KUALA LUMPUR -- In 2001, few understood the importance of "Pop Rebels," the first compilation album released by Kuala Lumpur-based Soundscape Records. But its release was a remarkable event, illuminating a little-known element of the Southeast Asian music scene and establishing an independent record label that would influence Chinese-speaking youth across the region for the following two decades.
"Pop Rebels" featured bands like Moxuan, Lang Mang, KRMA, RUSH and Mumster, all formed by ethnic-Chinese Malaysian musicians, singing in Cantonese and Mandarin and infusing peculiar Chinese moods into the global tropes of alternative rock. It was a bold and defining move in Malaysia's largely Malay- and English-focused local music industry.
"Soundscape Records was named after my music-themed column in the local Mandarin newspaper, Sin Chew Daily," says founder Mak Wai Hoo. I met this sinewy Malaysian Chinese man for the first time back in 2013 in George Town's underground music space Soundmaker Studio. Cole Yew, the club's manager and a former member of RUSH, made the introductions.
It was thanks to Mak's tireless efforts that artists like Yew and a tight-knit group of other Malaysian Chinese rockers took up independent music as a life philosophy -- an unconventional career move in most Southeast Asian societies, particularly among its diasporic overseas Chinese communities.
Soundscape developed from Mak's early involvement in the pioneering Penang-based cultural collective Huang Huo (Yellow Fire), formed in Penang in 1998. It was entirely comprised of ethnic-Chinese Malaysians, spearheaded by the groups Chong Yang and Moxuan, and inspired by late 1990s Beijing underground bands such as The Fly, NO, Tongue and Lure. The collective dissolved in late 2000 after a rough one-month stint in the squalid Dong Bei Wang artist community on the outer fringes of Beijing -- an experience related in the YouTube documentary "Surviving Beijing."
"We were very critical of Malaysian Chinese mainstream music," Mak says of the 1990s, when the local Chinese-oriented music industry was greatly influenced by the sugary hits of the Hong Kong rock band Beyond. At that time, Malaysian Chinese bands were showcased in the annual Canto-Rock competition jointly organized by Polygram Records and Guinness until 1997, but lacked the grassroots support needed to develop original ideas.
Huang Huo's concept was closer to rock artists in China such as Cui Jian, Tang Dynasty, Dou Wei, Zhang Chu and He Yong, who since 1989 had crafted a unique brand of "China Fire" -- a synonym for a novel brand of socially conscious, previously unheard Chinese rock music. "We wanted to introduce the concept of 'do-it-yourself' and a spirit of independence to Malaysian Chinese listeners," says Mak.
It was only after 1997, when Huang Huo organized its first successful independent show at KOMTAR, Penang's highest skyscraper, that a cohesive Malaysian Chinese rock movement was born. "The objective was to reeducate the bands that formed during the Canto-Rock period to not rely on major label support, but instead create their own music scene, following the example of the Malay- and English-singing bands," Mak says.
Huang Huo also published a newsletter in Mandarin, named after the collective, which reached about 400 monthly subscribers, bringing this novel Chinese rock subculture to Malaysian small towns with less musical exposure than the capital or Penang.
"At that time, none of us had an internet connection or even a computer, and Huang Huo's newsletters were our only source of underground knowledge," says Chong Loong Kae, the former singer of RUSH, one of the few rock bands to ever form in the Cameron Highlands, a scenic rural area about 150 km North of Kuala Lumpur. Yew remembers that as he was not able to read well in English, Huang Huo was instrumental in introducing him to various international bands, films, and noteworthy local groups. "Huang Huo taught us about 'do-it-yourself' culture, independent music, punk and metal," says Yew.
"But [using Mandarin] was never meant as racial controversy," says Mak. "We wanted to preserve the language [of our heritage] but also strive for balance, trying to make our voice heard in an environment dominated by Malay- and English-singing bands. Nonetheless, we were very open to collaboration with non-Chinese groups, in particular the local hardcore punk scene."
"These guys blew me away," says Joe Kidd, who plays guitar in the pioneering Kuala Lumpur Malay punk band Carburetor Dung. Kidd, who stumbled upon Huang Huo in 1999, had never heard about the bands before. "For me they were very original, playing unique versions of post-punk music shrouded in Chinese musical traditions," he says. Kidd was the first to invite Moxuan and Chong Yang to play at Malay underground punk gigs, giving Malaysia's music scene a more inclusive, multiethnic feel.
As the years passed, Soundscape picked up where Huang Huo left off, its focus switching from publishing the newsletter and catering to a minority of Malaysian Chinese listeners to embracing post-rock and math-rock, and promoting international music festivals such as Street Roar and Trans Regional Sounds. Mak was among the first to invite bands from other parts of Asia to Kuala Lumpur, establishing connections with foreign groups and promoters.
That prompted a second wave of Malaysian Chinese bands recording on Soundscape, including NAO and Deng Deng, which also played in China and Taiwan, opening the eyes of local musicians to international touring and the larger ecosystem of pan-Asian Chinese rock music scenes.
"[China and Taiwan] have much bigger platforms [than Malaysia] and a large pool of creative talents, as well as agencies. Taiwan is known for its freedom of speech, whereas China spends large amounts of money on music, and they even have nationwide TV shows for bands," says Yap Lian Tat, who played guitar in NAO, a Kuala Lumpur post-rock band that toured China in 2005, 2007 and 2010 before disbanding in 2015.
As Soundscape expanded its focus, releasing some of the most important Malaysian independent albums by multiethnic artists like NAO, Liyana Fizi, and Dirgahayu, the job of promoting Chinese indie bands to the Malaysian Chinese audience was passed on to Yap's label Dong Tai Du, which continued to bridge the gap between the Chinese- and Malay-speaking music scenes.
"We organized three music festivals using our limited resources and have always invited Malay bands to perform," says Yap. "Recently we hooked up with many Taiwanese labels who have better connections, so that we can continue to survive despite the enormous impact of COVID-19 on the music business."
To some musicians, though, maintaining a musical revolution based on Chinese ethnicity is still important. "To me, mainstream pop music has dominated the Malaysian Chinese-speaking community for too long, so that their acceptance of different music genres is still not enough," says Hwang Boon Tee, guitarist in Citizens of Ice Cream, a Soundscape band. "I think that the international connections that Soundscape Records built are the best way to reach out and bring in good music that can make [local Chinese] people open their eyes and ears."
Recently, Soundscape Records has raised its game by organizing successful Kuala Lumpur gigs for well-known international post-rock bands of the caliber of Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai, Mono, Tortoise, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. And despite the threat that COVID-19 still poses to live music around the world, Mak shows no signs of slowing down.
"When we began the Huang Huo movement, we were young and idealistic and wanted to make a difference," he says. "As time went by, we realized that things have changed. I want to leave that legacy behind and carry on. Soundscape Records is still a one-man label, and I keep surviving in the so-called independent music scene to the best of my abilities."