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16 Aug 2021

It's Just Geography, It Doesn't Mean Anything: Eastern Margins in Conversation

by brian.hioe | ES RADIO, Interview, Feature


Photo Credit: Jex Wang

Electric Soul writer Brian Hioe talks to Eastern Margins co-founder David Zhou this week to get to know the collective. Read on to learn more!


Brian Hioe:  Could you first tell us a bit about how Eastern Margins started?


David Zhou:  We formed Eastern Margins in 2018, between myself and my co-founder Anthony Ko. The founding of it was really organic. We basically wanted to put something on around the time of Lunar New Year in that year. There were pretty much no parties that we felt authentically spoke to our roots. 


Anthony is from Hong Kong and I’m from Nanjing originally. All of the parties and shows in London at that time around Lunar New Year were either very glitzy mainstream EDM affairs or were slightly Orientalist in their approach. So we just wanted to put on a little party for friends and family, so that we could escape from going to KTV--like we do every year for Lunar New Year. 


We just invited some friends and family down to a basement. I think the first line-up we had was Yeule, Organ Tapes, 2Shin and Eri Yeti from Yeti Out. Friends and family. It was very organic. Honestly, it was amazing. The reception to it was so good and there was a sense of collectivism that night, that people felt like they really wanted this thing to happen. 

I remember someone who is still involved with Eastern Margins and helped us during the beginning of it, they came down from outside of London. They took a 90-minute train specifically to go to this dive basement. 


That was the genesis of it. It was born from the desire for representation, something that we felt like authentically spoke to our respective cultural background and our own musical tastes and background in the more experimental club scene. The reaction and the energy we felt in that room pushed us on to see what we could do with it. 


One party led to the next and now we’ve done over 40 shows. It’s evolved into a record label. It’s evolved into various sorts of artist services. Now it’s just a little community hub, that may be the best way to put it. 


Photo Credit: Humothy


BH:  That’s very cool. So you were trying to fill in a need and just trying to take it from there. The experience of starting Eastern Margins--how has it grown in ways you didn’t expect in the beginning? 


DZ:  A big one has been migrating online. Originally, we started with physical events. My background is as a promoter and as a DJ. So my background is pretty rooted in physical spaces and performances.


But partly because of COVID-19 and partly because of a desire to connect internationally with the east and southeast Asian creative communities, we have started migrating more things into purely digital contexts in the last year or two. It’s been very interesting, because in some ways that online migration and COVID has brought us closer to communities and like-minded artists. 

Even if it’s not physical, we’ve been able to form bonds and work and collaborate with people of East and Southeast Asian backgrounds on a much deeper level. The barriers of geography have effectively been eliminated. 


BH:  That’s definitely been a very interesting effect of COVID, as I feel like there are all these diaspora communities all around. It must be an interesting experience to be in contact with them online. What have challenges been? Have there been issues with resources or anything like that? I feel like that’s an issue. 


DZ:  Yeah, definitely. We’ve had a lot to learn and we’ve grown a lot in our perspective. I think one of the main challenges is that, ultimately, Eastern Margins--all the members are primarily based in Europe, across Berlin and London mainly. We have to be quite aware of our perspective as outsiders to the scenes that we’re working with in East and Southeast Asia. In some ways, we’re the portal or entry point into that world for a lot of people and audience members in Europe and in North America. 


One of the challenges for us, then, is how do we recognize our own status as outsiders--and tell those stories in an authentic and honest way? The way we’ve tried to do that--and I have to confess, we’re still working that out, it’s a learning process--is by always trying to allow artists and creators from that region to tell their story in the most undiluted way. To allow them to create whatever they want and for us to contextualize it and to provide background on it. To make everything make sense. 


To take an example of that, something I’m very proud of that we have coming up is this compilation that is our interpretation of these regional, slightly EDM-ey club genres from Southeast Asia, such as Vinahouse, Thaimix, Manyao, Funkot and Budots. As part of the artwork for that, we’re working with an Indonesian artist called Loreng. The concept of their artwork is a mix between really gaudy tourist-trap tuk tuks that you see in Indonesia and Indonesian mythology.


A post shared by Loreng (@lorengprojekt)

All of these things are thriving in their respective contexts; these music scenes and all of this rich conceptual background that underpins Loreng’s work, these things stand on their own. They don’t need us as outsiders to come put them on a pedestal. Still, we would like to bring that and contextualize that to a different audience. But how do you contextualize culture without either exoticizing it or putting it on a pedestal?



BH:  Absolutely. As diaspora, it’s important not to self-orientalize, for example. Framing from others can be very Orientalist and it’s hard to push back.


DZ:  Exactly. I always remember this quote from Tzusing in this RA interview. He’s talking about Mongolian throat singing or something like that. I remember him saying--maybe I’m paraphrasing--“Look, I’m coming to this music on YouTube as well. It’s not like I have a deep understanding of Mongolian throat singing before I do my background research.” So what gives me the cultural credentials to sample this? Arguably, nothing apart from my own education, my own understanding of it.

I think we’re very inspired by that kind of mentality. Which is basically that we don’t get a free pass to put on this culture, just because we’re Asian. We also have to do the hard work to understand it, to contextualize it, to educate ourselves. Hopefully through our projects and the work that we do, we’re able to convey some of that and we’re able to get it across. But shit’s challenging. [Laughs]


BH:  Yeah, when you’re caught in between, it’s a liminal space. Between there and here. That can be difficult to navigate as well. In navigating that fraught space, what are the things that you think that you’ve been able to nudge or push somewhat? 


DZ:  One of the things we’re keen to do is to foster greater creative dialogue between diaspora and East and Southeast Asian artists, that is, people actually based locally in East and Southeast Asia. It’s maybe a slight reaction to that narrative of East meets West, in which everything has to be made for the western gaze. We really stress how we, as diaspora, can learn more from artists in East and Southeast Asia. 

Photo Credit: Carol Tam

Photo Credit: Anthony Ko

Photo Credit: Adam Bidar

Photo Credit: Jex Wang

The projects we put on, we often try and lay it together. We might have a diaspora artist on the visual side and an artist based locally in East and Southeast Asia on the audio side--or vice-versa. It’s often a kind of multimedia collaboration. 


That dialogue can be enriching in terms of learning from each other and allowing us to build our own infrastructure, instead of relying on the existing powers that be to give us space or give us the recognition. We want to take a more DIY mentality and build it ourselves. If we build our own infrastructure, we won’t need to rely on outside approval. 


BH:  It’s quite interesting too, because there’s this interest from younger Asian artists in drawing on traditional culture as well. 


DZ:  Definitely. I think one of the things we’re always conscious of with Eastern Margins is that, again, from our perspective as outsiders, we don’t want to push too hard a narrative onto scenes and creativity in East and Southeast Asia. Our perspective is, because we have a less sophisticated understanding of the cultural underpinnings, such as the traditional background, we always have to have discussions around that. 


We want to explore that side of it. Yet maybe for a lot of artists in the region, maybe that’s not a large part of their own influences. That’s something we learned from the beginning. Some artists might be based in East or Southeast Asia, but their cultural or geographical background might not be an important part of their work. 


I think where we’re at with that now is that we’re steadily trying to move away from the idea of East and Southeast Asian creativity as a tag or category by itself. Because it’s just geography. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. 


We want to create a community with shared principles and aesthetics beyond the shallow imprint of geography and ethnicity. When you think of Eastern Margins, it’s not just music from East and Southeast Asian diaspora. It’s music from Eastern Margins. Or creative works from Eastern Margins. That’s where we’re trying to get to.


Because of where we started, our origins will always be partly indebted to identity politics and the idea of identity and heritage, but we see that as the jump-off point, as a platform. We want to use that as a jumping off point to connect with people that we share something deeper in terms of aesthetics, in terms of beliefs. That’s what we’re building towards, hopefully. 

BH:  That brings me to the question of music and art. How do you hope to synthesize that? You talked a bit about having dialogues between diaspora and artists in East and Southeast Asia. From a lot of what I’ve seen, there’s a strong visual element. 


DZ:  On this question, I have to shout out my co-founder Anthony. He’s the art and creative director. He kills it on all things visually. Regarding that intersection between music and visuals--the simple answer is that the reality is, everything audio has to be accompanied by a visual element. That’s just the way that people engage with music and creativity today. But I think on a level more specific to us as Eastern Margins, we feel that visuals are a way to contextualize and to explain culture that is a lot more intuitive. 


It’s kind of like if you hear a piece of music and you hear a sample from a particular instrument, without reading the words that come with it, without reading up on the scene, it’s really difficult to understand what that instrument is, or what the significance of that sample is. When you combine that with the visual side of things, you can contextualize much quicker and much clearer what the background of it is like.


Let’s take one of the projects we’ve done. One thing that has a very strong visual element for me is one of the EPs we released, QQBBG’s “Magic Legacy.” When you hear it, there’s all of these extreme and abrasive textures, a lot of gabber and hardcore influences. When the whole visuals behind that particular EP, a lot of that was supplied by QQBabygirl and her collaborators, that contextualizes it in a weird, dark kawaii world that she makes. 


What’s so great about that EP is that in the music itself, you can see hints of the subversion of a lot of common tropes. But when you see it in the visuals, it’s really brought to life. All of these bunny ears, these diamonds. When you see it represented visually, you can feel the dark undercurrents that underpin the music. 


So I think for us, the visual side of it is a super useful tool to help us contextualize and provide background. 


BH:  What about events versus things that are released online? Do you think that they tie together in some way? 


DZ:  It’s been so long since we could do a physical event. [Laughs] With physical events, as much as online stuff is interesting and cool, there is no substitute for the intimacy of just chatting and meeting people physically, and having that sense of a community. There’s something ritualistic about it.


With the physical events, it’s strange because even when we did do physical events, we always tried to push things into a more digital or URL kind of aesthetic and vibe. I keep coming back to this idea of physical events and this idea of a ritual. There’s something very conducive to fostering community in the ritual of going out to a show or to a club night. And our physical events are definitely inspired a lot by the rich heritage that the UK has of club culture and club shows. 


Photo Credit: Jex Wang
That’s one aspect of Eastern Margins that’s rooted not in East and Southeast Asian culture, but our background as growing up in the UK. That whole ceremony of preparing to go out, gathering people for dinner before a show, and playing that show together with people is super important for building connections that are more tangential. You connect on things that aren’t just explicitly about the music that you’re making, you connect on things that are a little more ancillary and are peripheral. 


Again, that’s really conducive to building ties on a personal level. The ritualistic side of it is really important to us to build intimate personal connections. 


BH:  Can you talk a bit about your collaboration with the Boiler Room? Because that platforms your work on a very large stage. Have there been reactions to that? How was the experience?


DZ:  That project was super interesting. Boiler Room has its own reputation, which we won’t get into, but from our perspective they effectively gave us complete creative autonomy and supported us to make it happen. For that, I’ll definitely be grateful. 


I’ll say a bit more about the concept of it. The whole concept was called Respect Our Elders. It was a series of intergenerational collaborations between artists of different generations from East and Southeast Asia, regionally and from the diaspora. As a show of solidarity and a response to a lot of the anti-Asian racism that’s rife in Europe, North America, and other places in the world. 

We wanted to bring together artists of different generations to bridge and collaborate in this vertical way that you don’t see too much, but which is something that is latent in a lot of East and Southeast Asian cultures: The idea of working with or paying deference to an older generation. Two aspects that I’m proud of are collaborations between two Indonesian artists, Kareem Soenharjo and Eka Annash. I feel like Indonesia is such a rich and diverse creative scene that I’m only scratching the surface of. 


One of the crew from Eastern Margins, Arya Rinaldo, he’s from Jakarta originally and he obviously understands that scene way better. But being able to put that particular scene onto a more global stage and seeing the reactions in the chatroom and on socials to that was super fucking cool. Some Indonesian scenes and creators have seen a lot of international recognition like Senyawa or other OGs from that region. Also more recently, Gabber Modus Operandi, has been getting recognition. 


But that collaboration was about two noisy punk artists. It was super cool to showcase that side of that Jakarta scene that isn’t just so strictly about traditional Indonesian culture, whatever that may be. It’s just about a bunch of noisy punks making cool shit. 


I feel like that was a cool message to send. To show that art from a region doesn’t have to be tied explicitly to its traditional culture or whatever, to get a foothold in an international audience. That sometimes raw, noisy shit that bangs gets recognition no matter what. That was something that I’m super proud of. 


The other aspect of it is collaborations across geographies. Going back to this point earlier about conversations between the diaspora and the local, it was really cool to do the collaboration between Jaeho Hwang and Liao Zi Lan. 


Zi Lan is an amazing virtuoso guzheng player, she’s been playing for twenty years. Played with orchestras both in China and outside of China. Jaeho is an experimental club musician currently based in Seoul, but also with roots in London. That whole concept was cooked up on this idea that they both work with similar textures. The guzheng is a very similar instrument to a Korean instrument called a gayageum. They’re sort of like closely related siblings musically. 


Having those two who had never worked with each other before, working across East Asian cultures and across very similar but shared instruments, was something I was very proud of. That was a moment of us doing what we had set out to do, which was deepening dialogue between diaspora artists and artists in East and Southeast Asia. And there was also the element of it being cross-cultural, not just within a Chinese or Korean context but across it. 


BH:  What other projects are coming in the future? Anything you’d like to talk about?


DZ:  We’ve got more shit coming up. Don’t sleep, don’t rest! [Laughs]


BH:  That’s good!


DZ:  First thing is, we have this compilation coming out in mid-to-late August, it’s called Redline Legends. It’s a compilation from our community members and their interpretation of this really raw, lo-fi and incredibly physical club sound that you find mutations of in East and Southeast Asia. These sounds are Funkot from Indonesia and mainly Jakarta, Budots from the Philippines, Manyao from Malaysia, Vinahouse from Vietnam, Thaimix from Thailand. 

All of these sounds share this kind of EDM-ey, DIY underpinning. This is our interpretation of that. That’s the project I mentioned earlier that has artwork from Tabitha Swanson, who’s this amazing diaspora based in Berlin, and Loran, Loran Project based in Jakarta. 


The dialogue around club music in our community is that it really doesn’t give enough credibility or credence to these very local sounds, which don’t try to play to this experimental club scene that we are participating in. But actually, in their own way, they are extremely punk and experimental. 


The texture of these sounds is very unlike other textures that you hear in other club music. It’s super cool to hear this sort of reverse appropriation. For example, on Douyin, on Chinese TikTok recently, there was this very EDM-ey song, very much China’s version of this sound. And it had a random sample from Lethal Bizzle’s Pow!, the seminal grime tune. Obviously really historic. 


From my perspective, that’s a very UK underground thing, but to see it in China completely decontextualized from that background and put into this mad EDM beat was a super interesting perspective for me to see. It’s almost like artists and producers from these scenes taking artifacts from western scenes, removing them from their contexts and placing them into another context. 


There’s a lot of questions like how did they find that and should they be giving it more credibility and attribution. But at the rawest level, it’s cool to see this scene and this sound organically building away without any push from a western perspective. This is our tribute to that--the compilation is our way of showcasing that sound more broadly. 


So yeah, super excited for that to drop. That’s going to come out in August. All the songs are hopefully going to be big summer session songs. [Laughs]


BH:  Last question, I’m curious about what reactions from Asia there have been to Eastern Margins?


DZ:  Everyone that we’ve worked with and tried to collaborate with, the response has often been very supportive and collaborative. We’ve done a lot of collaborations with communities and projects in East and Southeast Asia, such as with Shanghai Community Radio, we do quite a lot of things with Shenzhen’s OIL, working with the Indonesian local scene quite a lot. 


There’s the sense that we’re working toward a common goal. That we’re actually working toward building something that isn’t bound necessarily by where we are geographically and isn’t bound by our ethnicity, but we’re all working toward building something that is an amalgamation of all of our influences into a scene that has its own principles, it’s own beliefs, and it’s own aesthetics and sensibilities. The sense of commonality and building something together, that sense of community, is very important for our next stage of evolution. 

Photo Credit: Humothy

Photo Credit: Jex Wang

Photo Credit: Jex Wang

Photo Credit: Jex Wang

Returning to an earlier point, although Eastern Margins is rooted in identity politics, because we can’t get away from that original thinking about representation. But I think in order to make it a more sustainable community and a community with more meaning, we have to build something on top of those foundations. That goes to the sense of building together toward something that I get from working with collaborators in East and Southeast Asia.


BH:  Thank you. 

Keep up with Eastern Margins on Electric Soul, Bandcamp, Instagram, and Facebook