The past half-century has brought a handful of those remarkable moments when the barriers that separate cultures evaporate in a way for all the world to see.
One of those transformative moments happened in April 1985, when the British chart-topping duo of Wham!, consisting of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, became the first Western popular music act to perform in China.
It took Wham!'s manager 18 months to convince Chinese officials
Wham!'s groundbreaking presence in the Middle Kingdom came through the efforts of co-manager Simon Napier-Bell, who spent 18 months wining and dining Chinese officials to get his boys through the door. As he told the BBC in 2005, his pitch came down to a language all cultures understand: By welcoming a successful group known for hits like “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and “Everything She Wants,” China was also signaling its openness to foreign investment after the closed-doors years of the Cultural Revolution.
With British rockers Queen also pushing perform first, Napier-Bell helped his cause by preparing brochures of the competing groups. One displayed Michael and Ridgeley, two fine-looking lads with winning smiles, in wholesome shots. The other showed Queen's frontman, Freddie Mercury, doing his usual flamboyant poses.
Wham! got the gig, and Napier-Bell quickly booked the performances before anyone in the Chinese government had a change of heart.
Concert goers were told not to dance and were confused when Michael prompted them to clap along
Following two shows in the more modernized outpost of Hong Kong, Wham! arrived in mainland China with reporters from the British tabloids and a documentary film crew in tow to capture the duo being tourists while being gawked at by locals.
Their first performance, held April 7, brought in a reported 12,000 to 15,000 curious fans to the People's Gymnasium in Beijing. Those who paid $1.75 per ticket – or got them for free through government ministries – received a cassette featuring Wham!'s songs on one side and the Chinese versions delivered by singer Cheng Fangyuan on the other.
Underscoring the challenges facing the Western performers, a warm-up act was sent out to entertain the crowd with breakdancing. Shortly afterward, a voice blasting from the public address system warned everyone that dancing was not allowed.
The crowd then watched in near silence as Michael and Ridgeley bounded onto the stage in their big-shouldered suits, backed by an 11-piece band and dancers, and launched into their greatest hits. "No one had ever seen anything like that before," remembered the show’s host, Kan Lijun. "The singers were all moving a lot and it was very loud. We were used to people who stood still when they performed."
At one point, while singing "Club Tropicana," Michael attempted the tried-and-true rock tradition of getting fans to clap along, only to have the confused audience respond with polite applause. They eventually picked up on how to clap to the beat, recalled Napier-Bell, while some "even learnt to scream when George or Andrew waved their butts."
Michael called the concert the 'hardest performance I've ever given in my life'
Following an intermission, in which Wham! heeded their hosts’ request to remove the intimate moments from the “Careless Whisper” video on display, the band returned for a somewhat looser closing run. More brave souls attempted to dance, especially in the upper areas of the arena, and while security largely left the Westerners alone, they hauled off the Chinese offenders who dared show off their moves.
Afterward, Michael reflected on the difficulties of their undertaking: "It was the hardest performance I've ever given in my life." he said. "I couldn't believe how quiet the crowd was at first. … I didn't realize that they weren't clapping because they thought we were begging for applause. And I didn't realize that they weren't good at clapping in time to Western music because their sense of rhythm is so different to ours."
Still, the tour must go on, and Wham! delivered a second, smoother show in the southern city of Guangzhou a few days later, their whirlwind 10-day trip all caught on the documentary Wham! in China: Foreign Skies.
Wham!'s concert opened the door for more mainstream music in China
It would be another decade before the next major Western act – Roxette – would perform in China, but there was no getting that glimpse of Western culture back in the bag. By some accounts, the man known as the godfather of Chinese rock, Cui Jian, attended the concert in Beijing, one year before his own breakout performance in the same city the following year.
Another young fan from the time named Rose Tang, who became a student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, told The Washington Post about how the songs of Wham! and other foreign groups became part of their movement. "I was dancing to their music in underground disco and rock parties in my art school in Chongqing," she said. "The music was really instrumental in cultivating our rebellious spirit."
Following Michael's death in 2016, the Chinese media paid tribute to his historic appearance with Ridgeley three decades earlier, calling it a "sensation."
If it’s true that guilty feet have got no rhythm, then Wham! at least helped an indeterminate but undeniable segment of the Chinese public find their footing amid those transformative times.