Despite government closures and the recent setbacks of COVID-19, Chengdu has become a home for techno in China. Harriet Shepherd heads to one club that stands above the rest.
It's a miracle Ryan found .TAG five years ago. At the time, the club was scarcely a year old, and he'd heard about it through a co-host of his the season before. Intrigued, he began asking strangers—"literally anyone who looked young-ish"—if they'd heard of such a place. He was met mostly with confusion, until eventually someone wrote down some Chinese characters on a piece of paper and told him to show it to a taxi driver.
Searching for a nondescript skyscraper in the country's sixth-biggest business capital is like looking for a needle in a haystack—not only owing to the many high-rise buildings in Chengdu, but also the total absence of Google (and that means Google Maps too) and social media, as well as the language barrier encountered by foreign techno tourists. In places like Berlin, a simple internet search pulls up hundreds of parties and their corresponding locations. In Chengdu, even if you somehow manage to locate English results on a Chinese search engine, the likelihood of successfully navigating to an anglicised address is slim.
It was Thursday evening, close to midnight when Ryan was dropped off in "the middle of nowhere" by the first cab driver who'd nodded emphatically at his hand-scribbled Mandarin. After a 30-minute trek across the city, he found himself in a desolate street with no mobile data, no money and no skyrise in sight, just an empty 7-Eleven and a broken ATM.
It was a good five minutes before Ryan saw any other signs of life. "Suddenly, these girls walk past dressed head to toe in black, looking like they were ready for Berghain." He followed them round the back of a 7-Eleven and into the marble lobby of a high-rise building. The enormous entrance, at least 20-feet high, complete with a circular front desk and decadent chandelier, was all but deserted—bar one snoozing security guard, rocked back in his chair, eyes closed, breathing heavily.
At the back of the lobby, Ryan followed the girls down a long, narrow corridor—"barely wider than an ordinary door, and about 60 metres long"—and turned left past a wall of metal mailboxes that gave way to an elevator, for which some dozen people were already waiting. A bunch of kids playing video games, an old man hunched over with a grocery bag in each hand, an elderly woman clutching a cardboard box and a group of streetwear-clad hype-beasts stood, for no less than five minutes, waiting. When it eventually arrived, each of these 16 characters bundled into the six-man elevator, and proceeded to select a different one of its 21 floors. "But if there was one thing I knew about .TAG, it was that it was on the top floor," Ryan said. So at level 21, he exited the elevator into yet another eerie corridor, and followed the faint sound of bass. Here, through two huge curtains, like the entrance to an industrial meat fridge, Ryan found .TAG.
Founded in 2014 by a group of Chinese and Dutch DJs and business minds, .TAG sits to the left of the elevator on the 21st floor of Chengdu's Poly Centre, a large property development in the city's rapidly growing Jinjiang District. It's small, holding about 200 people at full capacity, and spread across two floors—the double-height main room downstairs, and the smaller Hidden Bar above, accessible via a mezzanine walkway, which plays host to more ambient, housey sets and deep drunken conversations. The club's name stands for "To Another Galaxy," a nod to both the escapism it offers and its sky-high location. It's known among the city's party people as the "it" spot, and it's now solely owned and managed by 38-year-old Ellen Zhang, a Chengdu native and one of the club's founders.
In the six years since its opening, .TAG has had its ups, and more than its fair share of downs—namely in the form of sudden, prolonged government-enforced closures, which has led to both financial strain and uncertainty in an already uncertain Chinese clubbing landscape. The outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan at the end of last year, and subsequent pandemic, is only one of such closures.