Published Jan 11, 2021At the start of 2020, Hua Li 化力 worried helplessly from half a world away as her grandmother and other Wuhan relatives went under lockdown during the early days of COVID-19. The Victoria-born, Montreal-based R&B and rap artist had plans to write and sing about her family's homeland during a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts that March.
As the virus began worsening, Hua Li would have abandoned her plans to be with her Wuhan family, telling Exclaim! she felt a "painful urge to go." But, by that time, flights had been barred. Before long, Banff had also been shut down in what Hua Li recalls as "pandemonium" that left the typically esteemed centre feeling "very chaotic." Then, she was back in Victoria to isolate with her parents — a period of anxious monotony that prompted her to write much of what became Yellow Crane, an EP doubling as a love letter to the central Chinese city that infamously became ground zero for the pandemic.
Released this past November, Yellow Crane is a masterful ode to Wuhan — the home of hot dry noodles (reganmian), a thriving punk rock scene, and 1911's dynasty-toppling Wuchang Uprising. Over four ethereally produced tracks, Hua Li's rugged yet nuanced vocals and lyrics not only build intricate metaphors about the notorious Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River that flows into Wuhan, they also vividly depict the way Asian people around the world have felt scapegoated since President Donald Trump began bandying about terms like "Chinese virus" and "kung flu." Yellow Crane is named after a famed tower in Wuhan, the restoration of which was guided in part by Hua Li's grandfather.
When thinking back on exploring Wuhan's pandemic themes during her Victoria isolation, Hua Li says, "I was feeling multitudes of grief." At the time, she was living with her ill father while fretting about her grandmother back in China, with scant information about how the still-new virus might threaten those vulnerable relatives. "Because we knew so little about the pandemic at the time, it was extra anxiety-inducing," she recalls. That increasing dread was "compounded by extra isolation, because I was staying across the country from my support network in Montreal." Thankfully, her Banff stint had been so galvanizing, "I tried to channel that into writing because I couldn't do much else."
She tried to while away the endless quarantine monotony with music that might offer some catharsis — but it wasn't easy. Her longtime producer, Gloze, was isolating back in Montreal, making their typically in-person working arrangement impossible. However, Hua Li was floored by what she describes as the "luscious synth-generated string breakdowns" and smatterings of electric guitar that Gloze added to his hazy electronic repertoire for Yellow Crane.
She further stepped out of her comfort zone by recording her first-ever song in Mandarin — a language that she is fluent in speaking but unable to read — with a cover of "Electronic Girl" by Wuhan indie rockers Chinese Football. That band's singer-bassist, Xu Bo, told Exclaim! via Chinese social media platform WeChat that Hua Li's "strong Wuhan accent" made her dance-inspired cover "feel very familiar."
Her accent is thoroughly Wuhanese, based on the Chinese she was raised with, but she says, with a laugh, that she "freaked local people out" whenever she returned to China for family visits as a mixed-race expat.
Once the pandemic improves, Hua Li hopes to visit Wuhan and perform Yellow Crane's tracks for Chinese audiences. She has yet to attend the notoriously rough-and-tumble underground live houses that helped Wuhan earn its reputation as China's punk rock capital, though she longs to do so; she also hopes to explore Beijing's famed shoegaze scene and Chengdu's trap-inclined hip-hop clubs.
Instead, Hua Li's prior China trips have involved "being elbow deep in shrimp to help with family feasts at my grandma's home." She even recalls visiting the Wuhan wet market that the pandemic is said to have sprung from with her relatives to buy ingredients for many Lunar New Year feasts.
Those relatives, according to Hua Li, are supportive of her music, albeit a bit mystified by its hip-hop leanings. They were enthralled with her Mandarin debut on "Electronic Girl," however, and wondered if she had tried posting it on Douyin, the Chinese precursor of TikTok. She laughs at recalling how she told those family members: "We have TikTok in Canada too! While my Instagram is popping, I had to draw a line with TikTok. So, I'm sorry, five-to-17-year-old market — unless a kid wants to do a dance challenge to my songs, I just can't deal with another social media platform."
Hua Li's label arranged for her music to stream on some Chinese platforms, though because of her informal upbringing with the language, she says, "Navigating Chinese social media is difficult, and I don't feel deeply connected to the music scene there. Which I find hurtful, but I'm working on it."
Another hurdle between Hua Li and her dreams of performing for to Wuhan audiences: China's censorship regulations, particularly for foreign acts, who must have their lyrics officially vetted before each gig. She says, "That's daunting for me, because I don't find my lyrical content to be controversy-free. I'm not saying anything negative about the Communist Party, but I am an openly queer woman who sometimes talks about my sexuality in an overt light. And I don't know how that would be perceived by state officials."
So, despite Hua Li's deep desire to tour China, "I always wonder how possible that is, given the honesty in my music. There's often the question: could I be loved by my own people?"
According to Deng Ge, one of Wuhan's leading rap moguls, the answer is a resounding yes. A music promoter and founder of the all-female hip-hop group Bad Girls — who gained prominence during the pandemic after NPR reported on her fearless efforts to assist first responders — Deng says Chinese audiences have become quite open and accepting, at least in the underground, even if authorities are not.
Deng appreciates how Hua Li was inspired, in part, by her Wuhanese grandmother to write and record Yellow Crane, adding, "The many people who support Wuhan are very meaningful. Our city was the first to be affected by the pandemic, and now that the virus has caused great harm around the world, we want to support the hearts of those who supported us."
Hua Li should, of course, expect nothing less from her familial home. After all, this was the city that spearheaded the defeat of China's final imperial dynasty. It's where the country's most rugged and long-lasting punk acts were founded and gained prominence.
Or, as Hua Li puts it: "Being a Montrealer, there's something I love about weather extremes." She calls Wuhan "one of the most uncomfortably hottest places I've ever been. It is so unbearably humid in the summer, and that dampness can chill you to the bone in winter. There's something about that intensity that makes for fascinating, resilient people."
There's little wonder then, why Hua Li "desperately wants to go tour Wuhan, and much of China, and make connections there." She says, "Many people describe COVID lockdowns as psychologically unbearable. But Wuhanese are most likely to rise to the occasion, suffer, then laugh and brag about how they did it."