Featuring Eastern Margins founder David Zhou, photographer Min Sett Hein, and musicians princess xixi and LVRA
Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here.
The last five years have seen the birth of a fresh wave of East and South-East Asian-led music initiatives in the UK. From London-based label and platform Eastern Margins to club nights like GGI and Bitten Peach, there’s been an explosion of underground scenes and micro-communities celebrating ESEA music and its diaspora, elevating local talent and fostering much-needed spaces for a new generation of artists.
This has emerged concurrently with the rise of KPop and K-HipHop, with groups such as BTS and Blackpink dominating the global music scene. Not to mention US ESEA artists such as 88Rising shining a commercial light onto Asian artists and ESEA-focused events. While these global influences have brought on mainstream recognition, there’s also a risk of ESEA diasporic culture being misunderstood or oversimplified. “Sometimes, there’s pressure to fit into specific moulds or conform to certain images that may not truly represent the diversity within the ESEA community,” says London-based, Burmese photographer Min Sett Hein. “We’re all unique individuals with our own stories and experiences, so it’s important to embrace our authenticity and not let anyone put us in a box.”
“Not all representation is necessarily good, and the hyperreal ‘idols’ of K-pop I do not believe represent or contribute to the wider understanding of ESEA identity and experience, particularly of diaspora, despite its grounding in Western genres,” adds Chinese-Scottish artist LVRA, whose debut EP soft like steel was released on Eastern Margins’ imprint earlier this year.
Below, we four UK artists – Eastern Margins founder David Zhou, aka Lumi, photographer Min Sett Hein, and musicians princess xixi and LVRA – reflect on the UK ESEA experience and the importance of fostering their own diasporic identity independent from global ESEA culture.
DAVID ZHOU AKA LUMI, EASTERN MARGINS FOUNDER
David Zhou: I’m always grateful for the openness and solidarity that permeates the ESEA Music community in the UK. I think it comes from a shared understanding we’re trying to create a space from nothing – building a community where none was afforded to us. It’s not a zero-sum game, we can all grow together.
For myself, a big evolution over the last five years has been more interaction and exchange with the scenes and artists located in East and South-East Asia itself. I think any diasporic identity that is isolated from the culture of its home countries can ring hollow – otherwise identity is just an exercise in self-promotion.
The rise of global movements such as American Asian culture/ KPop is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the prominence of these movements has been hugely important in building a foundation of understanding of East and South-East Asian culture in British society. And they’re hugely inspirational in terms of placing East and South-East Asian culture on a global platform. But these movements are also cultural juggernauts that sometimes feel like they exert a supermassive gravitational pull, limiting the space for us to foster our own diasporic identity in the UK. They provide an easy blueprint for us to fall into, but can be like a phantom limb, creating nostalgia and longing for a life we’ve never lived.
Any global movement of that size necessarily leads to homogeneity, not nuance. One of the things we’re very sensitive to at Eastern Margins is not portraying the breadth and depth of cultures from East and South-East Asia as one uniform identity. We want to celebrate diversity, not erase it.
PRINCESS XIXI, MUSICIAN
Princess Xixi: The UK ESEA Music community has definitely come a long way, and in a lot of ways this is a reflection of BESEA (British East and Southeast Asian) history as a whole. Collectives and events like Eastern Margins and GGI have definitely done a lot for us and helped us start to carve out a distinct musical identity, but more than that they've helped provide us with community and spaces that we've desperately needed.
The idea of BESEA identity hasn't really been a thing until quite recently. ESEA communities in the UK traditionally existed in scattered pockets across the country, with communities generally formed across ethnicity and nationality rather than race – some examples are Koreatown in New Malden, and the large Filipino community in West London.
Collectives like Eastern Margins were already bringing ESEA people in the UK together, but I think the pandemic definitely accelerated things and galvanised the community in a way that just never happened before. Music's been such a big way for the community to connect, even collectives like ESEA Sisters (big up x) who aren't explicitly music–focused will put on events like gigs, raves and radio shows – there's a power in music that the BESEA community has started tapping into in a big way. I could name so many BESEA artists I fully expect to see making major waves in the next few years (and I will lol Lucy Tun, Henjila, Lila Yin, Tamara Cañada, Jason Kwan, LVRA, and soooo many more).
I think it can be tempting for a lot of British ESEA people to look to ESEA representation outside of the UK – I still remember the chokehold 88rising had on us back in 2016. However I don't necessarily think UK ESEA artists by and large are trying to copy or mould themselves to a K-pop/Asian American template – some of the biggest British ESEA artists like Rina Sawayama and beabadoobee are almost completely divorced from that cultural context and there's a huge amount of sonic diversity and experimentation within the scene.
For a long time, due to British ESEA identity not being anywhere as well defined, codified or written about our Asian American counterparts, it was hard for me personally to develop a strong sense of community or identity, and I know a lot of my friends feel the same. But it's through music that so many of us have been able to reach each other in ways we couldn't before, communicate our experiences in ways that give us much–needed comfort and solidarity and, hopefully, help the younger generation of BESEA kids understand themselves in ways that we couldn't.
LVRA: The UK ESEA music community has grown exponentially over the last few years thanks to the emergence of key communities such as Eastern Margins, ESEA Music, GGI, Bitten Peach to name a few. I believe their growth has been driven and supported by factors such as improved social dialogue around the ESEA and AAPI experience, increased representation and visibility of ESEA figures within the entertainment industry and the successes of adjacent communities that have inspired the creation of our own spaces.
I think there are a few specific barriers that the ESEA community have faced which explain why the growth of these creative communities is such a recent phenomenon - firstly the cultural barrier of pursuing non-traditional and creative careers means that despite having a significant population in the UK, a relatively small portion pursue a creative career, particularly from a young age.
“The important thing to rememeber is how different the experiences are even within the ESEA community itself, both amongst East and South East Asians, but also the experiences of those born in Asia, the US and the UK” – LVRA
Secondly, I believe that the ESEA population is one of the most dispersed in the UK, and I often hear echoes of my own experience of growing up as the ‘only Asian kid’ in my area, which, paired with the infrequency of finding creative counterparts, has made it physically difficult to connect and sustain communities. The communities that exist now are truly international and diverse, but are heavily focused in London – although there are definitely communities forming in other cities such as Glasgow and Manchester too. Ultimately I think the increased reliance on the internet and social media during COVID encouraged long-distance connections which, once lockdown ended, turned into communities that saw a huge demand from ESEA creatives all over the country.
MIN SETT HEIN, PHOTOGRAPHER
Min Sett Hein: The ESEA music scene in the UK is seriously on fire right now! It may not be fully mainstream yet, but in this day and age of thriving micro-communities, ESEA music has found a solid place here with some incredible support circles. The emergence of groups like the ESEA music writing camp has given artists, instrumentalists, and producers from ESEA backgrounds a platform to showcase their talent and take it to the next level.
Eastern Margins and ChinaBot are really shaping the scene at the moment, introducing us to great artists like LVRA, LCYTN, Jianbo, and mind-blowing DJs/performers like Princess Xixi and Jaeho Hwang. And there are also awesome event runners like Asian Tones, who are giving us unforgettable shows with singer-songwriters and artists like Henjila, Tamara Cañada, GZ Tian, and many more. It's safe to say that the ESEA music community has gone through some major changes in the last five years. As an ESEA photographer, it's been an absolute joy working with these talented artists and witnessing their growth. From intimate gigs in small venues to selling out shows at the Colour Factory, the evolution has been incredible.
The impact of American Asian culture on the ESEA community in the UK has been significant. Many ESEA individuals, including myself, have been influenced by American Asian artists and creators across various art forms. From music to film, fashion to food, there’s a growing appreciation for the contributions of American Asian culture. Many ESEA rappers and freestylers I know grew up watching guys like Dumbfoundead and Traphik spit their rhymes and tell their stories. Their artistry has resonated with many of us and prompted us to start our own creative journeys.
We’ve seen K-Pop groups like BTS and Blackpink dominate the global music scene, but it’s important to highlight the diverse range of Korean music beyond the mainstream. Last year, we were fortunate to witness incredible performances by the Korean music collective Balming Tigers and the Korean indie rock band Se So Neon right here in the UK. These talented artists brought the vibrant and diverse Korean music scene to life, leaving a lasting impact on the ESEA diasporic identity.
Korean club nights have become a thing, and Korean culture has made a massive impact across the UK. I mean, they're even selling a Korean-inspired Gochujang Pork Wrap at Tesco now! It’s amazing to see how Korean culture is spreading and becoming more accessible.
But, of course, with popularity comes the risk of certain aspects being misunderstood or even exploited. Take that Korean-inspired Gochujang Pork Wrap, for example. It’s great that Korean flavours are getting recognised, but it’s important to ensure that the cultural essence is respected and not just used for commercial gain. And then there are cases like Oli London, an internet personality who identifies as South Korean despite being white. It can be a bit confusing and sometimes raises questions about cultural appropriation. It’s definitely a topic that sparks a range of opinions and feelings.