There’s something very endearing about seeing a Vancouver-born and B.C.-schooled musician earnestly performing songs from their immigrant parents’ homeland. This was certainly the case when classically trained pianist Jason Qiu 秋咏 decided to sing Chinese-language ballads and lullabies at the Jade Music Fest on Wednesday (October 18).
Qiu played the piano effortlessly in the Annex to Danny Chan’s “Painting Rainbows”, followed by George Lam’s “Who is the One”, and Anthony Wong’s “Song of Four Seasons”. Then, Qiu unveiled one of his originals, “Ordinary”, which he penned in Mandarin. His friend, Hong Kong songwriter Anita Chung, wrote lyrics for this lullaby in Cantonese, which he sang that day.
Qiu wound up his set with Cantopop legend Samuel Hui’s “From the Heart of a Loafer”, also sung in Cantonese.
Pancouver catches up with Qiu after the show to ask an obvious question: how does someone born and raised in Vancouver sing so adeptly in two Chinese languages?
“I spoke Cantonese growing up,” Qiu responds in the lobby. “Then I moved to China for five years when I was 30 years old. I had to learn Mandarin.”
Qiu’s dad is from Hong Kong and his mom hails from Guangzhou, China’s fifth most populous city. Qiu started playing piano at the age of four and remained a student in the Royal Conservatory of Music until he was 17 years old.
Listen to Jason Qiu perform one of Samuel Hui’s classics.
It’s fair to say that Qiu is a master of melody. That was clear to anyone seeing him play the piano at the Jade Music Fest, which celebrates Chinese-language music in Canada and abroad. His musicianship, along with his singing, aims for the heart rather than trying to impress audiences with Lang Lang–style piano theatrics.
“I’m not really great with all the technical flying things,” Qiu says modestly.
Qiu played in Chinese underground scene
He often sings in English, including on his six-song EP, “Lone Wolf”, which he released in 2022.
However, in childhood, he and his twin brother heard lots of Cantopop—often in the back seat of the family car when their father was driving. According to Qiu, his dad was a huge music fan who regrets not having the opportunity to learn how to play music.
As a teenager, Qiu started writing songs. He also studied the clarinet in school. And as a young man in Vancouver, he performed with Chinese-language bands.
“There’s a whole Chinese underground scene that I didn’t even know about,” Qiu says. “A friend of mine introduced me to somebody, and I spent some time in that kind of circuit.”
Jason Qiu sings “Lovers No More” from the Cantonese companion to his “Lone Wolf” EP.
He lived in Tokyo for a couple of years, where he performed some gigs. Then he moved to Shanghai with his husband, who was working there.
“It’s very cosmopolitan, very busy,” Qiu states. “There’s something for everybody there.”
Since returning to Vancouver in 2017, Qiu has been performing solo. It’s a big step because he was often discouraged from singing when he was young.
“It took a long time for me to get comfortable with my voice,” he says. “Because I’ve been singing more, I’ve been able to use some of the weird inflections and other things I’ve discovered about my voice that I didn’t know. So that’s been really rewarding, actually.”
He’s thrilled to have been invited to the Jade Music Fest, saying it’s his first Asian music festival,
“I’m feeling more optimistic that there’s a community here,” Qiu declares. “So, I’m hoping to collaborate more with fellow Asian Canadians.”
Lefan follows with Mandarin and Taiwanese songs
Qiu shared the bill at the Annex with talented Vancouver singer-songwriter and sound artist Van Lefan in an event entitled “Time to Play for the Lost Time”. Lefan presented her own Mandarin and Taiwanese songs, repeating a playlist that she had performed on October 13 at Gateway Theatre in Richmond.
She focused mostly on music that she’d heard her parents singing when they were living in Taiwan and after they had immigrated to Canada. Lefan, who played guitar, was joined by Taiwanese-born violinist Cindy Kao, whose improvisational work impressed the emcee, fellow violinist Tom Su.
In addition, Lefan performed one original song, “Lullaby”. It’s the first bilingual song that she wrote in Mandarin and English. In the past, she’s written songs in either language and then translated them.
“This song I started writing purposely in Mandarin and English at the same time because the verses work as mirror images,” Lefan said. “Hopefully for kids who maybe grew up here and their Mandarin isn’t great, they can hear the Mandarin verse, get the idea, and start to put it together with the English meaning.”
Lefan revealed that one of her inspirations was her father, who made a living for chunks of her childhood in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung when the family was living in the northern part of the country. Later for many years, he worked in Taiwan while Lefan, her brother, and her mom were living in the B.C. community of Maple Ridge.
She now realizes that the lullabies that he sang to her in those days reflected their longing to spend more time together.
“I’m realizing how special that is,” Lefan said. “And I’m starting to understand why he may have chosen the songs he did, whether it was conscious or not.”
Lefan also talked about the struggles and oppression that her ancestors endured in Taiwan in the 20th century. She mentioned that she and a friend of Chinese lineage both had a grandmother who ran away from Japanese soldiers while holding a baby in different parts of Asia.
“It was something that we shared,” Lefan stated. “Those forces—colonialism, imperialism, and occupation—have impacted pretty much everybody at this point. So when we see it happening to other people, whether it’s war or genocide, I think we have a responsibility not to close ourselves off to it. Not to be numb to it and not fall for the media that tries to make us dehumanize each other.”
She emphasized the importance of really acknowledging that there are forces out there who want the public to believe that people can deserve their suffering based on their race, religion, and nationality. She insisted that this is not true.
“At the end of the day, we’re all humans with flesh and bone—who love, who sing songs, who dance, and deserve a life of freedom and peace.”
Learn more about Jason Qiu via his website or through Facebook, Instagram, and Spotify. Sign up for Van Lefan’s newsletter on her website. For more information on the Jade Music Fest, visit its website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.