Eason Chan in my room

by Joel Mak

This article uses ‘Chinese’ as: a) an adjective to denote citizens of China; b) an adjective to refer to Han Chinese, an ethnic group which speaks multiple languages, two of which are Cantonese and Mandarin, and; c) to refer to the name of the script, both traditional and simplified. The preferred script for this article is simplified Chinese, although it keeps the traditional Chinese whenever it is used by the artist in song titles. All Cantonese romanisation is in jyutping.

Eason Chan—Cantopop extraordinaire, part-time film star, full-time crowd swooner—is in my room. I conjure him from RM30 speakers, no subwoofers, a constant hiss over his voice. In the afternoon, I went right pass the legal DVDs and CDs to the cashier’s counter where the woman with plastic pearls around her necklace took orders. I flipped through the binders of CD covers, noted the code for Eason Chan’s 4 A Change & Hits, and passed it to the lady. She took it into the back where someone operated a CD burner while chain-smoking. The double disc greatest hits release cost me eight ringgit, the equivalent of four school lunches.

I’m at that age where music’s always been a part of the environment but now I’ve got the mental space to connect songs to singers. In my class there’s a pimply Magic nerd who tries to get me into nu-metal, the alternative pop boys who listen to Hitz FM for the couple of disc jockeys more well-known for their radio pranks, the Malays who sing ululating notes they copy from channels I’ll never listen to, and the Indians who play percussion on the student desks. My desk mate asks if me I’ve checked out Eason Chan Yick-shun’s songs. I have. He’s all over the Mandarin and Cantonese airwaves.

988FM. A radio station with two languages, pronounced gau2 baat3 baat3 in Cantonese or jiŭ bā bā in Mandarin. Spinning the reel further back, I remember my grandmother would sit next to the radio in the afternoons, drinking a cup of hot milk tea and listening to 988 and their dramas, powered by obsolete sound effect production rooms simulating creaking doors, thunder, cars screeching to a halt.

988FM. Except that in my grandfather’s Honda that always smelled like baked leather, we had to shift the dial to 99.8 in my city. It never made sense to me why a radio station would use its frequency as a name. Great tagline though: 友声有色. The sound of colour. Or was it the colour of sound? Or even simpler, colour and sound?

988FM. My portal to Jay Chou, Michael Wong, Beyond, Joey Yung, Sammi Cheng, Emil Chau, Alan Tam, Hacken Lee, Twins, Wang Lee Hom. Sharp-looking stars from 1980 to the early 21st century. I can go on and on but in the end, Eason Chan was the artist for your average Joe. The others were blessed or marked by unique voices, damning anyone who dared to select them on karaoke nights. Eason didn’t have the mumble-rap of Jay Chou, nor the grittiness of Beyond’s Wong Ka Kui. A face that always seemed to hang on to its baby fat, he resembled a high schooler. His lack of a sharp chin brought him down to earth, far away from the pop charm, style, and bravado of the Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop (Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok and Leon Lai).

The lady operating the illegal operation stuffed my CD, a plastic sleeve, and two pieces of paper (printed jpegs of the cover and tracklist) into a black plastic bag. I had to assemble it all myself. The song I have on repeat is called ‘Shall We Talk,’ a tune with a piano intro that makes me think of ballerinas trotting onto a stage. Strings, flutes, a horn section that swells before the chorus. Like most people, I sing louder when I know the lyrics, which means I belt out two lines, one of them in English, whenever they come around. We’ve got dial-up but looking up the lyrics is of no use to me. I don’t read nor write Chinese and neither does my classmate who suggested Eason. No more than five people in my Malay public school can.

Three are three songs on 4 A Change & Hits with English titles, even though they are sung in Cantonese. The rest of the eighteen tracks have Cantonese titles, written in traditional script. In conversation, we refer to songs with the lyrics we remember. Unlike English songs, which have tangible referents in their alphabets, Chinese songs are always out of grasp, things we can’t write on a piece of paper. We trade titles and hum melodies in between classes.

I always look past the fact that I don’t understand what Cantopop or Mandopop singers are on about. The former is too literary, the other a language no one in my family uses to speak with me. After all, in Cantopop it is the singer and not the song. Melody reigns and Eason can carry one with the grace of an erhu player on a mountaintop. He doesn’t do anything too bombastic, perfect for anyone who wants to sing along. This I do from time to time, but no more than my neighbour whose karaoke machine can be heard all the way down the street. He likes Eason too.

It’s 2006 and I’m listening to someone who’s doing his best to cover an Eason song. I tap a remote control with a red button that calls in a waiter from whom I order fries and bubble milk tea. Other buttons queue artists and songs behind the current song. I’m not here to sing, just to soothe my case of FOMO. In this karaoke room surrounded by born and bred Hong Kongers, I soothe my case of FOMO. Online, we share mp3s on MSN group chats and they exist on my laptop in unorganised folders, their titles a mishmash of pinyin, jyutping, and undeciphered Unicode. They send me stuff from Justin Lo, Leo Ku, Ronald Cheng, Jan Lamb, all popular choices for this afternoon’s session. My excuse for not participating is that even after half a year or so of living in Hong Kong, the only Chinese I can read is related to food items, entrances and exits, and a few MTR stations. The traditional script they use here only compounds the difficulty, the strokes looking like a spilled box of worms, struggling for space to breathe.

When I told people I’d be sent off to Hong Kong for high school, I received two responses. One said that I’d find it awesome because I spoke Cantonese, the other said that I was fucked because I didn’t speak Cantonese.

For many reasons, it’s hard to ever forget that one is a ‘Malaysian-Chinese.’ It’s in the way we look, but also how we fill governmental forms, the networks we navigate, and the language of our dreams. Strange then, given all this, to consider that apart from carrying the history of our clan in our family names, little cultural memory has been preserved of South China, from where my grandparents got on boats and headed south-west towards Malaysia, siblings scattered around the peninsula never to be heard from for years.

Generations of language evolution and mixing have shifted the tones and jumbled the vocabulary to different extents up and down the western coast of the peninsula but it isn’t until I ask a Hong Kong market vendor ‘几多 lui?’ for ‘how much money (does it cost)’ and I get laughed in my face that I notice the Malay word ‘duit’ masquerading as a Cantonese word, roofed under an arbitrary tone. The vendor asks me if I mean ‘几多钱?’ and I sheepishly nod yes.

I absorbed Cantonese from my grandparents, my local park footballers, and school friends. It’s molded for negotiating in local wet markets, yelling at people to pass the ball, and commandeering squad mates in Counter Strike sessions in Internet cafes. Hong Kong TVB dramas refined me somewhat, but it would have done so much more had I not gotten bored of the repetitious plots and had the Internet not offered more English entertainment avenues.

So I know Cantonese and I don’t. If I do use Cantonese in Hong Kong, it’s with people I have to buy things from or friends mature enough to let my awkward vocabulary slide. In Hong Kong, to claim I speak Cantonese is to open myself up to ridicule because my accent is ‘cute’ or because I use a word that people only use in movies. Here, I’m reduced to a language learner with confidence issues while carrying the expectation of being able to speak and read flawless Cantonese due to my family name. The truth is, as the characters fill in from white to blue on the screen, left to right, I can’t even guess the words at a 10% rate.

Right now, my friend is wrestling ‘浮誇’ from Eason Chan’s U87. It’s a great song on a great album, a classic for my generation. It has funk, it has stadium-ready rock, it has ballads. In my apartment, I have a semi-legal copy from a semi-legal shop on a Kowloon street. On ‘浮誇,’ Eason breaks into a window-rattling falsetto to bring the curtains down. To use music-writing cliches, it’s ghostly, ethereal, bone-chilling. The theremins help but also Eason Chan’s Royal Academy of Music training. With anyone else holding the mic, it raises the hairs of the neck and leaves me wishing I had ear plugs. In the spirit of karaoke, I clap for the imitator when he’s done.

Eighteen years after I left, I am back in the country I was born in. Eason Chan fills the room through Logitech speakers, subwoofer included. I’m listening to H³M, his latest album. After opening ad-strewn websites, spam-dominated forums, and following many false leads, I find the album on a forum, using a link that leads me to a file-sharing site. The album cover is minimalist and simplistic, unlike a lot of the bloated songs on the album. Eason sports mid-length wavy hair brushed and aired to the back. He’s got a hipster’s beard. The album has a song named ‘Life Goes On’ and I don’t know if it’s laughing at me. I like the ballads more than the fast-paced song. It’s clear Eason and his producers have massive arenas in mind now.

I don’t get to talk to anyone about Eason because I’m not in Hong Kong anymore. The Australian arrival stamp in my passport divides my life into pre-Eason and post-Eason. Neither newly landed immigrant with a short-term study visa, nor nth-generation Australian Born Chinese, I wander a more sparsely populated in-between with its own set of problems. I slowly dissolve the connections with pre-Eason friends. They will disintegrate either way, such is the nature of adulthood, but it’s vital for me to move forward and make post-Eason connections. It means, like many immigrants do, moving on with the cultural memory of our past and shelving them underneath the ones we want to build. We leave behind our treasure chest filled with our childhood streets, teenage albums, movies that we saw as a family in the cinema. Events and actor names which garner zero cool points in the new country are stored there too.

My post-Eason times are not a walk in the park. While both necessary and a poor choice of word, ‘assimilation’ is not easy. Not for me, at eighteen; not for my younger brother, at thirteen; not for my parents, in their fifties. It’s difficult enough to catch up on a culture’s past, the terabytes of cultural history that one missed out on while living one’s life, ignorant of the world around them. It’s worse when I feel guilty and embarrassed for not knowing AC/DC, Peter Garrett, or Regurgitator as I try to make new friends. To rectify this, I to listen to Triple-J whenever I can, which is car rides with mum, her air-miles log thicker than mine, a life moving from continent to continent. At home, I work my way through Simon and Garfunkel as well as Bob Dylan. My father, who grew up in a more British-tinged Malaysia, is happy I’m discovering The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. After university tutorials, I hope that the people I have been miraculously invited to coffee with will brings these bands up so I can contribute to conversations. I want to say that I, too, have heard of John Butler, Missy Higgins, and Tame Impala. Despite my social timidity and an uncomfortably long settling in period, Australians take me in sooner or later. With increasing frequency, I do both the coffee and the name-checking. People are impressed, doubly so because “I’m not from here.”

It is 2012 and I’m walking around Sydney’s Chinatown. Posters and bills fight for space on the construction boards. One of them has Eason Chan’s face on it, his name in Chinese and English.

I haven’t listened to him at all for three or four years. The last time he was brought up was at a house party in Ottawa, Canada, where I spent a semester on exchange. A Canadian with roots in Hong Kong performed an elaborate bro-shake with me the minute he realised I had connections to the country. For whatever reason, he was the one visible person of colour in a sea of Caucasians and this only made him more excited to converse in Cantonese. The feeling was mutual as I didn’t have any Cantonese-speaking friends in Sydney. We swapped Hong Kong histories, a summary of our movements, and our interests in Hong Kong music.

In my company was an Australian girl of Hong Kong origin with limited Cantonese. The Canadian, partially inebriated, brushed her off and slung an arm around my shoulder to declare that we were the carriers of authentic Cantonese. He told her to 收皮 sau1 pei4, which literally translates to ‘keep your skin’ and serves as an insult. It was said in drunken jest but it had a lot of bite. Nevertheless, I forget an entire past of people laughing at my speech and accept the validation.

I remember this as I look up Eason’s output since 2008. There’s a lot more Mandarin albums, no doubt to capitalise on the growing mainland China market. He’s still on the same track of making things poppier and funkier and a lot of songs have drum machines. My music tastes have gone a whole other way. I attend festivals where young men wear maroon shorts and young women dance with flowers in their hair, to quote The Lumineers. I go to Big Day Out with a cork hat and watch from afar as a flamboyant man leads an impromptu dance group while Arcade Fire plays in the background. In the parlance of Bourdieu, I have cultural capital and Eason didn’t do an iota to budge the scale.

In view of this, the offer doesn’t need to be made twice. There’s absolutely no way that I’m going to his show but I’m intrigued at the idea anyway. I can’t help but imagine the money he’d make, a huge throng of fans going to the arena, black or dyed hair on every head. I don’t know if the fact that it’s in Sydney makes it a juxtaposition or a reflection: are we giving people the chance to celebrate international cultures, or are we closing ourselves out from others?

I’m copying a page from my Chinese textbook onto a blank notebook to practice writing and reading. It is 2013 and Eason Chan fills the room in my shared townhouse in an inner-west Sydney suburb.

Everybody in my family rejoices that I’m learning Mandarin. My Malaysian cousins attend in Chinese schools. When I visit, they sit me down and write words and ask me to read them. They do this because they think it’s funny I’m a ‘banana’—yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Their parents, my uncles and aunties, mock me too. Having already wasted my high school talent in math to an undergraduate degree in French and Linguistics, they take every opportunity to tell me how Mandarin will take over the world. The fact that I’m housemates with a Caucasian Australian doing her doctorate in Chinese Studies helps their argument. Cultural capital be damned, only economic capital puts food on the table, they say.

I feel bemused, remembering my maternal grandmother and her didactic lessons. Caught in a lie, she would sigh and remind me that Tang people don’t lie. Refusing to eat a certain type of dish, she’d sternly tell me that Tang people eat whatever’s on the table. Every individual lesson was placed in a larger context of the Tang people—the name of the group of Han Chinese who flourished during the Tang dynasty, a Cantonese-speaking era.

I have studied enough nationalism to know that people back then didn’t necessarily refer to themselves as 中国人 or ‘Chinese.’ They were people of their clan or village first, Chinese second. Before nationalism was a tool, before ROC and PRC feuds, a time before the Great Leap Forward, southern migrants sailing out of China didn’t call Mandarin their mother tongue. The difference with their northern counterparts was night and day. They wouldn’t have been able to understand each other and they still don’t.

My father tells me my last name is a rare Cantonese name, a name that immediately points my origins in South China, to a county called Hokshan. He deciphers the traditional script of our family name, 麥, for any Mak he encounters. In it is the entire patriarchal history of our line, of how a framed general not named Mak had to flee south from the emperor in the north. A bounty out on nine generations of everyone who held the original clan’s name, all the little people (人) hid in a big (大) field as the sun turned it the colour of a sunset (夕). For the rest of world history, they would bear this new family name, the original one lost to slaughter or fear of persecution.

I like stories like these too much. It fits our lives so perfectly, explaining the constant movement of the Maks, the way I simply can’t grow roots, my secret fetish for visa applications. Yet, after centuries of speaking Cantonese, often-called the original Mandarin by my father and plenty of others on heated Internet forums, I find myself in a Mandarin class because it’s simply impossible to find a Cantonese lesson anywhere. For language learners, there is neither cultural nor economic benefit.

In class, I’m one of two Chinese people there, the other being the teacher. It feels like I’m cheating because I have no trouble producing the tones. Nonetheless, I have to adjust to the different grammar and refrain from translating to and from Cantonese. To help me remember vocabulary, I look for Eason’s older Mandarin albums, in which he re-records songs that he first did in Cantonese. The melodies remain the same, though since I now know more Mandarin than literary Cantonese, I understand Eason more. 90% of his songs are sad songs.

It is 2014 and I’m watching the Umbrella Movement unfold on a television in a Montreal Chinatown restaurant with my girlfriend. We come here rather often and I’m like a peacock flashing my tail. Now that I’m far away from family, Chinatown is the only place I use Cantonese. Boosted by the attention and awe that my partner gives me whenever I speak a language she doesn’t speak, I use it to get a table for two, to order food that isn’t on the menu, to get the bill.

Both the images on the muted television and my girlfriend’s questions bring me back to the island. I tell her, as I’ve told many people about, the differences between Chinese and Cantonese, between Hong Kong and China, between the diaspora and those who stayed behind. Coming in under the gates that welcome people into Chinatown, I explain why the three words, ‘唐人街’ that adorn the arch don’t really mean Chinatown but ‘Tang People Street.’ I try to position myself amongst all these different groups for her to see me better, but also because the exercise reminds me of who I am, even as I live in a city where I teach English and speak French.

Back home, I play LMF for my girlfriend. A rap collective, Lazymuthafucka railed against multiple facets of Hong Kong society including the media, the music industry, the Miss Hong Kong beauty pageants, and even Westernized Asians like me. Cantopop was not built around the idea of a band playing instruments with a singer performing songs they wrote. LMF not only did so but varied stylistically, employing everything from standard pop chord structures to nu-metal riffing to techno beats in their fight against the establishment. Eason Chan was a whole world away from this.

I pit the familiar language of LMF against the literary language of Eason Chan and his songwriters. Unlike LMF, Cantopop uses literary Cantonese, taught in schools in Hong Kong and possibly nowhere else in the world. It is the language of poetry and idioms, of news reporters, of comedians when they imitate politicians or when shifting a register will get them a laugh. It is the spoken word of dramas set hundreds of years ago, where actors sleep on bamboo pillows and gaze at the moon before executions. I explain to my girlfriend that these are worlds I never inhabited, sticking to vernacular-filled hair salons, working-class restaurants, and arcades where we raced our customized Initial D cars. In these places, the verb for ‘to be,’ the most essential of verbs was 係 (hai6) and not 是 (si6). When I want to negate something, I use 唔 (m4) instead of 不 (bat1). This I only realise when I watch Eason do a live rendition of ‘K歌之王’ (’Karaoke King’) on YouTube. In this version, he sings the final line as ‘K歌之王 / 係我’ (“The karaoke king is me”) instead of ‘K歌之王 / 是我’ as it is on the record. Hearing this, I finally see the story, like removing the scaffolding to reveal the building behind.

Whenever I sing Eason songs for my audience of one, she doesn’t care that I mumble in some parts or scat ladala to the melody. Nor does she mind that I don’t know the meanings of the songs I sing. She says it’s no different to the French people in her country of birth, where people sing Rage Against The Machine at festivals without a clue what the lyrics mean. Using the terms of my job, comprehension doesn’t necessarily lead to production, nor does production necessarily mean comprehension.

Eason has a higher play count than LMF on my music player in our apartment. Cantopop fits better than the anger of LMF in the love nest that we’ve built. It is about heterosexual love in all its forms, the before and during and after, the unrequited and the missed connections. Despite multiple tour revivals and singles here and there, LMF are but a few fading neurons. In their 30s and 40s, some of them now sport thick-rimmed glasses. No one has dyed hair anymore. MC Yan sports a ponytail and a long grey beard that suggests he meditates on mountains to erhus played by angels. Kevin Li, the drummer who was formerly interviewed on the LMF documentary, 大你, cradling a pet snake, has an Instagram account on which he is pictured playing drums for Leo Ku. On a similar note, Davy, the drummer on the opposite side of the stage is credited as a major composer for Sammi Cheng, one of Cantopop’s queens. Of course, he’s also composed for Eason Chan. Cantopop is big. Cantopop is circular. Cantopop is love. Cantopop is money.

Cantopop is Eason Chan.

It is early 2018 and I am in Malaysia, in a car with friends from middle school. Our chatter is sepia-tinged. Connected via an auxiliary cable to the car’s sound system is Spotify on my phone. Everyone’s tastes are different but we share the same childhood soundtrack that heavily features Eason Chan. Our heads tingle in the way that old songs you know the words to can make them tingle.

I draw a map in the air with my fingers to fill them in on my life. These were the same people who used to call me 鬼佬 (gwai2 lou2, devil) back when we were younger as banter. I was the kid with the irregular number on his identification card, the boy with a weird first name, the one who wouldn’t go on to college to study a Chinese-favoured money-making degree. They ask me if I still speak Cantonese and I do a demonstration. My friend’s wife tells me I sound like a Hong Konger. Another friend’s girlfriend says I sound like a Caucasian. I hide the fact that I’ve been studying Mandarin on and off for four years and I’m not sure why.

I get a request from someone in the back of the car to put on ‘最佳损友’ (zeoi3 gaai1 syun2 jau5). I suspect the reason my friend wants it on because its first few lines reaffirms Eason’s friendship with the addressee of the song. Cantopop is also big on songs about friends and I know he intends to crystallise the moment—old friends on a road trip, the once in a decade time we are all here together. In fact, my Chinese studies have revealed that ‘最佳损友’ means ‘the best worst friend.’ It is a heart-wrenching song, one lamenting the parting of best friends. I don’t tell him this and sing along anyway, high on nostalgia. I need the latter a lot to wash over other negative feelings.

I have broken up with my girlfriend. The day she moves out, the Chinese removalist asks her where her boyfriend is from. After she tells him I’m Cantonese, the removalist laughs and says ‘ah, you mean Chinese.’ Two facts, both left uncorrected for different reasons. It stings like a Cantopop music video in slow motion.

Eventually, we say teary byes. In Cantonese, one says 不见不散 (bat1 gin3 bat saan3). No meeting, no separation. All my life I thought it was meant to be said at farewells, to mean it’s impossible to separate if one never met. In it, I saw the bittersweet taste of having to say bye to people you grow close with, how some people say it’s better to have met than to never have met at all. In reality, the idiom is used when making appointments, to mean let’s not leave without seeing each other, or be there or be square. I like my version.

In order to write this, I listen to Eason Chan’s entire discography on Spotify, all the singles, albums, and compilations. I haven’t changed my mind: nothing post-2008 manages to hook me. I keep returning to songs of the late 90s and early 00s. ‘明年今日’ in particular gets me every time, as I sit on an uncomfortable chair in a Japanese apartment the shape of a square box. It has The National-worthy lyrics, capturing the mood of a post-breakup meandering heart. In essence, the title itself (“this time next year”) is enough to convey the way life is simultaneously smashed down like a nail and yet bursts open into a million possibilities after a breakup. I decide to move back to Melbourne, not even bothered to consider whether ‘back’ is appropriate. Let’s do this one more time.

Going down the rabbit hole, I stumble upon an interview with Eason. The moment he speaks I do that double take I have tried to get rid of for so long. It happens whenever someone who has my skin tone speaks in an accent that isn’t inflected by an Asian language’s phonetics. I can’t help it, I grew up in Asia. The fact is this: Eason speaks English like an Englishman. He name checks Lenny Kravitz and Nirvana. When he says Jamiroquai I learn that it’s not even Jamiro-kwhy. He encourages people to listen to whatever they like and has no qualms with people disrespecting Cantopop.

I take a deep breath. This piece is nearly done now and when it is, I’ll look for something else to play. Something that isn’t Eason, something that is in a language that doesn’t use tones.

Shall we talk? Give me Wilco, give me Shintaro Sakamoto, give me Dear Criminals. Throat singing, gnawa, didgeridoos. Hook me up with Julia Stone, Violent Soho, Camp Cope. Your Flumes, your King Gizzards, your bearded ukulele pop stars. Life goes on. Eason will be there when it does.


About the author

Joel Mak is a teacher and writer. Most recently, he has had work published in carte blanche, Litbreak Magazine, Memoir Mixtapes. Currently living in Melbourne, he is a local of Ipoh, Sydney, and Montreal. He occasionally tweets @JoelMakWrites.

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