Eastern Margins: A family, gathering
This article is taken from Issue 126, which is free to pick up at over 600 UK stockists. You can also get your copy via our online store.
As we approach the end of 2021, it’s difficult to shake off the lingering feeling of unease. Around the world, the devastation of the pandemic is being dealt with in different ways: controlled, locked down or easing out. The source of the virus is still unknown, but throughout the course of the past two years, East and Southeast Asian people have continuously been painted as targets for allegedly creating a deadly illness.
The issue of safety, or a lack thereof, has been at the forefront of news cycles this year. Hate crimes and violence against East and Southeast Asian people have taken on a new form as Covid-related scapegoating. In March 2021, the diaspora was rocked by one particular atrocity. The Atlanta shootings: where eight people were killed in a racially motivated attack. Six of them were Asian women.
© He Xin Run
Club culture has traditionally served as a sanctuary for marginalised communities; a place in which to feel safe, unrestrained, and, crucially, seen. But in the age of lockdowns, these physical spaces are problematised. In the pre-pandemic era, some corners of club culture had even strayed from its original intent, instead becoming breeding grounds for exclusion. In the UK, it isn’t uncommon for myself, a first-generation Chinese woman, to experience racialised harassment that often stems from the male fetishisation of Asian women and femme-presenting people. I often find myself being the only visibly East Asian person on the dancefloor – or one of very few. If dancefloors are built for moments of catharsis, where do these moments exist alongside the hyper-vigilance that’s required to dance without risk in these spaces? Real catharsis can be found in solidarity and understanding, but these dancefloors generally haven’t existed for East and Southeast Asian people. That is, until one UK collective decided to build their own home in the underground scene.
Eastern Margins started out as a London-based collective, fostering a much-needed community for East and Southeast Asian ravers. In 2018, in the lead-up to the Lunar New Year, co-founders David Zhou and Anthony Ko found themselves faced with a woefully limited choice of parties. “The options were to go to [karaoke bar] KTV – which you can do any other day of the year – or go to an ABACUS [Association of British and Chinese University Students] event…” Zhou recalls with a dry laugh. “There was nothing that spoke to us [in terms of] the kind of music and culture we enjoyed. This was also a time when a lot of underground scenes in East and Southeast Asia were blossoming.”
© He Xin Run
Inspired by emerging groups working within these scenes – like Shanghai’s Genome 6.66 Mbp and Hangzhou’s FunctionLab – Zhou and Ko set up an Instagram page and held their own Lunar New Year party weeks later. The event, which took place at east London basement Jaguar Shoes, became the genesis of what would later grow into a platform, label, community and event series. In the small, 150-capacity room, sets were helmed by a range of pop-leaning artists, like yeule, BBC AZN Network’s 2Shin, Eri Yeti from Yeti Out, and Organ Tapes. The speakers may have broken and the crossfaders malfunctioned, but the very first Eastern Margins night was a resounding success. “The thing I remember from that night was the overwhelming consensus from people [saying] that they hadn’t experienced anything similar,” Zhou says, gesturing with his hands to find the words. “A real sense of shared, lived experience. We all felt slightly isolated or outside of the existing ecosystems. People wanted this space to express themselves.”
“I don’t want Eastern Margins to be characterised by our struggle. This is the thing we’re trying to escape”
– David Zhou
Driven by the success of their Lunar New Year party, Zhou and Ko began programming more events. Familiar faces returned, forming the basis of their newfound community, and the core collective expanded with members including Arya Rinaldo, Thattharit Sawangpanich, Elaine Zhao, Patrick Wu and Jex Wang. Wang, who was born in Australia and moved to Berlin in 2020, remembers this time fondly. “I was just shocked. I was like, ‘What do you mean there’s an actual collective that highlights East and Southeast Asian artists?’ So I DM’d and was like, ‘Hey, I have a lot of experience running events. Let me join.’” DJing, Wang explains, was a craft that was gatekept from them until they met the collective. “Back in Melbourne, I used to live with two white guy DJs and they refused to help me,” Wang eye-rolls. “When I joined Eastern Margins, Patrick [Wu] was like, this is how you do it. I thought, ‘These people are really inclusive. They’re supportive.’” Then they chuckle: “Now I have too many radio shows, but it’s good!”
Sawangpanich, who was born in London and whose family originates from Thailand, shares these feelings of camaraderie. “I’d never experienced the things that Eastern Margins offers. It was an awakening,” he smiles. “There’s more to offer from where I’m from. The main reason for me to be a part of this is that I get to represent something bigger than myself, and other people can be part of it too.” On a Zoom call with several of the collective’s members, Ko describes the group as a family. Zhou reaffirms that sentiment: “The closest analogy is like a chaotic family with a lot of relatives.”
As Eastern Margins grew out of the basement and into a wider creative platform, this idea of building a community with a familial atmosphere became the group’s ethos. “I was born in China and grew up [in the UK]. My start in club culture was 2009 onwards, when dubstep was splintering off,” Zhou explains. “Hessle nights – that kind of sound. For me, those nights were really formative for what I see as successful music communities. The whole scene wasn’t bound by genre, it was completely open to experimentation.”
© He Xin Run
Zhou decided to build upon the openness he felt on those nights and adapt it to the Eastern Margins family. “Eastern Margins isn’t so bound by club culture. It’s not so much a clubbing experience as it is a community experience. Loads of people’s first time touching a CDJ will be at a show, because why not? It’s not about your technical abilities.”
Distinctions aside, Hessle Audio’s genre-skimming approach can also be found in the collective’s label releases. First launching with Ill Japonia’s LP Ill in 2020, Eastern Margins put out their first compilation, Redline Legends, this past August. The 12-track release races through genres you’d seldom hear in the West: from Indonesian funkot to Vietnamese vinahouse, Filipino budots to Malaysian manyao. While Redline Legends is, as the album’s description notes, a reclamation of sounds from East and Southeast Asian countries, the collective refuse to be defined by one particular aesthetic. Authentic representation and collaboration are the key tenets behind the group’s approach. For Rinaldo, who was born in Indonesia, the compilation has provided a way to “reconnect with a sound that was there from the beginning”, one that he had “never really paid much attention to”.
Zhou echoes this sentiment; however, he asserts that it’s not a requirement to join Eastern Margins: “I don’t think we would ask any artist we work with to play sounds from East and Southeast Asia. We don’t want to exotify ourselves. But I think it’s like the chicken and egg because we have a reputation for showcasing culture from that region, so the type of people who resonate with our mission also like showcasing it.”
© He Xin Run
As the collective expands their network, its members are also broadening their knowledge. “Even us at Eastern Margins, we fundamentally are still outsiders too,” Zhou says. “I’ve never been to Malaysia. We’re still removed from those local scenes, so it’s important that we try to elevate the voices of local artists, and try to tell the story in a way that doesn’t force a narrative.”
Forced narratives are an ongoing issue that East and Southeast Asian people have more visibly experienced of late. In the US, Donald Trump fanned the flames of Covid-fuelled racism by repeatedly referring to the virus as “kung flu”. Amidst the increasing levels of discrimination and harassment globally, narratives devised to work against our communities were formulated and spread. That China was “draconian” for enforcing lockdown measures; that East and Southeast Asian people caused the outbreak of coronavirus by consuming bats.
In June, Eastern Margins collaborated with Boiler Room to host the fundraiser Respect Our Elders: a series of intergenerational collaborations. It was designed to raise money for the charities Kanlungan, CAAAV and Hackney Chinese Community Services, all of which seek to uplift East and Southeast Asian communities around the world. But Eastern Margins don’t wish to be defined by suffering. “I don’t want Eastern Margins to be characterised by our struggle. This is the thing we’re trying to escape,” Zhou says emphatically.
“There’s more to offer from where I’m from. I get to represent something bigger than myself, and other people can be part of it too”
– Thattharit Sawangpanich
It’s a common issue that communities of colour face. As long as representation remains limited, our racial identities are, in the public consciousness, seen as monolithic and one-dimensional. “Our perspective is to try to [showcase] the richness of different cultures and try to bring those stories to people in a way where they look at it and think, ‘I didn’t actually realise that,’” Zhou says. Ko furthers the explanation: “We’re trying to represent the diversity of our community, as well as trying to break away from this overarching homogeneity, and show that we all have our own interests; to be able to represent that in terms of music we’re putting out, but also geographically.”
Towards the end of the call, the group reveal they’re soon reuniting in London for a 12-hour rave which features both Eastern Margins and South Asian collective Daytimers on takeover duty. Then, talk turns to where they’ll meet: perhaps Wanyoo? The internet café they “always go to” – or maybe the Super Three restaurant that fuses together different cuisines, offering Chinese hotpot with Korean barbecue and, surprisingly, a pub garden. For many East and Southeast Asian people, these places are meeting grounds for shared culinary customs, where we cook together in the centre of the table and offer food to our neighbour. Though everyone has their own tastes, it feels like our kind of normal.
© He Xin Run
This is what collectives like Eastern Margins are striving to do: carve out a space in which underrepresented artists are free to express themselves and convey their own vision, free of any projections placed upon them. A creative zone, stripped of the hostility and misunderstanding Asian people face. Who would we be then? The approach, when clarified, feels, well, humanising in its simplicity. “As a collective,” Wang says, “we need to keep showing the world more East and Southeast Asian people – and what they do.”