Stunning. Mindblowing. And a dance party that will go down in Vancouver history for those lucky enough to attend. All of these terms describe the boisterous October 20 concert at the Annex, winding up the second annual Jade Music Fest.
Why was this concert historic? Because it marked a milestone in bringing together North American musicians of Asian ancestry to celebrate their authentic identities. Whether their roots were in Taiwan, Beijing, Hong Kong, or other parts of the Chinese-speaking world, all five musicians elicited waves of emotion with power-packed sets.
By the time the final artist, handwash (Hon Lam Chan), started, the audience was ready to erupt. The Hong Kong-born hip-hop and R&B star didn’t disappoint. His rapid-fire raps in Cantonese—with one arm constantly swinging upward—were a sight to behold. He took command of the stage in a gutsy, joyful, defiant, and breezy performance.
Wearing a tidy white T-shirt and black pants, handwash simply couldn’t stay still. And his hyperkinetic dynamism was contagious. At one point, he told the crowd in English that he likes being in Vancouver because he’s “free to say things like this”, before exploding into more Cantonese verses.
On a few occasions, handwash would revert to English, such as when he sang about the crowd giving him energy or when he praised his father, who lives in the U.K.
“Who loves their dad?” handwash asked the crowd before a bunch of his family photos appeared on the giant screen.
It was a touching moment, full of heart. The same can be said of audience members, including a talented breakdancer, busting moves to his lyrics and beats, with each taking their turn in the spotlight.
Kristin Fung brings joy to Jade Music Fest
In addition, other Jade Music Fest performers—such as Jacqueline Teh, Kim Yang, Lowhi, and Aiko Tomi—jumped to their feet in response to handwash.
It’s worth noting, however, that the jacked-up finale of the Jade Music Fest was the culmination of a series of electrifying performances over three days by those very same musicians and others.
The show began with the funky and ebullient Kristin Fung, who opened her set with “Massive Stride”. Quite simply, it was a perfect choice to kick off the last night of the Jade Music Fest. Fung’s bouncy composition tells the story of a girl who doesn’t give up on her dream of performing on Broadway even though this seems out of reach because of her Asian heritage. Her performance and her beaming smile spread joy throughout the venue.
Fung followed that up with more inspirational numbers, including “You for You”. It celebrates people simply for who they are rather than for their accomplishments. It was so utterly liberating hearing her repeating the final lyrics, “Give me your everyday ordinary story / You’re already extraordinary”, with such gleeful exuberance.
As she delivered these lines to audience members, Ginger Pimental dished up astonishing bass lines to complement Suin Park’s flashy keyboard work and Trent Otter’s drumming.
In a nod to her Chinese heritage, Fung also performed “Full Moon, Blooming Flowers” in Mandarin. She once saw Shanghai-based jazz singer Coco Zhao peform it at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival several years ago. Then Fung closed with the jazzy and rhythmic “Why Don’t You Dance”. The smile didn’t leave her face as the floor filled with those who responded to her call “to let your body do the talking”.
Lowhi lights a fire
The next high-energy performer, Los Angeles-based Lowhi, demonstrated how he’s pioneering a new and authentic form of music. He achieves this by integrating his U.S. and Chinese identities through original songs.
Lowhi is truly bicultural: born in the San Francisco Bay Area, his family moved to Beijing when he was six years old. In China, he attended an American school while speaking Mandarin with his family at home. Then he returned to the U.S. at the age of 18 and now writes music with English and Mandarin lyrics.
Lowhi comes with matinée-idol looks, enhancing his on-stage appeal as he delivered his hypnotically original lo-fi and R&B-influenced songs of love and regret. He introduced one of them, “Amnesia”, by declaring that “the axe forgets, the tree remembers.” His next number, “Cry”, was written to support young men who show their emotions.
In his songs, Lowhi moves effortlessly between both languages, creating a mood that can’t be easily pigeonholed as Chinese or American. It’s a new genre—North American Asian music. That made him such a welcome presence at the Jade Music Fest, which celebrates Chinese-language music in Canada and abroad.
Not only did Lowhi switch languages in another original song, “Airport”, but he also reflected a gamut of emotions. The song is fraught with drama about driving an ex-girlfriend to the airport so that she can catch a flight out of the country. There’s love, there’s anger, and there’s sorrow, all underscored by electronic beats. It was a tune that many could relate to.
He closed his set with the melodic “Trust”. That left the emcee, Jenny Peng, declaring that she is now a Lowhi fangirl.
Kapa Arkieh’s beats generate excitement
I didn’t know how the Jade Music Fest organizers could maintain momentum after such impressive acts. But they certainly accomplished this with the next performer, Kapa Arkieh, a breathtakingly original and charismatic rapper.
Arkieh is Amis, which is the largest Indigenous tribe in Taiwan. He’s appeared on the hit Chinese TV show The Rap of China, and served as a judge for its preliminary competitions in Vancouver.
In addition, Arkieh is an actor who grew up in Vancouver. At the Jade Music Fest, he performed the original tracks “Soda”, “I Am Amis”, “This A Gang”, and “we’re all unfamiliar with this ish”.
By bringing together heavy beats of his ancestors with the sounds of DJ Ozah and guitarist Dennis Law, Arkieh made an immediate connection with the audience. Imagine that—Indigenous music from Asia igniting a bonfire of enthusiasm among many B.C.-born Asian Canadians in downtown Vancouver!
He was cheered on by many other Jade Music Fest musicians, who joined the throng at the front of the room dancing to Arkieh’s beats.
“You want to get rowdy one more time?” Arkieh asked.
Clearly, they did as he once again brought down the house. By now, the audience knew they were experiencing a magical evening.
The next artist out of the gates, Aiko Tomi, continued ratcheting the excitement with a fun-loving yet deeply emotional set. Why so emotional? It’s because Tomi offers such uplifting messages of self-reclamation to young and older Asian Canadian women.
She does this through her lyrics, which were born from growing up female and Asian in a deeply patriarchal and Eurocentric culture. Her important and incisive verses come packaged in punk-infused and often amusing indie rock songs, which she delivers with untamed energy.
Aiko Tomi rocks the Annex
Tomi came on-stage at the Annex looking like a rock star in a long silver jacket and black hat. But what emerged next, her song “Shut It Out”, was all about getting away from the pain of fame. It was oh so clever.
One of Tomi’s great talents is in how she sets up her songs. This is often an under-appreciated art form and is usually refined with experience and growing confidence as an artist.
Prior to “Monolids”, for example, Tomi shared—in a casual and lighthearted way—what it was like being picked on for not having folds in her eyelids. This came not only from the white kids but also, sometimes, from fellow Asian Canadians, even though this trait is shared by about a billion people in the world. Then she belted out her imaginative and zany tune, which declares how proud she is of her monolids.
Then Tomi followed up with the electro-pop rocker “Dragon Fire”, charging around the stage as she sang about a last night in Hong Kong, where happiness felt like yellow gold bars. The Hong Kongers in the audience ate it up when she said how much she enjoys repeating “Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong”.
A polished artist, Tomi then delivered the ballad-like “Better Version”. While it sounds like a love song, it’s actually a brilliant take on how serial monogamists keep attracting the same “type” of partner, albeit better versions over time. She likened it to upgrading one’s iPhone every couple of years, which generated plenty of laughs.
Meanwhile, Tomi’s sumptuous “Umami”, created in collaboration of DJ Korea Town Acid, unabashedly celebrated Asian culture, including bubble tea. This popular drink was invented in Taiwan, where Tomi was born.
Self-acceptance and cultural reclamation
As her set carried on, I wondered if Tomi would perform “Handful”, which is her courageous anthem for women born with small breasts. She saved it for her final number, once again offering a warm-hearted introduction that served as encouragement for others in the room. By the end, a large crowd was up on their feet, rejoicing in the song’s lyrics, which find strength in true self-acceptance.
One of the most affecting aspects of the concert was the solidarity shown by Jade Music Fest musicians toward one another. Over three days, they had gotten to know one another, so by the final night, they were ready to celebrate each other’s success in forging new musical pathways.
Another back story to the evening was the unspoken recognition that Cantonese is at the heart of Hong Kong culture. And many Hong Kongers, including those with deep roots in Canada, feel that their entire way of life, as well as their language, are under siege as a result of China’s national security law and the pressure to embrace Mandarin-language education in school.
With his proud Cantonese raps, handwash provided a welcome antidote by reclaiming his language. This also factored into the crowd’s high spirits.
All things considered, the concert was a memorable moment in Vancouver’s musical history—and a testament to the value of the Jade Music Fest to the country.