In some ways, social distancing has normalised the diasporic condition. We’ve all found different ways to keep our people close while staying apart, and while stuck in my flat, Sydney feels just as far as Shanghai. Hell, even the next suburb feels unreachable. But music makes everything feel immediate.
Before this year, the only thing I really knew about Wuhan was that it had a great live music scene. I’ve never been there, but when I used to work at a media outlet in Shanghai, it seemed like we were constantly publishing features about Wuhan punk and metal.
In January, as Wuhan hit the headlines for one story and one story only, I decided to revisit all those bands. I wanted to remember Wuhan for its arts and culture, plus music made me feel closer to what was happening there while I anxiously scrolled the news from Melbourne.
I started listening to Radii China’s Wuhan playlist and following Wuhan labels on Bandcamp. Soon, that extended to exploring other music from mainland China, especially as venues across the country shut and bands moved to livestreaming their gigs. When I went to club nights hosted by Shanghai Community Radio via their Bilibili livestream, the clanging, chewy beats made me feel like I had never left the city, even though I was an ocean away.
One song led to another, like trails of crumbs. Six months into this clickhole, I’ve now amassed a kind of Katamari ball of music from across the Sinosphere – tunes from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and beyond. Some of the songs are in Chinese languages and others are not. Some are by artists of Chinese descent and others are not. Unlike the pandemic, the playlist doesn’t have a case definition or an epicentre. It’s just an endless filament of sound, the connections between the tracks both tenuous and elemental. It’s as open-ended as Chineseness could be.
This playlist for Peril is a 10-track radio edit – you can also listen to the extended version here.
1. 午夜乒乓 – December
‘If only things were like they were, wouldn’t that be grand?’ This Taipei band – whose name translates to Midnight Ping Pong – makes me think of teenage yearning, white socks and indoor basketball courts.
2. Hard Queen – Holiday
Sadly it seems like this Shanghai group seem to have disbanded but this song is a total banger. It’s from their 2009 debut which you can download for free.
3. 韓森 – 我在上班的時候寫歌
This was my most played track when I was working killer hours in Shanghai – obviously the lyrics about daydreaming your way through a long workday spoke to me. From veteran Taiwanese rapper 韓森 aka Professor H, the languid flow, bouncy beat and island vibes were a nice contrast from the trap-dominated sounds of mainland hip-hop at the time. It’s refreshingly daggy. If you don’t understand the words, there’s a video clip that helps illustrate the storyline so you can confidently add it to your nine-to-five (or worse yet, 996) rotation.
4. Lonely Cookies – Love Treatment
What’s not to love about this earnest, jangly indie pop treatment? Wuhan’s Lonely Cookies brings it on every track on this album, which you can buy here.
5. Shanghai Qiutian – Can’t Park Your Bike at Shanghai Tushuguan
Bringing it back to my hometown is Shanghai Qiutian, a cross-cultural Shanghai-based operation who are Lonely Cookies’ labelmate on Wild Records. The beautiful liquid guitar riffs in this track definitely take me back to crunchy autumn afternoons, cruising down Huaihai Lu towards Shanghai Tushuguan (but I never needed to park my bike at the library anyway because it was a Mobike).
6. Zoogazer – 大大大大大象
Put your arms around someone and croon into their ear about elephants. Do it now. They’ll say you’re a dork but they’ll also pat you on your snuffly trunk. This song seems kind of silly at first but it’s actually very romantic.
7. Yezhi x Eileen Yo – 对于你来说
Just in case that elephant move worked, here’s a super sexy tune to take to bed. It’s got that bassy deep-water feeling and some hedonistic lyrics: ‘If you enjoy it, you don’t really need an excuse.’
8. YEHAIYAHAN – Under the Moonlight
I could rave about YEHAIYAHAN’s incredible talent until my throat catches fire but this song speaks for itself. Combining crashing waves, YEHAIYAHAN’s soulful vocals, and Yi folk choir, it’s grand and magical, a moment outside time. If you need more, Radii have a 42-track playlist spanning a decade of her career.
9. Hiperson – Strawberries
This Chengdu band were supposed to play at SXSW this year (they would have been the only Chinese band out of hundreds of showcase artists) but then coronavirus happened. This song pivots around a rhyme that is sort of dumb and genius at the same time – rhyming daomei (倒霉 ‘unlucky’) with caomei (草莓 ‘strawberry’) – and somehow, it’s oddly moving with minimalist instrumentation, multiple vocalists, and then all the blips and bleeps and zips and claps stacking into a playful, haphazard tower. The more I thought about it, the more I felt strawberries were especially unfortunate, so sweet, easily bruised and prone to rot.
‘Unlucky strawberry, who told you to be so beautiful?’
10. Yi-Lynn – Willing
We finish up here, where I am, on the land of Kulin nations. From Yi-Lynn’s perfectly titled 2019 debut LP, Spit Into Someone’s Mouth, this track seems to speak to this moment with its sensuality, devotion and surrender.
My other pandemic playlist is here: Teacup in a Storm. You can find the first 14 You Don’t Sound Asian playlists by Tanya Ali on Soundcloud and more recent ones on Spotify along with other handpicked selections from Peril people.