Interview: Revisiting OHYUNG’s Indomitable Debut Album ‘Untitled (Chinese Man with Flame)’ One Year Later
When New York musician OHYUNG first tried to release Untitled (Chinese Man with Flame) on May 1, 2018, he didn’t find much support from any major music websites. Despite countless emails in hopes of an album premiere, Untitled ultimately fell upon deaf ears. Even now, one year later, there are only scant references to the album online in passing– buried in personal Tumblr posts, one Medium article, and a very surface-level Enclave Magazine interview (“Interesting,” the interviewer simply comments in response to OHYUNG’s in-depth reasoning behind his absurdist “PARK SLOPE” music video). Even though PAPERMAG gladly premiered his video for “Care For You,” that same ‘care for him’ was noticeably absent when it came to talking about OHYUNG’s album as a whole. The interest certainly seemed to be there, so why was OHYUNG’s album largely ignored by Internet netizens?
Perhaps the reasoning behind this unspoken online agreement to ghost the album lies in OHYUNG’s choice of themes he explores on his debut. Despite being one of the most fascinating uncategorizable cross-genre albums I’ve ever encountered, Untitled (Chinese Man with Flame) also doubles as one of the most politically charged Asian American albums that I’ve ever heard. Throughout its 14 hip-hop/shoegaze/pop/rap/minimalist/maximalist/robot-voice laden tracks, Untitled explores an abundance of themes that range from racial insecurities, class inequalities, gentrification, and even the infamous Abigail Fisher v. The University of Texas affirmative action lawsuit.
Even in his videos, OHYUNG chooses to shed light on cross-cultural issues that most are afraid to acknowledge in such a bold way. “PARK SLOPE” finds OHYUNG criticizing upper-class white neighborhoods through bizarre smoothie blending. The video for “CARE FOR YOU” is a reenactment of scenes from Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood For Love told from a queer Asian perspective. “ALL UNIQLO,” is a clear maximalist criticism of capitalism and celebrity sponsor culture. (Not even your UNIQLO heattechs are safe here!) What makes Untitled so special, and so hard to talk about for certain music websites is the fact that OHYUNG brazenly pinpoints Asian American issues that most Asian Americans to this day are still struggling to put into words. He treads unfamiliar social ground with Untitled–how is your average music critic supposed to deal with that?
One year later, the general media landscape for Asian Americans has become less alien. KPOP is here, ‘Asian August’ came and went, and music websites are starting to realize that they’ve been overlooking important creators in the industry who aren’t black or white. If OHYUNG released his album today, there’s no way that it would be criminally skipped over like it once was.
To celebrate Untitled (Chinese Man with Flame)‘s one year anniversary, we reached out to musician (and now) film composer OHYUNG to delve into some of the inner workings of the album.*
Untitled (Chinese Man with Flame)is undoubtedly one of (if not) the most racially charged albums that I’ve heard from an Asian American musician. Even after listening to it multiple times, I’m still surprised at how many thematic layers are within the album. How did this album’s concept come to you, and how did you go about putting it all together?
untitled (chinese man with flame) didn’t have a particular concept. i set out to create something that was 100% honest with myself. i tried to make something that crossed genres and combined as many sounds as possible (noise, trap, ambient, pop, and tape loops), played with masculine and feminine, had melodies clashing with noise, and packaged it all in an unexpected way so you don’t know what’s coming next. i think as asian americans we are stereotyped in specific ways and i meant for untitled (chinese man with flame) to be impossible to stereotype. it’s an angry album, but also emotional and funny.
i think i did this to the best of my abilities, but i know that as i keep learning and improving that next time i’ll do it better!
the name of the album comes from the caption of a photo that’s on a wall somewhere in the oakland museum of california. it’s a photo taken by a white person of an unnamed chinese man smoking a pipe. i thought it was a fitting title for the album. i’ve often felt growing up that i was an untitled chinese person through the lens of white people. the flame came later.
Nearly every track on Untitled features a collaborator of sorts–Charlie Sheena‘s raps are very prominent on her two tracks, while Lil Banned Man‘s verses turns “BUDDHA JUMP SHOT” into a hype song. How did you come to work with so many collaborators? How did you choose who to work with to bring your album’s vision to life?
this album i really wanted to showcase my friends and other artists i appreciate. everyone who i worked with on this record are people of color who i feel are truly talented and slept on. friends and friends of friends or people i stumbled across on SoundCloud that I loved. there’s many people who i wanted to include on this album but didn’t bc i ran out of energy.
gia shakur is an incredible poet who introduced me to charlie sheena, a rapper from the Bronx whose album Orange EP (produced by the incredible QYUNG) was one of the most incredible albums i ever heard, and i knew immediately we would work together well. lil banned man is my friend from college and we’ve made and shared music together for many years. in the end i chose people who had very contrasting and unique styles.
There are a few samples sprinkled throughout the record–namely Bruno Mars’s “Versace on the Floor” on “SACHIMA LIGHT STREAKS,” and a very familiar Chinese track on “N1FWM”. Why are these tracks sampled, and how do they fit into the album as a whole?
sometimes i like to flip pop songs for fun. the bruno mars sample was one of these experiments that turned out well enough that i thought it should be included on the album.
the sample at the beginning of “n1fwm” is teresa teng’s the moon represents my heart, which i chose because i think it’s a beautiful song and chinese anthem, and also it’s the furthest thing i could think of in tone from the rest of “n1fwm.”
What’s the story behind the story on “ABC”?
abc is a scene taken from gene yang’s young adult graphic novel american born chinese. it had a very transformative impact in my life and was one of many catalysts where i started learning to love myself. all of the asian american characters in the graphic novel suffer in different ways: jin buys into white supremacy and loses his friends & his metaphorical soul, wei-chen is betrayed by his friend who is embarrassed by wei-chen unapologetically being himself, and susie is both racially taunted and hurt by jin’s misogyny. the scene i excerpted is a monologue from susie and i wanted to recreate it as if it were a sample from an anime version of the graphic novel. it’s voiced by my two friends, filmmaker hye yun Park (voicing Susie nakamura) and photographer cindy trinh (voicing jin).
One of the most jarring moments on the album is when the shoegazey “ABIGAIL FISHER IS THE DEVIL” suddenly switches gears and a text-to speech robot says, “Sometimes I watch white people porn and I hate myself.” Later, “Do white people watch Asian porn and hate themselves too? I’m just kidding, I fucking love myself. Abigail Fisher is the devil.” What’s the story behind those inserted phrases?
this one is a little confusing lol… the abigail fisher bit is unrelated to the other phrases. the music itself is a combination of two different shoegaze songs i wrote a while back. i think i was at a point where i thought they sounded really nice but didn’t do much for me. i don’t like the idea of ppl getting away with listening to my music as “nice” background music.
the lyrics in the background are fragments of self loathing / anxiety induced diary entries and the robot voice interjections reflect the same idea. the inserted phrases are a silly and direct way for me to address white supremacy and how it fucks with the way people of color view themselves and their desirability. i threw in the abigail fisher line at the end just for fun just so people would look her up and remember.
“ALL UNIQLO” is one of the most abrasive (and joyous!) songs on the album, if only because it comes so suddenly after some very calm songs from the second half of the tracklist. The same could be said about its strange lyrics: “Eat that fuckin’ heat tech,” is one of the repeated lines in the song, while Orlando Bloom and Novak Djokovic are casually name dropped. What does this song mean, and where does it come from?
all uniqlo is supposed to be a satirical anti-capitalist anthem. it’s a grotesque uniqlo advertisement cranked to 100. Orlando bloom and Novak djokovic used to be sponsored by uniqlo and their faces were everywhere..the song is a little outdated now, I don’t know who’s modeling their clothes. Maybe I can switch out the names and re release it.
but i still buy clothes there. im rly skinny and it’s one of the first stores i walked in where the clothes fit me right.
On songs like “ABIGAIL FISHER IS THE DEVIL” and “SICK,” you tackle some very political issues head-on. Now that it’s been a full year since you made the album, are there any other contemporary issues that you’d like to address in your future songs?
there’s a scene in terence nance’s recent experimental tv show Random Acts of Flyness where after a series of skits clowning white people, terence nance (as a character within the world of his show) receives a text from a friend telling him to focus on uplifting his own people and stop giving whiteness his time. i go back and forth between this idea of focusing on calling out white supremacy vs focus on the absence of whiteness and just exist freely. i tried to do a balance of both on untitled (chinese man with flame). i think making political music will always be a part of what i do. but right now i’m focusing on expanding my sound palette and using music to understand myself better.
Recently, you scored two films: Maegan Houang’s short film IN FULL BLOOM, and Andrea A. Walter’s EMPTY BY DESIGN—both films which have completely different moods and stories. What was it like soundtracking those two films? Did you find it to be a similar process to creating Untitled, or did they feel completely different?
i loved working with both maegan and andrea, two really talented filmmakers. maegan’s short film in full bloom required a dark, brooding, & almost tragic score, while andrea’s debut feature empty by design needed music that portrayed a transitory feeling and curiosity of a diasporic person returning to their homeland.
it feels completely different working on another person’s film vs my own album. i try really hard to get in a director’s head and interpret their vision as artistically as i can. for my own music, i try to unearth thoughts i haven’t entirely processed yet and see what it feels like in a song. and working on my own music takes much longer because i don’t have a deadline.
musically, the two sometimes blur together. in maegan’s film in full bloom i used samples of orchestral music and distorted it while adding layers on top, which is what i often do in my own music.
Do you own any UNIQLO heattechs? Have you ever eaten one?
i do not own any uniqlo heattechs. yes i have.
*OHYUNG’s responses are left as is, italics mine.
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu via email in April 2019.