English/Swiss | Chinese
I identify as proudly European-Chinese mixed-race. My brothers and I have often played with answers to the sometimes-micro-aggressive question ‘where are you really from?’. ‘I’m Eurasian’, ‘China’, ‘Cambridge’ etc. Each one gets a different response. My Mum is half-English, half-Swiss, and my Dad is from mainland China. They met in London playing violin in a student orchestra, and music has always been a big part of our lives, my Swiss Grandmother was also a piano teacher. I have a Chinese-English surname, so once I was able to read, the penny dropped that I was mixed-race.
I predominantly grew up in Cambridge, which is quite English but has a significant international population, but we visited Switzerland every summer as children, and I got my first summer job there as a teenager, having to work in French. I also spent a few years of my childhood in Singapore, which is very cosmopolitan and opened up my eyes, ears and taste buds to Asian cultures. I learned some Mandarin at the time and then lived for a year in Shanghai when I was 18, studying Mandarin. This really helped me connect with the Chinese part of my family and heritage. We used to celebrate all the festivals, which was really fun; German Christmas (with real candles on the tree and German carols), Chinese New Year, Swiss National Day etc. English has always been our main language at home, but French, German and Mandarin make regular appearances through relatives and friends. One of my mum's friends recently said to me: You're not half-anything. You are double-heritage.
The Classical music world, which has always been a big part of my life, is generally very far behind in terms of diversity, especially in the UK. The ‘hostile environment’ and the anti-immigrant narrative around the Brexit vote has also had a big impact around the rise of hate crimes and what one might call ‘confident racism’, people emboldened to express their prejudices openly. That has been challenging to deal with.
I generally like to be around open-minded and outward-looking people. Having friends from lots of different cultures and travelling definitely helps broaden our perspectives, appreciate other ways of living and break out of the beloved London bubble.
I’m a big foodie and remember being devastated when moving back to the UK from Singapore, where we had delicious chicken rice and laksa noodles for lunch, to the dreaded British school dinners. Thankfully, London food is pretty good and diverse these days.
I’m a professional opera singer and composer and growing up across cultures has meant being exposed to so many different kinds of music at a young age, from Gamelan in Singapore through English choral music to reggae and electronic music. I love singing and writing ‘fusion’ music and often blend Eastern and Western, Classical, jazz and electronic styles of music in my compositions.
I’m very lucky to speak English, French, Mandarin and some German, and I’ve always loved languages as they give you a unique insight into other cultures. As part of my opera training I’ve also been learning Italian, which is a stunning language and just made for singing in.
I generally dress in a Western style with touches of Asian influence; for example: English shoes, Shanghai-made suit with a Singaporean batik scarf. Day to day I’m very happy that brands like Uniqlo and Muji are widely available now, as the clothes actually fit me, unlike the standard British high street brands. Barbers are often surprised that my hair is quite springy, which is uncommon in East Asian hair.
I love being mixed-race and feel privileged to have connections with lots of different cultures and places. I really enjoy travelling and have found that being mixed-race is welcomed in certain cultures these days. I often get mistaken for a local in lots of different places, from Colombia to India, which is quite fun!
I live in London, which is pretty cosmopolitan, although the Brexit vote has even affected the atmosphere here. It’s much more difficult to blend into parts of the English countryside, where I often have to travel to sing Classical music concerts. I have pretty diverse tastes in music and film and am always on the lookout for interesting international trends, devouring everything from Coke Studio Pakistan’s music to British drama and Singaporean-produced history documentaries. I studied music at university and chose the most diverse courses possible; Middle-Eastern music, Klezmer, Blues, Performance, Composition, Music Psychology. I have two strands in my career, music and film, and have had very different experiences in the two worlds.
In music, I’ve found that treatment varies a lot depending on the genre of music.
The Classical music world, and opera in particular, is very traditional and often Orientalist, with a very poor track record in diversity of representation on stage. It’s the area of my life where I’ve seen and experienced the most prejudice, whether subconscious or overt. I believe that opera can really be enriched and made more accessible by increased diversity, and I’ve participated in diversity events with the National Opera Studio, but it’s going to take a while for this sector to change. I’ve found there’s often less discrimination when performing contemporary music and jazz, and in composing non-Classical music, where having diversity in styles and influences is viewed as an attribute.
In film, I mostly work in international documentary distribution, working with producers across the world. As I’m building bridges between cultures, being mixed-race, speaking other languages and being open to other perspectives has been very useful, and I’ve generally felt very welcome in the international film community. One of my biggest aims has been to spread under-represented and non-Western perspectives across the world, and documentaries are a great vehicle for that. For example, I recently script-edited a series about the global history of silver told from a Chinese perspective, which addresses China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’ at the hands of European powers, including the Opium Wars, history that we are usually completely sheltered from in Europe. The way people view each other is heavily influenced by their understanding of history and by the media, and so it’s very important that we counter-balance traditional and Western views with other narratives.
Combining the two worlds of music and film is a big passion of mine, and this is where being mixed-race and having diverse cultural influences can be quite exciting, as you can really create something unique and new. I’ve recently filmed a music video for a song I wrote ‘Yeah Shanghai!’ which is very much a combination of Western and Eastern musical styles and perspectives – it even has some lyrics in Chinglish.
I was born in the year of the tiger in the Chinese Zodiac, so would love to return as a white tiger, in the wild. A Chinese dragon would be quite cool too, though.