An interview with Zi Lan Liao, Director at Pagoda Arts

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 - 12:15

Pagoda Youth Orchestra, Europe's largest and oldest Chinese youth orchestra, performed at the launch of China Changing in 2016. Here's what Zi Lan Liao, Director at Pagoda Arts had to say about the festival and the orchestra's experience of performing at Southbank Centre.

What did it mean for Pagoda to be invited to launch China Changing festival at Southbank Centre?

It was a great honour to be invited to launch China Changing festival at Southbank Centre. We are based in Liverpool and for any youth orchestra to perform outside their hometown is a big deal.

The children were excited that they have an opportunity to perform at the capital and, somehow they knew they hard works have been recognised by people. One of our young members kept asking me if they would be playing for The Queen again because that is where she lives.

After the performance, a few of the members told me that they were more nervous in Southbank than all the other places they had performed before.

Tell us a bit more about the history of Pagoda Youth Orchestra

The PCYO was established in 1983, by Mr Li. At the time, his wife taught the dancing group as well at the Pagoda Chinese Community Centre.  In the 80s, there was no internet or PlayStation for young people, therefore, the orchestra and dancing group had provided a great platform for these young Chinese to meet and socialise with [people of] similar background. Many lifelong friendships developed and they are still in contact with each other regularly.

Where have you performed and what have been the highlights from Pagoda's performance history?

It is coming to 35 years in 2018 with the orchestra. It has a bit of history now. For the early years, it would be the appearance on Blue Peter, performing at Royal Albert Hall, and Royal Festival Hall around 1988/1989.

Some of our young people performed in Shanghai with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, it was a lifetime experience for them.

The most unforgettable moment would be performing for HM Queen and her husband HRH Prince Philip in 2016, and they both took time to speak to our members.

Who have you collaborated with? You are known for interesting fusions and collaborations - please tell us more about this.

Throughout the years, the orchestra always enjoyed doing various collaborations with others. In the 90s, the orchestra performed with the Guangdong Music and Singing Troupe and the youngsters were thrill to play alongside top professionals from China.

In 2008, during the European Capital Of Culture in Liverpool, the Liverpool City Council commissioned Jah Wobble on a project called Chinese Dub. This project thrived and won the Songline’s Best Cross-Culture Album in 2009, featured the orchestra on two of the tracks.

After this project, one of our members, Chichi, was inspired and created their own Chinese fusion music – The Jasmine Flower Fusion, a mix of Chinese folk song and Grime, hip-hop. With this music, the orchestra worked with the Liverpool Signing Choir and the 4th Deaf School from Shanghai.

For the 2017 Chinese New Year celebrations, Liverpool City Council commissioned Jah Wobble to work with the youth orchestra again, writing a 12-minute soundtrack for the Illumiere projection on three historical buildings in Chinatown, Liverpool. Chichi who did the Jasmine Flower Fusion, wrote a song, ‘Putting Down The Root’, in hip-hop, played by members of the youth orchestra, and invited MC Jin, a Miami-born Chinese rapper to record on the track.

Why is it important to showcase British-based Chinese art?

British-Chinese art somehow is very much under-represented and often invisible in British cultural life. I had come across a respected venue basically doing the tick-box exercise. When we looked for venues to host the Chinese Dub performance back in July/August 2008, one of the replies I had was: ‘We have already featured the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and some Chinese arts exhibition during this Chinese New Year. We have done the Chinese arts. So we don’t have room to programme it in now!’

There are many talented Chinese artists in UK, but due to the lack of marketplace for these musicians and dancers, it was a shame to see them hanging up their careers.

China Changing festival actually happened before the Christmas period, which really takes away the stereotype of Chinese arts and culture only happening during Chinese New Year in England.  (Also the typical Lion Dance, calligraphy demonstrations, etc)

What did the children enjoy most about performing at Southbank Centre?

They liked the top floor the best because they could see Big Ben and London Eye.

Any other comments about the festival, coming to Southbank Centre and what's next for Pagoda?

Thank you to Southbank Centre for helping us to raise the profile and awareness of British-Chinese art. Being an artist is not easy, but not being a mainstream artist is so much harder.

It is part of Pagoda Arts’ aim to encourage our local born Chinese to be aware of their own heritage, enable them to access this culture and hope they can make good use of it, so that as they grow up in the West, they can one day create new art-forms from their mixed heritages.