A handful of young creatives from Western cities are packing their bags and moving to the other side of the world to make their mark. Amelia Abraham asks what it’s like to live, work and play in Asia
A couple of months ago I was sat alone in a windowless hotel room in Bangkok. What to do with myself? I knew nothing about the city’s nightlife. The heavy air and gridlocked traffic outside were stifling. “I could never live here”, I thought. Eventually though, I did pluck up the courage to go and meet my friend Rharha at a bar called ‘Bad Motel’. When I arrived there was less red neon than I had anticipated, but there was a covert meeting going on.
Rharha and a promoter called JoJo were sat discussing bringing rapper Mykki Blanco over to play in Bangkok. Rharha had already set up shows in the city with with Total Freedom, part of LA collective Fade To Mind, and she hoped that Joey’s Bangkok club night Trasher, with its 90s pop music and drag dress code would provide the right audience for Mykki’s set. Drawing a crowd wouldn’t be easy though. “Creating a scene here is really hard because you’re building something from scratch,” Rharha told me. “People in Bangkok are very into pop music or techno. I like that kind of music but I want to show people new ways of expressing themselves. To bring non-commercial music or hip hop here is to creating something new. You’re pioneering a scene and introducing a new wave of music. People are giving into it slowly. It’s exciting.”
Rharha is twenty three and of British Jamaican ethnicity. She lived in London for a while, but grew up mostly in Johannesburg. Back in South Africa she co-ran the blog ‘Capital of Cool’, ran a jewellery brand called Drone and worked closely with the musician Petit Noir. Before she moved to Asia, she’d never even been there, so why did she do it? “I didn’t know anything about it to be honest. I was nineteen and wanted to get out of my comfort zone completely; I wanted to not know any one and not rely on a language or a culture that I already knew.” She applied for fashion school and made the leap.
Tikini’s story is similar. Born and bred in Kings Cross, he moved to Tokyo for a fresh start somewhere different. “I was at University one day and this guy asked me for a light. We started talking and it turned out he was from Fukuoka, Japan. After we starting asking each other questions about our respective cultures, he literally became my sensei (not quite in the Mr. Miyagi sense though). I first touched down in Japan for two weeks in 2005 and nothing could really prepare me for the system-shock that is Tokyo. I swore to go back and live there to explore my freedom and see how far I could go on my own.”
It’s unusual to hear about kids from the West moving to the Far East, especially when you consider the huge influx of young Asian people coming to study and work in Western cities each year. In the academic year of 2012 -2013 over 186k students from Asia were enrolled in higher education in the UK. Sure, a lot of young Westerners will happily heave on their backpacks and do four months of drinking and sightseeing in Thailand, but not many move to Asia to start a life there. What does it mean to embed yourself and your creative practice deep into the heart of an Asian city for the long term?
I called up Oakland-born rapper and songwriter Gita, who has just moved from Harlem to Shanghai, to ask why she made the switch. “New York is one of those places constantly flowing with individuals fascinated with wanting to be someone, something, wanting to be on top and to make it as an influential person, whether it’s in photography, dancing, or music. It can be a very oversaturated and congested creative environment. I had no hesitation about hopping on a plane to China. It’s a comfort thing to go to LA and be like ‘I’m on the scene with Odd Future, Instagram me!’ But this was about drifting off and doing your own thing. It’s a challenge. It’s deep.”
And has it helped Gita with her work? “I knew it was only gonna give me space and feed me creatively, which happened immediately. Back in New York I had writer’s block, but I’ve been recording the entire time I’ve been in Asia, writing songs and meeting producers, conceptualising my debut album. In China, when they know you’re doing something fun, they want to introduce you to people. One thing about being in Asia is that it forces you to try harder to engage - in America everyone’s caught up in their own bubble.”
Rharha agrees. “In the West markets are saturated, you’re living in a tiny place just to say, “I’m living in London or New York.” In those cities you’re just another person hustling on the rat race, you’re never gonna own it. Recognising the creative business opportunities in Asia and Africa and taking the leap to a place where no one else is doing what you’re doing means that you can really make your mark.” Now in her fifth year in Bangkok, RhaRha’s busy working on a new fashion brand ‘Matriarch’ and establishing a burgeoning music scene in the Thai capital. She says that the internet has been an invaluable way of meeting likeminded people in a place that you’re new to. She first heard Gita’s music online, reached out to her on social media, and is now bringing her over for a show in Bangkok.
To survive as an expat, Gita, Rharha and Tikini all agree that you have to strike a balance between forging your own place in a culture and feeding back into it. Talk to local people, pick up the language, collaborate and create. “If you’re not feeding the society you’ll only be spat out,” says Tikini. Predominantly a DJ, he works with Japanese club promoters and musicians all the time. He’s been involved in A$AP Ferg and Bok Bok’s Tokyo shows, and produces music on a label he set up himself – Osiris. His work relies on bringing new music to Tokyo, but he’s aware that cultural differences can also present a challenge. “My character can be a bit intense for people - as they say out here 'the nail that sticks out gets hammered down'. That inflexibility can be a major frustration.”
After seven years in Tokyo though, Tikini says he can’t imagine living anywhere else. “It’s so safe here. There’s no other major city in the world where a salary man can get completely shit faced and fall asleep, in public, clutching his laptop and briefcase, without anyone f*cking' with him!” He loves the multitude of subcultures on offer when it comes to fashion and clubs. “That gives us choice,” he says, “and then you have to think about the size of Tokyo, and the population, and the fact that shit stays open until 5:00am (then you have after hours…) You’d be hard pressed to be 'bored', you simply need to know where to go to find what your looking for.”
For Rharha, it’s also Bangkok’s diversity that’s kept her inspired, both personally and as a burgeoning designer. “There’s a lot of different religions here; Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism. You get to see that the world isn’t the way you thought it was and when you see different cultures, you realise you know nothing. That puts me in a space where I can constantly learn. In my collection for Drone jewellery there was a lot of Hindu influences and my new collection for Matriarch is inspired by a lot of Eastern religions, in the clothing designs there is a lot of Sanskrit.” Overall, Rharha thinks being in Asia has had huge impact on her personal style as well as her practice. “I’m into mixing African and Asian culture, I’ll do super long braids Ethiopian-style with big anime eyes.”
Gita doesn’t know if she’ll stay in China forever, but she’s enjoying getting a taste for life there. While she found Shanghai conservative and strict, and Hong Kong too concerned with it-kids and Canto-pop stars, she’s had a chance to check out the strange scenes in other cities like Macau, which she describes as “Las Vegas on steroids”. It’s a journey. “With Asia it takes a very strong, resilient individual to navigate these waters. It’s more real than New York. New york is safe, a tourist attraction. Asia’s more underground than New York and London. If you can make it in Asia, you can make it anywhere.”