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Souvenirs from Stanley: 
A Journal by Rainbow Chan


To celebrate the release of Stanley, the new EP by Rainbow Chan, we caught up with the musician to gain a deeper understanding of the stories told in each track—family dynamics, love, loss, belonging and Rainbow's relationship to her hometown of Hong Kong, a city frozen in childhood memories.

Rainbow Chan was aged six when she and her family moved from Hong Kong to Sydney and it was there that she grew up to be a multi-disciplinary artist, vocalist and music producer known for her avant-garde approach to pop experimentation. This experience  of living within the Asian-Austrailian diaspora went on to help her carve a unique sound and creative approach that only she could.

Inspired by the likes of Weitou folk—the music of indigenous Hong Kong— Cantopop (her mother’s favourite) and experimental club music, Rainbow Chan continually exists in a space caught between cultures and refuses to choose one or the other. She accepts the fact of multiplicity in her identity.

In this release, we hear the hum of melancholy and nostalgia. Inspired by mixtapes sent from Rainbow's grandmother in Hong Kong, sounds first heard in her childhood are combined with present-day feelings of loss Rainbow experienced as Hong Kong underwent significant change during a period where covid lockdowns inhibited travel. For Rainbow, this disconnect and frustration became her muse.

'What would be left when I returned? In isolation, I started to write farewell songs - half addressed to a lover, half addressed to the city.’

Each song tells a tale of its own which Rainbow talks us through in this interview, allowing us to dig deeper into moments that contributed to both the EP and the artist she is today.

Heavy 沉重

Image – View from Mido Café. A cha chaan teng in Yau Ma Tei, established in 1950. (23 Feb 2016)

There's nothing more bittersweet to me than standing under the gentle glow of a neon sign, knowing it'll be taken down tomorrow. Once the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s visual identity, most of the city’s neon signs have been dismantled. I imagine a freshly broken heart to glow like neon lights in a dark alleyway.

The neon signs are so emblematic of HK, even to those who have not visited. Tell us about other characteristics of the city, ones that sit side by side with the neon signs and new ones which might take their place?

Amongst those neon signs, I remember enjoying rice noodles and curry fish balls at the dai pai dong, a traditional food stall on the street. Cheap snacks would be complemented by a lemon Coca-Cola or an iced Milo. I loved the ugly wooden laminate on the shop’s fold-out seats and round tables, which could be quickly packed down if the authorities came to check the licensing. Pristine mega malls and food chains have increasingly taken their place.

Ylang Ylang 依蘭

Image – Making the most out of a small space. A meat vendor at Fanling Wet Markets. (14 Dec 2017)

An imaginary scene from a TVB drama. I find it so fascinating how smell is capable of conjuring vivid memories and strong emotions because of its direct route to the limbic system. In those moments, it’s as if the past and present collapse into one. I still remember the scent of my first crush.

What are some other smells synonymous with Hong Kong?  
Speaking of malls, the clean and sterile smell of air-conditioning somehow reminds me of Hong Kong. I find it weirdly comforting. Also, the smell of freshly washed table cloths at yum cha coalescing with steamed dim sum and pu er tea.

Idols 偶像

Image – Hiking at The Big Buddha, Lantau Island. (18 Dec 2017)

When I was in Year 2, my scripture teacher told me I would go to hell because there were idols in my parent’s house. “Idols” looks at the shame we accumulate over a lifetime and the tensions which arise when your pain is met with unconditional love. That warm fuzzy feeling is almost too much to bear, mainly for the fear of losing it. It’s easy to fall for someone but how do you keep that love alive? How do you create space for both suffering and love to exist?

What influence has this idea of love and suffering working in tandem had on you today?
I remind myself that nothing is permanent—periods of suffering and joy both have a beginning and an end. Even when it feels like pain lasts forever, if you can focus on the changing nature of emotions then it becomes more manageable. I’ve been trying to cultivate a sense of curiosity for all the complex emotions that make up human existence. If there is no mud, there is no lotus. And if I can see each moment as being renewed all the time, then it’s easier to become aware of moments of suffering and love but to also let them go

Love Note 情書

Image – A souvenir from my late aunt Michelle whose “老地方” (favourite spot) was Stanley. (22 Nov 2021)

I used to think the more painful and complex a relationship is, the more real the love. It was like I was addicted to drama. How liberated I felt when I let that idea go. I opened myself up to a new type of love, more profound and nourishing than anything I could have imagined. Out of the mud, a beautiful peach blossom grew.

What does love mean to you? 

My dad used to tell us this fable about how it's easy to snap a single chopstick but much harder to break a bundle of them. I think this might have been dad’s adaptation of Aesop’s Fable? Family isn’t necessarily your blood relations but is those who stick with you through thick and thin. Those who know all the small things. Like knowing how my younger sister’s sneeze sounds just like my mum’s, how my mum and I share the same dimples, how my dad enjoys his English Breakfast tea with four sugars (yes, four!)

Doing Word 動詞

Image – Working late at night. A tailor on the streets of Causeway Bay. (15 May 2019)  

“明 ming”, the Chinese character for bright or understanding, is made up of two smaller characters—the sun and the moon. I love how these two celestial bodies combine to denote clarity. I’ve always thought of love as a verb. When I forget this, the sun and moon drift apart.

What does Hong Kong show you, when the  sun has risen and the  moon is set?
By day, it’s catching up with friends and eating condensed milk toast at a cha cheng teng. By night, it’s going to underground gigs and hearing mash-ups of cheesy Cantopop and industrial techno.

You're Not Him 你不是他

Image – My passport photo reflected on a metallic seat. Much to my dismay, they photoshopped out all of my freckles. (16 Jan 2018)

When I was younger I was perplexed by the line, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Isn’t this an act of self-betrayal and simultaneously cruel to the new love? But I think I understand now. Life’s messy. You don’t always get what you want. What you wished for was probably never as great as you remember it to be. Romanticism is a curse.

How does romanticism play out in your creative practice and music?
Being an artist can be challenging because of the precarious nature of your work. As there is less structure in the arts, you often have to be flexible and adaptive which can take a toll. I’ve been learning how to build healthy boundaries, set realistic goals and celebrate small victories. Also, in the current climate of over-sharing everything, it can be hard to find a balance between creating something for the joy of it and creating something for external validation. I’ve been mindfully logging off, slowing down and also regularly questioning whether the things I make align with my core values. I’m still not perfect at it but I think reflecting on your craft is an important daily ritual.

Eudaimonia 幸福感

Image – Photo of my paternal grandmother, Eileen,whose mythic mixtapes laid the foundation for my love of music. My grandpa always kept this one in his wallet. (∞)

Eudaimonia is a Greek word which translates to “good spirited”. Its meaning goes beyond mere happiness and encapsulates a notion of human flourishing. I was listening to a lot of early West African electronic music and bootlegged instrumental versions of famous pop songs when writing this track. “Eudaimonia” is a nod to those tacky sonic palettes which bring me joy. A homage to pre-set beats and accompaniments on old keyboards.

A variety of cultures make up your influences. In which ways has being a child  of the diaspora impacted you the most? 
I am fascinated by the way that diasporic communities seem to be time capsules of their 'homeland'. We hold onto nostalgic objects and consume outdated cultural references, which are often relics passed onto us by our parents. While you can argue that this transferral happens amongst non-migrant kids too, I think there is an amplification of that retromania in migrant families because they don’t quite belong to the new place. In a sense, the past offers a place of refuge, even if imagined. The irony is, of course, the 'homeland' has undergone significant transformation in the time that we’ve been gone. Diaspora kids are sort of stuck in time and my practice tries to interrogate those questions of belonging and authenticity.

Heavy 沉重 (Chinese Version)

Image – A beautiful salmon-coloured “Apple” t-shirt spotted on the busy MTR. (8 Sep 2018)

A parallel universe. A bookend. I really appreciate artists who release music in multiple languages (Faye Wong being one of them.) I love comparing the different versions and examining how language affects melody and phrasing. Translating the lyrics from English into Mandarin is particularly challenging because Chinese is tonal. That means words are restricted by their assigned pitches so you can’t just do a literal translation and retrofit it into the same melody. Luckily I had the help of Entity 97 and Rice Yao, who were able to capture the song’s meaning line by line whilst adhering to the melody. I am in awe of their translation. 

How important is it to convey and celebrate your heritage in your music?
There’s something special about the vibration of music that literally moves us. One of my earliest memories is feeling the thumping of the lion dance drums inside my rib cage. I must have just gravitated towards music but I’ve always turned to songwriting as a way to make sense of the world. Knowing I can transform my sadness into a song or a story gives me a sense of agency in those situations where I have no control. Being able to sing in multiple languages is a blessing because you get to express your experience with more nuance. But beyond myself, I feel music is a powerful tool to bring people together, to shape collective memories and to document the transient world around us.

Stanley is out now via Eastern Margins—the record label arm from the London-based platform / event series of the same name. Rooted in a local community of East & South East Asian creatives with links worldwide, Eastern Margins is opening this community up to the world.

@chunyinrainbowchan / @easternmargins

Words by Sami Kimberley
Imagery by Rainbow Chan
Design by Priya Stewart