A Conversation with Non Chalant

Interview by Leah Jing McIntosh

Born in Sydney to Chinese and Lebanese parents, Non Chalant is a classically-trained musician turned producer. Under the name of Flower Boy 卓颖贤, she has performed in Sydney, as well as in Beijing and Shanghai.

We spoke to Non Chalant about claiming a name for oneself, building bridges between multiple identities and breaking into the Australian music industry.

Non Chalant made Liminal a special Flower Boy 卓颖贤 mix—find it here to listen while reading.

How have you made it to this point? 

I had a classic, stereotypical east asian upbringing which included learning piano from a young age. It was a love-hate experience for me because I didn’t want to practice, but I also developed a deep appreciation for music. I would say that the real turning point was actually when High School Musical came out in 2006—I convinced my mother to buy me a book of sheet music from the movie, and that’s when I realised that music could be a form of self-expression. 

I became friends with people who produce music, and they encouraged me to do so too. The biggest hurdle was getting started - programs look ridiculously complex and quite daunting when you don’t know what anything is. But my years of music training helped—I relied a lot on my ears. 

To begin with, I didn’t really feel comfortable calling myself a producer because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I mean, I still don’t know what I’m doing, but women are often too humble about their achievements, so now I actively embrace and claim the title for myself.

Can you talk to me about your producer name, Flower Boy 卓颖贤

I had made a track and wanted to release it under a pseudonym but didn’t have one in mind. Later that day I’d read an article on ‘flower boys’ (pretty/feminine boys in East Asian pop culture) that spoke about the need for these actors to undergo serious physical transformations before they could be taken seriously and considered for other roles. Something about that resonated with me, and I liked the sound of  ‘flower boy’ so I just went with it. At the time, I was conscious of a lot of male producers who made music under “female” names, and I wanted to play around with that as well.

The '卓颖贤' is my Chinese name. It’s interesting to me how often my Chinese name gets left off the 'Flower Boy' when it comes to events or flyers or whatever. I understand that most people can’t read the characters, let alone write them, but with computers these days literally all they have to do is copy and paste. 

What annoys me most is that there’s definitely an increase in the fetishisation of the 'Oriental' in the industry; for instance, a lot of white producers like to include Japanese characters on their profiles as a selling point. I want people to realise that my name isn’t an accessory, it’s literally my name. 

What is it like being a woman of colour in the Australian music industry? How are you treated as an emerging WOC producer? 

It hasn’t been too bad, but I’m also painfully aware that I exist in a bubble away from reality most of the time. I’ve had amazing support from friends in the scene, such as the great ladies at Pink Noise radio, who exclusively play music made by female artists, DJs and producers. I’m also happy making my music at my own pace, in my own world, so I haven’t had too much first-hand exposure to all the toxicity in the music industry out there. I’m sure if I were hustling harder I’d feel it more.

That being said, unless it’s an event where I know the crowd’s going to be bearable, I avoid going out because there’s nothing worse than someone trying to chat you up with the classic line so, where are you from? I think being a visitor to a club space can sometimes be harder than being a DJ or producer. There’s so much more you have to be aware of in terms of safety. When I’m performing, I often feel like guys are a little more intimidated and hesitant to approach me, which I must admit I enjoy. 

You’ve mentioned that you’ve been existing in an interstitial space in relation to your racial identity.

This is an idea that I’ve only just been grappling with. It never really occurred to me throughout high school - I went to a school with a predominantly East Asian population, and there was this joke that I was 'basically a white girl'. I ended up taking on that identity and shunned a lot of my own background and culture. 

I recognise now that I was dealing with a lot of internalised racism and shame. As a child I dreamt of having blue eyes and blonde hair. Australia loved to shame things that Chinese people did, whether it was products ‘cheaply made in China’ or Chinese tourists spitting on the ground. I’d also experienced an element of fear in my life after the 2005 Cronulla riots, as well as a lot of stuff I’d find on the internet that expressed violence toward people of a Middle Eastern background. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve really grown into my Lebanese identity yet.

It was really hard to be that honest with myself and admit that I participated in racism against my own people—where do I go from that? How do I apologise? How do I give back to the communities that have raised me and given me gifts beyond any monetary value? I was fortunate enough to have been brought up by my Chinese grandparents, and I have so much to thank them for. They also gave me their language, for which I will be eternally grateful. Chinese is such a difficult language to master, so for me to be able to speak relatively fluently and naturally have a good grasp of the four tones is an absolute blessing. 

Going to university and realising that I am in fact not white was pretty confusing. Eventually, I settled on reconnecting with my Chinese roots because I was already kind of halfway there in terms of language and cultural understanding. My first solo trip to China was the most challenging thing I have ever gone through in life. I was constantly being labelled a foreigner, and being treated like a foreigner. Which, in hindsight, is fair enough. But at the time, for a girl who wanted desperately to find some kind of validation for her newfound Chinese identity, it was heartbreaking to repeatedly hear people label me as a 外国人, or tell me that I could never be Chinese. 

There’s this term that’s used in official documentation to refer to foreigners in China that most people laugh at, but I found almost enlightening—alien. It’s exactly how I felt. I was stared at a lot, first for not looking particularly racially identifiable, then even more so if I opened my mouth and a fluid sentence of Chinese came tumbling out. I also didn’t feel the safety net of  'I’m a tourist and I can just go home'—I felt so deeply that Beijing was a home to me and I wanted to claim the place as my own, but the people just wouldn’t let me. A friend of mine said I was a Beijinger in my past life and she’s probably right.

Now I exist pretty peacefully in the in between. I think it’s just something that I’ve come to terms with. There’s still a long way for me to go—I’d say the bridge I’ve built between my Chinese and Australian identities is quite strong—strong enough for me to cross to either side, but it still needs work.  And once that’s a little more settled I’ll have to start working on the bridge for my Lebanese identity.

What was is it like living in China as an Chinese-Lebanese-Australian? 

It was surprisingly easy for me to feel at home. Maybe I was that desperate to be a 'real Chinese person' that my heart latched onto the place and now it won’t let go. That being said, while I was there I didn’t like telling people I’m from Australia. We’re actually an incredibly racist country and that’s just not a conversation I like having with strangers, even if we have a relatively good reputation in China.

There’s also been some discussion recently in the music scene there about the use of the term 'Chinese electronic music'—what defines this music as Chinese? There are music labels in China who have signed non-Chinese artists, and similarly there are non-Chinese labels who have signed Chinese artists. But there are people from mainland China who are very protective of the use of 'Chinese' as a label, and I’m not sure they’re happy for people like me, or other Chinese people in the diaspora, to use it. 

It’s a really tough place to be—they don’t view me, or others, as Chinese because we’ve grown up in a western society. But western society will probably never accept us as truly assimilated because we still take our shoes off at the door. 

What are you currently creating?  

Flower Boy will be releasing an EP later this year, which will incorporate a visual project.  I’m also working on the music for a short film being done in China which I’m super excited about.

Do you visualise your music as you create it? Is there a musical aspect to how you appreciate or create visual art?

Aural and visual experiences go hand in hand for me. A lot of my early piano lessons involved my teachers telling me to imagine a scene for the pieces I was playing in order to evoke more feeling. I have a very vivid imagination which can often trigger visuals to sound, or vice versa. 

Can you talk to us about your creative process?  

I don’t really have a definite process. Sometimes I’ll suddenly have a melody line in my head and I’ll record it on my voice memos, or if i’ve got my laptop and I’m not too busy, I’ll open an Ableton file and start mapping it out.

Though I think everyone tends to develop a sort of routine when producing—I usually like to be chewing on something. So either I’m snacking, or I’m chewing gum and swapping it out every half hour (for optimum flavour).

What has drawn you to film photography?  

It’s the honesty of film photography that I love.  You can photoshop your pictures, but that’s not going to change the original negatives. Film photography’s really forced me to accept the way that I look—I had a plethora of insecurities growing up (and still struggle now) but I’m learning to accept them one by one. Especially in China, where I am much taller and bigger than the average girl, having photos taken there on film meant I couldn’t quickly meitu the photo to make myself feel better.

Are there any resonances between the way you approach photography and the way you create music?

I think honesty is probably the key word between the two. My art is just my way of expressing myself publicly. I used to feel pressure to make it good, now I’m just trying not to get caught up in false internet personalities and keep it honest.

Do you have any advice for emerging producers? 

Just make your music and put it out ! We are our own harshest critic. 

There’s that experiment where a teacher in ceramics splits his class in half and tells them that he’s going to judge one half on quality and the other on quantity, and in the end those who made greater quantities also had better quality things because they had more practice… that. Just keep at your art, no matter how good or bad you think it is. 

Don’t be afraid to experiment and leave your 'genre' —genre is a human construct which music not only predates, but also cannot be bound by. The music comes first, and our labelling comes second. People are obsessed with being able to define and explain things. I mean, it’s 2017, who cares where your music fits? Just as long as you like it and you feel like you’re expressing yourself, you’re doing great. 

What are you currently listening to?

I’ve started going through my old Spotify playlists and listening to things past me liked. It’s really lovely how music acts as a kind of time capsule. So lots of Arctic Monkeys, Sufjan Stevens, Lana Del Rey, the XX... it was a simpler time.

What are you currently reading?

Last week a friend recommended Rubik by Elizabeth Tan and I’m currently halfway through—I second the recommendation!

How do you practice self-care? 

Every so often I like to spend a half-day/day in bed doing nothing in particular. Especially if it’s sunny outside because I get sun on my bed and I get to stretch out in it like a cat. I’ll probably have a cup of tea while I browse soundcloud and discover some new music.

I make sure that I always eat a good breakfast—it’s honestly changed my life. I also like to reward myself with 'fancy' fruit when I’ve been working hard. It depends on the season, but berries and figs are mostly what i’m treating myself to at the moment, and mangoes when summer comes around! Also I’ve started going to the gym recently and there’s nothing better than feeling like you’ve just sweat all the impurities out of your life. Except maybe a good night’s sleep (with no early morning alarm set).

Having future goals also keeps me on track. I’ll be moving to China next year, and I plan to have a home with lots of plants, and maybe a couple of Sphinx cats—they can wear turtlenecks when winter comes around.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?

For me, being Asian-Australian means having smelly lunch boxes at school, celebrating the lunar new year, and calling every adult woman in your life ‘aunty’. It means going to the Asian grocer, and having access to Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese products all in one shop, and filling my suitcases with milk powder and sheep placenta cream for friends and family in China. It means learning to love and appreciate all these facets of life, and realise how happy I am to be a part of it.