Yu Su wants to build a bridge between Chinese and Western music
The Vancouver-based IDM DJ's debut album, Yellow River Blue, connects her Canadian and Chinese homes
Written by Leslie Ken Chu.
Yu Su never wanted her Chinese heritage to be the focus of her music — until she DJed through the country's mainland for the first time. Discovering China's electronic underground in December 2019 inspired the Vancouver-based artist to open up about her transient experience as a person born and raised in China, where she lived until she was 18 years old.
"A long-term hope [of mine] would be to start building this connection between music made in China [and] the Western audience," Yu Su told CBC Music recently during a phone interview.
On Jan. 22, Yu Su released her debut album, Yellow River Blue. It was also the debut release for bié Records, the Beijing label Yu Su established with former members of Vice China in 2020. As the label's curator, Yu Su hopes to showcase China's experimental artists.
"It's the perfect time for me to start something fresh in the homeland, because I can use the connection I've already built in the West," she said.
At 5,464 kilometres, the Yellow River is the second longest in China and the sixth longest in the world. Known as "the Cradle of Chinese Civilization," it connects midland China from the Bayan Har Mountains in the west to the Bohai Sea in the east. But the Yellow River is also prone to devastating flooding — in 1887, a flood is thought to have killed between 900,000 and two million people — earning it another sobriquet: "China's Sorrow." Yu Su grew up in Kaifeng, a central Chinese city on the southern bank of the Yellow River.
"I'm trying to slowly tell my story," Yu Su said, of her newest release. "Looking back with every record I put out now, introducing more places, like the Yellow River or Kaifeng, which I'm sure most people haven't heard of in the West. It's like for someone who lives in Stockholm to be like, 'Oh, there's a place called Saskatchewan.'"
Growing up in Kaifeng, Yu Su was only familiar with classical music and karaoke. Her mother steeped her in the sounds of composer Claude Debussy while Yu Su trained in classical piano. In 2012, she moved to Vancouver to study at the University of British Columbia (UBC), a choice her grandfather encouraged because he developed a fondness for the city after visiting it in his youth. Despite her musical upbringing, Yu Su pursued a business degree. A year into her program, she switched to anthropology, believing the field would fulfil her longtime interest in Eastern religion, sociology and philosophy.
Through UBC, she met friends who introduced her to Love Dancing, a monthly party held at the Waldorf Hotel and bygone venues the Electric Owl and W2 Café. It was at events like Love Dancing where she discovered house music and disco.
"It was totally brand new to my ears back then.... Lots of the polyrhythmic percussion, and [the] combo of analogue and digital machine sounds, combined with organic-sounding instruments and a lot of dub elements."
Yu Su soon took up electronic music and became enmeshed in Vancouver's underground scene. Alongside collectives like Pender Street Steppers, 1080p, and Love Dancing hosts Mood Hut, her name became synonymous with a Pacific Northwest sound, built on fluid rhythms, chill tempos and breezy, understated beats, with its dewy vibes conjuring rainforest retreats. These touchstones have resonated with electronic fans around the world, and Yu Su has indulged those fans' enthusiasm with DJ sets across Canada, the U.S., Europe and Australia.
One of Yu Su's earliest releases came via Genero Sound, an all-woman Vancouver label with a roster that included industrial ravers minimalviolence, the sudsy D. Tiffany, and pop adventurers Regularfantasy and Stefana Fratila. The exploratory ambient collection, AI YE 艾葉, came out in 2016. Though Genero Sound is no longer active, the label narrowed the gender gap in Vancouver's male-dominated electronic scene and provided women with a support network against sexism.
Yu Su began working on Yellow River Blue four months prior to touring China at the end of 2019. She continued plying at it as she travelled 1,963 kilometres west from Qingdao, on the coast of the Yellow Sea, to Xining, the largest urban hub on the Tibetan Plateau.
Along the way, Yu Su encountered electronic scenes that both surprised and invigorated her. Her sets already spanned classic house, soul, and funk, but what she heard in China "really encouraged me to be even more free with the way I DJ there, instead of trying to play things that are more straightforward and accessible, to be more experimental and cutting edge."
"Before that tour, I thought it was only young kids," she continued. "But then it turned out that some of the cities had a pretty long history of rave culture." In Chengdu, for example, "there were some legendary small clubs that have existed since the early 2000s, maybe even late '90s." Similarly in Beijing, the owners of venue Zhao Dai ran other venues in the '90s and '00s. However, a younger generation now curates Zhao Dai's programming.
"Clubbing culture has been alive and strong in China since the '90s," music journalist and event curator Josh Feola confirmed in an email to CBC Music. Although he resides in San Antonio, he lived in Beijing from 2009 to 2018, then Shanghai until March 2020. He explains that China's current generation of underground electronic music began flourishing around 2013 in Shanghai, when seminal club the Shelter was in full swing. That same year, Shelter co-founder Gaz Williams and Blaise Deville established SVBKVLT, a label at the forefront of experimental electronic music in China.
In 2017, Williams opened the Shelter's sleek successor, ALL, after the former shuttered the year before. China's current generation of electronic music "pretty much pattern[ed] their whole esthetic, musically and visually, on ALL," Feola said.
Though Yu Su performed in Shanghai and Beijing, her favourite surprises lay outside those cities. Her New Year's Eve show at See You Bar in Xining was particularly memorable.
"I never thought, 'One day, I'll be DJing in a place like Xining,' because it's so far away from all these so-called 'cool' places in China."
Yu Su was delighted by how much the untrendy city's audience enjoyed her music. "Even though the sound system wasn't perfect, how open-minded the crowd was to the music I was playing was just shocking. It made me feel so happy."
She recalls the audience reveling in her set of acid house and dub-heavy techno from the '80s: "They were dancing to that music in a way that was way different from how the cool kids dance to this music in Shanghai."
Yu Su describes a typical audience at one of her shows in China as mostly women in their early 20s. They are fans of her music, but they have no idea what dance culture is. They expect her to perform her own music, according to regular set times, like at a concert. "They come at 10 p.m., and they're like, 'Why is she still not playing?' And the good thing is, most of them didn't leave, and they stayed till like 3, 4 a.m."
Although the venues Yu Su plays in China are similar to any small club in the West — they're hazy, but they lack other visuals (at her request) — she has never experienced audiences like the ones at her shows in China. "I would get messages like this all the time: 'We've never been to something like this! We never knew what a DJ was!'"
We all experience calm and the craziness and struggles of life, so that's something I want to connect with people [about] in a more fundamental way.- Yu Su
Yu Su also observed significantly more women involved in China's electronic scenes. Asked if she hopes bié Records will support women musicians the same way Genero Sound supported her, Yu Su's answer is surprising. "Honestly, a lot of the people running these labels, putting out music, DJing, or people in charge of venues — I see way more women, way more young women. And the crowd, too. It's so interesting."
Yu Su was impressed by the support shown within China's electronic communities. "There's never so much drama with politics over there. People just do their things. They do it together." That said, there are groups in China organizing DJ workshops for women and emphasizing inclusive, LGBTQ+ politics. "It doesn't matter if you're a woman, a man, if you're straight or not. It's amazing seeing that happen in a natural way."
Her debut album, released just over a year after that tour, mirrors the dualistic nature of the eponymous river. Zen and chaos coexist in the album's eight flowing tracks, which include first single "Xiu," featuring Joshua Frank of experimental Beijing rock duo Gong Gong Gong 工工工 on bass and warped Vancouver popster Aiden Ayers on drums. The songs phase between bright pop and tranquil passages, rushing and ebbing in a balance of simple and complex motions; one can picture silt swirling as it settles in disturbed waters, before getting shaken up again. The album features the Pacific Northwest sounds Yu Su is known for, but it transcends them with darker colours and more intense, destructive emotions.
"We all experience calm and the craziness and struggles of life, so that's something I want to connect with people [about] in a more fundamental way," she said.
Yu Su also considers Yellow River Blue musically accessible. "I wasn't trying to make super obscure, 'smart' electronic music. I was basically trying to make pop."
Yellow River Blue expresses Yu Su's longstanding feeling of transience and the dichotomy of acceptance and rejection that comes from a life built around moving and touring. When she wrote and recorded the album, between August 2019 and March 2020, she was tangled in visa issues and living temporarily in Seattle, Los Angeles, Kaifeng, Shanghai, Vancouver, Mesachie Lake, and Chemainus.
"A lot of my effort was always spent trying to get visas, trying to get into countries, and dealing with stress," she said. Most citizens of other countries can travel anywhere, any time, she pointed out. "I think it's important for me to share stories like that, especially as a Chinese citizen. Promoters in Europe and the U.K., they need to know that it's difficult. Same thing, I'm sure, with artists from the Middle East. There are all these very hidden privileges when it comes to international politics. Most people don't realize."
Whenever someone refers to me, they always say I'm from Canada or I represent the sound of the Pacific Northwest. But I just live here. It's so strange to me.- Yu Su
This feeling is compounded by her struggle to subvert notions of Asianness while avoiding being associated with a particular culture. She's also found that European and American audiences always regard her as a Canadian musician. "Whenever someone refers to me, they always say I'm from Canada or I represent the sound of the Pacific Northwest. But I just live here. It's so strange to me."
While Yu Su used to feel like an outsider in electronic music, her global community has grown. At this point in her artistry, she says, "I don't feel isolated at all anymore, because the world is all so connected. Music is so universal." However, she continues, "Even speaking globally, this community feels quite small."
The beauty of Yu Su's music — and the key to her efforts in connecting Chinese and Western audiences — is that she is strongly rooted in both her home countries. Last year, she obtained permanent residency in Canada. While her home will always be where the Yellow River flows, she acknowledges proudly, "This is the first time where I truly consider myself a Canadian."