Last month, I reviewed two memorable Jade Music Fest evening concerts at the Annex and Hollywood Theatre. They each demonstrated the breathtaking range of songwriting talent within communities of Chinese and Taiwanese ancestry in North America.
These showcases featured hip-hop (handwash, a.k.a. Hon Lam Chan), trap (Scope), Indigenous-infused rap (Kapa Arkieh), feminist indie punk (Aiko Tomi), low-fi (Lowhi) original vocal jazz improv (Jacqueline Teh), funky rhythm and blues (Kristin Fung), and Dylan-esque protest folk (Daniel Lew).
During the Jade Music Fest, I was also lucky to see two Vancouver musicians, singer-songwriter Van Lefan and pianist Jason Qiu, perform Chinese-language songs at a daytime event. Lefan and Qiu sang effortlessly in Mandarin and Cantonese, respectively, even though both grew up in Metro Vancouver attending English-language schools.
It was wonderful hearing them explain each of these compositions in English before they began performing in a Chinese language.
Recently, the Jade Music Fest showed me video of the one evening concert that I had missed. Entitled Rise Up, it featured five acts at the Gateway Theatre in Richmond on October 19.
I’ve privately wondered if there’s a huge market available in North American and Asia for a Lillith Fair–style tour of fluently bilingual English- and Chinese-speaking women of Asian ancestry.
With that in mind, I’ll start with the three brilliant female songwriters who performed at the Gateway Theatre: Taiwanese Australian Kim Yang and Taiwanese Canadians Mirabelle Jien and Darling Sparrows.
Kim Yang’s songwriting impresses
Yang was born in Taipei and moved to Canberra in her 20s. She opened her set with an original song “Fantasy”, which is a heartfelt appeal for validation from her parents. Ethereal and deeply emotional, Yang’s voice cascaded through the theatre with its vulnerability over her simple yet powerful guitar chords.
It was like listening to Sarah McLachlan at her very best, which helps explain why Yang is such a popular performer on the Australian festival circuit.
“Fantasy” should really be an international hit, as should Yang’s closing number, “Brave”. With its catchy hook and her soaring vocals, this celebration of mental health is, quite simply, an outstanding composition. Eat your heart out, Joni Mitchell!
Yang also sang like an angel on another original, “Dominoes”, which is about staying true to oneself.
Because the Jade Music Fest celebrates Chinese-language music, Yang included a medley of two Mandarin-language songs written during Japan’s colonization of Taiwan. Teng Yu-hsien’s “Desire to the Spring Breeze” and “Rainy Night Flower” are both about young women falling in love.
You didn’t need to speak Mandarin to feel the emotion, particularly on the second song, which is about a divorced woman who had to leave her hometown where her husband still lives.
Mirabelle Jien wows crowd with “floops”
The second female songwriter at the Gateway Theatre, Jien, lives in Calgary. She opened with her original song, “Imaginary People”, which turned into a 10-minute improvisational extravaganza that showed off her skill as a guitarist and flautist. It’s a gorgeous piece that reaches right for the heart.
Jien’s looping pedal, along with her powerfully ascending vocals, also created a hypnotic effect. And this otherworldly mood was reinforced by lyrics, such as “Lights out, no sound, silence is so loud / No soul in sight, I’m the only one tonight / The whole world is asleep / And I’m talking to imaginary people / They’re the ones who keep me up / The ones who make me feel like I can be enough.”
After that stunner, I wondered what Jien might do next. Well, she flipped straight into Mandarin with songs to honour a deceased musician whom she admires. Then it was back into English for “Wildfire”, which included another captivating flute solo. Jien wrote this song after seeing a friend’s heath decline rapidly due to cancer. She conceived of the wildfire metaphor to describe this heartbreaking situation.
After performing “Wildfire”, Jien mentioned a new word, floop. This is how her friends and fans describe her dazzling flute solos that turn up in the middle of her deeply emotional, guitar-driven original songs performed with a looping pedal.
“They’re not always sad,” Jien assured the crowd. “But that one was pretty sad.”
Darling Sparrows digs deep
The final songwriting woman on the bill, Darling Sparrows, demonstrated her maturity as a composer and performer. Ably accompanied by Vancouver guitarist Mario Varia, she opened with the country-ish “Asking the Questions”.
With her melodic and warm vocals and well-crafted lyrics, this personal song offers a bit of a roadmap for people enveloped in sadness.
For me, however, the highlight of her set was “Be Happy”, which Darling Sparrows wrote about her late brother, David. Earlier that day, she told a Jade Music Fest audience that he was a great guy and just so funny.
“He was also somebody who taught me to always challenge the world, to be grateful, but not accept everything you see at face value,” she said. “He could make everyone laugh.”
The song encapsulated all of that and so much more. Watch for it when Darling Sparrows drops her album.
Tennyson King: songwriting for the road
Of course, the Jade Music Fest concert at the Gateway Theatre wasn’t only about female singer-songwriters. A very talented male singer-songwriter, the magnetic Tennyson King, delivered a memorable set with Chris Noble on keyboards. For part of the show, Michelle Kwan performed masterfully on the guzheng.
King opened with a gentle instrumental piece on banjo, with Noble on keyboards. Here’s another thing about King—in addition to his skill on the banjo and guitar, he can sing in Cantonese and Mandarin, as well as English. And it was quite something to hear him belting out a rockin’ and rhythmic song in Chinese to the sounds of Kwan’s guzheng and Noble’s flashy keyboard work.
During his set, King also invited Kim Yang on-stage to sing a song in English and Mandarin, “All of You”, which they had co-written.
King, who’s truly a nomadic indie-folk musician, also played one of his greatest songs, “Rubber Tramp”, which he released earlier this year. He followed that up with another of his terrific road songs, “Don’t Know Where I’m Going”, which was full of heart and audience interaction.
Dawn of Freedom inspires
The other act that night, Dawn of Freedom, was unlike any other band I’ve seen in Canada.
“We’re from Hong Kong,” the masked guitarist said. “A lot of us came over a year or two because of the worsening political situation in Hong Kong. So, we’re really, really grateful to be here in Canada freely expressing ourselves.”
They sang entirely in Cantonese, with images of Hong Kong protests looming large on a giant screen behind them. It was moving and, at times, infuriating, to see the masses of Hong Kongers being harassed by police for demanding freedom of expression and the right to peacefully pursue their political goals.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of their set came when they sang Charmaine Fong’s tearjerker, “It’s Not Your Fault”. It brought on sustained applause from the audience.
“We are the only performing unit that are wearing masks because we performed in most of the protests that support Hong Kong,” the guitarist disclosed. “So, we would like to protect our identity. I hope everyone understands why we do this.”
They closed with what’s essentially a love letter to a bygone Hong Kong, Beyond’s “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies”. It was accompanied by many pictures of protests, including some of Umbrella Movement members courageously standing their ground against the Hong Kong police.
All in all, Dawn of Freedom offered a testament to humanity’s enduring quest for freedom in the face of tyranny. It was the perfect touchstone for the Jade Music Fest, which celebrates Chinese-language music in Vancouver and beyond.