Singer 三郎泽让 (Sanlang Zerang) from Markang, performing on stage.

Tibetan singers trek to Chinese megacities in search of global fame

Jun 27, 2018

They come to the big, bustling, modern city chasing dreams. From towns and villages in Kham and Amdo—vast swathes of historical Tibet that now overlap the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan—they pour into Chengdu, often with little more than the name of a nightclub where they might seek an audition, or of a cousin, a distant relative or a friend of a friend.

Many come from nomadic families for whom borders have traditionally meant little. Speaking different dialects and with varying proficiency in Mandarin, they head for Chengdu's Wuhou district, which boasts a large Tibetan presence. It is here that the best singers and musicians among them might build new lives, performing in bars and clubs specializing in Tibetan song and dance.

Singer 三郎泽让 (Sanlang Zerang) from Markang, performing on stage.
Singer 三郎泽让 (Sanlang Zerang) from Markang, performing on stage. / Photo: Nicholas Ko/Goldthread

With an urban population topping 10 million, Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, is far removed from the wide open spaces of the Tibetan plateau, where home might change with the season.

In Chengdu, a performer's accommodation is usually a cheap flat, perhaps little more than a bleak, concrete box, with peeling paint and cracks in the walls, costing 500 yuan (US$76) or so a month; or a shared dormitory above the place where he or she works each night until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.

Typically, the salary will barely cover rent; performers' earnings are boosted by receiving khata, silk scarves of red, gold or green that equate to tips paid by patrons in amounts ranging from 100 to 500 yuan. Customers pay for the khata, which the singers turn in to the club at the end of the night. The value is tallied and the performers receive their bonus.

A performer thanks his supporters for the khata around his neck.
A performer thanks his supporters for the khata around his neck. / Photo: Nicholas Ko/Goldthread

Khata are presented to singers as they perform, and sometimes an artist will end his or her performance with shoulders draped in many scarves, bowing to those who may have paid them more than a month's salary for a few minutes of work. At other times, a song might end without a single khata making it to the stage, the artist left to express thanks to the audience and meekly retire from the spotlight.

Although Chengdu is often mentioned in the same breath as Shanghai and Beijing when it comes to independent music in China, Tibetan performers live in their own world, often struggling to fund recordings and low-budget videos, hoping to grow their brands in a competitive market via social-media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo.

It's a world where stardom is, in theory, only a song away, but one that is populated by the artists' fellow Tibetan countrymen and women—people far from home.

TibetChinese musicChina's ethnic minorities