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Richmond singer finds community at Vancouver arts festival

Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival allows performers “off the beaten path,” to connect, said Jason Qiu.
jason qiu
Richmond's Jason Qiu will be performing at Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival on Oct. 15.

A singer from Richmond will be performing at his first-ever festival later this month at the Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival (VOAF).

“I’m always a little bit nervous (about performing), but I think not so much for this one because I actually feel like I fit in, even though it’s called an ‘outsider’ arts festival,” said singer-songwriter Jason Qiu, who will be performing on Saturday, Oct. 15.

“I don’t always feel like I fit in when I’m part of a multi-act set. I think in this case… we all kind of bond in this one way where we all feel like we don’t really belong.”

VOAF is presented by the Community Arts Council of Vancouver (CACV) and is Canada’s “first and only outsider art festival.” The platform provides “a much-needed platform to celebrate artists who live and work outside of mainstream cultural spaces,” reads VOAF’s media release.

To take part in the festival, artists must be self-identified outsiders or doing something “that feels a little out of the mainstream or off the beaten path,” as Qiu had put it.

Qiu said he has two big reasons for feeling out of place — his bilingual music and his age.

“I don’t see a lot of Asian Canadian artists that are really singing mainstream pop in both Chinese and English, or at least writing (in both languages) as well,” he said.

“I really enjoy performing in both, and so sometimes when I play a predominantly English-speaking audience, I don’t know whether I should play Chinese songs.”

Writing music in Chinese allows Qiu to connect with his ethnicity and ancestry since mainstream Chinese pop music was a big part of his childhood as a second-generation Chinese Canadian.

“It’s really important to keep that, for me, especially growing up here… You don’t always hear a lot of Chinese and I didn’t always have a chance to speak a lot of Chinese as well,” he said.

Language is also important to Qiu’s music as he hopes to connect with his audience with messages about pain, since “pain is universal.” Writing bilingual music allows Qiu to tell stories effectively as nuances in metaphors and vocabulary can get lost in translation.

“There’s just so much that you can say that it can’t be conveyed properly between two languages,” he explained.

But Qiu worries that his audience might find it difficult to connect with his music.

“I’m not sure if I’m 100 per cent embraced,” said Qiu.

An emerging artist – regardless of age

Qiu, who is turning 40 next month, said his age also makes him feel like an outsider as an emerging artist.

“When you say ‘emerging,’ there’s this idea that maybe there’s a certain age to it,” he said, adding that some funding programs for ‘emerging artist’ have age limits.

“With age also comes, for me, insecurity because I’m also sharing the stage with artists that are sometimes as much as at least a decade younger than myself. So it’s sometimes that feeling like maybe ‘I’m just too old for this,’ ‘I shouldn’t be doing this anymore.’”

Despite having been trained in classical music since a young age, Qiu still considers himself a new artist.

“Around three years ago, I just kind of lost myself. I was really involved with being a parent (and) just hadn’t done music for a long time. And that felt like something was missing,” he said.

Qiu went back to “a proverbial shoebox in the closet,” by literally digging out his microphone stored in a shoebox. He soon became inspired to find his voice and regain his confidence by being a singer-songwriter after a choir director said he couldn't hear Qiu's "voice."

“I think it’s really important that we understand that life doesn’t end at a certain age. Your creative output, your creative potential doesn’t have to end at a certain age,” said Qiu. He has been hitting the stage and writing songs to hone his craft ever since.

“I don’t ever want to reach my potential… because that ladder always just keeps going up and up and up.”

The 6th VOAF is held from Oct. 14 to 16 at The Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre, and Qiu will be taking the stage from 12:45 to 1:10 p.m. on Oct. 15. He is part of a line-up of over 60 artists and artist groups from across Metro Vancouver, including Vancouver Cantonese Opera, artists Charlie Sandeman and Penn N. Lim, poetry group The Troupe de Poetry and drag king Heathen.

Details about the festival’s programming can be found on the official website, and all performances will be available on CACV’s Youtube channel after the festival.

To keep up with Qiu’s latest releases, check out his Linktree. Qiu's latest Cantonese and English EP, Lone Wolf, is available on Spotify.