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Sad China's Quest For Happiness

The Vancouver-based hyperpop artist mends old wounds with creative positivity and bilingual empathy.

by Leslie Ken Chu

Photo by Jenn Xu

Sunny Chen’s debut album as Sad China may have grown from a desire to connect with others, but ilyimy (I Love You I Miss You) is much more than the sum of their hopes and anxieties about the pandemic. The album is deeply rooted in the Nanjing-born Vancouver-based artist’s complicated, even toxic, relationship with their family and the local arts community. Over the twinkling, suctioning electronics of opening track “hum人n,” Chen directly challenges the people close to them — or those who want to get close to them — to show their true intentions. “There have been times where people hit me up to be like, ‘Oh, you want to work together?’ But in reality, they just want to fuck me, or they just want me as a token in their clique,” they explain to RANGE by phone from Mexico City, which is where their partner currently resides.

New album, ilyimy features a robust cast of collaborators, each of whom attests to how far Chen has come in being able to trust again. Afrobeat artist Adewolf and the velvet-voiced Khamisa slow the pace and dim the lights on the R&B-inflected “Bless.bliss.” The heavenly cover of Nelly Furtado’s “all good things (come to an end)” unspools in the hands of harpist, desire process. Newcomer JERRYCHERRY lays down rap verses that sound placid compared to the restless beat of “Toxic (friends),” and yukari* lends her smooth vocals to the mellow jam “nbl.” 

Chen’s bond with KERUB is strongest of all, springing from shared interests in Lady Gaga, Charli XCX and more. The electronic pop composer co-produced seven of ilyimy‘s 10 tracks with Chen. “Now that I’ve worked with KERUB, I understand how much I was settling, how much I was made to feel like I was never cool,” Chen says. “I should feel like an equal when I work with people. With KERUB, I really felt respected.”

Respect and trust form the pillars of Chen’s work outside of their own music. They use their psychology degree to offer professional and personal coaching to marginalized creatives, mentorship Chen never had. More important, they offer a level of empathy only a marginalized person can offer another. “That means respecting someone’s gender identity and sexuality,” they cite for example.

Some clients want to hear how they got to where they are, and Chen is eager to share. “It’s so important for marginalized people to hear from another marginalized creative about their journey. There’s a lot of gatekeeping within marginalized communities because there’s this false concept of scarcity in the creative industry. That’s what the white supremacy wants: for marginalized people to fight each other for scraps. They don’t have to oppress us if we’re already doing that to ourselves.”

The lows of the pandemic are obvious, but “making the album was a lot of the highs of the last year,” Chen says. Not only have they forged new creative relationships, they’ve figured out who their real friends are. “There are some people I only interact with at events, and those people fell out of my life. I don’t really see them as friends anymore. I see them as acquaintances. During the pandemic, we made time to talk to people we wanted to talk to, and we hung out with people we actually wanted to hang out with because we had to social distance.”

The proliferation of Zoom workshops have allowed Chen to meet people outside the Vancouver scene, like Edmonton’s pseudo-antigone, who went on to produce the instrumental that Chen turned into the eulogistic “Mt. unPleasant.” The pandemic has also brought Chen closer to their family — literally and figuratively. Last September, they returned to live with their mother, sister, and paternal grandparents in Langley, BC to save money, get distance from toxic people, and help their mother run the multi-generational household.

Like many children of immigrant parents, Chen faced intense pressure to succeed in academia. Their mother paid for ballet and singing lessons, but her true hope was for Chen to follow a more steady (and lucrative) path than the arts, like medicine or law. “I don’t hold it against her. She just wants a stable life for me. In their hearts, they are proud of us,” Chen says of immigrant parents.

But Chen has newfound empathy for their mother. As the first person in her family and the first woman at her school to earn a PhD, from Nanjing Forestry University, she, too, defied cultural expectations for women to become wives and mothers. Chen wrote ilyimy as a posthumous way to honour their maternal grandparents as well. Not only did Chen’s widowed grandfather live in Pingxiang, China until he died during the pandemic, they also spoke Sichuan hùa (a Southern Chinese dialect), so Chen had always felt disconnected from them. “I guess it makes up for all the years I couldn’t talk to them. I know a lot of immigrant kids struggle with this. There’s this grief that we can’t relate to our family, that they won’t be able to relate to us.”

Living at home again, Chen has gotten to know themselves better. “Now I understand where I come from and the women who raised me,” they sing on the celestial “永远在我的心里 forever in my heart,” one of iyimy‘s six bilingual songs. “I played ‘永远在我的心里 forever in my heart’ for my paternal grandparents, and they fucking loved it! They always complain that they can’t listen to my music, so I really wanted to write something they can listen to. I believe that our ancestors are watching over us, so I know my maternal grandparents are listening. And because they’re in a different world now, language barriers don’t exist for them, and they understand me.”

By building solidarity with other queer people of colour, Chen has found a safe space where they can be honest and feel comforted and nurtured. True support from the arts community and a deeper connection to their ancestral roots have been essential for healing their past trauma. The process is far from over for Chen, but ilyimy is a personal milestone, one that’s sure to help others in their own journeys.