‘PIONEER GIRL’ BY BICH MINH NGUYEN

Story by Susan Soon He Stanton.

Engaging, humorous and unexpectedly suspenseful, Bich Minh Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl is the story of Lee Lien’s literary pilgrimage to uncover a mystery that connects Rose Wilder, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, to Lee’s own family. Lee, the child of Vietnamese immigrants, grew up in the Midwest. Her perpetually dissatisfied widowed mother shuttles Lee, her brother Sam and her grandfather from town to town as they struggle to make a living running generic Asian-themed buffets catering to Americans. A gold pin that Lee’s grandfather received from a woman named Rose in Saigon causes Lee, a frustrated, out-of-work scholar, to speculate that the pin originally belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Lee abandons her mother and their restaurant to embark on a cross-country adventure, discovering secrets hidden within Rose Wilder’s papers. Reappropriating the American classic Little House on the Prairie series to echo Lee’s transient upbringing in the heartland, Nguyen’s striking prose spins a multi-generational tale that investigates the narrative we use to create our family histories. Nguyen speaks with Audrey Magazine about her latest novel.

Q: Can you talk about your inspiration for intersecting the life of a young Vietnamese American woman with the Little House on the Prairie saga?

Bich Minh Nguyen: As a child, I strongly identified with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her family was always looking for a home, a right home, where they wanted to be. In the back of my mind, it resonated with me as an immigrant story. I came to America in 1975, and I think what my family went through in resettling paralleled the Little House on the Prairie books I was reading.

I wanted to create a link between Lee’s family and the Ingalls. Both the Ingalls and the Liens are constantly moving. A phrase used in the Little House books is “itchy wandering foot.” The pioneer spirit is the belief that there’s got to be something better if we just keep moving — we just need to find out what’s beyond those hills, what’s beyond the visible horizon — and that feeling can be intoxicating.

Q: Lee is discriminated against for being an Asian American Wharton scholar. She’s constantly pushed towards ethnic lit. Is that something you’ve come up against while writing this book?

BMN: It can be difficult for writers of color to write about people who are not of their own background, without facing some kind of criticism. There’s a belief held by many people that if you are a person of color, you should only be writing about your own experience. When I began, many people were puzzled why an Asian American would be interested in writing a story involving Little House on the Prairie. The notion was that these books are so iconically American, why would an Asian American be interested? I wanted to question that questioning, to create a narrative of the Rose Wilder stories with the story of the protagonist, Lee.

Q: Lee makes some pretty juicy discoveries about Rose Wilder’s personal life. How much of it is true?

BMN: I took a ton of liberties. However, I did spend a lot of time reading Rose’s journals at the archives. But Lee’s theft of archival materials is made up. It’s not something that I would do myself, but I love imagining it. The Rose Wilder Lane papers in Iowa are cataloged in a fairly messy way. I was surprised there were so many souvenirs and trinkets jumbled together, and the thought crossed my mind, “Boy, you could just take one of these things.” Every once in a while a scholar will find a treasure trove of lost letters. I’ve always loved this idea. You’re an ordinary scholar, and you make an accidental and incredible discovery.

In Rose’s papers, I did find a photograph of a Vietnamese man that she took while in Saigon. The photo struck a chord. I thought, maybe she really did develop friendships there. It was the first connection I could make between something having to do with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Vietnamese American experience.

 

Q: Your descriptions of the pseudo-Asian buffets in small Midwestern towns are appalling and fascinating. Did you have a lot of experience eating at those buffets growing up?

BMN: I did. And for research purposes, I had to go back. I went to the worst ones, the most grimy and rundown. For years it fascinated me that these restaurants are in the middle of nowhere but are somehow surviving and run by Asian people. They serve corn syrupy fast food. It’s really American food more than Asian.

Q: Lee’s brother, Sam, chooses to move to San Francisco to be around other Asians. You grew up in the Midwest, but you have recently moved to San Francisco. Can you speak more about your motivation to relocate Sam?

BMN: When I wrote Pioneer Girl, I was living in the Midwest. I had no idea that I would ever move to the Bay Area. Part of the Midwestern experience for me is conflicted. When I was growing up there, I always thought, this is where we are, this is our home. However, there’s a longing to see what the coasts are like because all you ever hear is that life is on the coasts, in California or New York, and the middle is just fly-over country. I wanted there to be a character who not only felt that way but did something about it. But it’s not a positive thing Sam does; it’s a selfish thing, and that’s what happens to a lot of Midwesterners who leave. It can feel like you are abandoning something. I wanted to get at that feeling.

Details Hardcover, $26.95, bichminhnguyen.com.

 

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This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here

VOICES CARRY: Carissa Rae

Story by Ada Tseng. 

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies. 


Filipino American singer Carissa Rae Alvarado, born and raised in Southern California, first started appearing in YouTube videos in 2008, crooning covers of Alicia Keys and Michelle Branch when she was still in high school. One day in 2011, at a friend’s music video shoot, she met a boy, a fellow singer-songwriter named Michael Alvarado, and little did she know that after three hours of talking and laughing, he had told his friend he was going to marry her.

A year later, there was a ring on her finger, and their individual YouTube followings only grew when they shared their proposal and wedding videos with their fans online. Eventually, Carissa Rae and Michael also officially combined their singing personas to create the duo called Us. In addition to their love songs about different stages of their relationship, their 270,000 subscribers can’t get enough of their general adorableness. The 23-year-old recalls how they got all their friends and family to sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” her favorite karaoke song, at their wedding reception. She admits to being scared of whales since she was 8. She loves jump roping. And they post new videos every “ThUSday.”

“My husband always knows how to make me laugh,” she gushes. “Even if it’s just a silly face he makes. I always tell him he is the most handsome and most ugly person I’ve ever met, because he can make some of the nastiest faces ever, and it just cracks me up!”

The duo recently released their sophomore pop/folk album No Matter Where You Are last November.

First Song: The very first song I wrote was about love. I was about 15 years old when I wrote it. It was basically about when you literally are so in love (in this case, it was puppy love) with a person, he or she is all you can think about. So no matter where you go, you see that person’s face.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: My husband and I were in a long-distance relationship for a while when we were dating. He lived in North Carolina, and I was in California, so one way that we coped with the distance was writing songs about it. “Near or Far,” which is on our first self-titled album, speaks about how we don’t need to worry about the miles in between us, that I’ll always be right there with him in his heart. This song was a wonderful reminder to stay strong and never give up on us even though distance was tough.

Favorite Music of the Moment: Lorde’s album Pure Heroine has been [playing] on repeat lately. She is such a wonderful songwriter!

Instrument Envy: I’d love to learn how to play an upright bass. The instrument itself, along with the sounds it makes, just fascinates me.

Guilty Pleasure: Excessive shopping is a habit that I need to break. I personally love shopping and can’t get enough of it, but my wallet (and my hubby) aren’t as thrilled when it comes to new clothes. If I weren’t doing music right now, I’d probably be working in fashion.

Fall in love with Carissa Rae at AudreyMagazine.com/carissarae.

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here.    

VOICES CARRY: Thao Nguyen

Story by Ada Tseng. 

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies.  


Born and raised in Virginia, Vietnamese American Thao Nguyen began playing guitar and writing songs as a pre-teen, before starting the alternative folk rock band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down with two of her College of William & Mary classmates in 2005. Last year, after years of touring and numerous albums, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down released their third full-length record, We the Common, which was inspired by Nguyen’s volunteer work at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners in San Francisco, Calif. The title track, “We The Common [For Valerie Bolden]” is dedicated to the first prisoner Nguyen ever met. Though Bolden, who is serving life without parole, has not heard the song — there are strict rules about bringing music into prison — Nguyen has read her the lyrics. “I just had a very intense interaction with her that stayed with me,” remembers the 29-year-old. “She talked about how she doesn’t want to die in there. She wants to see her daughter. I was struck by how lighthearted and casual our conversation was, yet it was punctuated with very poignant moments.”

“The Feeling Kind,” their latest music video for another single off the new album, made local news when the California Highway Patrol had to halt the shoot mid-production. It was the first music video to be shot on the new San Francisco-Oak- land Bay Bridge after it opened last September. “We had a salsa dancer dressed in full carnival regalia,” explains Nguyen, “and the outfit was beautiful but also revealing. I think traffic on the bridge came to a dead stop.” Luckily, they had gotten enough footage to make the parade-themed video.

After finishing up their We the Common tour early this year, Nguyen and her bandmates will begin working on their new album, tentatively scheduled for early 2015.

First Musical Memory: Listening to Smokey Robinson for the first time on the radio. And playing my brother’s Casio keyboard.

First Song: The first song I ever wrote was a rap song in the third grade. I had a choice to write a book report on Charlotte’s Web or to do something else, so I wrote a rap about Charlotte’s Web. My secret dream was to become a rapper, so it was a no- brainer that I would do a rap song at that age.

Best Advice: When I was 17 and living in Virginia, in the suburbs of D.C., I went to a small coffee shop show to see one of my favorite musicians, Erin McKeown. I got her to sign something, and I told her, “My dream is to do what you do.” And she was very direct and straightforward with me. She said, “It’s not a dream. You just do it.” I took that to heart, and she was right.

Inspirations: I looked up to Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders, Cowboy Junkies and country blues players. I didn’t know any Asian American musicians when I was growing up, so I want young [Asian American] girls today to see that it’s a possibility to make music your career.

 

Check out Thao & The Get Down Stay Down at AudreyMagazine.com/thaonguyen

 

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here. 

Dating Culture Shock: The Good, Bad and Fetishism of Modern-Day Dating in Japan

Story by Paul Nakayama. 

After decades of the singles scene in America, columnist Paul Nakayama discovers the good, bad and fetishism of modern-day dating in his ancestral home of Japan. 

Why would I forsake the moderate temperatures of Los Angeles and spend six weeks in the freezing, ball-numbing winters of Japan? The same reason I’ve always tortured myself— a girl. Well, and ramen. Really, really good ramen. But mostly, it’s for a girl. And while I was there, I made a few observations about the dating scene in Japan. They aren’t about my personal experiences per se, because this is my column and not my diary — I mean, journal. Men don’t keep diaries … not that I keep a journal. Wow, jet lag is nature’s crystal meth.

I should start by explaining that I was in Fukuoka, which is in southwestern Japan. If Tokyo, where I usually party in Japan, is like New York, then Fukuoka is like Chicago. In Fukuoka, like Chicago, people tend to get married while they’re still in their 20s or early 30s. So many of my girlfriend’s friends were already married. Otherwise, the first words from the single ones to me were, “Do you know any single men?”

Despite the marital aspirations of most of the people I met in Fukuoka, there was a contradictory and disappointing social trend, one that I’ve seen often in Asia. Cheating is a common occurrence. I don’t know the official numbers, but I met a lot of married men with mistresses and a lot of girls that were dating married men. It’s no surprise that in 2013 AshleyMadison.com (the affair-friendly website) made Japan its first Asian market. You can’t see my face, but I’m frowning, like I’m tempted to drive around Japan in a pickup with a TV in the back streaming Before Midnight.

But to get back on a positive note and to get back to the single people that are in search of true love, how do they find one another in Japan? While online dating is on the rise, the predominant method is undeniably the goukon, or group blind date. Basically, it’s a system where a single man and woman who know each other invite approximately four friends to meet at a restaurant or gastropub. It’s safer and less stressful. And genius. Oh, how I wish this could’ve been a possibility in my earlier years. The money saved from failed first dates aside, I — I mean, my friends — would’ve been spared all the emotional scars of humiliation. You know, like those horrible moments of dance-walking up to a girl at a club where she vehemently shakes her head “no,” and then having to shuffle back to the bar in shame. At goukon events, it becomes pretty clear who’s interested in whom, and it’s already established that everyone there is looking for something serious, meaning attendees can’t use the “I’m not ready for a relationship” line.

As great as goukons are, they aren’t infallible. Everyone is a friend of a friend, so at least there’s a level of trust. But honestly, how many of you know the sexual proclivities of your friends? Whenever my friends start dropping details, I cover my ears and sing Katy Perry songs. I heard this great/awful story of one goukon match gone awry. Apparently, they dated for a few weeks, but the guy always came up with some excuse not to let her go to his apartment. She finally found out why: he was an underwear fetishist with huge stashes of ladies’ used underwear. He’d buy them from vending machines. (They actually exist! I was as shocked as you to learn that it’s not an urban legend.) He’d even wear them to work. I may be embellishing at this point, but he might have peed on her, too. You know, I take it back. Goukons are perfect. Someone please go out there, host a goukon event and send your favorite stories to the Audrey office.

Now, once you’re dating, Japan has a whole slew of interesting and unique cultural options. For example, many people still live with their parents (or their spouses) and lack privacy, so many couples go to “love hotels,” which is essentially an upscale, usually gimmicky, pay-by-the-hour motel. They usually come equipped with karaoke, which is what I like to combine with sex (I didn’t watch porn growing up; I watched music videos). Another interesting difference is in the holidays. Christmas is Japan’s Valentine’s Day. It’s the busiest night of the year for restaurants. Interestingly, on Valentine’s Day in Japan, girls give chocolates to boys. Then a month later, on White Day, boys reciprocate. I don’t quite understand it, but it is kind of sweet.

It was a fascinating experience to hear everyone’s dating stories during my time in Fukuoka. In my case, I’m a Japanese American dating a Japanese girl, so I suppose we can pick and choose the best of both dating cultures. I like the idea of having two major romantic holidays, so we agreed to that. It was also comforting to both of us that I have no interest in wearing her underwear nor does she in mine. There are no love hotels in the U.S., at least not of the same hygienic and entertaining quality as found in Japan, so any music we make in the bedroom will have to be of our own making. Katy Perry, anyone?

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here

ARDEN CHO: Landing Her Role on ‘Teen Wolf’ Was Worth The Wait

Story by Ada Tseng.
Photos by Vince Trupsin, vincetrupsin.com

As a kid growing up in Texas — from Amarillo to San Antonio to Dallas — Arden Cho remembers going to sleep and praying she’d wake up with blond hair and blue eyes. “That’s just all I saw on TV 20 years ago,” remembers Cho. “I didn’t know that there were Zhang Ziyis, Kim Yunjins and all these sexy, hot Asian women out there!”

Nowadays, young Asian American girls look up to Cho as a role model, ever since she broke out in the YouTube world in 2010, acting opposite Ryan Higa in the online movie Agents of Secret Stuff, directed by Wong Fu Productions. Her co-star encouraged her to upload her own content to YouTube, and her two channels combined — one for her film/TV work and the other for her personal videos and music — now boast almost 200,000 subscribers and 18.5 million views.

For as long as Cho can remember, before she even dreamed of being an actress or singer, she has always wanted to work with youth. Her YouTube channels reflect this, with her series titled “Follow Your Heart,” where she interviews creative types about how they found the courage to pursue their dreams, and her vlogs “Ask Arden,” where she shares her thoughts on everything from dating to fashion to being comfortable with who you are.

Connecting with her young Asian American fans is especially important to Cho because, she says, she grew up shy and insecure and would have loved to have had an older sister to tell her that everything was going to be OK. Though she has more confidence today, the entertainment industry is notoriously superficial (she has been told that she’d have to get plastic surgery if she wanted to work in Korea), and the constant auditioning can wear any hard worker down. And despite booking a high-profile Clinique Asia campaign and many close calls, her only official “Hollywood” acting credits for a long time were one- episode roles in CSI:NY, Pretty Little Liars and Rizzoli & Isles. Even everyday YouTube fans weren’t always supportive (“YouTube is seriously tough,” she says. “People are brutal — they either love you or hate you”).

In 2013, Cho realized she may not have control over the acting opportunities she was given, but she had written a lot of her own original songs that she could record and release on her own, if she could only get the courage to do it. “I realized, ‘Man, I’m such a hypocrite,’ because I tell fans to follow their hearts, but here I was, terrified to put my music out there,” she says. “I was scared of being vulnerable.”

Releasing her first EP, My True Happy, was an act of freedom. “These are the stories of my life, my heartaches and my experiences,” says Cho. “It was like I put out my secret stories that I had never really shared with anybody.”

She was this close to giving up acting and instead touring around Asia with her music for a few months, when suddenly, she landed the role of Kira in the third season of MTV’s cult hit series Teen Wolf. Kira is not only the lead character Scott’s new love interest but, in the context of the show’s dark, supernatural realm, she’s the mysterious new girl at school who has some tricks up her sleeve.

“I got to do a lot of action and work with amazing stunt choreographers,” says Cho. “I had bruises over my whole body, and there were days that I was so sore that I couldn’t even walk, but it’s all totally worth it because the footage is so beautiful.”

Though she loves her current gig (there are rumors that show creator Jeff Davis is developing a Kira spin-off show specifically for her), Cho doesn’t take her success for granted. “Being an Asian actress, roles that are on the table often aren’t our first picks,” she says. “But when Teen Wolf came along, I really couldn’t have written a better part that I’d want to play. Sometimes it takes all these disappointments to make you appreciate something when it finally works out.”

Teen Wolf airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on MTV. 

 


 IN HER OWN WORDS

1. She’s a little bit country.
“I used to have a really hard Southern drawl. You can still kind of hear it sometimes, especially when I sing. I really love that country music tells stories; I hope that one day, I can record a full country album.”

2. She’s been on both sides of love.
“The song ‘Memory’ is about someone who walked out and left me with so much pain. [Whereas] ‘I’m the One to Blame’ is about how I screwed it up. Sometimes when you’re insecure in a relationship, you push people away because you’re scared, so that’s about me saying sorry. I’m not sure if [that guy] knows the song’s about him.”

3. She wants young girls to know that nobody is perfect.
“It took 20 years for me to feel good about myself. I didn’t wear shorts until a year and a half ago, and now I’m wearing miniskirts on Teen Wolf. Every girl looks in the mirror and wants to change things — I still do — but imperfection is what makes people beautiful.”

4. She has faith.
“As a believer, I want to live my life with purpose. People think if you’re Christian, you have to be a teacher, doctor or pastor, but I think I can be an actor and still be someone who lives out what God intended me to do.”

 

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here

VOICES CARRY: Teresa Lee

Story by Ada Tseng.

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies. 


 

Teresa Lee first met her PaperDoll bandmate (and husband) Patrick Moloney at an open mic in New York’s Lower East Side. She was a Chinese-Thai-Taiwanese American singer-songwriter who played piano, he was a guitarist, and they joined together with Jack Koch and Will Haywood Smith to form the pop-rock group PaperDoll.

Two albums later (2008’s Ballad Nerd Pop, then 2012’s Sashimi Deluxe) as well as tours all over the world, from the U.S. to China (they were first invited to perform in Shanghai for the 2010 World Expo and have been rocking out around the country since), Lee finally decided to take a break at the end of last year to enjoy her last months of pregnancy with her and Moloney’s first baby. While the 28-year-old is counting down the days to new motherhood (“I know this sounds insane, but I swear the baby is tapping out very distinct rhythms in my belly,” says Lee), she continues to write music — country music, of all things — and can’t wait to take their child on tour with them one day.

First Song: The first song I wrote that I was proud of was called “I Just Lied.” It was on an EP I had out in 2004, and it was about being lost, but embracing what you’re feeling at the moment, even if it’s nothing. The lyrics were: I don’t need to know right now how to feel / It’s too soon to tell, wouldn’t know what to do anyhow. Someone told me, “My friend passed away, and this song helped me through it.” It was the first time I was really proud of my work, and it gave me a lot of confidence to move forward.

First Musical Inspirations: I used to say this as a joke, but now I think it’s true. Remember Tia Carrere’s character in Wayne’s World? The movie came out when I was like 7, and she was a kickass girl that vaguely looked like me, a singer who played bass, and I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s a possibility!” [Laughs] Also, Jem and the Holograms.

But if we’re talking about people who aren’t fictional: Emily Haines from Metric and Tori Amos. My friend’s older sister had [Amos’] album Little Earthquakes, and I remember thinking I didn’t know that music could be that good.

Personal Inspirations: My mom has been so fearless and encouraging of my music, in a way that I didn’t even realize was unique until I was an adult. I honestly didn’t know that Asian parents wanting you to take the safe route [and be a doctor, engineer or lawyer] was a stereotype until I went to college and read about it in books. She always wanted me and my brothers and sisters to do something that inspired us, and I can’t thank her enough for that.

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here

VOICES CARRY: Chhom Nimol

Story by Ada Tseng. 

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies. 


Chhom Nimol, 35, the lead singer of the Los Angeles band Dengue Fever, is part of a family of well-known musicians in Cambodia. Chhom’s brothers and sisters taught her how to sing while they were growing up in a refugee camp in Thailand, just across the border from Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Upon their safe return to Cambodia, Chhom made a name for herself by winning a national singing contest, and shortly after she moved to the U.S., her American bandmates Ethan and Zac Holtzman discovered her in a Long Beach nightclub. They were looking for a vocalist to sing in Khmer so they could record covers of Cambodian psychedelic rock. Chhom agreed to join their band in 2001; 13 years and seven albums later, Dengue Fever released their latest EP, Girl from the North, last December, and another new record is already in the works.

First Musical Memory: When I was 6 or 7, I remember going to a neighbor’s place, and we would listen to music on their radio. Mostly it was Khmer-Surin music, a mix of Thai country songs with Khmer lyrics that is popular near the border. I still love that music so much; it has good memories for me.

First Song: I was about 18 years old, on a singing trip to Australia. I really liked this Cambodian man so much, but he already had a girlfriend. I was young. My heart was broken, and I wrote my first song. The English translation of the title is “In This Life We Cannot Be Together.” It is a very sad song. I still remember all the words.

Turning Struggle into Art: When we first started the band in 2001, I had a problem with my visa to stay in America. Our car was stopped by the police after a show in San Diego, and they arrested me and put me in jail. I was so scared because my English was not so good, and I did not have money to pay. Plus, they only let me eat burritos in jail, and I did not know how to eat burritos. I was lucky that my sister, my band and my friends raised money to help me, but I had to stay in jail for 22 nights. That was a terrible time in my life. There is a song on our first album called “22 Nights.”

Check out Chhom Nimol’s distinctive sound at AudreyMagazine.com/denguefever.    

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here. 

VOICES CARRY: Hollis Wong-Wear

Story by Ada Tseng.

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies.


That girl singing the hook from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ hit song “White Walls?” That would be Hollis Wong-Wear, a frequent collaborator with the Grammy-winning hip-hop duo — and the one who inspired Macklemore to write a song about his Cadillac. “I thought it was the perfect metaphor for his career at the time,” says the 26-year-old. “And he loves Cadillacs, so I said, ‘Write about what you love. Why not?’”

Wong-Wear is a musician in her own right. Though she’s performed in choirs and theaters from a young age, it wasn’t until she discovered poetry that she realized she wanted to create art. “I realized I had something to say,” she says. “It was the first time I was being validated for my personal narrative.”

Spoken-word poetry naturally led her to hip-hop — she was part of the two-women rap collective Canary Sing — and she loved the challenge of being a lyricist, MC and freestyler, especially as one of the few Asian American (she’s biracial Chinese) women rappers in the Seattle music scene. But just as she was making a name for herself in hip-hop, she went in another direction, starting a synth-pop group The Flavr Blue with bandmates Parker Joe and Lace Cadence.

“I’ve never felt like I fit into a box, so I’m always pushing myself to be daring and different,” says Wong-Wear. “In the seven years that I’ve been making music, I’ve done rap, R&B, dance/electronic music and super lounge-y soul. I’ve sung in a jazz quartet. I’m way more motivated to do something I’ve never done before than to perfect one particular type of music.”

Nowadays, in addition to her work on The Flavr Blue, she’s excited about who “Hollis” can be as a solo artist. But don’t expect her to make an album of hip-hop/R&B songs just because she’s riding high on her high-profile Macklemore collaboration. Wong- Wear won’t be satisfied unless she surprises everyone — even herself. “I want to channel that rawness, honesty and emotional heft that I had when I first started out in poetry,” she says, “and carry it through to where I am now, so that I’m always evolving musically.”

First Musical Memory: Raffi’s “Baby Beluga.” Live in concert, the VHS tape. I watched that video every day for years.

First Song: I wrote a song on the piano when I was 17, and it’s about being trapped in the suburbs. Now that I think about it, it was the suburban California version of [Lorde’s] “Royals.” [Laughs] Not as polished, but very dark.

Inspiration: My mom emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. by herself, and she was an entrepreneur who started a Cantonese restaurant. So I think I inherited the hustle of being an immigrant from her, and I apply it to my own life and career. Her drive and relentless energy inspires me, and that’s why, for example, it’s important for me to manage the band that I’m in, to be at the helm of my own music. My goal is not to be a singer; my goal is to be an artist and businesswoman.

See Hollis Wong-Wear in Macklemore’s “White Walls” video and more at AudreyMagazine.com/holliswongwear.    

 

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here

VOICES CARRY: Alley Her

Story by Ada Tseng. 

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies.


The fiery, scarlet-haired vocalist of the alternative metal band Fields of Prey never even listened to hard rock before she met her friend and former bandmate Ricardo Guevara in 2010. “All the screaming frightened me, to be honest,” remembers Alley Her, 31. “I was brought up singing in a choir at church, and I was playing in a pop-rock band. [But] after some time of studying the techniques and style of hard rock, I started understanding the emotions behind such music. Afterward, I made it my ambition to be the first female Hmong hard rock vocalist, and I’ve been trying ever since.”

Her’s mother is Lao, her dad is Hmong, and their family migrated to the States seeking asylum post-Vietnam War, when she was 6. “I actually have a photo that my parents took of us during that time because my sister was very ill and we didn’t think she was going to make it. So my mother sold her last piece of jewelry to hire someone to take a photo of her children,” she says. Her was 13 when she wrote her first song to try to cheer her sister up, and that was when she discovered her ability to express herself through music.

Fields of Prey’s first single, incidentally, was titled “Red.” Why can’t you see that you are mine, she belts in both hard rock and acoustic versions of the song. I’m your salvation, your demise. Her and her guitarist Sunny X’s Hmong heritage made them favorites at the first-ever Hmong Music Festival in 2012 in Fresno, Calif. Though Fields of Prey recently made the difficult decision to disband last December, Her is still working with a few of her former band- mates to release a new album. “I am proud to say that through my struggles as a musician and in the world of Fields of Prey, I have become the person I have always wanted to be,” says Her.

First Musical Memory: Dancing and singing with my mother when I was about 7 years old. She used to teach me and my sisters folk songs from Thailand. We would sit together and watch videos of grand concerts and performances from Thailand, and I used to fantasize that I was on stage performing along.

Influences: I’d have to say my influences are a compilation of many different genres and styles, ranging from Avenged Sevenfold to Green Day, Paramore and Flyleaf to TLC and Whitney Houston, to bands like Train and Collective Soul — all melting together to make up the full scope of my music personality.

Favorite Song: My favorite song with Fields of Prey is called “Ghosts.” It’s on our Perfect Dark album. I wrote this song for my bandmates. It is a tribute to our struggles, an apology for our imperfections, the anthem to which we live our lives and the reminder to never forget the dreams that we dreamed.

What’s Next: Sunny X, Arion Tucker and I are still writing and creating new music together and will continue to do so. We will never stop. We have been spending night and day in the studio composing and experimenting with crazy ideas. A new project is in the works for the three of us, and my favorite single “Sleepwalker” will be released soon.

Go to AudreyMagazine.com/alleyher to hear her distinctive sound.    

 

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here.  

VOICES CARRY: Priscilla Ahn

Story by Ada Tseng.

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies.


 

Priscilla Ahn — the biracial Korean American singer-songwriter best known for angelically melancholy songs, like her first hit, 2008’s “Dream” — was so skilled at creating music from feelings of sadness and loneliness that when she suddenly found herself happily married (to actor Michael Weston), she realized she was a bit lost. Whereas before inspiration would come naturally, the 30-year-old’s latest album, This Is Where We Are, released in February, required her to dig deeper. Holed up in a hotel room outside of Palm Springs, secluded from all the distractions of the world, Ahn wrote most of the songs on her new album in the middle of the desert.

“I wanted to incorporate cooler beats,” says Ahn of her fifth album’s new sound. “I’ve always loved indie electronic music like Lykke Li, Little Dragon and chillwave stuff, but I never knew how to write those kind of songs. Finally, I got a keyboard with pre-programmed samples, and it opened this huge door of new song ideas.”

First Musical Memory: I remember learning the theme song from the movie The Land Before Time, “If We Hold On Together.” My mom got the sheet music for it, she’d play it on the piano, and I’d sing my heart out. I was probably 5 or 6, and I remember one time, I was singing and just started crying! My mom was like, “What’s happening?” I was thinking about my grandfather in Korea because I missed him. [Laughs] The song just moved me so much.

First Song: The first song I wrote is called “The Beach Song.” If you ask me to play it, I can’t remember. But I was 14, and I had just started playing guitar. I lived in Pennsylvania, so we’re land-locked, and we’d go to the ocean for vacation. So the song is about how I loved going to the beach and relaxing.

Favorite Story Behind a Song: I do a song in my live shows called “The Boobs Song.” [When Ahn was first dating her husband, she found a book of poetry in his house with an inscription from an ex-girlfriend that said: “I hope you like the poems and that they remind you of my boobs.” She then wrote him a song about it.] It’s funny, even though it stemmed from fear and sadness. It was early in our relationship, and I had to be careful because I can get jealous really easily, and I didn’t want to show that bad side of me yet. So I was like, “Oh, this is fine. I’m OK with this,” even though I totally wasn’t. [Laughs] I was young, about 22. He reacted well; he totally threw out the book. Now, I’ll tell the whole story before I play the song, he’ll be in the audience, and he’ll grin and bear it. He’s a good sport.

Fulfilling a Dream: I actually just performed at the Ghibli Museum! I did an album with a lot of Japanese cover songs and songs from [Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli] movies called Natural Colors. So I did a secret show at the Ghibli Museum on December 23, 2013, right before Christmas. That was the highlight of my life.

(Half) Asian Influences: Though I didn’t realize it until just recently, I think it all played into my songs subconsciously, even if it’s in the questions of where I belong. Even when I was little, I’d look in the mirror and think, “I don’t look like my mom, and I don’t look like my dad.” Because I’m a mixed breed of them, I thought my parents bought me at Kmart! [Laughs] But now, I’m so proud that I did grow up with a different culture.

 

Hear Priscilla croon at AudreyMagazine.com/priscillaahn.    

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here