America says, "You're Chinese if your music has any Chinese elements in it, I want you to talk about it and I want you to talk about it to death."
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 47 from Season 4 of Rock The Boat: Making Waves, edited for clarity.
Being Asian in America is a complex experience. One way that David Liang found was a useful way to explore his identity was through music. He founded the band Shanghai Restoration Project (SRP), which is a long time favorite of Lucia's and others on the Rock the Boat team. In this episode, Lucia talks to David and SRP's other band member, Sun Yunfan.
We find out about:
How SRP's sound has changed over the years
What brought Yunfan from China to the US
Their thoughts on future creative work during the coronavirus pandemic
Lucia: This is a very special episode to me because it not only features one of my favorite musical groups, but also my hometown. Shanghai. The first time I visited Shanghai, it was in the summer of 1996. I was eight years old and the experience was everything but magical.
Back in 1996, Shanghai was a decrepit city, the river that was once the symbol of trade and commerce reeked of pollutants. People worked around and their pajamas in the summer heat and some went around shirtless. Altogether. Homes were stacked on top of each other. And it was the first time I encountered homelessness.
But now, almost 25 years later, when I visit Shanghai, the streets are lined with trees.
Skyscrapers reached to touch the clouds. People drive on wide streets, sipping their coffees at intersections and pay with their mobile devices. It's the epitome of a modern city. So modern in fact, that it puts New York and London to shame in a similar fashion to Shanghai's tremendous growth and modernization.
Shanghai restoration project. Music has also evolved in the last 15 years since they've been around. Shanghai restoration project started out by mixing Chinese instruments and traditional vocals with modern Western hip hop and electronic beats.
David Liang is the founder of Shanghai Restoration Project. It was his way of exploring his own identity. The music group now consists of duo, David Liang and Sun Yunfan.
II. Shanghai Restoration Project
Dave: I think what you'll find is, because our sound has sorta changed over the years. So I think especially since we've started working together, maybe, 2011, but like in the past few years, we've sort of veered away from any sort of more concrete identity type stuff.
Yunfan: When I met Dave in 2011, he actually at the time was like kind of taking a break from Shanghai Restoration Project. the previous few years he was spending a lot of time producing other artists album more as a producer, less as artist. So when I met him, he was like telling me that, "Right now I'm just focusing on being a producer and I produce the other artists work."
But at the same time, at the time, he also started to meet some new artists like Zhang Le and started like trying some new directions for the band. And at the time I was, working on my full time and also spending a lot of my spare time doing graphic design, doing like posters and album cover or some translation lyric translation work for Dave.
David: For free.
Yunfan: So we started to talk a lot about, you know, which direction the band is going, like, what should the next project be? I would talk a lot about, like, the intention behind each song was.
We started to have more and more discussions about the creative aspect of music.
Lucia: So how did you, decide to take a break from Shanghai restoration project?
David: That's a good question. And I haven't really talked about this before. So I think the early years when I was doing Shanghai Restoration Project, there was probably a heavier emphasis on Chinese instruments or maybe, as you mentioned, like calling out specific references to, you know, Chinese culture or old Shanghai or whatnot.
And, I think, part of what I was doing subconsciously was actually trying to just understand my identity better. And I think in America, it's so identity politics focused. Like you just have to explore it once when you're a minority.
So I was doing that through my music. And, what I noticed is that the media, or sometimes Western audiences would respond quite well to this stuff that maybe had heavier emphasis on the Chinese stuff. And then if I created projects and I did create projects during this time, like Zodiac, which may be worn as sort of in your face about it, they just would sort of, they didn't really know what to do with it. It's something that I guess we've become aware of in American media where it's just, when you're a minority or if you're a specific identity group, they like you talking a lot about that.
Lucia: Kind of have to be the face of that minority.
Yunfan: Perform the identity. They will encourage you to do that.
David: I think America says, "You're Chinese if your music has any Chinese elements in it, I want you to talk about it and I want you to talk about it to death." And then in China, they're like, the word Shanghai is in your name. You've covered some sort of old Shanghai songs. Please talk about your Shanghainese identity to death. But in the UK or in Spain, they're usually, "Hey, what's your latest project? What do you want to talk about with this song? Let's just focus on that song."
And there is usually very little mention of sort of our race beyond maybe just their, you know, chinos, Americanos, feeling like they're, you know, like Chinese Americans living in Brooklyn or whatever.
Yunfan: I always wanted to come to the States. So after college, after working a year, I came to the States to study accounting, and then I worked at Deloitte. And then I transferred to New York in 2004, and I think it was always subconscious that want to come to New York because of the arts.
Lucia: Where you're dabbling in art while you were working as an accountant.
Yunfan: I will say like, I'll finish like, you know, checking the numbers very quickly and spend most of my time making them look better, decorating an Excel spreadsheet.
Lucia: David, I've seen a couple of interviews that you've done. You grew up in Kansas and then moved to New York. You have an incredible background, not in music at first, but in going to Harvard, and networking in consulting. Tell me a bit more about your upbringing and like what parts of your identity where you're trying to explore through music.
David: I grew up playing classical piano and also jazz piano. Growing up, my mom liked to sing Chinese opera. And then my grandfather also played the Chinese flute. So I had sort of these random influences early on.
And, after college, you know, when I was starting to work, when I was trying to figure out a sound that just like a release from my day job at the time. What sort of made me, I guess happiest, was being able to just sort of combine all sorts of different styles together. And so all those styles made it into Shanghai Restoration.
IV. What's next
Yunfan: We wanted to release a single, this March, picking out March because we released the album last November. I will feel like March will be the time to do something new. So we've been working on like, what is our next hit? And we want to make something like really happy and upbeats and we started making a lot of those tracks. Then once you like pick the best one and just like hatchet and put it on the market.
But then, you know, this coronavirus thing happened and everybody's so anxious. Like, especially like people who are recent immigrants. Like for example, myself, I like my first 20 years of my life, well spent in China. I have like a deep connection with a lot of people who are suffering there. So like, this really impacts my mood and I cannot think anything crazy and be about anything upbeat.
And we talk about it and we were like, what do we want this music to convey? So we tried to come up with a different music, though we feel sort of felt like maybe this is not the thing that we want to do through music.
Because, you know, if we don't feel like this is, this can help people, you know? In any substantial way.
Maybe we just need to endure it like as part of life, instead of trying to make it into something creative.
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