By Jocelle Koh & Matt Taylor
In an overwhelmingly positive and progressive move, Taiwan announced in February 2018 that it would be moving full speed towards a blanket ban on single-use plastic drinking straws, takeaway beverage cups, plastic bags and disposable utensils by 2030, one of the farthest reaching bans on plastic in the world. Originally promoted by the government since the early 1990s due to worries about diseases and cross-contamination, single use utensils and plastic bags soon became a huge problem, producing over 160,000 tonnes plastic waste annually. As a result, there have been consistent efforts by the government to become more environmentally conscious since 2000. Although this may seem an unwieldy task for residents outside Taiwan, locals have already had a culture of environmental friendliness going for years; something which has been reflected in their music scene in a big way.
And when we say ‘big’, we don’t mean a huge gaggle of artists releasing songs about loving the earth in one spurt because it was trendy before petering off to a dying trickle. We mean a consistent and encouraging history of artists within the Taiwanese independent and mainstream scenes who have expressed their concern at the state of the environment, and used their influence and visibility to keep the cause going. From Luo Ta-Yu in 1984 to Wang Leehom in 2007, and the aptly titled ‘Quit Plastic Poison’ by the Sheng Xiang band in 2016, here’s a crash course on how Taiwanese music’s authenticity and outspoken nature has lent itself perfectly to the island’s journey to greater environmental wellbeing.
Luo Ta-yu - Super Citizen 超級市民 (1984
It’s impossible to overstate how influential veteran singer Luo Ta-yu 羅大佑 has been on the development of popular Chinese language music. Since his initial contribution to the campus folk movement (校園民歌運動) of the 1970s, Luo has deservedly been credited with not only broadening the horizons of Chinese music sonically, but also setting a new model for lyricism in Mandarin.
Up-and-coming Mandopop artist Eric Chou seems to be something of an anomaly. Debuting at the young age of 19, his first single 'Let’s not be friends anymore' was a breakout hit, amassing over 121 million views and capturing hearts across the region. Since then, he’s made a name for himself as the new-gen prince of ballads, known for his soulful vocals and earworm-y love songs that have gained him quite a mainstream following. Yet despite his overwhelming mainstream success with love songs, other parts of his repertoire continue to be praised by industry professionals for his experimentation with the EDM genre, with his compositions even being praised by the likes of Eve Ai and Starr Chen. While the tastes of the Taiwanese mainstream and the industry are often at odds, it seems that an exception has been made in both parties’ mutual appreciation for Chou’s works.
Although Eric is not the first to rock the boat with his musical fare, he IS one of few new-gen mainstream artists who has his sights securely set on bringing updated EDM music to Chinese pop. This is a message that has become increasingly prevalent in his music, most significantly in his third and latest album, ‘The Chaos After You’.
“‘The Chaos After You’ is my third album and I think the third album for any artist establishes ground for where I want to head towards in the future. So for this album you’ll hear a lot of different elements rather than normal ballads. You’ll hear EDM, and the reason for EDM is these past two years I started listening to a lot of …Chainsmokers, Martin Garrix… I think these kinds of EDM music influenced me, ‘cus I feel like the old EDM style is more from clubs and for (a) hyper vibe but now it’s on the top charts, it’s turning into pop culture and it can be like a ballad song but with the (EDM) music arrangement and mix.”
If I had previously thought that there was no one else who had the same passion for bringing Taiwanese music to Western audiences, after meeting Mia Yen, I had to concede that I had met my match. The driven show curator, booking agent and all-round creative, who comes from a family of entertainment professionals has been shaking up the overseas market recently, helping all kinds of amazing indie Taiwanese acts to have their sounds heard live throughout North America. From cult R&B darling 9m88 to the legendary Anpu (formerly known as Deserts Xuan), independent music heroes FIRE EX. to Sunset Rollercoaster, Mia has her finger in almost every independent Taiwanese music pie that lands on US soil.
On top of this, Yen is also the brains behind the Taiwanese Waves showcase held in Central Park, New York annually for the last two years. The event which happens in July annually is amongst the venue Summerstage’s most popular free shows; an amazing feat given that 100% of their acts perform in a language other than English. But none of this came easy for her, as she overcame uncertainty, ethnocentrism, funding issues while making it sound like it was nothing more than a walk in Central Park. Influenced by her family’s roots in the media industry, Mia first discovered her love for live shows while in high school.
“I have a huge passion for music, I don’t play but I enjoy music a lot and in high school I started going to a lot of concerts in Taiwan to see bands and concerts… I think the best way to meet or know a band or singer better is through live performance. Because through recording everyone can do a really well-done job but to me like live shows are very special in the way that you and the artist and the people around you are experiencing the same thing at the same time in a very specific space. So to me it’s really powerful, that’s why I really like it…That’s why I’m more passionate about concerts, live performances.”
And in 2008, going to New York, the mecca of live music and performances to complete her undergrad degree afforded her a chance to pursue this love for live shows, and to discover where it could take her.
“In New York I quickly learned that everybody on tour was stopping in New York. So I dreamed of working in a music venue to be a part of these concerts. And finally in senior year of my Undergrad I did an internship with a music venue in New York called The Living Room…and… learned more about not only the music venue and concert business but also how to run a club. Because you learn more about how to set up ticket prices, what drinks to sell, at what price for audiences and so it was a really interesting experience and I really enjoyed it.”
When you think ‘Taiwanese indie music’, those of you in the know might associate the term with kitschy groups dressed in colourful, mismatched outfits, or with distressed bands which always happen to have a female lead singer singing somewhat eerily. But no matter what popped up for you, I doubt ‘East-meets-West music’ was the first thing to spring to mind. A niche theme popularised by the likes of pop stars Wang Leehom, David Tao, Khalil Fong and more, it is surprising to see such influences creep into the underbelly of the Taiwanese music scene.
Nevertheless, that is exactly what Calvin Jordan and Anna Pan set out to do when they started their band Violet Lens in 2015, a five-piece indie/alternative pop/ punk and indie rock outfit that proffers an organic blend of Eastern and Western musical influences while performing in English, Mandarin and sometimes Taiwanese. The band, composed of Calvin (Songwriter, Backup Vocals), Anna (Songwriter, Vocals), Stan (Lead guitar), Howl (Bass, Backup Vocals) and Kulou (Drums) started in a way as Taiwanese and as indie as one could get; through the use of Taiwanese independent music sharing platform Streetvoice. Calvin recalls:
“Violet Lens started when I found a few of Anna’s songs on StreetVoice.com. I immediately felt a connection to her voice, which sounded special even when recorded on a smartphone and paired with a beat-up old guitar. At the time I was living in Taichung, so I reached out to Anna and asked if she was open to collaborating and possibly meeting up in Taipei to play together. She was a bit reserved, but said she was interested. Shortly after that we met up and started sending snippets of song ideas to one another.”
Interview with GorDoN國蛋 a.k.a Dr. Paper: From Taipei to NYC-Documenting His Cross-Cultural Experiences Through Rap
Compared with prolific Taiwanese rappers, GorDoN aka Dr. Paper’s laidback fare of hip hop music is often rather more suitable for bedtime tunes than the usual pumped up hip hop we’re used to. However, listen closely to his words and you will find his lyrics crammed with well-crafted anecdotes that often refer to his experiences living and breathing within a cross cultural context. Entering the scene in 2006 as part of the Bamboo Gang, he signed with KAO!INC. in 2007, establishing his career as a rapper and hip hop artist in Taiwan before moving to New York to pursue further study in 2013, before returning to Taiwan in 2015. This international move has since proved momentous towards GorDoN’s musical works, inspiring the release of three mixtapes in which he compares everything from daily life to the government’s policies in his various tracks. Interested to know more, we went deep in asking GorDoN about his motivations and goals in taking on such an angle within his music.
1. If you were to sum up your music for international audiences, how would you introduce yourself and your music?
I am GorDoN aka Dr. Paper, my music is mostly hip hop inspired by my life, as well as big and little things that happen in the place I live. I like using music to start conversations, to talk to myself, and to converse with other people's ideas.
2. For beginners, what do you think is the key to appreciation of good rap music?
I think being in the moment is the most important, no matter whether we're talking about the person making the music or listening, if you listened to rap or hip hop music but were unable to indulge in the moment, that takes away a very big part of the fun.
3. I heard that your latest mixtape ‘Dr. Paper Vol.3 Sunday Night Slow Jams’ was very much influenced by your time living in New York. Can you tell us a little about it?
Actually from Vol.2 -Blue Dream until GDNE, and now until Sunday Night Slow Jam, during this time I was living in New York, so a lot of these works were full of the colour of New York living. Sunday Night Slow Jam just so happened to begin production in the three months leading up to my decision to leave New York and return to Taiwan. Half of it was finished in New York and the other half in Taipei, during that time it just so happened to be a turning point in my life, and when I was producing this I did it with the motivation of creating a piece of work that commemorated the end of my time in New York.
Interview with DJ Didilong aka Yinghung李英宏: The Enigma Pioneering New-Gen Taiwanese Language Hip Hop
In recent years I've begun to realise that there is more to the Taiwanese music scene that just Mandarin Chinese music. A culturally diverse island, the native language of most of Taiwan's inhabitants is actually Hokkien or Minnanyu, otherwise known to most Taiwanese as taiyu(Taiwanese). However, much of the language was lost over generations of colonisation and martial law, which severely restricted the use of the Taiwanese dialect. Nowadays, use of the language is mostly lost on city slickers, with most artists performing exclusively in the dialect targeted at older generations. Despite this, mainstream artists have nevertheless continued to perform selected songs in these dialects, some to great popularity. From David Tao's remake of '望春風 Spring Wind' to A-mei Zhang's '夢中做憨人Sorrowful Regret', and even Lala Hsu (身騎白馬Riding On White Horse) & Crowd Lu (魚仔He-R), the popularity of these songs on the charts show that audiences are not opposed to the notion of incorporating these languages back into popular social conscience. Yet given the general lack of popularity of exclusively Taiwanese language music, younger generations of artists have long steered clear of putting all their eggs in one basket-except for one.
DJ Didilong aka Yinghung, a cult favourite of the Taiwanese hipster youths raps, sings and writes his music entirely in the Taiwanese dialect, putting out a fresh mix of Hip Hop, Rap, Funk, and Disco that is cutting edge and comparative to the standard of any Mandarin-speaking Hip Hop artist. A bit of an enigma, the suave artist won himself critical acclaim at this years' Golden Melody Awards with his debut album 'Taipei Didilong' as he was nominated for Best Taiwanese Album and Best Taiwanese Male Singer, using his mesmerising vocals and indomitable charisma to bring the Taiwanese dialect back into popular social conscience. We spoke briefly to him about his music as he and his record company KAO!INC. ready themselves to take on North America in their 'Coast To Coast' tour end November:
1. It is not often one finds a young hip hop artist who chooses to perform almost exclusively in the Taiwanese dialect. What was it that made you decide to write your songs for your debut album completely in Taiwanese?
Using ones’ own language to tell the stories of my home, that is what is most natural.
2. Your work has been inspirational for the youth in bringing awareness to the Taiwanese dialect. Do you intend to continue writing and performing your music solely in Taiwanese?
Of course I will, just like how in America, there are many different ethnicities, languages and cultures, I especially like to be part of a different mode of expression, that represents every ethnic group’s cultural background, way of life and inner thoughts.
3. If you were to pick one song from your discography that you would recommend to others when introducing your music, what would you choose and why?
‘Taipei Didilong’’s lyrics and musical recording all fully represent the place where I grew up.
4. Do you have any new works in the pipeline? Can you share with us a little about what’s up next for you?
I am currently working on musical arrangements for a movie, within it I also wrote some of the movie’s theme songs, they are quite different to my compositions in general, I am very excited to let everyone experience a different me.
To DJ Didilong, it seems that all these other considerations that other artists might account for when deciding what language to perform in are irrelevant. He does what comes most naturally; using his mother tongue and combining it with musical elements that he enjoys to create a unique style that is not easily replaceable. Making music from a place so pure and innovative, Didilong's sound leaves me optimistic for what future generations of Taiwanese young talent may come up with.
Hip Hop company KAO!INC. which consists of Soft Lipa, GorDoN, DJ Didilong, Deejay Gin and Leo Wang are touring LA and NYC, holding shows on the 19th (LA) at the Echoplex and on the 22nd (NYC) at the Highline Ballroom. See below for more information.
KAO!INC. World Tour - Los Angeles
Ticketing: https://goo.gl/WGHjgr (Priced at $30 advance, $35 on the day)
KAO!INC. World Tour - New York
Venue: Highline Ballroom
Ticketing: https://goo.gl/8UgqCH (Priced between 30-49.99)
Almost every Asian kid who’s grown up in a Western country has some semblance of experience with ‘Chinese School’; an unappealing waste of any adolescent child’s weekend that could be better spent anywhere but in a classroom for six hours. In the two or three months I spent at Chinese school, the only word I remember learning was 不倒翁bu dao weng (a roly poly toy), a phrase which until today I have yet to put to good use. Other friends have endured years of Chinese school, coming out the other end to only remember how to say 你好ni hao (Hello). This collective experience, along with many other factors have cumulated in a collective understanding of learning Chinese as 'uncool', sparking a trend of media representations that normalize and render it widely acceptable for Asian diasporic youths to overlook their cultural heritage.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Asian diasporic youths not being able to speak Chinese per se, as individuals are diverse and unique. But conversely, the lack thereof of representations which encourage a return to ones' roots may be harmful to those who find an understanding of their native languages and traditions helpful in their search for identity and meaning. In a previous interview with Korean-American singer-songwriter Big Phony, he put it most aptly when he spoke of how learning Korean helped him to work through many of his own personal issues:
"For me, learning Korean helped me sort out some issues in my life I didn’t even know I really had. Although, I have Asian American friends that don’t speak their native languages and they seem to be doing just fine. I had all sorts of personal problems before moving to Seoul. Learning Korean was positive for me but I can't really say for others. If you feel it might help you in some way, I say explore it."
But getting back to the topic at hand, it’s about time someone championed a new breed of content that encourages language and cultural exchange in an easily accessible manner for Asian Americans, Canadians, Australians and more. Despite YouTube and new media being widely hailed as safe spaces for Asian diasporic communities to come together and thrive, the content of Wongfu, Ryan Higa, David Choi and more often fail to touch on the importance of native languages and the influence of Eastern tradition on their lives and their content. But it seems that the task has fallen to a group of guys from Toronto going by the name of CantoMando who are passionate about sharing their Asian diasporic experiences and native language skills with the rest of the internet.
A YouTube and new media platform that was created in 2016, CantoMando was founded by Toronto-based university student Sheldon Ho for teaching Asian Canadian/American/Australian youth Mandarin or Cantonese in a relatable manner. Today, joined by close friends Mike Wu and Edward Leung, CantoMando’s content has evolved into relatable skits featuring everyday situations (my favourite being Shit That Happens At Chinese School) and long-form content that creatively tests the three amiable guys’ somewhat limited Mandarin and Cantonese skills (see their 2x Korean Nuclear Spicy Noodle Translation Challenge). Although onscreen it seems like it’s all fun and games, Ho reveals that there has always been a game plan involved - to make learning Chinese and Eastern culture cool for other Asian youth like themselves.
“Our goal was to teach Mandarin initially... so when we went to skits and comedy, we wanted to bring that whole theme of Chinese language, Cantonese/Mandarin into our videos and skits, and kind of show Asian Americans, Asian Canadians the Chinese language. Because over here a lot of people think it’s not cool and I used to think that Mandarin was so stupid sounding, same with Cantonese, I used to hate hearing it all the time. So it was kind of just to show that (our language is) something to be proud of and something you should embrace.”
It was also interesting to see how the three guys came to discover their passion for understanding Eastern culture and language in various different ways (hint: NOT through Chinese school). Sheldon rekindled his passion for the language due to a culture shock (when he was young he thought Cantonese was a majority language in the world, before realizing a large majority of Asians speak Chinese while in University), while it took Mike a trip back to China to gain a sense of home and belonging. Edward found his passion through a genuine interest in different cultures and languages.
In 2016, 88Rising a media platform which has since its debut garnered a reputation for unearthing some of Asia’s most classed-up hip hop acts (Rich Chigga from Indonesia, Keith Ape from Korea) introduced a new group to their bad-ass posse: a motley crew of Chinese natives who call themselves the Higher Brothers. Upon releasing a couple of tracks, the Higher Brothers’ style of East-meets-West hip hop started to catch the attention of Western viewers worldwide, amassing millions of views apiece.
While many a Mandarin-speaking pop star has tried, struggled and ultimately been unsuccessful in truly entering the Western music market, the Higher Brothers have thus far done the unthinkable, taking the internet by storm with Chinese language rap that has little packaging to soothe ethnocentric naysayers. Instead, the group, dubbed the first to make it past the ‘Great Firewall of China’ derive inspiration from their modern Chinese upbringing; mixing it with Western style hip-hop of the highest quality to create pure, unadulterated good hip hop. I chatted with the group in lieu of their appearance at Hong Kong’s Clockenflap festival in November this year about their rise to internet stardom, and how it all began.
1. Last year, Higher Brothers were featured on American music platform 88Rising, and quickly shot to international acclaim. Did you ever think that something like this would happen?
A: Can’t say we expected it at all, we can only say we’ve imagined it.
2. Although a lot of people know who Higher Brothers are, less know about your background. How did you guys meet?
A: The four of us joined Chengdu’s rap club, and afterwards stayed in the studio. Then we began to make a lot of music, that’s how this all started.
3. 88Rising was the platform that brought Higher Brothers to international attention. How did they discover you?
A: At a party Howie Lee put on our music and someone from 88rising heard it and asked for our email. From there we began communicating.
4. Your music incorporates elements of Eastern culture such as Wechat and 7-11, but follows Western techniques. How did you come up with this style?
A: We like Western music but lead Eastern culture-influenced lives, this is how our music organically was created.
Driven, sophisticated and exceptionally gifted, Taiwanese Classical-Jazz pianist/singer-songwriter Amanda Wu’s lengthy title is a mouthful for most, but is a testament to her long list of achievements and eclectic musical tastes. Born in Taiwan, the child prodigy started studying the piano at age 4, rapidly advancing her musical prowess before undertaking further study at the McGill University in Montreal in Jazz Piano. She has now played with the likes of Cirque Du Soleil, composed and arranged for Taiwanese artists Joanna Wang and Liu Hsuan, as well as travelled the world as an accomplished pianist and performer in her own right. She talks to us about how her passion first came about:
“When I was 3 years old, I loved a famous TV drama called “一代女皇” and watched it every day. One day, I started to sing the whole song with the completely accurate melody, pitch and rhythm. Moreover, at that time, I have not learned piano yet, but I just climbed on the piano and played the melody of the song. My family was very shocked!”
Having realised she was gifted from that point onwards, Wu has since travelled the world and accumulated much experience since. Her advice to those struggling to make it into the industry was honest, but uplifting:
“If you clearly know that you are gifted, don’t waste this wonderful gift no matter how much difficulties that you might face. However, don’t do it just because you want the fame, attention, and fortune. It is a tough path, not smooth at all, you just have to be consistent, confident and patient. Also, to be open-minded to admire other people’s success are very important, too.”
Through her words and of course through her music, Amanda’s wealth of experience is clearly seen. Alas, she is as eloquent a speaker as she is a performer. The motivated 30-year-old infuses her compositions with personal anecdotes and words of wisdom, and her latest EP 'Journey On Earth: Volume 2' is no different. Amanda shares with us the idea behind her ‘Journey On Earth’ series:
"'The Journey On Earth' is the series of my original music. Volume 1 is more specific for the “Unknown” stage of life. There are 3 songs in Volume 1. The first 2 songs are composed when putting myself to explore the mysterious Unknown at age 20 in Montreal (studying) and age 30 in New York (seeking for higher goal for career and life). I wrote them to inspire people that life is never easy, but just need to be fearless and consistent. The third one is to express that the solid love is the most powerful thing to support us conquering all the difficulties in the Unknown. I have a cousin and love him very much. When I feel struggled, as long as I think of him, I feel happy and positive right away. It is dedicated to my beloved cousin.
Volume 2: “Stories of Time” is a broader concept. Because living on earth is living with the stream of timeline, as time goes by, we are growing, changing and also producing so many stories. Timing is telling us so many stories as long as we pay attention closely to listen to and observe on ourselves and others. I wrote them because I hope people can be more aware of the change of their inner world and the whole era.”
Interviewer: Jamie Deer
Writer: Jocelle Koh
Note: The Chinese version of this article was released on Streetvoice Yahoo in collaboration with Jamie Deer.
2016 was the year that Lara released her new single “Where Do We Go” in both English and Chinese. The Lara we know and love today is in fact a little different from the shy, demure girl who was associated with Nan Quan Mama and Jay Chou previously. After a period of rest and reflection, her new single “Where Do We Go” breaks boundaries while truly marking Lara’s return to the industry.
Discussing the general image many held of Lara, perhaps many would have described her as an artist with a unique and sweet voice. Yet in terms of her personality, many viewed her as an ice princess due to her quiet demeanour while present at events and performances. Thus, her vivacious, playful nature came as a shock to interviewer Jamie Deer when Veronin appeared on his live.me livestream. As the interview went on , it seems that her cool image was in fact just a defensive mechanism honed by years of training in the entertainment industry.
“Public figures can easily lose sight of what they are doing, because you will automatically try and analyse other people’s perspective to figure out your next move, and as a result you keep certain things in your heart…actually I’m pretty chatty, but in the past, I always hoped that I could present a perfect image to others. But now I guess everyone more or less knows the truth (laughs).”
Get your fix of exclusive interviews with up-and-coming Asian artists, and special long-form content, all in English in our Features section.