Welcome to the Asian invasion: meet the young Asians using hip-hop to challenge minority stereotypes

Hip, hop, hooray

As twilight falls on the Sydney skyline and casts a warm glow over the tops of George St buildings, a group of people seeking a different kind of warmth come out to dance. They are headed to Crossover, a dance studio near Town Hall that is largely hidden from passersby. The only indication of its presence is a nondescript red sign bearing its name. The entrance is one of those dreary office foyers guarded by unresponsive sliding doors and illuminated by sterile neon lights that punctuate its surroundings.  Too boring to provoke any sense of curiosity, you’ve probably walked past the entrance many times without ever wondering what lies above.

But despite its banal appearance, this foyer is a portal to the artistic hubbub of street dance in Sydney. As I slink into the sliding doors on a busy Wednesday night, I revel in the covert nature of it all, as if I was walking into a speakeasy during the prohibition. In many ways, the unassuming exterior of the studio is a fitting architectural metaphor for what the youthful hip-hop dance scene in Sydney is like as a whole — largely underground and still on the fringes of mainstream recognition, but nonetheless, quietly present to those who know where to look.

When the elevator door opens, I am met with a sudden surge of sound and heat, and the air seems to throb with heavy beats blasted in the background. Though the reception area is filled with furniture and no bigger than a classroom, everywhere I look I see dancers, with earphones on silently jamming in front of a mirror, or on the floor stretching with meditative focus, or huddled in a circle while they cheer on one of their peers freestyling in the middle. The latter is called a cypher, and is one of the core rituals of Hip-hop culture. Much like a campfire where people share stories, a cypher is a place of sharing knowledge to the wider community through improvised performances. Dancers take turns being the flame centre stage, where they give themselves to the spirit of spontaneity and dance with furious, passionate abandon. Those looking on make mental notes about moves they liked — maybe they’ll ask afterwards for a more in-depth explanation on how to execute it. True to it all, I see a b-boy gripped with inspiration pulling transient choreography from the fiery air around him as other dancers and the music urge him on.

I know you can’t control yourself any longer / Feel the rhythm of the music getting stronger

There is one thing I haven’t mentioned, however.  The dancers here, it appears, are overwhelmingly Asian.

Right from its inception, hip-hop has always been a creative medium for minority communities to resist against societal oppression.  Emerging in the 1970s in New York City, African and Latin American dancers created and nurtured the budding art form amidst the harsh realities of their day to day life. Hip-hop’s own mythology ties the origins of dance battles with rival gangs trying to resolve disputes without violence.

Fast forward forty years later, the landscape of hip-hop dance looks decidedly different. A curious effect of American military presence, Japan and South Korea are now the powerhouses of street dance — a success that is being emulated by the Asian diaspora, with Asian-American dance crews like The Kinjaz gaining wild popularity and respect. Likewise, the advent of K-Pop, where choreography can be just as important to a band’s image as its music, has led to the creation of a uniquely “Asian” style of dance that draws heavily on hip-hop (so much so that it often breaches the fine line between appreciation and appropriation). In my discussions with dancers at Crossover and at university, it seems that the increased visibility of Asian-American dancers, and the inexorable rise of K-Pop are major reasons why hip-hop has grown so fast amongst young Asian-Australians.

But as discussions go deeper, and the studio grows quieter, I realise that the reasons for this popularity are much more complex. Accessibility, more than anything else, seems to be the main driver for Asian participation. Resting from a cypher, Patrick, a Vietnamese-Australian dancer of 7 years, speaks of how he doesn’t connect with mainstream male pursuits like rugby and cricket, and that dance offered a fun alternative to stay in shape and feel good about himself. I hear his reasons not only echoed by other dancers, but by my own experiences as well. The reason why I became involved with hip-hop was because I felt like it was the only creative space at university where I didn’t feel alienated — my solace in an arts scene that excluded me due to my ethnicity, or wanted me exclusively because of it. As I bring this up with Patrick, he vents his frustration at the state of Asian representation in Australian media.

“In TV shows and movies, we often see Asian men being emasculated along with other stereotypes. But in dance, it’s different. We don’t have to deal with that. And so you see Asian dancers killing it.”

It’s a deeply relevant point. The model minority myth has perpetuated stereotypical traits unappealing to both young Asian artists and the industry they are trying to make it in. But hip-hop, a culture steeped in rebellion, has provided the Asian diaspora with an avenue to smash these restrictive stereotypes, one perfectly choreographed movement at a time. To do so is deeply liberating, and one of the universal replies I got from Asian dancers about why they love hip-hop is the infinite amount of creative freedom it provides. While dancing, they don’t have to be the socially inept nerd or the side character who works in IT, but have the agency to forge their own artistic identity. There are no official institutions stopping them from doing so, no biased establishment to enforce rules because there are no rules to begin with. Perhaps it’s precisely due to the underground nature of Sydney’s Hip-hop scene that makes it so attractive to Asian-Australians, for the lack of institutions means that there are no entrenched structural barriers preventing them from showcasing their true potential. Almost subversively, many people tell me that the growing size of the Hip-hop scene is not due to increased advertising or public recognition, but rather word of mouth — Asians see other Asians dance, and so they want to try it themselves.

One standout in this burgeoning movement is the dance crew Kookies n Kream (KnK). From its humble beginnings in a park in the South-Western suburb of Liverpool, KnK was recently selected to represent Australia at the Hip-hop International Championships, held this year in Arizona. And while the majority of its members (aged 15 to 23) are Asian, the first thing you notice is not their ethnic makeup, but more the hyper-sleek, stylistic precision they move their bodies with, hitting beats with an almost illusion-like unity. But far from being just technically brilliant (as many Asian artists are stereotyped as being), they have this visceral charisma and energy that most actors could only dream of — their facial expressions, as animated as their movements, playfully beckon us to engage with the stories they conjure up with choreography. One of their members, Teresa Lee, is a current a Masters of Teaching student at USyd.

Elegant and personable, she looks like she could be a ballet dancer. Indeed, Teresa tells me that she did ballet for many years before discovering hip-hop in her second year of university. What first started off as a way to exercise and make friends soon became a deep passion, and within a year of taking classes at Crossover, Teresa was asked by her teacher to audition for KnK. While she faces an uphill battle from now in getting funding for her team and special leave from the university, Teresa’s tone brims with optimism, not just for herself, but for the Sydney hip-hop scene in general. When I ask her about her crew, her face lights up into a contemplative smile.

“It’s like a family. We’re all passionate about the same thing, but at the same time, we’re all different people, and we all bring something different to the team.”

Click here to support Kookies n Kream in representing Australia at the World Hip Hop Championships in Arizona.