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Interview: Deng Ling

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Kunming's live music scene has come a long way in two decades. Twenty years ago taking in live music of any kind in the Spring City was a difficult task. Rare is the night these days in which there is not one live show somewhere around town.

The two essential ingredients for a music scene are performers and venues. Kunming has never suffered from a lack of locals and foreigners with the itch to get on stage, but only recently has there been a good variety of live music venues around the city.

Camel Bar is the only Kunming bar that has been hosting live music since the early days of the city's live music scene in the mid-1990s. For the last 17 years its various incarnations around Kunming and Yunnan have been a platform for both inexperienced and veteran musicians to do their thing on stage.

Camel shows range from small open mic affairs to full-on ragers such as the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project show earlier this month.

Camel Bar owner Deng Ling (邓玲) is as much of an institution in the Kunming music scene as the Camel itself. In addition to supporting whoever is performing at the Camel on any given night, she also frequently plays drums and is currently drummer of Dongci Daci (动次打次).

No longer a full-time bar manager, Deng is married and has a daughter. Since 2005 she has split her time between London and Kunming. We caught up with Deng Ling at the Camel Bar's restaurant to learn more about the history of the Kunming music scene and one of the most-demolished businesses in town:

GoKunming: When did you open the first Camel Bar?

Deng Ling: Was it '95 or '96? I can't remember. I was 25. Our first bar was in Kundu and was only 16 square meters. It was next to a juice bar where Soho is now.

GK: What was Kundu like then?

Deng: In some ways it was similar to how it is now - there were lots of young people going out having fun. But there weren't any bars or discos like today - there were many small karaoke halls and almost no alcohol.

Punk band No Name in 2004
Punk band No Name in 2004

GK: Why did you start the bar?

Deng: I was in a band with my boyfriend and some other friends at the time. The band was drinking 400 kuai worth of Guangming Beer every night. It was four kuai a bottle, so we were drinking around 100 bottles every night. We figured we could probably save some cash if we started a bar.

GK: There have been a lot of Camel Bars in Kunming and elsewhere over the years, how many have you opened in total?

Deng: Seven.

GK: Can you give us a short history of all the Camels?

Deng: The Kundu Camel was open for one-and-a-half years and was demolished in 1997. At the end of '97 we opened my favorite Camel of them all at 42 Baita Lu. It was 45 square meters. I remember all of these little details.

The Baita Lu Camel Bar was open from 1997 through 2006
The Baita Lu Camel Bar was open from 1997 through 2006

A little later we opened another Camel at 62 Dongfeng Dong Lu, next to the Camellia Hotel. That one was the biggest one we'd opened - 110 square meters. It got demolished not long after we opened it. A little later we opened another Camel on Sifang Jie in Lijiang. Afterward my boyfriend and I broke up – he kept the Lijiang Camel and I kept the Kunming Camel.

I opened another Camel in Hekou in 1999. The weather was great but there were too many people playing majiang. That city isn't very interesting.

The Camel Bar at 62 Tuodong Lu
The Camel Bar at 62 Tuodong Lu

I came back to Kunming and looked around for a year before I found a big place at 62 Tuodong Lu where I opened yet another Camel. It was 330 square meters and two stories. I had that place for six years.

In late 2006 both the Tuodong Lu and Baita Lu Camel Bars were demolished within a month of each other.

The Camel Bar at 4 Tuodong Lu
The Camel Bar at 4 Tuodong Lu

In early 2007 I opened a new Camel next to the Panlong Hotel, at 4 Tuodong Lu. In 2010 that location had to close.

We opened the current Camel with a separate restaurant in early 2011. This Camel is the biggest one so far, it's a total of 1,300 square meters including the bar and the restaurant.

GK: Naming your bars after the wandering camel was rather prescient, no?

Deng: It was! But the Camel Bars in Kunming didn't wander that far, they've all been located within a very small area in the center of the city.

GK: I remember quite a few closing parties in 2006... there were definitely more than two.

Deng: [Laughs] We had too many closing parties that year. We had to drink two bars dry - we didn't want to have to move all that booze!

The late Mike Sutherland (center), aka 'Bike Mike', was an old friend of the Camel
The late Mike Sutherland (center), aka 'Bike Mike', was an old friend of the Camel

GK: Several ended up being demolished - did you ever receive any compensation?

Deng: Only once, for the first one on Tuodong Lu. We were compensated 10 yuan per square meter, so we ended up getting 3,300 yuan. We were never compensated for the others.

Luo Yuan (罗元, dancing left), another old Camel friend
Luo Yuan (罗元, dancing left), another old Camel friend

GK: What drove you to keep reopening after all of those demolitions?

Deng: One of the main reasons that I've kept reopening is because we've had cooks and other staff working for us since they were teenagers. Some of those teenagers are in their early 30s now.

Staff at the Camel's 10th birthday party
Staff at the Camel's 10th birthday party

GK: How many staff do you have now?

Deng: Seventy-two, I believe. That's a lot more to manage than the old days. In the first Camel we only had one employee, who came in to do dishes once a day.

GK: What are the biggest changes you've seen in Kunming over the years?

Deng: I haven't really felt any major changes in Kunming, just more people and worse traffic. Vegetables don't taste as good as they once did.

I don't think Kunming has changed much. Kids still give up their seats for old people on the bus. I guess the major change has been that life has generally gotten better for most people.

GK: When did you begin to take the Camel seriously as a business rather than a way to save money on beer?

Deng: We've always taken the bar seriously, but we really had to raise our game in 1999 when we opened on Dongfeng Dong Lu because we had to borrow money to open that one.

Redneck soundcheck, Christmas 2009
Redneck soundcheck, Christmas 2009

GK: The Camel was probably the first bar in Kunming to become known as a place for Chinese and foreigners to mingle – when did that start?

Deng: I started hanging out with foreigners in late 1997. There was an English guy who was running a small magazine about Kunming and knew I was in a band. He came by the bar to interview me. He seemed to like the bar and asked how much a Tsingtao was. When I told him it was five kuai he seemed quite surprised and said he'd come back for a beer later.

That night 10 English guys showed up. One of them, Ian, ended up becoming my husband almost a decade later. The second time they came, they asked if I could make gin and tonics. I had no idea what a gin and tonic was. They taught me how to make one, and eventually how to make all the cocktails that are on our menu today. English are good for that. [Smiles.]

GK: I remember you and several others in a big drum circle at the old Baita Lu Camel Bar in 1999 – what got you interested in African drums?

Deng: The first time I saw a djembe was more than 10 years ago. Sam Debell brought it over from England. Kunming didn't have African hand drums in those days.

Because of this I always wanted to play djembe in England. When I first went to London I took my drum to Trafalgar Square. Some bald guys asked me if I wanted to play with them. We played for several hours in the square and I had a lot of fun. When I left they gave me some pamphlets to take with me. When I showed them to my husband he laughed at me and explained what Hare Krishnas were.

Deng in a drum circle at the Dongfang Lu Camel
Deng in a drum circle at the Dongfang Lu Camel

GK: How is your London life different from your Kunming life?

Deng: I don't work when I'm in London. I'm usually there just two or three months at a time. I like seeing live music there.

GK: And when you're back in Kunming, you're a bar owner who plays drums in a rock band. That must be a bit different from your home life in London.

Deng: Yeah, it's a good balance. I played with Nevada last night at our jam night. I was a little bit nervous because he's my hero. He's so old school! He and the rest of the guys made me feel like a rock star. That was nice of them - they know I'm not the best drummer.

The final No Answer (打死我也不说) show at the Camel
The final No Answer (打死我也不说) show at the Camel

GK: Camel Bar has been one of the pillars of Kunming's local music scene since the late 1990s – how many shows do you think Camel has hosted?

Deng: Being conservative I'd say we've averaged two shows per month over the last 17 years, so probably more than 400 shows.

An Yi musician performing with a leaf
An Yi musician performing with a leaf

GK: What were some of your favorite shows at the Camel over the years?

Deng: The first band from outside of Yunnan to play the Camel was Wuliaojundui (无聊军队). That was one of my favorite shows. That band later broke up and became Reflector (反光镜) and Brain Failure (脑浊). Cui Jian (崔健) and Tang Dynasty (唐朝) have stopped by and played informal sets too.

Smegma Riot at the second Tuodong Lu Camel
Smegma Riot at the second Tuodong Lu Camel

Lots of foreigners have come through and played here, some of them have been quite good, but it's usually individual musicians traveling through Yunnan. They usually play at our jam nights. I quite like the ska band The Trouble (热潮波) from Chengdu.

GK: What kept you going during the demolitions and other setbacks over the last 17 years?

Deng: If it weren't for my mother and father and all my staff I would have given up years ago. I've been lucky all along, I've got a beautiful life here. The cooks, waiters, cleaning staff are like family to me. They look out for me.

GK: Do you have any regrets?

Deng: I'll tell you what I regret the most. I always wanted to install a video camera in the corner of the Baita Lu Camel, point it at one table and make a time-lapse video. I never did it though... maybe I'll do it here.

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Nice one Chris! Deng Ling is awesome, she always makes sure the musicians feel welcome.

Deng Ling has always treated me with kindness and the utmost respect. All the years, since 2007 with The Tribal Moons, and later both as a solo performer and with War Horse and War Whores, Deng Ling has opened her heart and her arms to my music and our bands.

I can't say enough about The Lady...knowing her past and history, knowing and loving her as a good friend, I feel I am one of the luckiest and most fortunate musicians in China...in the world!

We always know when you are gone away and living in London, Deng Ling...and we always know when you return to Kunming — and every time the Camel grows, becomes better, evolves into the true "musical scene and space" you have always envisioned.

I will always carry deep feelings in my heart for you Deng Ling, and for the Camel. Some of us who have lived here in Kunming — and will continue to make Kunming our home — know that you are at the center, you are the pulse that beats...you are our drummer...you are everyone's drummer here in this part of our world...


Interviews and Getting Away articles,; always some great reporting. Add this one to that.

So many memories! The first Tuodong Camel was my first regular bar way back in 2001... things are different now but Camel's still so damn friendly! Thanks Dengling, and thanks your parents and Ian too. Camel is an institution. Smiles from Sydney! Walter.

Interesting, did you update this article? You probably should have made an addendum to the bottom rather than actually re-write stuff... gets confusing for us readers... much better of Deng Ling on the drums though, girls playing drums are hot :-)

@blobbles: No changes to the article text were made.

Deng Ling requested a different photo at the top of the story because she said the original pic, which I shot the day before she left for London, made her look "like the old woman on the Hongdouyuan sign".

Anyway, I passed her request on to current GK management and they kindly complied.

Ahh OK, sorry, I must have skipped a paragraph before! The new photo threw me off completely!

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