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Chow Mane’s Excellent Far East Trap

In Music
FORTUNE COOKIE FLOW: Raised in Salinas and the East Side, rapper Chow Mane’s cuts about Chinese food are as insightful as they are tasteful.

FORTUNE COOKIE FLOW: Raised in Salinas and the East Side, rapper Chow Mane’s cuts about Chinese food are as insightful as they are tasteful.

Ask Charles Yan where he comes from and he won’t start with his birth. For him, it all goes back to China’s Cultural Revolution. Yan’s father fled his homeland as Mao Zedong was consolidating power—only to land in Vietnam. When government forces there “repurposed” his home, he and his family fled again, this time by boat to Thailand. Yan’s paternal line ultimately made its way to America with the help of the American Red Cross and finally settled in Seaside, California. Yan was born 1994. During this time, the Yans were supported by a local Catholic church in Pacific Grove that provided what they could for the struggling family.

Hard times like these are the foundation of Yan’s deeply personal, lyrical storytelling.

On the title track of his new EP, Mooncakes—which he recorded under his stage and production name, Chow Mane—Yan revisits the struggles of his childhood.

“It was like eight of us in my grandma house. Dad was sleeping on the floor, my mama on the couch,” Yan passionately raps, recalling how some of his earliest life lessons came from “watching old Chinese dramas and talkin’ bout havin’ honor.”

For those in the know, this lyric is a nod to the song’s twangy sample—a bittersweet melody played on an erhu, a two-stringed bow instrument common in Chinese music. The snippet, which is paired with slouching sub-bass and trilling trap hi-hats comes from the Chinese film, Farewell My Concubine.

“Mooncakes” is a textbook example of Yan’s sensibility and sense of humor. Many of the beats on Mooncakes put distinctly Asian textures front and center, and Yan spices up his flow with allusions to the Chinese-American experience. Still, while Yan wants his heritage to be apparent, the 23-year-old has larger aspirations than capturing the attention of rap fans seeking novelty.

“I want to have people relate to it and then eventually break out to more diverse topics,” Yan says.

Expanding on this  point, Yan explains that he sees the music he is making as an opportunity to create meaningful change in the rap world. “There’s this perception of Asian-Americans that’s starting to break away from the stereotypes and I want to be a part of that movement,” he says.

As a student of his own family history—and history in general—Yan is motivated to upend what academics have identified as the Asian erasure. It’s a term that describes popular culture’s portrayal of Asians in an unflattering light, or else ignores them completely. Think of Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson or Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise.

The rap industry doesn’t exactly tout rhymesayers of Asian descent either. American-made myths about Asians have derailed their success in this realm, even as their cumulative experience can easily be fit into hip-hop’s rugged, hardscrabble image. As a first-generation Chinese-American, Yan knows this first hand.

“Growing up in Salinas, I was only one of two or three Asian kids in my school,” says Yan, who split his youth between Monterey County and East Side San Jose. “We used to get made fun of, people called us ‘chinks.’”

UC Berkeley, where Yan studied political economy, was the first place he had been around so many people who shared his cultural identity. “College was a whole new world,” Yan says. “I felt I didn’t have this costume on.”

While in college, Yan produced tracks and experimented with many sounds—from weed rap to comedy tracks—in his dorm room while he pursued his degree. His studies fueled his curiosity and pushed him to dig deeper into his family’s history. The more he realized that he had taken his culture for granted, the more his rhymes were shaped into the cohesive form they take on Mooncakes.

“But I don’t want that to box me in the same way these other [Asian] artists have by their own identity,” Yan says. “I don’t want to do that to myself.”

All of this isn’t to say that Yan doesn’t know how to have fun stunting. Just take his party-starter, “Dumplings”—an ode to his grandmother’s cooking, which closes the Mooncakes EP: “Grandma steaming dumplings up on the stove,” Yan raps, before an overdubbed callback cuts in. “Whip it up, Grandma!”

It’s a funny play on trap music tropes, which proves Yan has a firm grasp on the current hip-hop culture, even as he aims to push it forward. “Vibes and musicality are more important than lyrics,” he says. “I’m trying to find a compromise.”

Chow Mane
Nov 5, 8:30pm, $10+
The Catalyst, Santa Cruz
chowmane.com

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