In her latest work, performer and artist Rainbow Chan collaborates with her mother to reimagine Weitou bridal laments. By Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen.

Artist Rainbow Chan

Multidisciplinary artist Rainbow Chan.
Multidisciplinary artist Rainbow Chan.
Credit: Walter Maurice courtesy of Jillian Boustred

When Rainbow Chan and her family migrated to Sydney from Hong Kong in 1996, she was six years old and was excited for what she thought was an extended holiday. “I did not realise until a year later,” the artist and musician says now. “It hit me and I was like, Oh my god, this is my new home.

That feeling of displacement echoed through her adolescence, spent in Sydney’s north-western suburbs as the second youngest of four daughters. Like many children of the diaspora, she felt detached from her heritage. “For years I hated the fact that I was Chinese or Asian and had to go to Saturday Chinese school while the other kids were playing football and doing gymnastics or playing netball,” she remembers. “I just wanted to be Aussie, whatever that means – I very much saw myself as a Western person.”

Still, Hong Kong lingered – Chan returned only once as a child, but visits from family and the media she consumed meant her homeland was at once distant and ever-present. “My understanding of Hong Kong was always through pirated DVDs and VHS from the local shop in Eastwood, where you’d buy your groceries but also borrow tapes, which had been dubbed over a million times,” she says.

Her latest work, The Bridal Lament, digs into those early roots. It premiered this week at Liveworks at Sydney’s Performance Space and will head to the OzAsia Festival in Adelaide in early November.

The Bridal Lament is Chan’s interpretation of a ritual of Weitou – the disappearing culture and language of the earliest settlers of Hong Kong. It’s the language her mother grew up speaking but did not pass on to her children, partly because Weitou is a patrilineal culture but also due to the pressure to modernise and speak Cantonese. “There’s a lot of internalised stigma and shame around language,” says Chan.

As a child, Chan was immersed in music. She learnt saxophone and piano and sang in a children’s choir – it was “very, very nerdy”, she jokes. She began to carve her own musical path when, as a 14-year-old, she experienced heartbreak for the first time. “I started writing songs to navigate that heartache and started performing them, and I realised, I think this is a thing – I love this,” she says. “I found myself in pop music.”

About the same time, Chan rediscovered the Cantopop music of her childhood, finding new things to admire in it – a love that blossomed further when she went off to university. There, she began to unpack and understand the internalised racism that had plagued her for years. “I started to be able to explore and deconstruct a lot of these systems and structures. I did arts at uni, so spent all day thinking about this kind of shit – fucking cultural studies,” she says, laughing. “Why do I hate being Asian? Oh, Eurocentric patriarchy. Oh, colonialism.”

An underground electronic music scene was then blooming in Sydney. Chan found herself alongside artists such as Marcus Whale, her frequent collaborator. She credits the boom to “the access to making music quite cheaply”, as well as Sydney’s robust nightlife before the introduction of lockout laws, with venues such as FBi Social and Goodgod becoming a breeding ground for emerging local artists.

“It was a real collision of more streaming, more YouTube channels to learn how to produce without having to go through an engineering degree, access to things like Ableton or GarageBand,” she says. “The music that was coming out was very, very electronically oriented … I was 20 or 21, just coming out of uni, and it was super exciting.”

Prejudices were still rife within the music scene – Chan found herself constantly up against sexist and racist assumptions. “It was a bit of a struggle – not a struggle in my craft so much but in how people perceived me or would pigeonhole me as an Asian woman, and I feel like that’s kind of all I was,” she recalls. “They’d just assume that some dude had produced my stuff and it was really annoying.”

While the dial has largely shifted now and more diversity is common within the scene, those memories remain. For Chan, they’re a vital reminder of why representation continues to be important. “As a young person, I didn’t really have that many role models to look up to … The curation of shows or the line-ups were always white men,” she says. “Thankfully, I think people recognise that other voices are awesome and to have not only the faces be different but the people making decisions.

“Now, when I talk to a lot of young women of colour 10 years younger than me, I’m always moved by hearing people who are like, ‘It was so cool to see you do your thing because it made me think that there was a path for me as well’ ... Even if it’s one person, it’s something.”

Chan’s career is chameleonic: as Rainbow Chan she has released a number of EPs and albums; she is a visual arts practitioner; and she is Chunyin, the experimental techno project she started in 2013. Where Rainbow Chan “speaks to pop tropes”, Chunyin is something altogether darker and weirder – as the artist puts it, she’s Rainbow Chan’s “moody Goth sister”. “It’s helpful for me sometimes to put a slightly different hat on,” Chan says. “With the Chunyin project, I really wanted it to not be about my voice – I still see that project as a bit more sculptural … There is this liberation from myself as the face, as a persona or as a voice.”

In 2020, Chan, Whale and performance artist Eugene Choi collaborated on a theatrical and musical tribute to Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 Hong Kong cinema classic In the Mood for Love, commissioned by and performed at the Sydney Opera House. In an interview about that project at the time, Chan told me she admired the film for “using art as a strategy to interrogate things that we’re not supposed to talk about”.

It’s something she does, too, in her latest work. For centuries, until it was phased out in the 1960s, the bridal lament was performed by Weitou women before their arranged marriages. The woman would be isolated in a loft for at least three days and three nights where she would sing her songs for a parade of family and friends: mournful remembrances of the life and identity she was leaving behind to become someone else’s wife. It was, in a way, her farewell.

Chan learnt about the rituals when she travelled to Hong Kong five years ago with her mother and aunt and met elderly women in Lung Yeuk Tau village who shared their own songs. “The first time I heard the songs and sang these songs with the women, I just got goosebumps,” she says. “It felt like time and space collapsed and I was at one with all these women who existed before me – it was some spiritual, spooky shit.”

She was also struck by the subtly progressive nature of the songs – a quiet rebellion in the face of total control. “I found it really compelling that these very little-known, disappearing songs are almost like feminist anthems – they have so much complexity in terms of the lyrical content,” she says, noting the woman is “trying to carve out a sense of agency even though she knows her fate is doomed”.

The laments are rich with metaphor – of plants and animals, of the agrarian lifestyle – that expressed what could not be said aloud. It’s something Chan considered when writing her own version, as she saw parallels to the oppressions of the modern world. “As a contemporary person, I think there are these current issues that have parallels to this story of trying to carve your own path in the face of higher, oppressive powers,” she says. “For me, there’s something there about Hong Kong’s political situation …  the uncertainty of the future and the protests recently … There is something there that I feel resonates.”

Chan’s inquiry into the custom is informed by her own histories but she found herself facing a kind of cultural impostor syndrome. “The underpinning question has always been about the challenges of authenticity, and grappling with those questions of belonging,” she says. “At the beginning, I felt a bit inauthentic, or like, Am I the right person to even inquire about this?

The visual metaphor works here, too, and in its own way answers Chan’s question. “I see this work, or my inquiry, as something that is from the diaspora – a very kind of third culture kid experience where there is this both inside and outside,” she says. “I think that’s why the metaphor of this bride being suspended in this liminal space resonates, in that you are not quite here or there.”

The Bridal Lament – Chan’s version – is a song cycle with stage design, choreography and animation that will be both performed as a solo show and released as an album. Its first intoxicating single, “Seven Sisters”, was released in August. Based on a folktale about a group of sisters who plunged into the ocean as an act of rebellion against their arranged marriages, its accompanying music video sees Chan in costume, surrounded by handmaids in red.

Sung in both English and Weitou, The Bridal Lament follows a similar structure to the traditional laments: a prelude to awaken the heavens, putting on new clothes, getting her hair combed by a woman with many children, eating particular foods. Each woman’s songs were unique to her, but common threads and ideas linked the laments – Chan compares it to improvising on standards. It mirrors the musician’s own compositional techniques, using her classical training to push the conventions and boundaries of sound. “Knowing the basics of the rules allows you to fuck with it,” she says. “The new laments I’ve written are deeply inspired by traditional melodies – there’s one particular melodic contour that’s like the motif, which is directly from the traditional lament, and I have different strategies and methods to reimagine it in a contemporary music context.”

Chan takes on the character of the bride, but there is also a “meta element” where she sings as an observer to the world of the laments, looking at the bride from another perspective. Her mother, Chui Ping, also features in the work as the narrator, speaking in Weitou via a voiceover, and another family member was a critical inspiration for the piece – Chan’s aunt, her mother’s sister, who died during lockdown.

“This show is very much about that grief of losing her and also seeing my mum lose her … the songs helped to transform that grief into light,” Chan says. “In the way that I wrote my first song due to a heartbreak, a lot of the songs have been born out of a really personal loss and grief to the point I had never experienced anything like this before.”

Chan subverts the patrilineal nature of Weitou culture by inquiring into the ritual and honouring the women who have come before her. The project has been a reclamation for her mother, too. “Growing up, my parents owned a Chinese restaurant and they really, really missed out a lot on our childhood because they were working so much, and for many years, I think Mum was super angry and resentful that that was her life,” Chan says.

“Now that I’m able to invite her into the work as a collaborator and there are plans for her to actually be part of the touring party … she’s so happy. It all paid off in a way for her, so she’s super proud of the work, and I’m super proud of her because I think that stigma is gone. She’s so proud to be Weitou.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "From grief to light".

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