Not long ago, I found myself in Western China, and met some dancers who talked with great reverence about a man named Stanly. They made him sound like a legendary figure; the "godfather" of Chinese hip-hop, some called him.
"You don't go to Shanghai without seeing Stanly," said Pracat, a breakdancer in Xianjiang. "It's like a pilgrimage. Anyone in China who's serious about hip-hop knows about him. He's the original b-boy." Someone else described him as a very large, dreadlocked, middle-aged dude with serious moves who really liked his weed.
But not just some weird pothead. Pete Rock, the legendary producer (and a godfather figure himself when it comes to East coast hip-hop) had made a pilgrimage to see Stanly.
Who the hell was this guy?
Let's back up for a moment: Chinese hip-hop? As it turns out, the world's most populous country has quite a vibrant scene. Rap songs are performed in dialects ranging from Mandarin to Cantonese to Sichuanese, and there's even an annual hip-hop awards show in Shenzhen.
I wasn't able to meet Stanly, but after returning to the U.S. finally tracked down his whereabouts - he teaches at a dance studio he founded in the Fucheng District of Shanghai, called Dragon Dance Studio.
I sent them an email, and after a few exchanges - as well as some translating help from his English-speaking assistant, Kaori - his story came into focus.
Indeed, the man is a Chinese hip-hop pioneer, among the first to spread the music to a nation of 1.35 billion people. His full handle is Stanly Wong, and he took his name from a popular Taiwanese singer named Stanley, but dropped the 'e.'
In 1988 Stanly - then only 9 - got his first rap cassette, MC Hammer's Let's Get It Started. It was the only commercial hip-hop release approved by the government's censorship board, says Kaori. In any case, it was unlike anything Stanly had ever heard before. He became obsessed.
"I think I listened to it about 10 times in a row," he says over email, as translated by his wife, who also works as his assistant.
He asked his older sister, based in Chicago, to bring more of this music home for him when she returned. She did, and also brought the iconic 1984 hip-hop dance film, Breakin'. Turns out hip-hop had an entire culture associated with it, one which resonated with Stanly's surroundings.
"My family was poor and lived in Shanghai's ghetto," he says. "I wasn't always a good kid. I got into fights almost every day and ran away from home. I made my parents cry. Hip-hop gave me a choice: I was either going to end up a gangster or a dancer. I chose dancer."
But it wasn't as easy as he makes it sound.
On June 4, 1989, the Chinese military moved into Beijing's Tiananmen Square to forcibly suppress pro-democracy demonstrations. In addition to the hundreds of protesters who were killed, there was a virtual hip hop black-out in China. For a period, almost no Western music made it through the PRC's censorship board.
"Suddenly, all of the foreign culture just stopped." Stanly has said (see the below video).
Fortunately he and his friends had amassed enough mixtapes and black and white dance videos smuggled in from the United States to spread the culture. By the early '90s, they had made a name for themselves in Shanghai by staging dance shows in public. It got him a lot of strange looks.
"My hair was really long with dreadlocks," he also said in the video. "People thought I was a madman. Old ladies would see me on the street and scream. Only when I went to Bali to travel, the waiters would see me and say, 'Hey Bob Marley, yo wassup!'"
Until Stanly started his dance studio in 1997, he could be spotted dancing on the Bund in Shanghai, rapping while waiting in line for food, or moonwalking as he exited an elevator.
He can't remember exactly when dancers first started coming to him, but over the years he estimates that he's mentored hundreds, from all over China and abroad. Oh, and important figures in American hip-hop history including Coolio, DJ Premier, and Damon Dash.
As for Pete Rock? "Oh yeah, Stanly took care of him and his wife when they were in Shanghai for a music event," his assistant says. "Pete told Stanly stories about the history of street dance in New York."
Now 34, Stanly has cut his hair and toned down his avant-garde persona a bit. "I'm more normal now," he's said.
But along the way he became a part of Chinese rap history, and indeed hip-hop culture has become big in his country. "Everyone in China knows hip-hop now, especially with popular shows like So You Think You Can Dance China. it's become commercial," he says.
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Moving forward, he hopes that its culture and history are not lost as hip-hop becomes more mainstream.
"Hip hop is my heartbeat, it is my life. And I will always keep working hard to spread it."
Postscript update: After publication of this story, we learned that Stanly is currently in jail, though we have not been able to find out other details about his incarceration.
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