Shanghai Restoration Project: Art and Assimilation

Hua Hsu

By Hua Hsu

on 03.19.14 in Features

We often think about assimilation as a set of performed gestures: The outsider memorizes creeds or learns when to put his hand over his heart until the language, the whole of American behavior, the mainstream and its norms, all begin to feel natural. We rarely think about it as a way of hearing.

Dave Liang’s career begins with a classic set piece of middle-class Asian immigrant life: piano lessons. His parents emigrated from Taiwan in the mid ’70s and eventually settled in upstate New York. Like many of their generation, they thought it important that their child learn an instrument. But it wasn’t just a way of instilling discipline or rounding out Liang’s education. They wanted him to learn about improvisation, rhythm, abstract forms of self-expression. “Maybe they had experienced some discrimination early on or noticed that you had to stand up for yourself — that it wasn’t about deference,” he wonders over a pot of tea at a Brooklyn café. “Maybe it was just their inner artists.”

His parents never thought he would make a living this way. But as traditional models of selling and distributing music have dissolved, Liang has put together a quietly successful, below-the-radar career using an array of keyboards and samplers to reinterpret China’s musical past. Since 2007, Liang — who records as the Shanghai Restoration Project — has released nine albums and produced many more through Europe and Asia. In January, he and a Shanghai jazz singer named Zhang Le released The Classics, a collection of 1930s and ’40s Shanghai jazz standards re-imagined in the polished vernacular of electronic music. It’s a lane that would have been unimaginable before the digital age.

Jazz flourished in Shanghai during the interwar years, thanks largely to the presence of Western powers that had carved up the city’s waterfront. Entranced by the touring bands of African American jazzmen — and recognizing their shared subjugation at the hands of the Western elites who had imported their racism to Shanghai — a small community of Chinese musicians began reinterpreting jazz standards with their own lyrics and arrangements.

“As much as people like to romanticize Shanghai in the 1930s,” Liang explains, “there’s a real dark side to it. Chinese people were second-class citizens. If you look at the photos of the ballroom dances or the racehorse tracks, the Chinese people were all servants. It wasn’t one colonist, it was the French, the British, the Japanese. For whatever reason, this beautiful Shanghai jazz came as a result of it.”

Liang first encountered Shanghai’s Jazz Age in the late 1990s when he was traveling there. At the time, he was a college student harboring few ambitions of pursuing a musical career. His childhood fascination with the piano had taken an unexpected turn in high school, when a friend played Miles Davis’ “So What” for him. “If you grew up with a classical background, that stuff is completely foreign. All of a sudden, I’m going through puberty, I’m hit with this sound, it was like…wow.” He began branching out, essentially teaching himself how this new musical language worked. “I never listened to any contemporary music past the ’50s,” he jokes, adding that that his musical exploration was like his own private Cultural Revolution, where time essentially stood still. Excepting his fondness for the four non-classical and non-jazz CDs he owned — INXS, Van Halen, U2 and Led Zeppelin — it wasn’t until Liang graduated from college that he began listening to contemporary music.

Around 2003, Liang was living in New York, working as a consultant, spending his free time looking for gigs at jazz bars. But he longed for a change. One day, he noticed an email from an alum of his college a cappella group, updating everyone on his life: It was Ryan Leslie, then a rising star in Diddy’s Bad Boy stable of producers. Liang quit his job and began apprenticing with Leslie, learning his way around drum machines and mixing desks and devouring a history of hip-hop that he had missed the first time around. In a way, it was a process of learning how to hear again. “The beats I would make when I first started — they just weren’t good. But back then I couldn’t tell. It was weird to me that your ears could actually get trained to see what could pop.”

Liang sold a track to the R&B singer Carl Thomas early on (2004′s “That’s What You Are”), and it seemed that his path had come into focus. But nothing really panned out after that. He left Leslie’s team and began working independently, taking a part-time job in Warner Music’s business division to keep afloat. Inspired by the remixed-field recordings concept behind Moby’s Play, he began tinkering with Chinese instruments and vocalists. “All of a sudden, there was a genre where I could do whatever I wanted to do.” His time at Warner had given him enough insight into the different ways one can earn a living with their music. He convinced Lyor Cohen, his boss at Warner, to invest a little seed money.

Liang chose electronic music because of the low overhead; he already knew how to play the piano and it was more efficient to use synthesizers, samplers and digital recording than hire a band. But the methods of electronic music are suited to capturing the kind of sweeping space-time explorations and tiny, rhythm-of-life sketches at the heart of Liang’s projects. Electronic music allows the telling of spatial stories: Last year, the duo of Samo Fosberg and Max Stenerudh released the entrancing Dream of the Walled City, a conceptual soundtrack for a movie about Hong Kong’s anarchic (and now-demolished) Kowloon Walled City. It reminded me of Triad God’s 2012 NXB — a bizarre, Chinatown-based document of deconstructed soft-neon canto-pop.

Shanghai Restoration Project’s chill, cosmopolitan sound is a little more straightforward than these specimens of what we might call sonic orientalism. With no label support beyond Cohen’s initial investment, he placed SRP tunes in TV shows and commercials worldwide. The enthusiasm of iTunes’ Japanese editors gained him a massive audience in East Asia. In 2007, he quit working at Warner and began doing SRP fulltime. The way he has built his audience feels at once random and profoundly of-the-moment: Internet radio, licensing and placement, production work, international touring. A TV commercial in France, bumper music for UK Olympics coverage, the theme song for a worldwide Kenzo perfume campaign. He spends about a fifth of the year on the road, whether it’s producing for Japanese singers or collaborating with Chinese electronic artists.

In many ways, The Classics is the album Liang has been trying to make his entire career. It returns him to the Shanghai Jazz Age classics he discovered in his teens — the music that he recognized as American but understood as something distinct and mutant. “You can directly translate these songs, but that’s never what they mean,” he explains. They contain the convergences of different histories, traditions and approaches to music and poetry. There’s a sense of sadness or longing that runs through Zhang Le’s renditions of these classics, even as she’s swinging to meet Liang’s scaled-down acid jazz.

“Shanghai in the 1930s was really chaotic, even if you were a rich person. America was mired in the great depression. It’s almost like, ‘Well, we could all be dead tomorrow.’ The Communists and nationalists were getting ready for war. All this stuff is about to happen. Music was an escape, but what are you escaping from? Some of that has to creep into what you’re singing, to a certain extent. I think the melodies really reflect this. You can take the happiest chords and there’s still that tint of melancholy.”