Anyone at the Jade Music Fest’s opening concert at the Hollywood Theatre was treated to an unexpected musical journey. It began at English Bay, with pit stops in the Bronx and upscale Singapore, before winding up in a Taipei nightclub.
Daniel Lew opened the show on Wednesday (October 18). With his sunny disposition and guitar, he looked like he would be perfectly at home strumming tunes at nearby Kitsilano Beach.
He began his set with the upbeat “Alive (The Ocean Song)”, which was inspired by an evening visit to English Bay. The understated guitar in this opener and his follow-up, “You Be You”, gave ample room for Lew to show off his vocal chops. He even belted out the chorus of “Alive (The Ocean Song)” in Mandarin. Even though this was folk music writ large, his singing was electrifying, hitting a wide variety of notes.
Lew performed two more original songs. On “Destiny”, he traded his guitar for keyboards, drawing attention through his lyrics to unseen forces influencing the direction of our lives. In my favourite Daniel Lew song, “Stand Up for Ourselves”, he invited his girlfriend and co-writer, Caroline Ding, on-stage.
This was pure Dylan-esque storytelling protest music, zeroing in on the scourge of anti-Asian hatred. In one vignette, Lew describes the reluctance of bystanders on a bus to intervene to protect an elderly Chinese man; in the other, Ding shares a tale about a woman encountering anti-Asian hate while out for a jog. It’s powerful songwriting.
They closed their set by singing a popular Chinese song, (海闊天空 [“Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies”], by Beyond) in Cantonese. For this, Lew thanked Ding and the Jade Music Fest organizers for encouraging him to go down this road.
Scope lights Yellow Fire at Jade Music Fest
Next up was the effervescent rapper Scope, a Chinese Canadian who grew up on the North Shore of Vancouver. With his ultra-baggy pants, sunglasses, tight-fitting toque, and wild arm movements, he certainly looked like a hip-hop artist from the Bronx. He also rapped like one, blurting out rapid-fire verses focusing on how tough it is to be young and oppressed.
With Scope, however, there’s a difference. He highlights the plight of young North Americans of Asian ancestry, who are facing assault not only in the streets, but also through distorted media coverage. And he does it with a wildly energetic stage presence, coupled with thumping beats and imaginative video images behind him. It’s his way of modelling self-empowerment for young Asian Canadians and giving them the confidence to speak up against discrimination.
The audience didn’t get any sweet-sounding Mandopop or Cantopop from Scope at the Hollywood Theatre. His music originated back in the early ’90s in hardscrabble sections of New York. He also brought several members of his rap-school boot camp, the Yellow Fire Academy, on-stage to show that his message is catching on with four of his protégés: handwash, 80K, Raw Soul, and Jasey Chung.
After his troupe departed into the wings, emcee and CBC broadcaster Lien Yeung commented on how generous it was of Scope to do this. He could have kept the entire 25-minute set to himself. Instead, he chose to shine a light on other young rappers, all but one of whom is of East Asian ancestry.
Jacqueline Teh improvises with aplomb
From Scope’s inner-city vibe, the evening took a U-turn uptown with the introduction of Juno-winning Toronto songwriter Jacqueline Teh. Yeung noted that Teh, an impressive jazz and R&B vocalist, speaks a bucketful of languages, including Hokkien, Burmese, and Mandarin. She’s also executive and artistic director of St. James Town Community Arts and a sessional lecturer at the University of Toronto.
With her performance, Teh can add another credential to her Linkedin profile: Canada’s First Lady of Scat. Her energetic vocal improvisations—performed while playing original songs on keyboard—were utterly captivating, as was her songwriting.
“Did”, for example, is a story of heartbreak told from the perspective of the person who jilted her partner. It’s a genuine tear-jerker with its gentle yet elegant keyboard work complementing lyrics like “Meet me in the middle and show me what I’m missing” and “I’m sorry I stopped loving you when I did.”
“Who Do You Love?” was another knockout in Teh’s breathtaking set, again showcasing her improvisational vocals. But perhaps the most daring song of all was the jazzy “Fever”. It’s a sharp and angry rebuttal to white men who proudly proclaim their yellow fever to Asian women as if it’s a compliment. Teh told the mostly Asian Canadian audience that she wrote it in response to her younger self.
“I’m not a shade that you can add to your palette when you please,” she declares in the song.
— Kᴀᴛʀɪɴᴀ Cʜᴇɴ (@KatrinaCBurnaby) October 19, 2023
There was similarly smart wordplay in her next song, the lively “On It”. Here, Teh juxtaposed the words “on it” with “honest” in a blunt message to a romantic partner. She closed with the crowd-pleasing “Waiting for Your Return” from the film Crazy Rich Asians, which she sang in Mandarin. It took some back to Singapore in the 2015 film.
Polished pop star pleases his fans
Meanwhile, the headliner, Xiao Bing Chih, came all the way from Taiwan to perform at the Jade Music Fest. A polished songwriter, he began by saying that his English isn’t very good before proceeding to speak very good English.
Xiao Bing Chih opened his set with “Addiction”, a massive hit in East Asia about a crazy form of love. From there, he powered through several other songs that his young Taiwanese Canadian fans seemed to know all the lyrics for. Then, he closed with the supercharged “Superhero”.
The cerebral performer has been called the “billion-dollar song machine”—and from his performance at the Hollywood Theatre, it’s easy to see why. Not only can he roll out hits year after year, first with Magic Power and now as a solo artist, but he has an easygoing and charismatic stage presence. His magnetism attracted his fans so close to the stage that by the end, several were taking selfies with the great man himself performing in the background.
All things considered, it was a terrific opening night for the organizers of the Jade Music Fest. It will be intriguing to see what comes next when free shows are held with different lineups of artists of Asian ancestry on Thursday (October 19) evening at the Gateway Theatre in Richmond and on Friday (October 20) night at the Annex in Vancouver.