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Tune Glue 019: PUTOCHINOMARICÓN
An interview with the Chinese artist Chenta Tsai (aka PUTOCHINOMARICÓN) about the whiteness of queer spaces, living in the in-between, and exploring their multitudinous identity through music
Chenta Tsai, aka PUTOCHINOMARICÓN, is an artist of the in-between. Born in Taiwan, raised in Madrid, their diasporic position as a Taiwanese immigrant in Spain intersects with their queer identity; the resulting contradictions inform their musical output, a hodgepodge of styles that might be generally termed “hyperpop”. Their 2022 album JÁJÁ ÉQÚÍSDÉ (Distopía Aburrida) saw collaborations with GFOTY, recovery girl, and Tami T, among others in the global hyperpop community that gathered in online parties during the COVID-19 pandemic. James Gui spoke with Chenta on May 24th, 2022 to discuss their experience returning to Taiwan, their relationship with language, and their plans for the future. N.B.: Between their conversation last year and today, they dropped another album with indie pop label Elefant Records titled Afong (Mordió La Mano Del Amo), this time featuring fellow diasporic artist-activists Berna Wang and Paloma Chen.
James Gui: Hey Chenta! How are you?
PUTOCHINOMARICÓN: Fine! I’ve come back to playing live last week, so I was a little bit busy and worried since it’s been a while since I last played. I’ve been in Taiwan, and Spain is a country that works like an algorithm; if you’re far away, you disappear from the map. So I was very scared, because I thought no one was gonna come to the concert, but everything was perfect. How are you?
I’m good, went on a hike this morning! It was nice. But tell me about your time in Taiwan; it seems you had a complicated relationship with being back from what I’ve read.
It was quite an experience, to be honest. I encountered the LGBT scene in Taiwan, which was amazing. I also got to meet Chi Ta-Wei [author of The Membranes], who was the scholar that brought the concept of “queer” to Taiwan, and translated it to kuer / 酷兒 (which is funny because it means cool youth!). I also got to meet a lot of the electronic music scene, like Meuko Meuko, Sonia Calico, who's a genius, and the Final team.
I think that I arrived in Taiwan at an opportune moment when it was thriving. A lot of collectives were doing very interesting things, like Cyber Made, for example. I got to see them at Final, and they were amazing. A lot of venues and programmers were focusing on local talent, especially because of COVID. That fixation towards the artists in Taiwan has made the scene grow.
Had you been to Taiwan before?
Yeah, but only for very short periods of time. I went once every one or two years during the holidays, and I only stayed in my grandparents’ house. So that's why I didn't actually experience the culture in Taiwan, nor did I get to meet my community, you know. Last time was the first time when I started meeting other people and actually connecting with people from my community.
There's a saying in Spanish, which is “abrir un melón.” It means “open a melon,” and you use it when you’re going to talk about very complex things. I think that a lot of melons were opened when I went to Taiwan, especially with the whole POC experience, la racialización.
When I went to Taiwan, it was a very weird experience because we’re so accustomed to being racialized, up to the point where we only understand our bodies from a state of resistance, from a state of tension. And when we go back to our roots, or to a country where a lot of people look like us, we suddenly have this confrontation, a kind of identity crisis, where suddenly we stop being in that constant state of tension and we don’t recognize our bodies anymore. Because for all of our lives we have, in some way or another, sought validation from the hegemonic eye and suddenly, you’re not in that standpoint. Suddenly, you are the majority, and you have to think deeper about who you are as a person.
I think that that happened to me. After two or three months, I was like, “Who am I, in reality? Why is this person in the club not fetishizing me, and suddenly just asking my number, and wanting to be a one night stand?” That was very weird for me, for example. I wrote this album from that perspective, because for once in my life I started to ask myself who I was outside of that resistance.
I think I had a similar experience when I visited. I don’t know if your Mandarin is super good, but mine isn’t. So when I went, everyone just thought I was from Hong Kong, which felt cool; at least they didn’t assume I was American! Just being in a room full of Asians moshing to a local band felt refreshing. And I honestly feel similarly in Korea, even though I’m not Korean at all, which is kind of interesting. People think I’m Korean, and I’m not racialized the same way as I am in America. But going back to your earlier point about the local scene—in the past, you’ve mentioned that the queer community in Taiwan has an odd racial dynamic where a lot of, for example, the most prominent drag queens are white.
Yes. I think that it has to do with the power of the United States, the pressure of imperialism, etc. I think that it’s very difficult to construct a local language when our culture has been historically colonized for so many centuries. There is favoritism here towards white drag artists which I think we don’t really talk about. I suppose it’s how white privilege operates; it’s so hegemonic that even in Taiwan, even in Korea, their presence is still felt. They are the ones that are creating and hosting the parties. They are the ones that are winning the competitions and it’s not a coincidence. This has happened historically.
In this documentary [Frank Simon’s The Queen], Crystal LaBeija talks about how the white queens were always winning because the canon of beauty is whiteness. And funnily enough, I saw this in Taiwan as well. Even though there are some drag artists that, for example, lip sync to Jolin Tsai or A-Mei, there’s still a very huge presence of drag artists who are lip syncing to Lady Gaga, to Katy Perry, who use terminology that is also wrong like “death drop.” It's not a death drop, it’s a dip!
I understand that these influences come from the US mainstream culture. But ballroom has always been POC. It has been reappropriated throughout history by white artists like Madonna. We understand these arts from a white lens, even though they come from a place of resistance created by POCs.
It’s also interesting that in Korea, Itaewon is the district where all the clubs are, a former U.S. military base. It was the presence of this outpost of American imperialism that provided the demand for nightlife and entertainment.
Totally. The most famous clubs in Taiwan, they’re all catered towards white people or ABCs [American-born Chinese]. I really respect Dalida, but it’s true that it’s catered towards white people in reality. Or for example Pawnshop, which is supposed to be one of the most representative clubs in Taiwan. It’s a very colonized space in my opinion, and a lot of people who frequent there are ABCs or white.
And that’s why I say that I come from a place of privilege. When I go to Dalida, when I go to Pawnshop, I ask myself: Where are the locals? Where are the people who don’t speak in English? Where is the working-class LGBT scene? Can they afford to occupy the same space as I am occupying in Dalida, in Pawnshop, when an entrance fee could easily cost you 500 NTD [16 USD]?
I do see a lot of local-scene LGBT people who are trying to project a Taiwanese way of seeing queerness. But it’s difficult especially because when we want to talk about this, we have to acknowledge our own occupancy and colonization of Taiwan, and how we have displaced the Indigenous community in Taiwan. I think that we also need to start there. And there are so many conversations that are connected. I feel like if we want to talk about queerness we have to start from a very uncomfortable place that very few Taiwanese people want to talk about.
The whole notion of “Taiwaneseness” gets really murky once you consider the Indigenous people in Taiwan. Like, what does “local” really mean? You also mentioned ABC in conjunction with white audiences. When you were in Taiwan, were you considered in that category?
Totally. I do feel like I took advantage, in some way, of xenophilia. Even if you are a POC, if you have a Western education or institutional backing they are going to favor you before any other Taiwanese person. I suddenly saw myself in the same position as white people in Spain, in some way. I don’t want to say that reverse racism exists. But my position changed radically.
So what was it like growing up in Spain? Were there many people of your same background?
I think that in Spain, you can see a big divide in the Asian diaspora. A lot of times in activist groups, we talk about how, for example, a lot of a Latine activists are are so unified, they understand each other, and they are organized militantly to respond against racism, and how East Asian people, we are not as organized.
I see. So this is during organizing meetings, right? What organization was it? I’m curious.
It was Li Wai, which is a collective that facilitates East Asian immigrants’ experiences living in Spain, things like dealing with institutions like the immigration office. I really respect them so much. A lot of times I see what’s happening in the States, or what’s happening in the UK, and I am flabbergasted because your organization is impeccable. There’s so many queer club nights, and created by Asian people, which is unimaginable in Madrid.
Did you have culture shock coming back after being in Taiwan for so long?
Yeah, so the first thing that they asked me when they saw my passport was “this person is not you.” And I was like, here we go again. But these two years going back to Taiwan, I see a lot of things that now I understand. And I see them from a more critical perspective, more structural. That was my cultural shock. Before I wrote this album, I wrote another album that was inspired by Chinese folklore. But when I went to Taiwan I noticed how Orientalist my approach was. I have never lived in Taiwan, nor studied the history of Chinese music. And in some way, my approach was very stereotypical, like what a white person would imagine a Chinese culture and Chinese history would be like. So I scrapped it.
And I do notice a tendency of thinking that in order to connect with our identities, we have to orientalize ourselves. I think that we need to be careful. I was talking about this with Chi Ta-Wei about the silkpunk movement, and how silkpunk is not the only way of projecting our future realities. So that’s why I scrapped those pentatonic scales that I was [using], the traditional instruments, and substituted with what I usually do. I was also inspired by Lawrence Lek and his ideas on Sinofuturism. This album is not a response, but it’s a summary of all these questions that have been raised for me.
While you were in Taiwan, did you get a chance to collaborate with any local Taiwanese artists?
We’re actually building a group with Sonia Calico and Byron, who created the Queer Trash party in Taiwan. That project is on standby until I go back to Taiwan. But we've been creating a lot of music together. I am aware that in this album the presence of East Asian people is very small. For this album, I already had the universe created. And these collaborations were set up because we coincided in a lot of virtual parties. But for the next album, I want to feature more East Asian artists and create an image collectively. I think it’s also important to talk about the whiteness of the hyperpop community. There are of course outliers, but we’re still a minority in these spaces.
There’s that tweet by Kalifa (fka Le1f) that’s sort of related to this: “i find hyperpop’s not so much a genre as it is a vehicle for white music to commodify Black and Asian ideas, like seapunk did to Drexciya and witch house did to chop & screw.”
There is such a big difference between getting inspired by East Asian music and Asian-fishing and I think that we’re opening up another a melon over here! I see a lot of white artists who are taking all the stereotypes and tropes derived from the white gaze towards Asian women, no? Role-playing as these infantilized, extremely submissive people. And they are not conscious of the consequences that could derive from Asian fishing. Meanwhile, Asian women continue to suffer from the consequences of racism or fetishization.
So what’s next for you after this album?
I want to experiment more with language. My Chinese is broken, my English is broken, my Spanish is relatively broken as well. And I think that if I want to write an album that represents me, to my core, I have to write in Spanchinglish. If I write an album from that perspective it would be extremely interesting. I also want to decolonize the software that I use. For example, in Ableton when you open it by default, you see that the rhythm is 4x4, and the tuning system is equal temperament. We are working already in a colonized space. I do want to experiment with decolonizing my practice. What software do we use in order to create our arts, our music, etc.?
I have to admit that most of my references come from Spanish and US culture. I wish I could say I grew up watching 小丸子 or 麵包超人, but that wasn’t my reality. So I think that this album is just a very faithful projection of contradictions, where in order to deconstruct, you also need to acknowledge that there’s stuff that you can’t deconstruct, because it forms part of your identity of your core as yourself. I can’t neglect my Spanish part or my Taiwanese part. But for the next album, I want to write it from a Taiwanese perspective, of a diasporic Taiwanese person writing in Taiwan, and working with Taiwanese producers, having cultural references from Taiwan. I want to investigate this not because I want to reconstruct what a Taiwanese person is, which by itself is already a contradiction, but out of a curiosity of understanding where my parents come from and where my roots come from.
With language, it’s like another dimension or layer through which you see yourself. I think that’s gonna be really interesting to work with the next album.
But doesn’t it happen to you that your emotional attachment towards a lot of words are extremely different? Like for example, “我愛你” in Chinese. It means so much more than te quiero in Spanish or I love you in English. I once told my boyfriend that it’s very strange for me to say te quiero and not feel absolutely anything. Because when I express myself emotionally, when I’m angry, I talk in Chinese. So that’s why it's so funny. When I talk to a lot of artists, and they talk about their lyrics, they’re like, oh my gosh, I feel so connected to my lyrics. But in some ways, my lyrics don’t mean anything to me. They’re a cold and technical expression of what I want to express.
For me, lyrics will affect me more if they’re in Chinese. Growing up my parents would always speak to me in Chinese, but I would respond in English. I think when I hear Chinese it affects me a lot more emotionally. Whenever I hear a really sappy lyric or line, maybe someone from China would think it’s cheesy, but I’d be tearing up. Stuff from Wong Kar-wai or Edward Yang films.
Yeah, like listening to “不能說的秘密” by Jay Chou, I was crying so much, and my family was like, this is shit. A lot of people say that I have the Chinese of a 老太太 [old lady]. English, I always compare to the airport, connecting my Spanish and Chinese. And that's why I think that music—and this is so corny, I sound like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music—is such an important part of so many diasporic lives. The lack of emotion in language led me to feel extremely emotional when I was creating music or when I listened to music. That’s why the way my parents punished me was by putting on the soundtrack of the music of Les Misérables. Nothing they would have said could have gotten through. And that’s why I think that this is how I decided to express myself through music. There’s so many things that in Chinese you can’t express in English. There’s so many things in English you can’t express in Spanish. The airport of my language has become music as well, in some way.
Have you ever or do you want to take Chinese classes in the future?
Yeah, I really want to learn Chinese. And also, I really want to learn 台語 [Taiwanese]. Because I always wanted to understand when there was something so incredible—I’m sure that you’ve seen this in Taiwan—when something so incredible has happened, they speak in 台語. So I do want to understand that emotional attachment, you know, to say, oh my gosh, this is so indescribable that I can’t express it in Chinese. I’m going back in August, and I'm going to stay there till February, and I want to learn then.
That sounds great. Looking forward to the next album!
Thank you! You’ve been amazing, and I think that it’s so difficult to connect in this way with a journalist especially in Spain, where they still ask you like, oh, you know, is there racism in Spain? What I want to do in reality is construct our future reality as a diaspora, because I am tired of having to express the past and the present. And suddenly we are not explaining towards the hegemony, but explaining to ourselves. That is the only way to create the future.
I guess on one final note, I was really struck by one of the goals of your album, which was to construct this interstitial space. I think some Asian Americans kind of find it alienating or whatever, not “belonging” to either Asia or America, but recently I’ve been finding comfort in that in-between space. I think it’s a productive space.
Yeah, I think it’s more limiting to think of yourself attached to one place, that we need to assimilate to one place or another. And I think that for example, Legacy Russell in Glitch Feminism, they talk about it a lot, about immateriality, embracing abstraction, and not belonging here nor there is [a form of] accepting abstraction. And accepting that each lived experience is very different, to notice these like little tweaks, little glitches, that make our own lives, como, very site-specific.
I had this fantasy that when I go back to Taiwan, I would feel complete. And I think that we all do when we go back to our homeland or whatever. And then we get hit by a wall. Suddenly you realize that the language and cultural barrier limits your understanding of a lot of your friends, or your friends suddenly don’t really want to hang out with you, because that means that they need to talk to you in English, which is our airport, and it’s a terminal leading to nowhere because none of us feel comfortable. This year when I go back to Taiwan, I also want to connect more with the local scene, but not only with the ABC-created local scene, but the local scene created by Taiwanese people who might speak in 台語, who might not speak in English, and might understand their queerness and their gayness from listening to Jolin Tsai, or I don't know, say reading Crystal Boys by Pai Hsien-yung.
Thank you for reading the nineteenth issue of Tune Glue. Let’s build more non-white queer spaces, please.
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