"I don't think about creativity, I just copy."—Producer Howie Lee
Howie Lee, a Beijing-raised, UK-educated audiovisual producer and co-founder of the Do Hits label, is hailed as one of the most important names in Chinese electronic music today. He is known for lushly layered, ever-evolving soundscapes that deftly fuse Chinese instrumentals, global folk, and modern genres ranging from drum and bass to trap. A DJ for the dance parties of a dystopian, ethnically-melded future.
These days, Howie is based in Taipei, where his wife is from. His own state of displacement aside, it’s the old people who have inspired him. In Taiwan, he notices them, especially those who arrived from Mainland China with the Nationalists in the 1940s and never considered the island home, even after sixty years of residence.
His latest EP, Homeless, explores displacement of both mind and body. Uyghur beats on the track “Muztgata” transport listeners to the westernmost borders of China, while “Four Seas” takes listeners through the depths of spiritual imprisonment represented by the trappings of urbanization and materialism.
Howie has the sardonic irreverence characteristic of someone who sees reality for what it is. He is hypercritical and self-deprecating.
He is not creative, he just copies.
Music is not his job, though he happens to be known for it.
He has a dream, sure, the Chinese Dream.
These assertions may seem flippant, but they are also true in a way. Howie doesn’t believe in the “I” — it’s because he has subsumed his own ego that he can be productive.
Among creatives, it is often the case that inertia results not for want of talent or aspiration, but a debilitating fear of failure, an ego that just won’t quit. For a creative, to accept that there is no such thing as originality is perhaps the hardest threshold to cross — the final level, so to speak. This is how one becomes prolific and even groundbreaking. Herein lies the secret of the uncreative creative.
Howie doesn’t have a plan, but he has faith that if he keeps doing what he is doing, it will happen, such as with the film he wants to make. Because we are just cogs in the system, another deeply held belief of his.
What is the system? Howie asks if I’ve seen HyperNormalisation, the 2016 BBC documentary by Adam Curtis about how, since the 1970s, we have all been living in a fake world run by corporations. This is the system that got Trump elected, a system in which people go through life numb and asleep. But there are glitches, such as when children react to music. When children hear music, they dance; when adults hear music, they might take a moment and process how they should react, deciding, finally, not to.
Howie believes we are in the midst of a revolution, even if other people don’t know it. Within the system, we are also in our own realities.
I connected with Howie Lee over Skype for a long talk on creativity, the Chinese Dream, and the revolution currently underway.
Philana Woo: Is creativity internal or external?
Howie Lee: I don’t think I have creativity. I think I am mostly just borrowing from others. If someone thinks of my work as creative, it’s only because they haven’t been exposed to it before. In our world today, everything is subjective. If you think you’re creative, then you’re creative. The term is unimportant. I don’t think about creativity, I just copy.
Are you active or passive when it comes to creative output?
I think I am passive. I am just a cog in the system. There is no “I” — the system is pushing me to create. I am just a conduit, my body and my name do not belong to me. There is no I, so pessimism, optimism, initiative and passivity are all irrelevant. It is all dependent on the system.
Where does your creative inspiration come from? Do you have a muse?
Xi Jingping’s Chinese Dream. To become a race that cannot be taken advantage of!
Are you being sarcastic?
If you think it’s sarcastic then it is, but if you think it’s true, then it is. I really think it is so. Because speaking of initiative, for our generation, it doesn’t matter if you’re a creative or not, or just a normal worker or a high-level government official, it’s all the same — it’s all about the illusion of the Chinese Dream. You see it everywhere, on the sidewalk propaganda.
“I don’t think about creativity, I just copy.” — Howie Lee
How do you find inspiration?
I might just walk outside, observing people. Or, perhaps, it’s more about your own feeling. There’s no way to “activate” it — it’s just about a feeling — and as I’ve said, we are all part of the system, so you can only relax. As long as you relax, you will feel it. But perhaps it’s also good to be anxious. As for inspiration…. I think I looked for it in my teens, but not anymore.
How did you look for it when you were a teen?
I used to think if I played guitar at the top of a mountain, I would find it. That was when I was a teen. It doesn’t matter where I am with the same guitar anymore. It’s impossible to search for inspiration. It’s just about what I encounter and where my imagination takes me from there.
When did you move to Taipei? What inspiration have you gotten from it?
It’s been a year. I used to come a lot but now I’ve finally moved. There are a lot of positives, as well as negatives. It’s hard not to be influenced when you spend time in a city. When I’m in Taipei, I’m usually at home. When I’m out, I often observe the old people, how they move.
Do you see a difference between old people in Taipei and Beijing?
I can’t really say — I only observe them in Taipei. In Beijing I only noticed my grandpa. (Laughs.) I guess there is something beautiful about old people, but it’s hard to describe in words. Sometimes I’ll observe elderly from Mainland China speaking a dialect I can’t understand, and it’s even less comprehensible for Taiwanese. There are a lot of conflicts inherent in the social hierarchies and belief systems, between generations.
Are there greater conflicts compared to the Mainland? For instance, in the Mainland there is an aging population issue. There are more old people than ever before, and they are less healthy and have fewer support networks.
That’s right. I [came out with] a new EP called Homeless. I see a lot of waishengren [Mainlanders who’ve moved to Taiwan] — when they came to Taiwan, they no longer had a home. They kept staying on this island that isn’t their home, even after fifty years. And it still isn’t their home. So it reflects the state of a lot of people these days, whether young or old. No matter where they live, they are rootless. Just like me, I acknowledge I exist in a system and there is no “I”, but for young people, they still believe in the “I”. In reality, society is a system they are part of, they have no home. A lot of what I’ve observed, including the conflict between the young and old generations, is about this. But in the Mainland, I think there are issues as well. Aging is a universal issue.
What is the main reason you have chosen music as your profession?
Music is not my job, it’s just something I like to do. I’m alright at it. I do it when I want, but it’s not all I do. I also write, translate books, and create visuals.
Do you have any unrealized projects?
All the projects I want to do are unrealized. If they were realized, I wouldn’t want to do them. For instance, I want to make a longer film. But it’s hard to say what I will make. I’ve already started filming. It seems if I want to do something and I keep at it, I will do it, just like that.
Has your family been supportive of your work?
Yes, my parents are very supportive. They share my music on their social media. My father’s ringtone is my song. I started learning music at a very young age. Importantly, in their eyes, I am successful, so they can brag about me to their friends. (Laughs)
Was your childhood happy?
Nothing sad, but also nothing really happy. I guess it was normal. There were huge changes, too many changes. Everything was being knocked down and changing all the time.
Do you have any role models or icons?
No idols. There are people I like, but it changes with my interests. I don’t care about other people. It’s not useful to care.
Are there any important events in your life?
Rock music had the largest effect, a very deep impact. Nothing past the age of 25 had a huge impact on me like that.
How old were you the first time you encountered rock music?
14. I was studying guitar, and that’s how I became exposed to rock music. I didn’t know what it was, just that it was awesome. I took guitar in Wukesong Hutong, Haidian District. The guitar shop was in a slum where they were about to demolish buildings. There were young mothers who used to peddle bootleg porn and music CDs while carrying their babies.
How did these changes influence your work?
No matter what, objectively, all change in China has been positive, even if we’re talking about people’s understanding and openness to my music. It’s improved from before. When I was younger, of course you are kind of unaware. It’s only in retrospect that you realize how big the changes were. Your worldview is constantly changing. It’s still changing.
Do you think a lot of Chinese don’t understand your work?
Let me put it this way: Just yesterday someone wanted to interview me, so they sent questions. I took one look and didn’t want to reply. One of the questions went something like: “Most Chinese believe sampling is a very lofty, cool and niche thing that has little to do with daily life.” First of all, I didn’t understand the question, because anyone can sample music using an iPad or iPhone so it isn’t anything “lofty.” Furthermore, that it is niche and cool and has little to do with daily life is strictly their opinion. But this is not their fault, because maybe it is how mainstream Chinese feel — that music is unimportant.
Considering global music history, Confucianism actually suppressed peoples’ access to music and only permitted certain individuals the right to make music, like it was a job. That’s why when you asked about music being my job, I said it was not a job. Also, everyone has the ability to make music. It’s more about whether you are willing to open up and try it. It’s because the world is too fake that music is hard to understand. Music is actually very easy to understand. If you look at babies, they all react to music. If you play the same thing to a room of grownups, they may stare blankly at you in response. They are numb to music, like people for whom everything tastes the same. They cannot understand, nor do I need them to.
Is there a difference between Chinese and Western creativity?
We are at a crossroads. There are a lot things that are difficult to explain to a Westerner, mostly due to cultural differences such as the philosophical roots of Taoism and Buddhism. In China, art of the past few years has changed rapidly, and will conquer the rest of the world. The West has come to an end. There is nothing good left.
“In China, art of the past few years has changed rapidly, and will conquer the rest of the world. The West has come to an end. There is nothing good left.” — Howie Lee
So as you say, we are at a crossroads now. Perhaps before, China had not been exposed to so many outside influences. But now, there is beginning to be original creation.
Personally, I don’t believe in the distinction between original and copying. I think it is all copying, all a summary of previous peoples’ works. The naive thing about Western culture is they believe a certain thing belongs to a certain person. It is a product of that person’s individual thought. I do not believe this. I do not believe in so-called individual thought. Such a belief is inhibiting.
For example, the belief that if I make a song many people listen to, I should receive huge amounts of money. But is the music really mine? No. It’s not that you are born a plagiarizer, but rather as you go through life and process your experiences, your output will necessarily be a synthesis of everything you have encountered. It’s not like you are born with it. We must break the divide between original and copy. This is the beginning of revolution. In China, today, this revolution can take place.
“We must break the divide between original and copy.”
Can you elaborate on the revolution?
My understanding of the future is based on trends within my immediate world. It might be different for other people. We all make judgements based on our own system. Within my system, I see a future of revolution. But it’s hard to say what makes me think this, or how I will go about implementing it, because the system is pushing me along. It’s hard for you to see from my perspective. So I think I am going through a revolution, and whether or not I succeed doesn’t matter because it’s part of the system.
Can you describe “Chinese creativity”?
I don’t know how to describe it. It’s about who can be the most open and out there. The best things are on the street. The best things are the most unconscious. More people are becoming interested in rural culture these days. There is so much good stuff there. I think it’s not that China has no originality. On the one hand, it’s a Western stereotype. On the other hand, Chinese people have an inferiority complex. Once you get over yourself and any concerns on how to monetize something, there are actually a lot creative things. It is the Chinese way to absorb influences. Once it’s absorbed, that’s it. You can say we copied it, it doesn’t matter. Once you become confident in your culture, then creativity will happen naturally.
Speaking of rural culture, can you give any examples?
Just compare singing and dancing of city people to rural people. No one is judging them. There’s a critical lack of consciousness. In the city, with social hierarchies, you must play this numb game, but in the countryside there are fewer inhibitions. On the one hand, it has caused some international embarrassment, such as publicly using the toilet, but on the other hand, they have some of the most innovative ideas. They are equipped with the most modern technology, like smartphones, yet they are not corrupted by so-called education. Their output can be absolutely vital.
“[Rural Chinese] are equipped with the most modern technology, like smartphones, yet they are not corrupted by so-called education. Their output can be absolutely vital.” — Howie Lee
What impact did growing up in Beijing after China’s opening up have?
After the Olympics in 2008, I started to be influenced by very strong forces of globalization, and realized that young people around the world were listening to the same music. No matter who you talked to, people were listening to the same things at the same time.
Do you have any thoughts on the future of Chinese creativity?
China will become stronger in all manners. But it will take time. I think sometimes it’s all under the Chinese Dream, which is why I mentioned it earlier. Why must China be stronger than the West? Because it was bullied by the West. Personally, I harbor no resentments. I think the core of the Chinese Dream is to stand above the West and make them sorry for all they did in the past and say: Sorry, Chinese are niubi. I worship you, you’re amazing. I think this is the Chinese Dream.
What can the West learn from China regarding creativity?
Traditional culture. But there’s lots and lots of “garbage” to sift through. Chinese culture is like a giant pot of congee, full of different ingredients. It’s ok to pick and choose from the pot, but you can’t deny it completely.
Do you think Chinese people are more tolerant?
For sure. Since we are behind, we must be more open to trying different things and willing to learn by copying. If you’re behind and conservative, then isn’t that just a dead end?
Interview written and translated by Philana Woo.
This interview originally appeared on Radiichina.com and is part of Chinese Creative Revolution, a series I co-initiated to introduce English language audiences to disruptive creatives working in China today.