“What Makes Us “Us” is Our Own Stories”: John Tsung Infuses Our Histories into the Present

&ASIAN chats with musician and writer John Tsung about his inherited love for immigrant histories, transcending the boundaries of genre and identity, and making artistic homage to both the past and the future.
Photo: James Bee
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“What Makes Us “Us” is Our Own Stories”: John Tsung Infuses Our Histories into the Present

Hi John, thank you so much for speaking with us at &ASIAN! As an introduction for our readers, can you share with us the ways you self-identify?

I self-identify as coming from a family of forever travellers. My grandparents came from Suzhou and Shanghai and lived under the Japanese Occupation in WWII then moved to Taiwan; my parents grew up post-war, scattered all over the world, in Asia, Europe, Africa. I grew up in Texas, Hong Kong, and Taiwan with bits in other countries. And every home that we had isn't really a place we can go back to anymore. Also, a very bad Buddhist who loves to eat, uh, everything.

You’ve credited your latest album Empire Postcards with having its beginnings in dialogue you share with your mother, who founded the Houston Asian American Archive at Rice University. Generations coming together within the diaspora is an integral aspect of telling and preserving the Asian American immigration history, but this isn’t always easy especially as our hybrid youth grow up second and third generation. 

Can you share some insight into what cultivates and promotes this intergenerational understanding, from your own experience and of those around you?

That's such a great question, and something I ask every oral history interviewee about. Among the children of immigrants, there's a profound sense that we don't know our origin stories, that we've somehow wandered into the telling of our own family stories half way through. And in the past, the pressure was for Asian immigrants to assimilate, to survive; there's now a better understanding that what makes us "us" is our own stories, something we should be proud of or we should witness. These are stories of resilience, courage, determination.

The media has reflected that shift too, from Everything Everywhere All At Once to BTS and Pachinko. In my conversations, there's also an awareness that these stories are disappearing, and we suffer the risk of a generational amnesia. I'm super excited by the change! (Also, there's more compassion, which, as a Buddhist, is 100% thumbs up.)

Can you tell us more about how your mother and her work has influenced this project, including your shared perspectives on how the notion of the American Dream needs to be disrupted and complicated, especially where Asian histories are concerned?

I'm so proud of my mom, who has been writing about Asian immigrants as well as running her Asian American oral history archive at Rice University for a long time, before the current rise in awareness. As a Chinese historian, I feel like she sees the vast contours of the way China and Asian Americans evolved, whereas I'm curious more on the individual stories as a reflection of where we are today as a society. I think where we overlap is this idea that Asian American stories are not so simple, they are not monolithic. 

We haven't talked explicitly about our perspectives, but I think there is a great wariness of falling into dominant narratives, of the model minority or of having "just arrived" for example. I am, like so many, in awe of the four hundred plus oral histories she and her team have captured. For me, the disruption and complication comes in how human Asian histories ultimately are: I want to upend this idea of "otherness" as perceived by other Americans, as it hurts us, but without giving up on what makes us indelibly “us” and unique in our histories.

These stories you’ve absorbed are set to the flavours of American indie and alternative music, a genre that can often feel a bit lacking in BIPOC, let alone Asian, presence. 

You’ve spoken of your music tastes ranging from classical to country to rock as a reflection of your diasporic experience, and I’d love to know your thoughts on whether there are certain genres that you’ve experienced as a dividing line between generations, or even dividing the spectrum of “Westernisation” or assimilation within the diaspora?

I think the beauty of pop is that, while there have been divisions drawn by others about what you're allowed to do if you're "X," pop is defined almost by the breaking of rules.  Pop Will Eat Itself is so true (and such a great band name.) I'm listening to a lot of contemporary Chinese and Japanese post-punk and dreamwave, and it's crazy how they're reflecting back Joy Division and Sex Pistols now.  

So in terms of "Westernisation," I hope that the borrowing and collaborations go back and forth between cultures continues in general, and we get more Boredoms and Blackpinks and new bands like 刺猬 Hedgehog and FAZI / 法兹.  

In terms of dividing the spectrum, I definitely got a few stares growing up playing fiddle and lap steel, but my friend Ray Suen, a wonderfully talented musician who plays on Empire Postcards, just appeared on the GRAMMYs this year playing pedal steel with Mickey Guyton, which is just amazing.

The individual tracks of Empire Postcards each seem to have a distinct lifetime and identity to them, each evoking different eras of American band music (some that immediately come to mind are the Beach Boys, Vampire Weekend, 70s/80s new wave). 

Was it a part of your creative concept to consciously set these stories against a sonic backdrop of American sounds and - out of curiosity due to your standalone cover of “夢中人 (Dreams)” by Faye Wong - did you ever consider taking any of these tracks in a more Cantopop/Mandopop direction?

Thank you for saying that! I wish I could say that it was a conscious decision, but I think maybe it's more that, after writing in a more pop and electronic way, I wanted to go back to the instruments I play and write as a songwriter and storyteller, the way the Western artists I admired - Richard Thompson, PJ Harvey, Los Lobos - do. And in my tiny way, contribute to the vast Western songbook and add a few about our stories.

I hadn't considered taking them in a Cantopop/Mandopop way, because the idea was to set songs about Asian experience in a Western context. That said, the cover of 夢中人 (Dreams) was recorded for a tribute to Wong Kar Wai that Ray and I did for BOMB Magazine earlier this year. Chungking Express is one of my favourite movies of all time. And I thought recording it in Mandarin could be a little cheeky triple reference of an American covering a Cantonese cover of an Irish song?

Out of all the tracks you and your collaborators have lovingly created for us listeners, do you mind sharing which track you feel personally and emotionally closest to, and why?

While it's hard to pick one, as 2022 has gone on and we have seen what has happened in the US with the Supreme Court, with anti-Asian hate, with the border crisis, and abroad with Ukraine and so many other countries, "Taking of a Nation," which is about the falling apart of societies and based on Chinese history as much as the US, is close in a way that I wish it weren't so resonant.  As a seven minute song, it is also a marathon workout for the band!  

And you get to yell a lot. Very therapeutic.

Do you have any future projects you can tell us about, and for our readers who wish to follow your journey, where can they find you online?

Musically, I just finished scoring and performing a theater piece by five amazing female Chinese immigrant directors in New York, and I'll be working on collaborations this fall with my partner Leah Ogawa, who is a Japanese puppeteer.

I'm excited to be working on the next album with a new music collective called GAT SA (the Cantonese for “cockroach”), which will be a multilingual Asian/American project.  And in terms of immigrant stories, I'm continuing to capture oral histories of Asian immigrants and writing about immigrant cultures in places like EATER NY, 'cause Asians love to eat.  You can find my work at

Empire Postcards is available for streaming + purchase at here; the album can also be found on Spotify and YouTube.
John Tsung can be found on Instagram.
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