Chow Mane Is Using Food to Bring Asian-American Raps to the Mainstream: Interview

On his latest album, 'Simmering,' the 24-year-old rapper is saying, "Sit down, eat with me, and please learn my story."
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Hip-hop is about a dollar and a dream, a chase that is familiar to many immigrants. America promises that “The World Is Yours,” and just like in hip-hop, first-generation immigrants ain’t got nothing to conquer it with but their balls and their word. 

Born in San Jose, but, by blood, Chinese-Vietnamese, 24-year-old rapper Chow Mane (born Charles Yan) invites us to feast on his heritage on April's Simmering, his debut full-length. Yan’s music celebrates his familial roots and immigrant struggle, incorporating vestiges of his family history and bouncing quickly from Mandarin-Chinese to English with an effortless rhythm that evidences his breezy Bay Area influences. But his come-up story? American, through and through.

Yan’s father is a Vietnamese immigrant of Chinese ancestry whose family fled from Vietnam during the war when he was a teenager. As a child, Yan grew up working in his family’s restaurant. Both his father and uncle attended high school in California, and so he found himself influenced by G-funk and the Bay Area rap CDs in his uncle’s car. 

As a ‘90s baby, Yan's interest soon crossed over to the internet. In sixth and seventh grade he discovered DatPiff, where he began downloading mixtapes and was inspired to start rhyming himself:

“I got No Ceilings, a lot of the early Big Sean tapes, all the Kanye tapes. At that time it was the Wild West [of internet rap] where people were just going over other people’s beats on every tape, so it really encouraged me to start writing a little bit more.” —Chow Mane

Much of Yan's music, especially his six-track debut EP, Mooncakes, is highly personal and tackles the hardships his family faced for him to live the American dream.

“I see a lot of how immigration has impacted my family,” says Yan, a graduate of UC Berkeley. “I was born after they settled here in the States. Around the time I was 16 or 17, I started learning about the actual crazy shit that they had to go through.”

The first boat his father took to come to America was attacked by Malaysian pirates, who came onboard to chop off fingers, steal gold, and kidnap passengers. The pirates would leave them stranded in the ocean before being rescued by the Red Cross.

“Learning my family’s history made me want to learn more about the Chinese diaspora,” Yan says.

Yan's family and cultural history play out in Mooncakes. “Da Da Da!” (which in Mandarin means “to hit”) is an aggressive rally for yellow pride: “Why you so concerned about this wai guo ren (foreigner) / You hate your own kind don’t you, you wish your mom and dad were blonde don’t you / Fake chino.” The title track, “Mooncakes,” peruses the struggles of his family. The persistent theme of food takes on new meaning upon realizing his family, like so many Asian immigrant families, worked in the foodservice industry all his life.

Yan began releasing songs on SoundCloud in 2012, and in 2014, he released the viral hit “ABG,” introducing California Asian-American culture to the world. An “ABG,” or “Asian Baby Girl,” is a stereotypical Southern California Asian-American girl who enjoys Vegas, Koreatown, and chasing “tequila with boba tea.” Like many of his tracks, the hook is infectious and snared-out, with satirical bars highlighting the ombre-haired, tattooed babes who make the Vegas EDM scene so much fun.

When “ABG” gained traction, a barrage of satiric rappers reached out to Yan, many of whom were looking to collaborate on another similarly themed record.

“‘ABG’ popped off as kind of a meme song, which was the intent,” Yan says. “[But] having my two biggest songs be niche put me in a box. People were reaching out, but a lot of them were these joke rappers; also very Asian-specific ones, so not the type of music that I would want to make the rest of my career.”

A yellow face is more digestible when it's connected with a country of origin, while hyphens are complicated. “Asian” is a more accessible product to bag for mainstream America than “Asian-American.” What translates to hip-hop culture in the East, however, isn’t necessarily what their immigrants have brought to set in the West.

“It’s where my heritage is from, but it’s not home for me,” Yan says. “I haven’t seen enough Asian-American artists. Within the EDM scene, there’s a lot more, but when it comes to people with a face, I haven’t seen as many out there. In the game, there’s always an image. It might be harder to be put in mainstream media, but at the same time there’s that step for myself in being able to break out as an Asian artist and if anything, inspire other Asian artists to do so.”

Food, Yan believes, makes his music more digestible to mainstream America. Perhaps Asian culture is so intertwined with food because it’s the way our Confucian cultures best express emotion.

With that, Yan's first full-length project, Simmering, produced alongside his newly signed collective Forever New Nation, features a more experienced Chow Mane, one serving up a variety of flavors and influences.

Simmering kind of worked as an allegory in a way, as somebody married to cooking, married to food, Asian food, and Chinese food in particular, there is a flavor palate that you can build off of,” Yan says.

“In Chinese food, there are three main ingredients—soy sauce, rice wine, and Chankiang vinegar. Depending on the things you make, you’re trying to touch on these different flavor profiles. I tried to approach the album the same way. I realized that this album can be structured as a multiple-course meal, if we’re treating each song as a mixture of flavors. We have some love songs that are kind of sweet, some harder songs that are bitter or spicy, and [they're] paired together in a way that is balanced throughout the album so that you’re getting a mix of raw bars and some more melodic stuff.” —Chow Mane

At times, Simmering feels disjointed, the result of Yan's tinkering in the kitchen, but the album presents a quality that many Asian-American projects need: a point of view. 

Chinese medicine may be bitter, but nothing beats Yan’s favorite food, red-cooked pork. After all, 2019 is the year of the pig. Chow Mane’s music delivers in this way, saying: Sit down, eat with me, and please learn my story.

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