RAINBOW CHAN: Diasporic pop sensibility
Our current social climate has changed dramatically in the last few years with indigenous and multinational artists using their work to insight cultural pride, representation and conversation.
Rainbow Chan is one such artist whose musical aesthetic embraces both the retro typography and pop-sensibility of Hong Kong while defining herself as a diasporic global citizen. Her narrative draws from her life experience and pushes against the conservative mainstream Australian media that continues to represent Australia as a white majority nation.
THE PIN. Just based on what I’ve read about you, you grew up in Hong Kong for the start of your life?
RAINBOW CHAN. Yes, just for the first six years, and then my family and I moved to Australia. During that time I was pretty much based in Sydney, but I have a lot of family in Hong Kong. In my adult life, I’ve started to go back a bit more and reconnect with the culture. Most recently it’s been music that’s reconnected me; fascinating pop music and underground music is happening in Asia.
Do you remember the first six years of being in Hong Kong? Or do you remember when you first came to Australia?
RC. It’s actually very vivid in my mind. Definitely Hong Kong, being six years old you have an understanding. When I moved to Australia, I remember one of the main things I noticed that was very different were the houses. The architecture is so different.
In Hong Kong, everything is high rise buildings, and you’re living in really close proximity to everybody, space is a premium. In Australia, one family has two garages, two storeys and so much ground space...a vast garden and a backyard! I remember being genuinely gobsmacked by the vastness.
Also, just language. I remember slipping into the primary school system and relatively quickly, over the course of two or three months, picking up English as a kid. There are the little trial and error situations when you’re picking up a language, and I remember running home to my parents and talking about what I didn’t understand...but also, getting through that, and I guess, how easy it is to assimilate and blend in.
Do you feel like you went through a period where you really did want to assimilate and a point where you decided to form your identity based on where you were born and your heritage?
RC. Yeah, definitely. I think growing up - you just want to fit in with everybody else. Maybe also as a kid, you don’t really have the deep understanding difference that you do as an adult, you just go along with things. I feel like the culture in the 90’s and early 2000’s, was still going through this explosion of identity politics. It really came to the forefront in everyone’s consciousness.
I guess as an adult one thing that did make me really start to inquire about my identity was being labelled as a Chinese-Australian artist and being asked about my heritage a lot. I didn’t look the same as what was being played on mainstream media even in the last ten years, with the landscape starting to diversify and change.
It became this conscious decision after a while, just so that I could clarify for myself in my head who I am and reclaim some of those labels people have put onto me to empower other people who identify with me as Asian...Chinese, however specific you want to get.
When you were growing up, where did you go for your support network when it came to identity and culture for yourself?
RC. I feel like it wasn’t really around. I was lucky that my family is very close, I have three sisters. We have a considerable age gap, so my eldest sister grew up entirely in Hong Kong, and my youngest sister basically grew up in Australia - so there’s a real spectrum of experiences even within my family. I think being aware of that was really helpful in establishing my own frame of mind as a kid with everyone else’s experiences being so diverse and to be sensitive to that.
My family was an excellent support network to test the waters a little bit, but otherwise, I confided in music or films and art that were created by Chinese people, even just Asian people, as a sanctuary. It wasn’t necessarily something I needed to share with other people or talk about with kids at school. Also, at this time the internet was not as readily available to me, and the media was a bit more segregated. Now I think these conversations are pretty much the norm. Globalisation has changed the landscape with positives and negatives that come with that, but it allows people of colour to create new platforms that weren’t available before.
When you came to Australia in the 90's you brought tapes of music and anime, how was it for you when anime started to cross over to mainstream culture?
RC. It was amusing when I watched Sailor Moon on TV as a kid in Australia. My first experience of it was in Hong Kong, in Chinese. Seeing it five years later on TV in English, it was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is old news’ [laughs]. With anime being a Japanese import but being so much the norm on Hong Kong TV or Chinese TV, it was my first insight into having the experiences of understanding multiple perspectives. To see that introduced into the Australian landscape was really cool.
Music obviously is a foundation of who you are. In your Pillar Rats interview you discussed having Chinese characters on your artwork, and when it comes to your album covers and song titles as well. Do you think if you were an artist 10 years ago these would’ve been things that you would have shared as part of your cultural identity like you do today?
RC. Firstly off, I just really like the aesthetic of a lot of retro Chinese or Japanese album covers, so it was more of a design choice. I think it’s cool and pretty. Then, I guess, it became another way to signify this is where I’m from and to acknowledge my lineage. It is kind of the norm to have bilingual text on road signs and anything they consume on TV, but we’re not really used to it in Australia. It became another thing I wanted to push in my music and representation, there should be multilingual and multifaceted aspects, to try and keep pushing those boundaries and change it up.
Is this something you’ve only come to recently in your artistry or has it been brewing?
RC. I think it’s something I’ve become more confident in. As I get older and have more life experiences, and believe there is a lot of similar conversations happening all around the world. I feel there’s a lot of people looking into in the same discussions, particularly if they’re from the diaspora community. I have been talking to people about it, and I never want to be an ambassador for anything or be the representative of one thing and be tokenised in that way, but just acknowledge that I’m contributing to a much broader conversation that’s happening.
I’ve found that the actual representation of Asian people in Australia is very little, almost nonexistent, do you feel like we’re moving forward? How do you think about representation
RC. I feel like in music and in alternate avenues I’m generally seeing a lot more visibility of Asian artists, which has been really cool. Mainstream media is just so conservative, I don’t really consume that much mainstream media, but in alternative streams like web-based TV shows - like SBS had a show called Homecoming Queens which is by the writer and actor Michelle Law, and she pushed to the fore Asian, female, and sickness - and brought these marginalised voices to comedy TV and drama. That was really exciting, I just feel like there’s not that much...there hasn’t been a real drive or push yet but it’s hopefully changing as people become more aware of representation and the responsibility these larger media entities have in shaping people’s prejudices and viewpoints. I also feel like people who are a little bit more in tune with this stuff probably consume their media elsewhere and not just on TV.
One of the things The Pin has have been looking into is the notion around the term “Third Culture Kid”. Do you have any thoughts on the term, or think it’s a correct term to describe people’s experience?
RC. I think having some kind of vocabulary is always helpful at first to at least give it a name, but of course the term itself ‘third culture’...with a lot of these terms, it’s also acknowledging its limitations and the contradictions of labelling something that is so diverse and so multi-perspective. I certainly identify with this idea of being in liminal space and the duality of my experience.
When I go back to Hong Kong, and I talk to people who have grown up in Hong Kong or China, they don’t necessarily have the same ..they usually don’t have the drive to reconnect with heritage because they already embody it and live that experience, so I feel they’re much more interested in buying Nike’s or globalisation stuff, whereas I’m like, ‘no I’m really interested in this folk song from the Tang dynasty’ [laughs]. I think it’s because we’re caught in between, and we don’t feel a sense of belonging, and it’s a really self-aware way of constructing identity. It’s peculiar to the diaspora, immigrant experience. I do think it’s a helpful term, but across the board, and with all experiences, it’s always a negotiation of signifiers like the food you choose to eat, or language, or the people you interact with...so much of it is a daily renewal or construction.
I do connect with the term, but it has its limitations.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
RAINBOW CHAN. I would tell her to embrace the difference. I used to be really self-conscious about my nose, it was such a specific Chinese nose. I used to wish I had a different nose and be like Mr Potato head and connect a new one. Now, I feel like I really embrace it, and it’s nice being able to be different and see different types of faces on social media.
Just being proud of who you are and my nose is totally cute and fine….[laughs]