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Exclusive Mix: London-Based Collective Eastern Margins on Powering Parties with Asian Sounds

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When Lumi — real name David Zhou — threw his first Eastern Margins party in London back in 2018, it was out of a lack of things to do for Lunar New Year. “The only options then were 2,000-person capacity Leicester Square heels-and-shoes venues, or KTV [karaoke],” he recalls. “We love KTV, but… there’s only so much KTV you can do, you know.”

The Nanjing-born, UK-raised DJ is one of six members running the party platform-turned-label today. Founded by Zhou and his friend Anthony Ko, Eastern Margins grew to include notable fans who now help run the platform: DJ and producer and JD X (Patrick Wu), writer-DJ Jex Wang — who has compiled an exclusive mix of Asian and Asian diasporic music for RADII (see below) — as well as Elaine Zhao and Stefan Nigam, who run the platform’s interview series, Eastern Margins Teahouse.

The group’s mission is to give a platform to artists from East and Southeast Asia’s underground circuits. This initially saw them bringing musicians to their home base in London to perform, but now has organically evolved into a variety of different activities besides events — including hosting interviews and roundtable talks, and more recently, releasing music.

Eastern Margins Group Photo Radii China

Members of Eastern Margins (image editing: gal-dem)

Their first ever release, III by singer-producer Japhonia III, dropped in February earlier this year. Lumi tells us it “came about with Taigen [Japonia Ill] asking us if we would be interested in releasing something. That gave us the incentive to really kickstart the label side of things in a natural way.”

They’ve also just issued their second-ever release: the debut EP Magic Legacy from Hong Kong artist QQBBG (short for QQ Baby Girl). She linked up with the label after they reposted her song “Hentai Babe” on Instagram.

 

I was preparing an EP of ‘Hentai Babe’ remixes at that time, and I asked Eastern Margins if they wanted to release a ‘Hentai Babe’ remix EP with me,” she tells us, “but they suggested we release a QQBBG EP instead.”

Fitting with Eastern Margins’ taste for mind-bending, experimental music, she blends extreme electronic music and kawaii influences with rawer, more abrasive sounds. QQBBG also references elements of Japanese culture, such as hentai manga and anime, in her visual aesthetic, creating something that can seem like an exercise in drawing out contrasts, but which she says merely follows the scope of her interests.

“I’m trying to merge all of my favorite elements into my image,” she says about her musical alter ego. “Like, reinterpreting the Japanese Idol culture into my own music genre.”

This second release coincides with Eastern Margins having to focus their efforts more directly online, since they are no longer able to bring artists to London or hold offline events due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. “With Covid-19 rendering all geographic distances effectively untraversable,” says Lumi, “there’s little difference working with someone in, say, Hong Kong versus in London.”

Since the start of this year, they’ve also begun a monthly show on NTS and have been streaming mixes and interviews through their Twitch channel, as well as a variety of online radio platforms. “We’ve taken this as an opportunity to try concepts that can only work online — really leaning into the fact that art is currently condensed into screens,” Lumi tells us. “At the same time, we still want to recreate that sense of community that’s the bedrock of our physical events.”

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They’ve similarly been experimenting with different mediums. Lumi mentions films, but is more effusive about the possibilities of hosting events through games like Animal Crossing. “We’ve found gaming to be a really exciting medium that strikes this balance — it’s a purely screen experience that still provides a portal to meaningful community participation,” he says. “So we’ve organized some things around that. Like an Animal Crossing Rave, where our friends from Jakarta-based creative studio Bend Studio recreated our favorite venue, The Yard, in-game and had it soundtracked by our friends from Jakarta Diskodoom. And we’re just preparing a dance performance in Super Smash Bros to accompany a set from Tokyo’s リョウコ2000.”

This playful, yet experimental approach to circumnavigating the large-scale travel bans brought about by Covid-19 can also be seen throughout their earlier visual work. Their Instagram page, for example, is a potpourri of visual influences.

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Japonia III performing at an Eastern Margins party (image: Jex Wang)

“We’ve been influenced by everything from Faye Wong CD covers and Super Smash Bros, to 7-11 drink adverts and Tiger Balm,” says Anthony Ko. “Everyday things which we can all relate to on some level. Constantly looking for new inspiration has led to a distinctive yet non-homogenous visual style, I would say.”

Speaking to Lumi about the access and representation that acclaimed Asian artists like object blue, Triad God and Organ Tapes have had in London, he opines: “I think the issue of ‘representation’ presents a really interesting tension for a lot of artists — and for us with Eastern Margins.

“Artists do not want to be pigeonholed to their ethnicity or heritage, but at the same time, operating within the rules of such community tends to bring about a deeper shared experience.”

At the same time, the connections between underground electronic scenes in China and London continue to expand, as labels like SVBKVLT and Do Hits have brought awareness to the forward-thinking club sounds being created around the country. When asked to pick his three favorite Chinese bands or musicians, Lumi opts for a wide range of genres. He names emo rapper Billionhappy, punky electronic producer GG Lobster, and Wuhan instrumental rock group Hualun.

Organ Tapes Eastern Margins Radii China

Organ Tapes performing at an Eastern Margins party (image: Anthony Ko)

I think what’s really exciting about the scenes in China is the appetite for collaboration,” Lumi says, “Artists are much more willing to go outside their obvious aesthetic, and crews are willing to cross-pollinate in a way that’s rarer in London, where there’s definitely a stronger sense of tribalism.”

Speaking to platforms that provide an arena exclusively for Asian people to share their music and multimedia, Lumi says, “The point at which we have our own creative infrastructure, our own media platforms, own distribution channels and more is the point at which ‘representation’ is no longer something we have to worry about.

“It sounds pretty utopian. It probably is! But a more optimistic take is that all of these different projects can be mutually self reinforcing and support each other.”

Header image: Carol Tam

Bryan Grogan
    Bryan is RADII's Culture Editor. He is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with an interest in culture stories with a social bent. He can be found at a music show, usually with pint in hand.