Rainbow Chan's Perfect Pop Speaks Beyond the Australian Experience

We're premiering the Hong Kong-born, Sydney-based artist's beautiful new single. She spoke to us about heritage, romance and new beginnings.

by Emma Do; photos by Jonno Revanche
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Jul 4 2018, 3:25am

There is no definitive version of Rainbow Chan. The Sydney-based singer and producer creates music across multiple identities and streams as a way of keeping sane. Rainbow Chan, her main project, finds her singing heartache-ridden pop songs set over glitchy samples. But there’s also her experimental, techno-adjacent music she makes as Chunyin; her newest project DIN, a club-ready collaboration with Moon Holiday, aka Alex Ward; and Rainbow Chan the visual artist, whose art and installation work plays with ideas of authenticity and knock-offs. She’s less concerned with one coherent identity than she is communicating her art across multiple levels.

When I call her, though, it's to talk about the latest Rainbow Chan single “Promises”, a sugary ode to new feelings and new places. “Promises” is part of a forthcoming album, still in the works, written off the back of Rainbow’s travels across Hong Kong, Taiwan and China last year. Amid her constant processing of culture and family history, Rainbow notes that this feels like the first time she’s writing from a hopeful and celebratory space, rather than the personal heartbreak and sadness we heard in her 2016 album Spacings.

Today, we're premiering "Promises", a taste of Rainbow Chan's upcoming record. We spoke to Rainbow about bursting her own exotic expectations of travel and writing songs that push a female agenda. Listen to "Promises", and check out a photoshoot by Sydney-based photographer Jonno Revanche, below.

Noisey: “Promises” speaks of brief romances and unmet expectations. What mindset were you in when you were writing this song?
Rainbow Chan: In the last year or so I took a step back from trying to push myself too much [with making] pop music and figuring out my place in the music industry. It was getting exhausting. I’d been doing a lot of visual art and teaching (I’m a music teacher at Sydney Uni) and those different avenues led me to go overseas to do some workshops and tour.

I was in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China and it just got me thinking about the allure of a new city and how that can open your mind up to the possibility of new beginnings. But it's also a projection of your own frustrations, a yearning to belong to someone, to a city. The song is about the promise of a new city, the promise of escaping, the promise of an emoji someone sends you and you're like ‘oh my god, they like me’. But really we're all a little bit lost.

You were born in Hong Kong and spent your early years there. Was it easy to go back?
I really only spent the first six years of my life in Hong Kong. It's always been this bubble I go back to briefly to see family, so for me, it's this nostalgic time capsule. I didn’t really get to experience Hong Kong as a young person or adult. But this trip felt like the first time I had an opportunity to perform and bring my art and conversations into a creative realm there. It was like this homecoming, being able to connect with people on my own and not just through family.

At the end of it, I also realised the illusion of magic in a new place. As soon as you settle in, you realise the world is still moving in the same direction. Everyone’s wearing the same brands, listening to the same music. My internalisation of a magical, nostalgic place [was] just an act of construction.

I suddenly felt like I didn't have to choose anymore, between deciding whether I am from Australia or Hong Kong. I have the privilege and access to be flexible across these different spaces and geographies. It made me more interested in making music that speaks to that.

You recently began learning and documenting the traditional folk songs of your mum’s native Weitou language (an indigenous language of Hong Kong). Can you tell me about this process and how it filters into your wider body of work?
It started at the end of last year when I was working towards my first solo exhibition at Firstdraft in Woolloomooloo, which was a collaboration with my mum. Growing up, we never spoke Weitou. My dad’s not from the Weitou tradition, but I always heard my mum speaking it to her sisters. She was teaching me songs, telling me her life story and it just opened up this entire pool of knowledge I had no idea about. A lot of the project was connected to her language––words that couldn’t be translated directly into Cantonese or English.

I was thinking about how different dialects across the world are going to be lost and [how I can] hopefully be a part of a trend among young people who see the ramifications of globalisation and want to protect individual cultures and identities before it’s too late. I see this as a long form project across many disciplines for me, because I think it needs to be sustained, not just me putting it in a pop song and never talking about it again.

What do these meditations on loss and culture look like so far for your upcoming record?
I’ve been playing with Weitou folk songs because a lot of the content is quite feminist. Only men were taught to read and write, so women in the village passed down their knowledge through storytelling and songs. A lot of the songs I’ve been making implicitly push this agenda of the female voice, experience and struggles.

I have a few songs that are re-imaginings of Weitou folk songs but with a modern dance beat behind it. I’m trying to delicately find a balance and not make it a tokenistic gesture. At the same time I want to create something on my own terms, from what I understand to be the culture, but almost fragment it to the point where people wouldn’t even know it. I don’t want to give too much away as it’s still forming but I’ll more explicitly play with ideas of tradition, technology and traversing different landscapes on the record.

For some of the songs, I’m trying to write in Cantonese and Mandarin. It made me more interested in trying to incorporate fluid identity signifiers that are true to me, and true to a lot of people’s experiences. Australia is so monolingual but it’s such a norm for the rest of the world to be bi-lingual and tri-lingual––to consume other cultures in a very normal, everyday way. I want to make this upcoming album a landscape that speaks to a world that’s outside of an Australian body.

You’ve put out a consistent stream of music in the past few years. When do you feel most creative?
The easiest one is heartbreak because you have so much pain that you don't know how to deal and the only way I feel that I can process it is to mourn, grieve and expel this all-consuming energy and anxiety into something beautiful and relatable to other people. That’s quite healing.

But recently I haven't been sad or experienced heartbreak. I went through a really big break-up and focused on self-care and building a really strong network of women and like people around me that believe in my work and me as a person. I feel like this album is the first time I've really written a lot of positive music where I'm celebrating things. I’m just really savouring this nice moment in my life where I feel really grateful for things and I’m writing songs on this feeling.

I feel very hopeful in the sense that I'm seeing more and more visibility of different voices out there. I feel like this album will contribute to a wider conversation about whose voices should we be hearing more of.

Being one of the few visible Asian women in Australian music, how do you feel about others seeing you as a representative?
I used to really struggle with that. It all started with bedroom music, DIY demos and all of a sudden people were reading larger themes into my work. In my early 20s, I didn't have enough life experience to deal with what that means, but as I get older and since I became a music teacher it makes me realise pop music doesn’t have to be this self-indulgent thing. I didn’t know any Chinese singers, performers or actors when I was growing up, so for someone to see themselves in me is really flattering. To be able to add my stories to the world is a real privilege and honour and makes me want to keep doing this, to open the door for other people to keep doing it.

Emma Do is a writer from Melbourne. Follow her on Twitter.

Jonno Revanche is a Sydney-based photographer and writer. Follow them on Instagram.