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Yin: 工工工, Bohan Phoenix & Simon Frank on Growing Up Between Cultures

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Yin (, “music”) is a weekly RADII feature that looks at Chinese songs spanning hip-hop to folk to modern experimental, and everything in between. Drop us a line if you have a suggestion.

No-drums psychedelic blues, Mandarin rap, and driving, synth-heavy electronic music might sound like a strange combination for a show. But Gong Gong Gong (工工工, aka Tom Ng and Josh Frank), Bohan Phoenix and Simon Frank share something in common that goes beyond musical style. Ahead of an upcoming show in Chengdu, the artists sat down together to talk about their experiences growing up between cultures, and to share some pictures of themselves as kids in foreign lands. The conversation has been posted here with their permission.

 

Josh Frank: Hey Bohan, when did you realize you were a weirdo? Like, someone with pretty different experiences from most of your friends? How did you feel about finding your place as a kid?

Bohan Phoenix: I think as soon as I was fluent enough in English to communicate and learn about other kids around me, I knew that I wasn’t quite like them in terms of background, but it didn’t bother me because we were all so young, 12, 13 years-old, and kids hadn’t started being mean to each other yet just because someone was different. It wasn’t easy for me to find a group of friends tho, I always just bounced around between different people.

Young Bohan (photo courtesy of the artists)

 Josh Frank: When I saw you play live for the first time in Beijing in 2016, one of the things that stuck with me the most was seeing your American friends on stage shouting “不在乎!” [buzaihu; “don’t give a damn”] as you were performing. That felt really cool and natural — not that rapping in Chinese was a gimmick, but something integral to what you were trying to do. When you started making music, was getting accepted in one place more important to you than the other?

Bohan in his makeshift studio, 2008 (photo courtesy of the artists)

Bohan: Yea in the beginning I definitely wanted to be accepted in America, especially by people who liked rap music. It was very innocent, I just wanted to impress people with my rhymes the way my idols Eminem and Tupac did. But since I been coming back to China, I guess I also want people to accept me for who I am thru my music too. I still feel too foreign for here and too foreign for the States, but I now think that’s okay, that seems to be many people’s experience.

Young Bohan (photo courtesy of the artists)

Josh Frank: How do you get people in both the US and China to take your music seriously?

Bohan: I don’t know man, I don’t know if they take it seriously haha. But that was never the goal anymore when I realized I have to just enjoy what I’m doing. At first I wanted to impress people but that led to me not making what it was I wanted to make. So when I stopped caring what other people thought, I just started to have fun with it. And I think that’s when people started to respect what I was doing even if they didn’t quite get it.

Josh Frank: It feels like you’ve gotten way more comfortable rapping in Chinese. How’d that happen?

 

Bohan: Definitely more comfortable writing and rapping in Chinese now, I think that was part of the plan too, move back and brush up on my shit, being in the environment it just improved by itself.

Simon Frank: Tom, you sing in Cantonese. How do you imagine the audience that might understand and fully appreciate your lyrics? People in Hong Kong, Guangdong, overseas, nowhere?

Young Tom Ng (photo courtesy of the artists)

Tom Ng: I guess the things I wrote are slightly varied from the usual Cantonese: Sometimes I would create new vocab which is translated from English, or they would be in Mandarin grammar because I am too used to speaking in Mandarin now. I can imagine people from Hong Kong or Guangdong can fully understand my lyrics, but at times find it difficult to interpret. The other interesting thing is that the Mandarin speaking group can still read the lyrics, and the lyrics would look more like ancient Chinese to them. So I guess different people have different understanding to my lyrics, [and] I really like this openness for being interpreted differently.

Josh Frank: Bohan, how did you decide that you wanted to return to Chengdu?

Bohan: Well my family is in Chengdu, even tho originally we’re from Hubei but Chengdu has better living, and after my grandma passed away, my grandpa moved to the closest relative which was my aunt in Chengdu. And since 2005 every year when I would come back to China to visit, it was back to Chengdu. As much as I talk about being Chinese and try to engage with my heritage, I never lived in China as an adult, only a month or two at a time. I needed to see for myself what it was like to dive into living here, and Chengdu is where the fam is, I could kill two birds with one stone.

工工工 (photo courtesy of the artists)

Bohan: So, why the name 工工工? It’s honestly a dope name visually and sonically saying the name is cool, but totally curious why that?

Josh Frank: We used to practice in this basement at Andingmen [in Beijing]. One day we were taking a break outside and I noticed a sign for 木工瓦工电工 [mugong, wagong, diangong; “carpentry, tiling, electrician”]I liked to joke about misreading Chinese signs, reading them vertically instead of horizontally. We must have looked at that peeling sign 20 times before, and many of our friends practiced there too and probably looked at it for years as well. I used to think maybe giving away how we got the name takes away some of the mystery, but actually it’s kind of perfect: it comes from looking at something very common from a different perspective, and changing its meaning. Plus I’m making fun of myself for reading Chinese like an idiot. I really like this band name, haha.

Tom Ng: Yeah I think we’d been struggling to get the right name for us for like 6 months. And then one day I had to have a cigarette break so we stood right next to the window then we were like, “Fuck yeah! that’s it!”

Bohan: How does it feel growing up in China as a foreigner? It’s almost opposite of my experience, but similar in the sense I grew up in the States also as a foreigner.

Young Josh and Simon at Tiananmen Square (photo courtesy of the artist)

Josh Frank: Especially when Simon and I grew up here [in Beijing] as kids, we were definitely in a huge position of privilege, living with our parents who had stable jobs, going to an international school, etc. I think that’s very different from the immigrant experience of someone traveling abroad to make a new home for good. When you’re a little kid, you’re also more able to adapt to different cultures and situations in a natural way. I think the older you get, you start to think more about where you might fit in or where “your people” are. You realize there aren’t that many people who relate to different cultures the way you do. It’s great but can be really alienating too.

Young Tom and brother (photo courtesy of the artists)

Tom Ng: I believe my life was very much shaped by the 5 years I went to university in Sydney. At one point I had to decide if I wanted to reside there, but I thought I was too foreign to be able to integrate into the life there. I then moved back to Hong Kong for 4 years, which became hell to me. I just couldn’t get used to anything there anymore. I just don’t feel I belong to that place, which should be my home. Now I feel a lot more comfortable living in Beijing, somewhere between local and foreign.

 

Simon Frank: There are definitely some parallels to being an immigrant, though like Josh said it is pretty privileged. When you’re a kid though, it’s easy to accept your new reality, and start to explore it in a really positive sense. I feel like it was more when I moved back to Canada for university that I realized I had an unusual experience — if I was talking to someone who went to high school in the suburbs about going to noise shows in Beijing I probably seemed like a bit of a snob, but fair enough.

Simon, age 18 (photo courtesy of the artists)

Josh Frank: Bohan, what do your American friends not get about China? What do you want to show them most?

Bohan: My American friends naturally have all these notions about China, but the ones that have come with me back to China, seen Shanghai and then seen Chengdu and then seen Chongqing, I think they actually absorbed a lot and understood a lot about the way of living in China. It’s like they always saw part of it by being around me, and then being back in China just made everything more clear. Although my friends from New York are all pretty open-minded and I wasn’t surprised to see them fit comfortably out here.

Young Josh and Simon (photo courtesy of the artists)

Bohan: What’s one thing you wish the East can learn from the West, and vice versa?

Josh Frank: I think one of the things that always bums me out about America and Canada, at least, is that if people encounter something they don’t know about, they sometimes feel threatened by it or treat it as not worthwhile. It’s almost completely the opposite in China. On the other side, sometimes I find people in China really introverted compared to the West, to the point where I wish they would more actively introduce themselves or try to strike up conversations. These are both pretty mundane things, but they can totally change the atmosphere of a place.

Bohan: What is yalls favorite city in China, not counting Shanghai or Beijing, and why?

Josh Frank: Chongqing is wild, the urban landscape feels so different from anywhere else I’ve been in China, and I find it really visually stimulating. Guangzhou has great food, and a cool combination of old and new architecture, plus a more relaxed southern vibe. I also find Shenzhen really interesting, because it basically didn’t exist 30 years ago, and there are people from all parts of China living there.

Tom Ng: Gong Gong Gong had a nice time in Chengdu back in 2016, the food is so damn nice there. Guangzhou and Hangzhou are cool but I don’t think I would love to live there. I can try living in Chengdu tho.

 

Simon Frank: I’ve had a lot of fun in Chengdu and Hangzhou, both seem to have good food and a slightly slower pace of life for big Chinese cities.

Josh, Simon and family (photo courtesy of the artists)

Bohan: Where do you call home?

Josh Frank: I honestly don’t know. We’re all kind of caught between places, I think. Maybe a big part of home is just finding people who understand that.

Tom Ng: Home is where my friends live.

Simon Frank: I have no idea right now, ha.

Josh Frank: What’s the first thing you eat when you get to America? What’s the last thing you eat when you leave Chengdu?

Bohan: First thing I eat in America is a mothafucking bacon egg and cheese on a everything bagel. And the last thing I eat in Chengdu is probably a nice bowl of beef noodles.

Josh Frank: Gong Gong Gong gonna be eating niuroumian [牛肉面; beef noodles] and a mothafucking BEC on a everything bagel real soon!

Tom Ng: Mothafucking food is always nice heh.

Simon Frank: Last time I went to the States I arrived in Detroit and immediately ate a Coney Dog, pretty good.

Young Bohan (photo courtesy of the artist)

If you’re in Chengdu somehow, catch these four on Sunday, April 29 at NU Space. Gong Gong Gong will also be playing upcoming shows in Xi’an (April 28) and Beijing (May 3) if you’re in those places.

Cover photo, L to R: Simon Frank, Bohan Phoenix, Tom Ng, Josh Frank

All photos courtesy the artists

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