Asian Pop Weekly: In conversation with Jocelle Koh

 

Jocelle Koh is the founder of Asian Pop Weekly, a media platform showcasing Chinese music, aiming to make it more accessible to non-Chinese speakers and act as a bridge between eastern and western cultures.

We had a chance to hear from Jocelle about a range of topics related to her unique passion, how her upbringing and cultural heritage has influenced this, and her thoughts on the influence of Asian pop music around the world.

Hi there! I’m Jocelle, a media/music creative and the founder/head editor of media platform Asian Pop Weekly. Home is a confusing concept for me as it probably is for many members of the Asian diasporic community, but I’ve divided my time between living in Australia, Singapore and Taiwan over the last three or so years. Being proud and vocal about Asian culture has always been something instinctual for me since my family immigrated from Singapore to Australia when I was ten to twelve, and I’m proud to have the opportunity to pursue these passions on a daily basis. This feature is an essay; a story of sorts which shows how the mingling of my roots and environment have given rise to my unique passion for Mandarin music. I hope that through this narrative, you’ll find relatable points, interesting anecdotes, and hopefully inspiring ideas about the possibilities that exist in this challenging yet exciting era for all of us as members of the diaspora.

Growing Up a C-pop Fan

Settling in the most isolated city in the world (Perth, Australia) gave me a lot of time, space and reason to ponder and recognise the importance of my heritage and birthright; so much so that it has become an indispensable part of my identity. As a child, Eastern pop culture for me was a comfort blanket. It reminded me of values and sounds that were inherently comforting to me. Yet I found it intriguing how my vocal expression of love for this pop culture elicited a myriad of negative responses and misconceptions from outsiders. And so it just made sense to me that if no one around me was doing anything about fixing these misconceptions, it was my turn to step up.

It was only later in my journey that I realised striving for diverse and accurate representations has been a big part of what I’ve been trying to do all along. To me, representation isn’t just about who got cast in what movie or arguing over WM/AF (‘White male/Asian female’) relationships. It’s everything to do with how we present ourselves and what we identify as our culture (or cultural texts) to others who might not completely understand the nuances of that. And I’m fascinated about how this ties into how Mandarin and Asian diasporic music interacts with overseas listeners and what social change this can enact.

Asian Pop Weekly

My platform Asian Pop Weekly has been my guiding compass for my evolving views and philosophies on this issue ever since I established it in 2010. On a functional level, I established it because as a teen C-pop fangirl with poor working proficiency of Mandarin, I was frustrated with the lack of English-language information about this music I was so desperately trying to learn more about. And in a philosophical sense, although fifteen year-old me didn’t know it at the time; I guess I was trying to establish a space where I could meet and help other like-minded individuals to feel a sense of belonging that often eluded me in offline spaces. Today, I’m proud to have achieved these accomplishments in a comfortable capacity, and also to have established Asian Pop Weekly as a credible and relatively well-known source of information for Mandarin music and its interactions with Asian diaspora issues.

As I’ve transitioned from amateur to business professional in the Mandopop space, sometimes you get a little lost along the way; yet listening to Mandarin pop music and translating that into writings for Asian Pop Weekly has always been my saving grace. The philosophy of this website is very much influenced by my love for Wang Leehom; one of the earliest artists within the East-meets-West musical space in the early 2000s. I have always been constantly fascinated by his vocal and inventive approaches to combining Eastern and Western elements within his music; and now, his attempts to project positive representations of Asian-Americans in international media spaces. But to pick my favourite artist is a question I cannot answer without much hemming and hawing before settling on an answer I will most probably regret later on (if forced to answer, I do love me some Khalil Fong, A-mei, Kowen Ko and Ann Bai).

What I love is Mandopop in its entirety; the diversity of the artists and their stories, the way cultural diversity has impacted its history, the authentic and unique way they tell their stories through lyrics and melody, the way it vocalises on issues conservative society deems taboo. Music is so subjective; you could argue for Mandopop being the complete opposite of everything I’ve described (which at times it certainly is). But all I’m trying to do is make people see that there are two sides to every story, and to help them appreciate the beauty of a music scene that has much to offer.

Mandopop

What a lot of people don’t know is that Mandarin pop music in its most modern iteration is situated in the roots of rebellion. In the 1970s, the Campus Folk Songs movement (which is the predecessor of Mandopop as we know today) started as a criticism of the influence of Western music on the local scenes in Taiwan. And our love for ballads and slow songs comes from the pressures of a restrictive and conservative society which led to years of repressed emotions with little creative outlet. And especially now, I think this spirit of rebellion runs a lot clearer than it has in the past. Today, in the age of authenticity, more than ever people are realising the importance of their heritage and roots, and increasingly across Asia I see more and more people learning to appreciate Mandarin music in their own way. Be it the thriving hip-hop scene in Taiwan and the Mainland, the phenomenal pop greats of the early 2000s, or the diverse and vibrant variety the independent music scene boasts, I think (or at least hope) Mandopop is learning to embrace its messiness. That it’s never going to be the next K-pop, but in realising that, finding its own unique foothold in the global music industry.

K-Pop

I have an intense love-hate relationship with the word ‘K-pop’. All at once, it represents to me new possibilities, the bridging of East-West gaps and an increasing western understanding of Asian culture. And yet, as a music genre, it goes against my preferences for authenticity, creativity, and true meaning. It is my (very) unpopular opinion that K-pop is not so much music as it is entertainment, but they have certainly invested much more time and resources into taking on the Western market than any other Asian music industry that has come before them, and for that they should be applauded. In essence, K-pop is designed from the get-go to be palatable for western audiences. From their Europop-inspired sound to the high production quality and fashion-forward, eye-catching outfits, they’ve captured the essence of Western pop culture and made adjustments.

I’ve found that a big reason why people don’t easily adopt music from other cultures is due to the discomfort; the unease they feel when they are exposed to new territory that they cannot at once make sense of. It is this knee-jerk reaction to the unknown (and a lack of awareness to its presence) which impedes progress in many aspects of today’s society; including the small issue of adopting or appreciating music from a culture different to ours. And it is precisely because westerners feel less of this discomfort when they listen to K-pop (a genre created for their tastes) as opposed to C-pop (a less accessible and packaged product) that has allowed them to grow such a huge following in Western countries.  

Mandopop Going Global

And yet, the accessibility the genre has attained is certainly something to be admired, and an area Mandopop falls behind in. When I bring up the topic of Mandopop to western audiences, I am pleased to report that most harbour a genuine curiosity towards the music I love. Yet in terms of awareness and engagement with the topic, those who understand or even know anything about the music scene are few and far between. Nowadays, a handful know a few buzzwords, such as ‘Chinese Hip Hop’ due to the international media coverage on China’s recent crackdown on a rap reality show; and ‘Kris Wu’, due to his contended iTunes chart success, but these do not an accurate representation of Mandopop make. The challenge with this genre is that it is unwieldy, multifaceted, and requires a high level of context. And yet, I nevertheless believe in the possibility of Mandopop making a name for itself in the west; and the positive impact this will have on cultural connections should it be handled delicately.

What I see for the industry is a comfortable, sustainable ascent that is based on the merit of their music, creativity and innovation through the niche genres of music globally. From the likes of No Party For Cao Dong; a post-rock band which has gained critical acclaim for their deep dark thoughts, to Elephant Gym, a Taiwanese Math-Rock band whose angular, funky melodies have gained them enough fans to launch a world tour, these are just two examples of how the right channels have worked in the favour of the industry. As for taking on the mainstream pop industry, it’s going to take a deep understanding of different cultures, cross-cultural collaboration, and a whole lot of connections; but as they say, anything is possible, no?

Over the last eight or so years, I’ve spent a majority of my time analysing and researching Mandarin music, and its relationship with the international stage. Yet in doing so, I’ve found that my passion is but a bridge for fulfilling my dream of enacting social and cultural change. Writing about music has always been something that has unlocked my passion like nothing else ever has – and I am proud to say following this crazy, weird dream of bringing Mandarin pop to the world has opened doors for me that I would never ever have imagined. Because of Asian Pop Weekly, I’ve met and interviewed countless artists who I have admired over the years – and even ended up working for some of them! I’ve gone from watching and researching music award ceremonies to reporting at them and even assisting the judging panel. But most importantly, being passionate about this one little thing has given me the courage to do so much. I’ve learned to be decisive; and that my fear of flying is just not going to cut it. I’ve learned to get out of my shell more; and that sometimes, you just need to go for it. I’ve learned that even perfection; or the perception of it in itself is imperfect; and to appreciate the beauty that lies in the deepest and darkest places. But most of all, doing what I do has given me an outlet to express myself. And I truly hope that by opening yourselves up to new experiences, cultures, and perhaps even your roots; you’ll find your way too.

 

About the contributor

Born in Singapore but having spent over half her life in Australia, Jocelle Koh is a writer and creative who has dedicated much of her efforts towards bringing Mandopop to a wider international audience. Through her platform Asian Pop Weekly and works with established and up-and-coming Mandarin music/Asian diasporic artists, she hopes to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western cultures so she may one day hear Wang Leehom piping through the speakers of a random shopping centre somewhere in the Western world.