'It's a piece of me that was missing': how Tyler Shaw discovered his Chinese heritage
Shaw opens up about how visiting Hong Kong for the first time, and his personal experiences inspire his music.
The album cover for pop artist Tyler Shaw's latest album, the Juno-nominated Intuition, is bathed in red lighting. The singer is front and centre, clothed in a silk shirt with a Mandarin collar, as he peers ahead. Underneath the album title is another title that is even more important: his Chinese name, 葉銘恆 (Ip Ming Hang).
It's an image that's simple but powerfully captures Shaw's half-Chinese background — even the aforementioned red is a colour that symbolizes good luck and happiness in Asian cultures. This is, as he notes, "a piece of me that was missing," a part of his identity that he didn't always have, but that he's discovering and embracing now.
Growing up in Coquitlam, B.C., Shaw had a cursory understanding of his cultural background. He knew he was half Polish-Ukranian and half Chinese, but his parents divorced when he was just three years old. Along with that tough experience came Shaw's unconscious severance from his father's Hong Kong heritage.
"I always knew it was a part of me, but I didn't know the facts behind it," Shaw says, of the Chinese part of his background. "I didn't know the roots, just what was on the surface."
Shaw remembers taking Chinese school for "like, two weekends" as a kid before he dropped it. Now, he mostly knows the words to "foods and washroom. That's it."
Without going into details, Shaw notes that his relationship with his dad was not always strong: "Every family has its own issues, but I'm happy to say that we're father and son now." And it wasn't until six years ago, shortly after his career took off as the winner of the 2012 MuchMusic Coca-Cola covers contest, that the singer-songwriter decided to dig deeper into his father's history. This led to his first trip to Hong Kong with his father, four years ago.
While the trip was only about a week, Shaw's father gave him a guided tour of the city he grew up in: the high school he attended, the graveyard where Shaw's grandparents are buried, some temples and, of course, some local restaurants. "That really opened my eyes to this part of me that I didn't even know existed," Shaw recalls. That, he notes, was one of the main inspirations behind Intuition's striking album cover.
All of these personal discoveries may not have transferred directly into the songs on the album, but Shaw assures that everything he experienced has been channelled through songwriting at some point. "It's an outlet," he says, of his music. "There are songs I've written about certain situations that I just wanted to get off my chest."
What did make the cut on Intuition is still incredibly personal, though. From sharing Shaw's and his wife's love story, which included footage from their wedding for a special version of his "With You" music video, to opening up about struggles with anxiety and depression on "Anybody Out There," the singer-songwriter is adamant about keeping an open and honest relationship with his fans. This means showing off parts of himself both old and new.