The Rolling Stones, arguably the most famous rock band in the world, are heading for China.
As Mick Jagger declared at the launch of the Rolling Stones' latest show in New York last year, a tour in Asia was meaningless without a date in the world's most populous country.
Now, as a part of their Forty Licks world tour, the iconic British rock band, propelled to international stardom by hits such as Tears Go By and (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, will give a gig in Shanghai on Tuesday and another in Beijing on April 4.
However, in the past three months, news that the rockers are to play in China has been greeted with a mixture of delight, indifference and skepticism.
Could the fact that the "grandfathers" of rock, as both are turning 60 years old this year, have any significance?
"The Rolling Stones' coming to China indicates that the country has been greatly opened up to the world," said Chen Jixin from the Beijing Time New Century Entertainment Co Ltd, the promoter for Beijing's gig.
"When they stands on the Great Wall and wave their hands, the whole world will still watch them, and will also watch China," she said.
It is said that in the late 1970s, the Stones held high-level talks about touring China, but was rejected as the country had just came out the tumult of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
"Promoting the gig does not mean I am promoting rock music in China, instead, I want to promote the opened China to the world," she said.
She says that, if the Beijing gig succeeds, no other Western pop or rock band or artist would cast doubt on China's great market potential and China's ability to organize similar gigs.
Cui Jian, 42, the father of China's rock music, expressed his great excitement when he was invited to open for the Stones in Beijing.
"My hands were sweating while holding the phone through which Chen (Jixin) asked me whether I would like to join the Stones' gig," Cui said.
"I could not believe my ears, it's a big honor for me," Cui said.
Cui said he taught himself to play the guitar in the 1980s by learning Rolling Stones and Beatles songs. "The gig realizes my three dreams. One is I could perform in the home city again; the second is I could see the Rolling Stones' live show in my life and the third, which I even never dared to dream is I could perform with the Stones together."
The most influential Chinese rocker also wrote a new song "The Rolling Egg" as a salute to his heroes.
Wang Feng, one of China's popular rockers, said he would go to the Beijing gig no matter how expensive the ticket was.
"It has nothing to do with money," Wang insisted.
"I even want to make a trip to Shanghai to see two gigs," said Wang Xiaofeng, music reporter with the Beijing-based Sanlian Life Week.
"I got to know the Stones as soon as I knew the rock'n'roll and I have most of their albums from the 1960s to 1980s," he said. "If, after the encore, I still feel reluctant to leave, the Stones' China tour will have been a success."
Although many people like Chen and Cui consider it a historic event to invite the Rolling Stones to sing in China, others are giving it the cold shoulder.
Shen Lihui, a rocker as well as the head of Modern Sky, a Beijing-based music production company, suggested that Wham's China tour in April 1985, was more significant.
In a discussion on the topic last Saturday organized by Sanlian Life Week, Shen said: "To some degree, Wham's performance in China bears a greater historic meaning, as they came at a time when the country had just opened up and only a few people knew about 'rock and roll.'
"Things have changed a great deal since then," Shen said.
People now wander from historic Tian'anmen Square to go and grab a Big Mac or sip a cup of coffee at a Starbucks near the Forbidden City. Nothing surprises the local people when the world's greatest rock'n'roll band tours China.
Since the 1980s, China has welcomed many Western pop or rock stars including Wham, John Denver, Paul Simon, Roxette, Bjork, Air Supply, Richard Marx, Ricky Martin, with Suede being the latest in February.
"I have not found many people around me who are excited about the news. Most of them take it for granted," said Dai Fang, a veteran local music critic and promoter.
"It was only one or two decades ago when Chinese people had little pop culture at home," he added.
Shen said he would have been more excited if the Stones had come when they were at their peak.
However, Kenny Bloom, an entertainment consultant who brought many foreign shows, especially jazz gigs, to China told China Daily: "It is more significant for foreigners than for local people.
"There is no question it will be a great show. The Rolling Stones always give a fantastic performance and China will be no exception," Bloom said. But Bloom also wonders aloud: "Who will go to see it and how many Chinese fans does the band have?"
With the Rolling Stones playing in a nation of 1.3 billion people, only a very small portion of them will pay to see them for the sake of loving rock.
"The great thing is they are coming, but the realistic question is how many fans they have in China," said Steven Schwankert, the Beijing correspondent of Billboard. Schwankert has stayed in China for about seven years and claims to have a good knowledge of China's music market.
Local critic Mu Qian takes London's Suede as an example of gloomy prospects of China's rock market. Suede gave two gigs in Beijing in February, but suffered huge losses and the promoters were left with a rather sour taste in their mouths after extreme criticism from the local media.
"I don't think there are many true fans of rock in China, even if band that is coming is a truly iconic one," said Mu. "The Rolling Stones are really very famous, and even those who has little knowledge about 'rock'n'roll' know them, but they are not as popular as the Beatles." The Beatles released a CD in China, and
EMI publishes the Stones' Forty Licks album in China this month, just before the China tour.
Many people may consider themselves fans of the Stones, but how many have listened to all three of the Stones' albums?
For the Stones' Beijing gig, the amazingly high prices for tickets, ranging between 280 yuan (US$33) to 3,000 yuan (US$362), are another obstacle preventing people from attending the event.
"It is even expensive for Westerners," said Schwankert. "So first they should make sure all the seats are sold out. To be honest, I expect the promoter to lose money."
"It seems that unhealthy trends are developing in China's entertainment market. The promoters bring in old 'stars' and sell tickets at unreasonable prices," Dai said, referring to both the Stones and the Three Tenors' Forbidden City Concert in 2001.
The fact is that those who really love music could not afford the concert, while those who are able to will not pay such high prices.
Huang Feng, international marketing manager of Warner Music China said: "Nowadays, quite a few Chinese people would be fascinated by a 3,000 yuan new mobile phone, but hesitate to pay this to see a band they know little about."
However, the cost of handling such a huge event means that the tickets will not be cheap, let alone at the Beijing Workers' Gymnasium, which only has the capacity for 7,000 seats.
According to Chen, the Stones 150-strong production team travels in its own Boeing 747, along with 30 tons of equipment.
However, it is the Rolling Stones. They have loyal fans throughout the world, including China.
Meanwhile, others want to go for other purposes than watching the Stones.
"I am more interested in the audiences' reaction. I just want to have a look at how well Chinese people receive them," Mu Qian said.
And Schwankert partly shared his interest.
He is just curious about what kind of local people would go to the show, because "Shanghai is not a great rock market. I suppose most of them just join in for the fun of it or get something to talk about," he said.
No matter whether people like or not, whether the promoter will lose money and no matter whether the Stones will get "Satisfaction," they are coming.
(China Daily March 27, 2003)