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Ghost Pop: Haunting Boyle Heights with Sounds of an Asian Diaspora


"Does anyone know how to belly dance?" shouted the lead singer of Bitter Party, to a mainly Latino crowd of families and kids that attended a Summer Night Lights (SNL) event at Lou Costello Recreation Center in Boyle Heights. Perhaps an out of place question in most North American cities, because of belly dancing's Middle Eastern roots; the moment nonetheless made sense to an Angeleno like me, who feels that these experiential spaces are what makes Los Angeles the synchronistically diverse city we all can relate to.

A few weeks ago I attended one of the last SNL events held at the recreation center to watch the performance by Bitter Party. SNL is a program organized by the city's Gang Reduction Youth Development (GRYD) program, aimed at taking back parks in historically gang infested parts of the city by creating family-friendly programming patrolled by LAPD. The programmed activities, in over 30 parks citywide, take place Wednesday-Saturday from 7 p.m.-12 a.m., summer night stints that are considered high gang activity times. GRYD program coordinator Miguel León says SNL presents an alternative to gang activity, and "manifests community, partnership, and youth expression."

SNL, and that night in particular, also presented a space that embodied L.A.'s openness to multiethnic and multicultural signs of life. The park activities that night included what you may expect to see at most park events for families, such as sports, picnic table games, bbq, and music blasting over loud speakers. Lou Costello Recreation Center is in Boyle Heights, situated between the heavily Latino Wyvernwood Garden Apartments and the Estrada Courts public housing project -- so enter street vending and a clown, performing mainly in Spanish in front of a large group of kids.

Photo: George Villanueva
Photo: George Villanueva

But the space is also 21st century Los Angeles, a city not only known for its proliferating Latino and Asian populations, but also its artists who are willing to engage in spaces that share in L.A.'s multiethnic ecologies. This is where Bitter Party comes in with their offer of "Ghost Pop" to the largely Latino family and youth audience, who listened to the sounds influenced by the Asian Diaspora. To learn more, I interviewed Bitter Party lead singer Wendy Hsu.

What's the history and concept/vision behind Bitter Party and "Ghost Pop"?

Wendy: Bitter Party formed early last year after we moved to L.A. from Virginia. The "bitter" part of the band name refers to the melancholy war-era and postwar music that fuels our creativity. The word for bitter in Chinese also means hardships, and are associated with colonial and war-related poverty. As a band, we "party", i.e. come together, to remember our past and to provoke a communion over of tribulations.

"Ghost Pop" is a driving principle behind Bitter Party. Ghosts are sounds of a distant past or place that are rendered invisible in the canon. Each one of us in the band has identified a set of ghosts, often related to our sense of heritage and community, and located them in old songbooks, field recordings, Youtube archives, and our memories of family. We let these sonic ghosts haunt us, and inspire us. Our violin/viola player, Lam, is interested in songs from postwar Vietnam that he's heard his mother sing. I draw materials from 1930s-1970s Taiwan, working with a repertoire of popular and folk songs that evoke Taiwan's history of the Japanese occupation and personally, memories of my grandparents. Then using my computer, usually integrating location recordings that I have collected during my fieldwork in Taiwan, I create a sonic shell for these ghosts to wander in, a place in which their energy is reactivated.

Bitter Party: Wendy Hsu (voice, keyboard, guitar, electronics), Carey Sargent (drums, guitar), Linda Wei (bass), Lam Nathan Vuong (viola, voice) | Photo: George Villanueva
Okinawan musical instrument and banjo-like ''Sanshin'' is part of the instrument set of Bitter Party | Photo: George Villanueva

How does Bitter Party and Ghost Pop engage the spaces of an Asian Diaspora?

Wendy: We are a geographically sensitive bunch. A part of our songwriting process is to map the routes by which our songs of interest have sourced and traveled. Most of our scope follows a history of transpacific exchanges and migration between Asia and the Americas, a continued research and musical interest since graduate school and my last band Dzian!

For instance, in rewriting the 1930s pop song from Taiwan that I heard in fragments, I took the song on a detour to Jamaica on its way to its U.S.-based audience. Originally called "Sigh by a Woman," the song articulates the feelings of romantic longing from a female perspective. I was thinking a lot about my grandparents at the time, lamenting that they were living away from their home in Taiwan, in a place where no one except for their family understood the language that they spoke. I thought to recontextualize the feeling of longing to speak to the collective experience of migration. So I "changed the title to "Sigh by the Sea," took out the lyrics, wrote a new section, and then added the deepened sense of space that is characteristic of dub music -- another diasporic music that is preoccupied by distance and migration -- into our version of the song. The song is in part gestured toward the greater Chinese diaspora in the world.

During my research, I found that the Chinese living in Kingston were integral to the emergence of the reggae scene in Jamaica. In particular, I found this sense of homeward nostalgia in the haunting performance "Always Together," by Stephen Cheng. The melody is a Taiwanese song that was originally featured in a movie about pastoral Taiwan, then became a nursery rhyme by the time I learned it as a child. In my research, I observed that Taiwanese in diaspora feel an intense nostalgia when listening to this song. For that reason, I thought dub -- itself being a remix-based genre -- would articulate the (geographical) fringes of diasporic sounds.

Of course Asia is a vast continent, and our interest has mostly been with east and Southeast Asia, because of our personal connections to the continent. We map and remap the route of how sounds travel and re-root itself in different places. Our hope is to establish a new home for these itinerant sounds in cosmopolitan Los Angeles.

Bitter Party @ Summer Night Lights, Boyle Heights from George Villanueva on Vimeo.

Photos By: George Villanueva

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