xTRILLIAMS talks childhood, culture and belonging in his new EP ‘Home Away’

Interviewed by Michelle Lim

Mike Yee aka xTrilliams is a Fijian- Chinese multitalented writer, rapper, and vocalist. Being raised in a multicultural suburb of Eastwood in Sydney, Mike tells the story of his childhood. Drawn to rap as a medium of storytelling and community, he wanted to reveal the genuine and authentic experience of being Asian Australian. Supported by his parents at a young age to pursue the Arts, he found his love in literature and writing, eventually turning short stories and poems into raps.

Now, Mike has released his debut EP ‘Home Away’ with Chonks. A project that exudes the immigrant experience tied in with punchy lyrics, flow, and memories of childhood. ‘Home Away’ is nostalgic of late 90’s and early 2000’s hip hop and rap with themes of belonging, culture, family, and community.    

“I’ll guess I’ll start off with the big question. What does being Asian Australian mean to you? Can you tell me more about your upbringing?”

“Being Asian Australian is an ongoing learning and understanding process. It’s this idea at a point, which you can identify, where being Asian and Australian are conjoined ideas. It also means understanding what that means today and looking back on what that means as well. Looking back at the nostalgia I felt, it was an Asian experience, not necessarily an Asian Australian experience. It’s looking at that experience and how it intertwines.”

“It sounds like you kind of lived in this Asian bubble where you had these two identities (Asian and Australian) but could not necessarily reconcile both identities.”

“I’m lucky I have two siblings, brothers, they’re working in the Arts and are working artists and between the three of us we grew up funnelled into stereotypical Asian activities like piano and maths and these containers. But one of the things that our parents became aware of, was that towards the end of primary school and the beginning of high school, they realised we were more artistically inclined. We took the Asian workhorse mentality even to the Arts. Even in the early stages of illustrating and painting, we would do it in a workhorse manner, I remember my brothers and I spent Saturdays like we were getting paid to do it. It was one of those things where it was constant stimulus and a lot of that influence came from American media and Americana such as novels, comic books, cartoons, and fantasy fiction. And our parents saw that and admitted that we were engaging in the Arts and just started running with our talents. Within that world of American fiction, there is this crossover with comic books and cartoons and fiction with Asian culture because of the admiration for that part of the Arts. Especially in the 90s and early 2000s, stuff that was more fringey and Asia seen as the precipice of that exotic fringe culture and that’s where that culture came from. Under the umbrella of my Western identity in Australia, it was very suburban, almost Nickelodeon like, but I didn’t imagine myself as Asian, I pictured myself looking like Bart Simpson.”

“I can imagine that the Fijian-Chinese community is quite small in Australia, but what is it like to be part of that community?”

“A lot of ambiguity, especially from Asians. My brothers are fraternal twins; one looks Chinese and the other looks more Filipino. People always assume the latter was Southeast Asian because of his darker skin. While the Chinese Fijian community is small, their presence is super prominent but spread out. Food plays a big part in the community, and that’s its own framework. Growing up in Sydney, I grew up been mass exposed to East Asian culture. I did say Chinese Fijian food was a big part, but Laksa and Banh Mi was also the food of my upbringing. The suburbs have very distinct cultural areas, and there are crossovers into different cultures and shared experiences through food. To all immigrants, this crossover isn’t challenging and it actually breaks barriers”

“That’s a really interesting take on your identity and upbringing. But it sounds like you didn’t really start in music but more in literature and fiction. Is this where you love for creative arts grew?”

“1000%. I don’t truly consider myself as musically gifted compared to those who I know who have knack in music, in areas like production and singing. But everything I do, even at work, is underpinned by a writing sensibility. I got into music because I fell in love with music structures, I started writing short stories and poems and then got into lyric writing that way. Music has always been an interesting concept to me. I played around a lot as a bedroom musician. In high school, I was battle rapping. As the class clown, it blew over. I used battle rapping to make jokes and curb the corniness and try to avoid that self-anxiety. One of my friends from high school was Maori and we connected over shared Pacific Islander experiences, we made music together. We’d go to the music college and use the studios to record. He’d produced and I’d be the vocalist. I’d drop mixtapes on Mediafire and MySpace, and people were listening to it. It felt like an underground experience. I moved to London for a few years and learnt more about music and production, just playing with my laptop and the microphone, and it was there where I really understood music holistically, not just rap.”

“Is there anyone who inspired you to get into this genre of music?”

“A lot of them were indie hip hop artists. It’s probably a really stereotypical answer but I was really into early Kanye and artists he was collaborating at the time. Jay-Z was someone I admired, especially his poetic story telling techniques that he uses in his music to talk about his life at that time. It was a really community driven genre and that’s what made me want to do hip- hop with my friends, not necessarily famous people. And that’s why I rap to illustrate what’s happening in my life at the time, probably for therapeutic reasons but also as a point of relating to other people.”

“In your music, there are themes of childhood and immigration, why did you choose to produce and rap about experiences?”

“I’ve been able to live quite a colourful life and I wanted to look back at it and describe it in fun and detailing way. I want to talk about the details and nuances of society while living in it and bring light to shared experiences. Immigrant parents have very nuanced and important stories but as young people to understand those stories we have to look back and reflect on those stories. It’s difficult to reconcile these stories when especially with our conflicting history with the indigenous population, and where we stand in that history. As immigrants, our experiences positive and negative, are part of the modern Australian history. I like to tell stories about real Asian Australians like ourselves, and humanise our experiences. Whatever is in vogue at the moment with Asian experiences, is defined as what the Asian Australian experience is but I didn’t wake up every Sunday morning going to dragon dancing classes, I woke up to go to swim school.”

“What were your motivations in wanting to release an EP now?”

“I’ve worked on a lot of projects, especially mixtapes, as they’re risk free. It’s a pragmatic approach as music is something that I’m not making full time. After doing shows and supporting people, I thought it would be a good time to nut out a solid set of tracks and see what sticks out and what doesn’t especially with COVID as well.”

As immigrants our experiences, positive and negative, are part of the modern Australian history.

Mike Yee

“Can you tell us what your thought process is when incorporating themes of culture and shared experiences?”

“The important thing is thematic sensibility. Looking at how I perceive everyday life and how that fits into the story and song. Rather than projecting this grandiose persona, I try to emanate myself and make sure that I don’t cookie cut my Asian identity. I add language switch ups and include things that I’m eating. I definitely make sure that I shout out where I grew up, that I grew up in Eastwood and didn’t come on a boat. I want to ground my music where my two feet are. A big point is when the elders say “good job” or give good feedback. In Asian culture, paying respects to elders and giving back is the most important. So incorporating culture and shared experiences is understanding what has come before you and paying that back. It’s been very humbling that my elders have enjoyed my music.”

“Recently, the mainstream scene has had an influx of Asian artists moving into the area such as BTS but also Joji, Rich Brian, NIKI. What do you think the impact of increasing visibility of Asian artists is?”

“I’ve been into Asian hip hop since the early 2000s, mainly American/Northern American music. But I’ve also listened to Big Bang, SNSD, 2NE1. A lot of it started off at K-pop/J-pop then made it’s way into mainstream Asian Hip Hop. There was this a point where I said, I was enjoying this but I didn’t know why. After digesting, Korean dramas, Hong Kong movies and those type of mediums, I realised it was because of facial recognition and cultural recognitions. It kind of goes back to the previous question, but the reason why I released this EP is because Asian music, faces and aesthetic are popular right now. That’s what the mainstream audience is consuming. It’s very surreal for us.”

“If you had to pick one song from your EP to let the AAP audience listen to, what would it be?”

“Would recommend Blame, the introd track. It’s the most vivid one. This is literally us going out to soju and K-BBQ in a song. That song is us growing up in that area.”

“What was it like working on this album with your regular collaborator Chonks? Who else was involved the making of the EP?”

“So Chonks (Nick) and I did 12 – 13 songs together. There were a lot of back burner and potential songs. As a vocalist, there’s a million songs that are a work in progress. Working with Nick was easy going, we both grew up and lived in the same general area. That was something both of us connected over, and so the music just came from those roots. Now it’s been a year of Nick and I learning about each other through music and increasing our knowledge together. The female vocals, sané, she was introduced to me by another producer. Even though she’s Asian American, when she started talking about her experiences, there were lightbulbs going through Nick and I’s head that we were connecting with her.”

“What songs are currently on your playlist?”

“I’m currently listening to a mix of podcast and radio. I listen to a lot of American West Coast music, stuff with light bouncy tunes. I’m also listening to Woodie GoChild and other home-grown talents – Jade Kenji and Kase Avila.”

“Do you have any advice for emerging Asian Australian artists? Or would you like to recommend any other Asian Australian artists?”

“It’s great watching other musicians that are devoted to the craft, as I’m getting older I feel more confident in not only my music, but in my life. I think the most important thing is to back yourself and make sure you’re genuine. In the creative process, don’t create an image of something that you’re not. Finding and exploring your identity is a continuous process, and don’t confine yourself to category because it’ll fit you quicker. Take the time to enjoy the process of creating.”

“What do you think is the future of Asian Australian music scene?”

“This is an extension to the Asian Australian Arts scene. I think we’ll start seeing bigger stories which focuses on the last 20 – 30 years of Asian Australians that are about living here, and not coming here. Whether it’s through literature, visual art or music, it’s going to benefit us in an economical way. In the future, there will be more opportunities in the creative space to tell our stories. It could be through events, charity or just giving back to Australians. It doesn’t have to be a white lens on discussing issues anymore.”

Listen to xTRILLIAMS’ EP here

What xTRILLIAMS recommends listening to:

Jade Kenji

Kase Avila

1300 Friends

Meet the Team #4: Vishal Vivekananda, Legal & Finance Director

In this series, we want to share what has inspired our committee members to join the team, what issues they’re passionate about and a bit of their story.

Vishal joined the Asian Australian Project this year, leading a new part of the executive team.

When I was seven, my family moved to Australia, to the country town of Wagga Wagga. Despite being the only Asian kid in my primary school, I integrated into Australian life pretty quickly. But moving at an early age and not having any Indian influences outside my family resulted in me being quite disconnected from my culture, and there have been challenges reconciling my cultural roots with my largely ‘Australian’ identity. This may also be in part due to the lack of Indian role models in Western media.

Unfortunately, the representation of Indians in media has not been very positive. Characters like Apu from the Simpsons or Raj from Big Bang Theory convey inaccurate and negative stereotypes that are incredibly harmful to the community. Even on a small scale, I hope to change the perception of Indian people and to show the value of diversity in our society.

For the Asian Australian Project, a lesson that I carry is the value of community. Even in a small town, I eventually found a community of Indian people who provided me and my family invaluable support in a new environment. Similarly, after moving to Melbourne, the Indian community has been incredibly important to the social and cultural happiness of my family.

My goal for the Asian Australian Project is to provide a community for Asian Australians to share their experiences and through this, empower and enrich their lives.

From the warm glow of our screens, it’s time to talk

Over the past year, we hosted two Fireside Chats Panels, where we have had the privilege to invite change makers and experts from the community. After our first panel, we were absolutely thrilled with the response from everyone, and with this momentum continuing after the second panel, we wanted to keep exploring new themes in 2021.

So, what is Fireside Chats, exactly? 

Our Fireside Chats are casual panel discussions- the digital version of ‘gathering around a campfire’ to discuss questions based around a central theme. The panellists can discuss their opinions and the audience is able to listen and participate with questions from the comfort of their own homes. These panels aim to shine a light on topics that are not often discussed in the mainstream for Asian Australians/Asians Between Cultures.

Unique cultural identities should be embraced – this was the core of our first Fireside Chats, ‘Initiatives Exploring Diversity’. Our four panellists, Jay Ooi (Shoes Off), Shona Yang (Kozziecom), Dr Samantha Lin (Shakespeare Academy) and Pravin Silva (AALS Summit), shared their own personal journeys and the story behind their amazing initiatives, with the aim of empowering, educating and inspiring. 

Our panellists from our first fireside chats ‘Initiatives Exploring Diversity’

“Growing up with Chinese-Malaysian parents means that I will view the world a little bit differently from my White peers and colleagues, and that’s good. We can contribute, we can see things in a different way. And that’s something we should own.” – Jay Ooi

There are so many nuances that are unique to this cultural identity that are rarely discussed, and we wanted to bring these to the forefront. To encourage everyone who attended and all ABCs, to celebrate these parts of us rather than suppress them. Othering was a common theme but the ability to embrace that can lead to empowerment.

“Use your weaknesses, use your hurt, use your struggles to really help make a difference.” – Shona Yang

The foundation of our second Fireside Chats Panel, You, Me & Mental Health,* was around how Asian-Australians experience and perceive mental health. Our four panellists, Asami Koike (Shapes and Sounds), Dr Charles Chan (Psychiatrist), Professor Chee Ng (Healthscope Chair of Psychiatry) and Monica Dias (Haathi in the Room) provided invaluable perspectives and insights. One of the key takeaways was that we are encouraged to take a more holistic approach to our mental health.

Our panellists from our second Fireside Chats: You, Me & Mental Health

“Our culture being that diaspora culture, we live between the east and the west, in between two sets of values, two sets of ideals. The mental health sector is not quite up to scratch in terms of understanding Asian-Australian people and their needs. And so I started to write about this, and the moment I started, I realised I was not alone in my thinking.” – Asami Koike.

Conversations about mental health are generally kept under the radar when it’s a common issue that very much needs to be openly discussed. The more we talk about it, the more we can help reduce the stigma. Understanding and delving into various social and cultural contexts to see what barriers and factors are in place, can be key to changing people’s perceptions relating to mental health issues.

How do our Fireside Chats work?

Our team comes up with questions to cover the key topics being addressed, to ensure as much advice and insight can be provided to the audience as possible. You are invited to submit your own questions or ask directly during Q & A towards the end of the discussion. MC’d by one of our team members, we’ll guide you through a discussion with the amazing panellists. The group atmosphere means our panelists engage in a relaxed manner between each other, and we absolutely love that!

We also encourage audience interaction and networking with our panellists- where some of our audience members have gone on to have their own individual chats. By creating these spaces for open discussion and conversation, we want ideas and information to spread and thrive.

Author: Emily Yong

*Disclaimer: This talk was designed to discuss mental health from an Asian-Australian perspective. It is not a substitute for professional or medical advice.  

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Our Thoughts After Seeing ‘Minari’

After attending a screening of Minari, Angela and Humphrey from the team give us their thoughts on the historic nominated picture- what the film got right, and whether it’s worthy of the Oscar buzz. This review contains spoilers for the film.

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Meet the team #3: Sarah Choo, Design & Marketing Director

In this series, we want to share what has inspired our committee members to join the team, what issues they’re passionate about and a bit of their story.

Sarah joined the Asian Australian Project in early 2020, leading the design and marketing teams.

It’s only relatively recently that I’ve started to consider what it means to be an Asian Australian, especially in the past year amongst the discussions in the media landscape, a global pandemic and finishing my undergrad (and all the self-doubt that comes with it!). An important part of this journey was when I joined a book club which focuses on reading books by authors of Asian descent, which allowed me to engage in interesting discussions about culture, family, heritage and society in a way I’d never been able to before.

I think many Asian Australians can relate to feeling disconnected from their heritage in some capacity, whether it is a language, social or cultural barrier. I remember the first time I met my grandparents in South Korea and being confused by how both out of place and at home I felt. During my time at university, I started to realise how my Asian heritage is incredibly valuable, and that I should celebrate it, not sweep it under the rug. Connecting with others in the Asian Australian community has been a great way to reflect upon both the individual experience and the collective understanding which shapes our culture.

Our professional, personal, social lives are all intricately interwoven with this cultural thread that is tangled up in childhood, family and events which happen on a global scale. Being part of a team that is committed to exploring these topics and providing resources, safe spaces, social events and community is inspiring and I hope this empowers others to navigate their own identities and struggles without fear.

And That’s A Wrap! The Asian Australian Project Cleans Up (a small bit of) Australia

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, our volunteers assembled for Clean Up Australia Day on 7th March 2021 at Bondi Beach. Bondi was abuzz with patrons, with almost every square inch of sand covered in people, towels and umbrellas. A perfect backdrop for the day!

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6 Amazing Australian Initiatives Led By Women

International Women’s Day is all about celebrating women and their achievements. There are some amazing initiatives being run by women throughout Australia, and at AAP, we want to shine a spotlight on these initiatives and their founders, who are pioneering innovative and exciting projects in their fields of expertise. We’ve collated 6 Australian-Women led organisations that you just need to know who are challenging the status quo; and trust us, you’ll be better off after checking them out.

Continue reading “6 Amazing Australian Initiatives Led By Women”

Meet the team #2: Michelle Lim, Vice President

In this series, we want to share what has inspired our committee members to join the team, what issues they’re passionate about and a bit of their story.

Michelle joined the team in January this year, bringing her passion for social work, advocacy and activism.

Being Asian Australian has been a relatively new experience for me. As an expat, I always identified as being Australian; while back in Australia, people identified me as Asian. It was a difficult journey and process to reconcile the fact that I could be both and not necessarily just have one identity.

Reflecting on my experience as a child of migrants, such journeys are common but also unique to an individual person and it can be complex and emotionally laborious to unpack the immigrant experience and identity in a Western environment. That’s why I think AAP is great platform in helping those who are beginning their journey (or yet to begin) to facilitate opportunities for them to explore their identity.

My background is in international relations and social work, and most of the work I’m passionate about is around youth advocacy and grassroots activism. I’m not only passionate about exploring the Asian-Australian experience, but also about areas such as Women of Colour, migrants and refugees and young people. I want to use my platform as Vice President to elevate and empower others to be advocates, leaders, story tellers and change makers in their communities, so one day they can be figures that young Asian-Australians look up to.

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Clean Up Australia originated almost 30 years ago, and today, the organisation’s chief focus is on minimising the amount of rubbish that is disposed of into the environment.

Started by Ian Kiernan, Clean Up Australia originated from a community event he organised in response to the massive amounts of pollution and waste he witnessed as a sailor. This idea gained community traction, and more than 18.3m Australians have volunteered since. Making a big difference always begins with a small step. We have collated a few, easy ways that you can lead a more eco friendly lifestyle below:

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Meet the team #1: Humphrey Chan, Founder & President

In this series, we want to share what has inspired our committee members to join the team, what issues they’re passionate about and a bit of their story.

Something I see and hear all the time from other Asian-Australians is they don’t feel either Asian ‘enough’ or Australian ‘enough’, like they’re caught in this no man’s land in the middle. But that means that just by our upbringing and experiences, we have access to two cultures and two worlds. We can be Asian, Australian, or Asian-Australian – how amazing is that?

I was born in Hong Kong and grew up there briefly before moving to Australia at a young age. There was barely any focus on what it means to be a young Hong Kongese-Australian, or even Asian-Australian – having competing cultural influences, never seeing faces that look like you on TV, or feeling distant from your extended family overseas. Growing up Asian-Australian is often filled with these confusing experiences which can make it hard to see it in the best light. The way I see my identity and culture is still evolving, but I’ve always believed that it should be a significant and positive part of my life.

The goal with AAP is to help Asian-Australians understand and embrace our identities, culture and heritage. AAP is 2 years old now, and I’m very proud of where we’ve come in that time. We’ve been able to spotlight some amazing leaders and role models and provide resources and a community for young Asian-Australians. But there is so much more to be done – so many more amazing people to showcase and unique stories to tell.