“The most powerful way for me to try to do something, or make statements about these things, is to break the rule and decentralize things. To do it myself,”
In the midst of a pandemic which fuels people’s racism against Asian people, during a time where this racism leads to the death of 6 Asian women in the U.S., Yu’s unswerving expression of her identity as Chinese is empowering to us.
I hopped on the express train at the Waterfront Station, my Spotify playing Yu Su’s Yellow River Blue, and I am looking out the window. It captures a calm ocean and solemn mountains. Construction in front of nature, colorless concrete blocks, and those emotionless metallic shipping containers. One of the songs — “Gleam” — juxtaposes the sound of water dripping, and the futuristic synthesizer perfectly matches this bizarre scenery; where nature and the manmade coexist in a single frame, the window. The swirl of transparent, refreshing melodies are reminiscent of a beautiful river, it overlaps with the flow of the ocean in my sight and I am being swallowed into a haze.
Yu Su is a Vancouver- based artist who grew up in Kaifeng, China, the city facing the southern bank of the famous Yellow River. She moved to Vancouver to study at the University of British Columbia, and became immersed in the underground, techno scene. Yellow River Blue was digitally released in January under Chinese label, bié Records, and the Amsterdam-based Music From Memory. Although her initial plan was to release under a western label, after her visit to China and during the process of writing, she decided to collaborate with bié Records. “I am kind of sick of this structure […] when you want to pursue music full time, and you want to be successful, there is kind of a structure of it. Things come too easy, because it is a formula.” She explains, “obviously, there is a benefit to that, everyone does it and I’m not saying it’s bad,” she continued, “but for someone like me — I didn’t come from here. I still think I am somehow an outsider to this western culture.”
The act of releasing from a Chinese label showed her identity as Chinese, and she felt the perception of her works from Chinese people had changed, that she’s seen as one of them. This was important for Yu as she aims to spread techno music throughout China. She wants her music to encourage women in China to make music as well, as the genre — beyond some mainstream examples — remains extremely west. “Her music can be described as “oriental techno”, an emerging genre that exhibits traditional Chinese melodies, playing on the legacy of “new age” or ambient music. Both of these genres often use“oriental” sounds — actively practicing the act of western people taking from other cultures, all while claiming them as Eurocentric.” She wanted to see people’s reaction and recognition of Chinese melody in electronic music. “The most powerful way for me to try to do something, or make statements about these things, is to break the rule and decentralize things. To do it myself,” she said.
The very opening of the album, “Xiu”, particularly speaks to Yu’s origin. The sounds in this song — although it was entirely made by a synthesizer — create the beautiful combinations of Chinese traditional instruments and melodies. Behind it, the cherry electronic beat pulls us into the groove, as her soft voice plays along with it. The title of this song “Xiu” is of her mother’s name 秀, who she told me is the reason why she had got her hands on music. It was one of those typical “Asian mom moments,” of making kids practice classical instruments, she laughs. Forced to practice a piano, despite some familiar moments of rebelling. Though most people give up on the practice – she instead grew her interest in music. With her mother’s strict encouragement in mind, she continued this commitment to music, even after coming to Vancouver. 秀 passed away around the time Yu made the decision to pursue music full- time, but remains forever in her music, as she will always feel elements of her mom in each note. It is fair to say “Xiu”, the song most forthright about her Chinese identity, deserves the name of an incredible mother.
“Gleam” is another namesake track, after Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor from Wuhan. The word “gleam” expresses the Chinese character of his name, a subtle and tiny piece of light that is guiding a power – like how he insisted on raising the awareness of Covid-19. Li Wenliang was one of the first doctors to deal with Covid-19 patients — having immediately noticed this new danger, he felt the need to alarm citizens. Through his recognition of Covid-19, which was unconfirmed at the time, he was deemed a whistle-blower that had leaked the information of his hospital and spread fear. He passed away in February 2020 from Covid-19, and with his vocal samples used in this song, listening to it makes Yu emotional, evoking her memory of him.
In the midst of a pandemic which fuels people’s racism against Asian people, during a time where this racism leads to the death of 6 Asian women in the U.S., Yu’s unswerving expression of her identity as Chinese is empowering to us. She’s told me that she wants to be politically outspoken through her musical works. Coming from an east Asian family with a culture of not expressing their opinions until they have something solid, she seeks her own way of speaking up. “That’s just us, and it’s totally fine. In the past, I think I felt bad, or got in trouble from other people for not being outspoken enough,” she said, “I want my work to speak for itself, because I know that once my words are powerful, that power would come from my work in more solid and convincing way, because, if my music is good, and you have to listen to it […] I don’t need any more words to tell you that you have to pay attention to an Asian woman making dance music.”
Yu plans to continuously follow her heart, and makes music purely in the way she wants. Unfettered by the challenge of something new in a future that refuses to be determined by someone else’s expectation.