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China’s New Subculture: Ryan Lee, Traveling Musician

I met traveling street musician in Changsha who had not only songs but a message for the people of his country.

To say that it is not common for young Chinese people to drop out of the rat race to travel perpetually would be an incredible understatement. Many young people of this county travel, yes, but very few do so as a lifestyle — especially those who have received a higher education and are primed for a life vying for the spoils that are now on the table.

This is a country where wealth, good jobs, and status symbols are not only voraciously sought but are actually accessible to an ever increasing amount of the population. There are more middle class people in China as there are Americans on the planet. “To be rich is glorious,” is the mantra here, this is the Chinese Dream: score high on your gao kao, go to a good university, get high-paying job at a big company, marry appropriately, make the right connections, and with a little luck you too can become wealthy. For a young person with prospects to turn their backs on this feeding frenzy, bow out of the competition, and take to the road is not standard fare, though many are beginning to crave such liberty.

There are those of the up and coming generation, who fully grew up in The New China, who are beginning to question the get rich at all costs mentality. Some are starting to doubt whether slaving for money, a high-paying job, a car, and an expensive apartment are the true keys to happiness, and are becoming open to the possibility that there may be other, more personally satisfying, self-determined, individualistic lifestyles available. They are very much in the minority, their voices are now just whimsical whispers, but they are gradually growing louder. This is China’s transitional generation, the ones who never knew a country that was not economically on the rise, the ones who grew up on the other side of the fence where the grass was greener, so to speak. Though many speak of other realities, very few actually give up their place in the rat race.

Though one who did was the slightly built, slender guitar wielding traveler who was sitting in front of me in a hostel in Changsha. He told me his name was Ryan Lee, “Like Saving Private Ryan.” He introduced himself by saying that he was traveling around China writing a book about the experiences he has and the people he meets.

“Hey, that’s what I’m doing!?!” I replied with surprise. This guy stole my line. I had met a friend of the Way, and I was determined to not let him out of my sights until I knew his story.

ryan-lee-performing

Right off, it was clear that this kid was different. He then told me that he left his home six months ago and planned on traveling around China for three years. Really different. I wasn’t expecting to meet a Chinese traveling writer on a long term journey around his country without the backing of a big publication, an over-bloated expense account, and an array of assignments. I sure wasn’t expecting to meet another travel writer in the $6 per night dorm room I was staying in. I was beginning to doubt if there was a Chinese version of the impoverished, free-wheeling, independent writer, but the specimen before me renewed my hope. This is a culture that is changing fast, and the story needs to be documented from those on the inside.

I looked at him curiously for a moment, then asked how he makes his money, thinking that he may have been an eccentric breed of rich kid adventuring on his parents’ dime.

“I sing in the streets,” he replied.

This was no rich kid, this was a vagabond.

traveling-musician-performing

At 24 years of age, Ryan stepped off the ladder of professional ascension and now travels around China doing what he enjoys: playing music in the streets, working on his book, and spreading a message to his peers that they can determine their own course in life, that they can walk their own path, just like he has done.

You don’t have to slave away in a job you hate, live a life that was pre-determined by your parents, follow the beaten path just because that is what everybody else does. You can live your dreams and do what makes you happy. Your life is your own and you have a choice as to how to live it.

While these are worn concepts in the West, in China, a society where traditional ethics are still remarkably well-ingrained, they are radical. Someone singing in the streets, telling people that they can make their own choices in life, that they don’t have to follow the program their family and society laid out for them, that they are not going to keel over and croak if they don’t indenture themselves to an employer is heretical. But as with many heresies, it is one that is exactly what many people are straining to hear.

“Life has many possibilities,” Ryan said, “I want people to think about their life again.”

Starting out with a 4,000 RMB investment ($560), Ryan bought an acoustic guitar, an amplifier, a mic, and prepared to go out and meet the people of his country. He had no intention of playing in bars or becoming a formally employed musician, as freedom was what he was after, not a job.

“I asked my friend if I could just sing in the streets with just music playing from my Ipod but he said that people would think that I was missing an arm or a leg or something. He said that I needed to play guitar too,” Ryan explained.

The problem was that he really didn’t know how to play guitar at that point, but he quickly taught himself some chords and easy guitar songs for beginners. I looked over at his bunk in the dormitory and found sheet music without tablature. He responded in the affirmative when I asked if he could read it. He taught himself that too.

Now provisioned with equipment and ability, Ryan began performing by the beach in his home city of Qingdao, in the northeastern province of Shandong six months ago. He told me that he made a good amount of money fast, and realized that his plan was possible. He then left home and cut a loop all the way around the east of China: from Shandong to Shanghai to Hangzhou to Guangdong, and then westward to where we were in Hunan, a distance of over 4,000 kilometers.

He sets up in the streets where there many pedestrians, opens up his guitar case, turns on his amp, and starts belting out his songs. If he is lucky, by the end of a few hours the case will be full of bills and coins.

audience-watching-musician

He said he makes between a couple hundred ($36) to a couple thousand ($360) RMB each time he goes out. But it’s hit and miss where he can perform without the police shooing him away and if he can make much money even if he can perform.

“I have to earn money where I can and spend it where I can’t,” he stated. He then added that Qingdao, Xiamen, and Hangzhou are good for street performers, while Shanghai and Changsha are not.

Even on his bad days, the amount of money he brings in is not too shabby. This is a country where preschool teachers are hardly making 3,000 RMB per month, taxi drivers are earning 3 – 4,000, and even low to mid-level white collar workers are often not taking in much over 10,000. This traveler with a guitar is chalking up a comparable salary as his peers, doing exactly what he wants to do.

“Do people sometimes insult you?” I asked, figuring that this young guy so blatantly doing something different than what his society determines he should do may come off as rebellious and provoke hostility.

“No,” he responded, “they just sometimes tell me that I am stupid.”

He added that some people tell him to get a job.

“If you’re not the same as them they feel threatened. I just want to do what I want, they just do what their parents want. In China, they say get married, get a good job, but you have to do what you want,” he emphasized.

Very often, when I tell young Chinese people that I travel the world writing, they appear overtly envious. “I wish I could do that,” they say. “Why can’t you?” I reply. Almost invariably, the answer is, “My parents want me to have a good job.”

This prompted me to ask him what his parents thought of this lifestyle, and he did not bullshit me when he said that they were initially not very pleased. When he first proposed his idea to travel around China and write a book about it he was promptly shot down, but after working a few years at dead end jobs that obviously didn’t make him happy he was given the OK to go. He now travels with his parent’s good wishes, and his mother even visited him for a stretch.

He also refuses take money from parents, even though they offer, which is intriguing because it is very common for young adults in China to be partially financially supported by their families. “I have no face to take their money,” he stated proudly. He then added that that their money is their own and it is his responsibility to earn his own living.

I told him he sounds like an American. He did not respond.

But as Ryan was preparing to leave home it was his friends who reacted the most harshly. They called him a fool and said that he had to be back in two months. But six months later, when it became apparent that he was making something of his travels, this scorn turned to admiration. “Now they think I am very strong,” he said.

Ryan seemed to have never really gotten the hang of walking his culture’s beaten path. He bombed the gao kao, the standardized test that determines what colleges a student is eligible for, and didn’t seem overtly concerned about it. When all of the other students were cramming day and night he told me that he was writing stories. He wanted to be a writer, something no test score could grant him.

With limited university options he went to school to be an electrician, like his father. He said that he couldn’t write in college so he took up music. A friend heard him singing, complimented him on his voice, and invited him into a band. This is how he got started performing.

He then told me a story about how he once auditioned for a television program that was a Chinese spin off of American Idol, but had this venture short after he was invited into the hotel room of one of the judges.

“He said he likes cute young boys and told me that if I had sex with him that there was a chance I could do better in the competition.”

Ryan’s foray into the Chinese music industry was abruptly ended.

He now sings his heart out in the streets for pocket money, though often makes nearly as much as many of his peers in more conventional pursuits. What’s more is that he seemed happy delivering music in this fashion.

I then set up my camera and did a formal interview with Ryan, as we continued talking.

Watch the video interview with Ryan Lee

This guy hasn’t only come up with a way to continuously finance his travels through an independent micro-business, he seemed to get the lifestyle on a philosophical level as well.

“Travel is just normal life too.” he said, and I nodded in agreement.

There is a certain point when you begin traveling long term and working on the road that it becomes your everyday reality, all of a sudden you realize that you are not doing anything special, that travel has become regular life. At this juncture travel is no longer an activity, it’s a way of life.

“Before I began traveling I thought of things like good and bad,” he spoke, “but now that I have been traveling I know that there is no good and bad, there just is. Travel taught me that everything is OK. I have good times and bad times but I can’t go back, I just go forward.”

Ryan then placed a journal with a black cover in my hands and told me that it was his prized possession. I opened the cover and found it full of used train tickets, labels from various products, and notes written to him from other people. It was his traveler’s scrapbook, a collection of the places he visited and the people he met along the way. His favorite part seemed to be the messages that other people had left for him, and he went through them and told me about a few of the characters who wrote them.

It reminded me of my early travel notebooks — a practice that I regret I had given up on a long time ago.

“When I have nothing, I have this,” he spoke.

It was his traveler’s wealth: memories.

The traveling musician's notebook

The traveling musician’s notebook

I then told Ryan that I wanted to watch him perform, and we arranged to meet later that evening. I returned to the hostel at the appointed time and found him ready to go, carrying his guitar and pulling his amp behind him on a dolly cart. “I have too much stuff,” he said with a smile. I had to wonder how he managed to get across the country with this music rig and his luggage, which was a mid-sized suitcase. We then went out to the street and boarded a bus that was heading downtown.

We arrived at the bank of the Xiang river and Ryan began scouring the area for a location to set up. The place was rocking, there were thousands of people walking up and down the river bank and some were drinking beer on the slope that lead down to the water. There were buskers galore. There was a woman belting out pop songs, a man running a mobile karaoke operation, a guy with a film projector showing a movie on a small, retractable screen, and a singing and dancing midget — interestingly, the later seemed to be incredibly popular in this city.

Ryan disappeared in the crowd to check the lay of the land. He wanted a good spot to perform in but didn’t seem to want to step on any of the other busker’s toes. He eventually settled on a place right where the sidewalk bowled out into a semi-circular shape next to the karaoke guy, and manically began assembling his gear. Within moments, his amp was on, his guitar was tuned, his banners were unfurled, his Ipod plugged in, his mic set up, and he was ready to begin.

Ryan Lee singing passionately

Ryan Lee singing passionately

A crowd had already formed. It is my impression that China is perhaps the easiest country in the world to attract a crowd in. Seriously, when one person stops to look at something others will follow suite seemingly on principle. And when a few people are looking at something the general consensus seems to be that what ever it is it has to be interesting, and viola a crowd materializes. Before Ryan played one note he had an audience.

I moved over to the front of the crowd to take a better look at his banner. It was all written in Chinese and told his story. It said that he was traveling around China writing a book, and he was earning his keep by performing music in the streets. The crowd seemed particularly attracted to this guy, and many were his peers who could perhaps relate to his message.

After saying a few words of introduction into the mic he pressed a few buttons on his Ipod, and the music to a pop song began playing through his amp. A moment later he was singing. He was singing passionately. I don’t know if I had ever seen a street musician get so ardently into his songs before. The kid was cooing, virtually crying into the mic, sparing no degree of emotion.

The audience, which was of all ages, men and women, and of mixed classes were held captivated. They did not sway, they did not join in the song, they did not dance. They just stared. It was difficult to tell what they were thinking, as their faces were blank. There was no clapping between songs. This lack of response probably would have punked me out as a performer, but Ryan didn’t seem to notice or care. The guy was a street performer, a profession that demands very thick skin. But the fact of the matter was that the audience remained staring, and most were not even checking their mobiles: signs that they must have like something. Gradually, his guitar case began filling with bills and coins.

Ryan performing

Ryan performing

But the night did not bring in the large bounty that he sometimes gets. After performing for a few hours through the evening and into the night, Ryan had only made 250 RMB (around $40). He said that it would cover his train fare to Hangzhou. He had made enough in Changsha to travel on.

I asked Ryan if he felt he was an inspiration for other young Chinese people who have aspirations to step off the well-trod trail and travel. He replied with a paraphrase of Han Han:

“I am just sitting here in a chair but you are on your knees, that’s why you think I am higher.”

It was an adequate role model to quote. Like Ryan, Han Han also bombed out of school, took a less conventional road, and etched a niche out for himself based around his art. He wrote a novel and it became a best seller. He runs a successful magazine. He is also China’s, and perhaps the world’s, most popular blogger. Han Han also speaks to the up and coming generation in China, and has become one of the thought leaders of a generation of Chinese who have become less content to just follow in line and do what they are told.

The banner telling about Ryan's travels and how he makes money

The banner telling about Ryan’s travels and how he makes money

“Don’t do what people want you to do, do what is in your heart,” Ryan summed up his message. These are words that are being spoken louder and louder as China continues to transition into the future.

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Filed under: Articles, China, Chinese Counterculture, Culture and Society, Music, Other Travelers, Work

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 83 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3211 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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