could be done, with his whole life — a master creation.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Ningxia Zhang’s story.