Review: Howie Lee’s Dystopia


Howie Lee (李化迪), the Beijing Cyberpunk audiovisual artist, lands in Howler Brunswick on a rainy Friday night with his album Homeless. Formidable beats and layered electro ambience reverberate as we are lead into the sinofuturism dystopia that is both bleak and dynamic.

Featuring tracks like ‘Four Seas’, ‘Muzatagata’ and ‘Homeless’, Lee has captivated the audience with his ease in channelling different musical genres and forms. From bass loops to trap samples marked by Chinese string instruments—the Rawap, Guzheng and Pipa—the sequences continually regenerate themselves with energy. 

A screen unveils a virtual reality projection: an imagined land of a colourful cable jungle reaching sky high, forming a matrix of grids. The audience registers the unique Chinese style, yet we are immersed in a sense of geographical borderlessness when moving or pausing with the rhythms, transfixed by the playful relationship between sound and moving images.

The visual component of the show speaks to the inter-connectedness of Australia and China. The text “inspire to migrate to Australia?” appears against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, then ocean-view real estate, and is followed by a panning shot of the Boxhill central—the reality we live in—and the virtual and real spaces are fused into one.

Heavy kick drum beats punctuate the soundscape, and our gaze lingers on the Chinese military exercises on-screen. Next, Chinese students and professionals talk about their dream destination, Australia, and photographs of politicians are intersected by nature landscapes. Countless RMB notes float through the hole of an ancient coin, perhaps from Ming dynasty.

This is a social commentary on China’s rising power, and how this is often dominated by a narrative of fear. We understand that the current relationship between the two countries is limited by a capital transaction, disguised by the promise of a postcard lifestyle. In this midst of digital worshipping of power, money and the reduction of individualism, is a navigation of history and the complexities of culture.

We are shown faceless robot figures balancing fruit on their heads, then bowing to an inflatable Buddha. We then see the same robots under a traditional Japanese castle orbiting an altar atop of which a plasma TV screen sits.

On the harmonica, Lee produces enduring melancholy tunes against the club sounds. An animated version of Lee, wearing a pizza ring around his neck, runs through a desolate land, dodging explosions.

Coined as his “Made in China aesthetic”, Lee’s style is undoubtingly in the vein of sinofuturism. He is not interested in submitting to the Western paradigm with a simple “cut and paste” spectacle-only approach. Instead, he embraces cultural clichés and reconfigures them.

By applying the tropes of mass production, China and technology, Lee is on an existential quest for what humanity means in the electric era. Homeless engages with cross-cultural issues in a new, deeper way, offering an insider’s perspective with the humour and ingenuity that we don’t see enough in Australia.

Listen to Howie Lee’s Soundcloud here.

Grace Feng Fang Juan

Author: Grace Feng Fang Juan

Grace is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in Melbourne, Australia. Actively engaged with the multilingual and trans-cultural space, she produces works in Chinese and in English languages, exploring the in-between-ness and fluid state created by the diverse diaspora experience through different mediums. She is also a practising interpreter and translator who writes for Australia Plus, ABC and holds a Master of Creative Media (TV and Film Production) at RMIT.

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