You might know Emmy the Great as a singer-songwriter but for the China Changing Festival she is bringing us a show that is a bit different.
It’s about her first trip to China and how it led her to fall into the currents of fate, and is told through music and storytelling. She is joined on stage by Dfu who, as well as being Emmy’s friend, is a musician and DJ, and founder of the Thank You Bar, a centre of music in the south-east port city of Xiamen.
Ahead of her appearance on Saturday 6 October we asked Emmy to tell us six things she learned during her month in the People’s Republic of China and this is what she told us...
Embarking on my first trip to China last year, I was quite confident that I would communicate easily and fluently with everyone around me, because I studied Mandarin in primary school. It turns out that there is very little you can do in practical terms when all you know is a song called ‘Little Children Let’s Learn Mandarin’. I was also sure that the fact that I spoke Cantonese until I was eleven would be helpful, but it was a hindrance. Mandarin is dependent on four tones, and my ten-tone Cantonese accent mangled all my sentences until they were unrecognisable hybrids of the two dialects – just sounds, essentially.
Necessity is a powerful motivator, so there were a few essential phrases that I learned quickly. I’m embarrassed to tell you that these were, “I don’t drink milk, do you have soy?” and “Can you charge my phone? It’s Apple.”
The week that I returned home, my phone ran out of battery on my way to a meeting, and I had to duck into the nearest shop to ask them to charge it. As it happened, it was a Chinese herbal shop, and the boss lady spoke only Mandarin. She was impressed, both with my ability to ask her about my phone, and my lovely song about children.
There is a force in Chinese folk religion called yuanfen, and it’s a kind of karma-based synchronicity. It is responsible for bringing people together and for parting them.
After I found out about yuanfen, it followed me around Xiamen, where I was based in China. I became used to amazing coincidences and chance meetings, and began enjoying the flow of them as if I had surrendered myself to a current. It is this sense of magic and freedom that I think of most when I think of that time.
I was supposed to write an album in Xiamen, but after I discovered yuanfen, I gave up going to my studio and traipsed around the city all day, following my curiosity and searching for new people to bump into, in case they changed my life. This approach to work, which I previously would have called ‘skiving’, ended up being amazing for songwriting. My adventures around Xiamen were more valuable than time spent inside alone, and the songs wrote themselves around the experiences I had.
My month in China was spent on Gulangyu Island, which is mysterious and architecturally unique. Every day, hundreds of engaged couples travel from all over China to take their pre-wedding photos, which they will display at their ceremonies. They disembark on Gulangyu every morning in their full wedding outfits, the brides in white chiffon and red Chinese silk, cradling their skirts like nets full of fish.
I would sit opposite the popular photo spots, and watch as the make-up artists sent them out to the photographers, mesmerised by the endless procession of couples. It got me thinking about relationships in China, and eventually this train of thought led me to a professional matchmaker. He told me that I could pay him to find a husband, and, if I paid more, this husband could come with property. Sadly, I declined this excellent opportunity, but not before my friend worked out that his company made 49 million yuan (around £5.5 million) a month.
Having grown up in the West, I am used to being alone with my interests in Chinese popular culture. There’s a song by the Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng called The Moon Represents My Heart, and I have always listened to it in private, most often when I am feeling sad and want to luxuriate in that sadness. When I first arrived on Gulangyu Island, and was wandering around feeling alien and unfamiliar, I heard this song on a busker’s penny whistle, and was comforted, thinking that my song was watching over me.
I would hear that song every day, and everywhere, for the entire trip. It came from busker, hummed from the mouths of tourists, over the speakers in restaurants...At my final show, I asked Fei Fei, a Xiamen R&B singer, if she would sing it with me. She was horrified. “It’s really cheesy,” she said. It turned out that The Moon Represents My Heart is sort of like China’s Hallelujah – overdone and out-of-bounds for any reputable musician.
I still really like the song.
My friend Rob, who I met on Chinese Bumble, wrote an article about how Chinese surrealist fiction doesn’t work anymore – it just doesn’t compare with the oddness of reality. So Chinese surrealist writers are resorting to hyper-factualism instead, writing faithful accounts of real events.
I did notice absurdities in China, but even more I noticed contrast. I’d walk past a luxury hotel, then on the next street a sewage worker would emerge from an open manhole with no protective gear on. I’d sit in one of Xiamen’s many branches of Starbucks, surrounded by urbanised, hyper-connected young people on their laptops, then leave through a park built for elderly people, where they played mahjong all day on bright plastic stools. The young people belonged to China’s millennials – a generation of only children who are growing up in a booming economy. The elderly people had lived through the Cultural Revolution.
All around us was dust from construction – Xiamen is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Yet the past was still alive, observing the changes as they went by. In Xiamen, I saw a culture that was old and new at the same time. I wondered how it felt to be on either side of that gap, and if there was any hope of the two perspectives meeting.
Before I went to China, a journalist asked me what I expected, and I glibly answered, 'It will change my life'.
I had assumed that I would click instantly in China, because I’m a half-Chinese woman who was born in Hong Kong.
In fact, China is such a vast, unknowable entity that I was initially overwhelmed and unable to connect. I realised that there were significant differences between the cultures in British Hong Kong in the 80s, and China today, and that I would not find a catch-all solution to my questions about heritage and identity.
But for all its unfamiliarity, there were still resonances. Eastern philosophy and spirituality felt natural to me, as did the emphasis on family. The discovery of yuanfen, and the adventures I had in chase of it, taught me that sometimes you don’t know where you’re heading – and that could reap rewards. A trip to a temple for the Goddess of Mercy also proved important. I learned to be open, and to enjoy the sense of being lost.
By the time I left, I had gotten used to the idea that there may never be an exact answer to the question of who I am. Sometimes, I realised, there are no exact answers. After the trip, however, I unexpectedly discovered that I was fluent in Cantonese again. The immersion in Chinese language had somehow triggered the part of my brain where I kept it locked up. A few months later, I found myself in Hong Kong, in search of language, and the lost rituals and behaviours of my childhood. So my life has changed, after all, through a series of events that began in China, or maybe before. My show is about that – the infinite chain of actions, people and random meetings that lead you where you need to go.
Emmy the Great with Dfu takes place on Saturday 6 October as part of the China Changing Festival. Tickets are on sale now.