Eheart Chen: Shanghai's modern rocker with a nostalgic soul

Eheart Chen: Shanghai's modern rocker with a nostalgic soul

We talk to Shanghai-born independent singer, composer and director Eheart Chen about his upcoming album and his love for his city
Eheart Chen Main
Eheart Chen is billed as the walking advertisement for Wuyuan Lu by many friends.
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Evoking everything from the glorious Shanghai of the 1930s to the simpler Shanghainese lifestyle of the 1980s, Shanghai-born musician Eheart Chen’s recently released album, "Once Upon a Time in Magic City," is making Shanghai residents buzz as it celebrates the city Chen has grown up in and loves. 

This a far from your grandma's record player-tunes though, this album is hip as well as nostalgic as Chen offers an aural display of his love for bygone Shanghai with a mix of rock, R&B, rap and even ballroom dance riffs. 

A "magic city"

From even a quick glace at Chen's black and white childhood photo on the cover of "Once Upon a Time in Magic City," you know you're in for a trip down memory lane -- or at least a shared trip down Chen's. 

Once Upon a Time in Magic CityThis album also has a nostalgic cover design - Chen's childhood photo.

Hitting the market in ealy July, the album, completely composed and produced by Chen, reminisces about the disappearing lifestyle that Shanghai was once famous for. It is also a first for Chen’s own music ambitions, being the first official album of his 14-year career where he composed all the music, giving more of a local touch to each song.

“You can hear all of my life's inspiration in this album, from my favorite band The Smiths to my beloved 1930s Shanghainese literati Mu Shiying,” he says.

Chen’s love of old Shanghai is largely influenced by his childhood memories. Born and bred in the late 1970s on Wuyuan Lu, the heart of former French Concession, Chen expresses through song how he misses that simple and relaxed lifestyle, which he regards as truly Shanghainese. 

“I enjoyed painting when I was little. What I really missed is staying at home painting, listening to radio stations and cassettes when my parents are out to work.” If you get a copy of this album, you can take a look at Chen’s childhood illustrations dotted around on the lyrics page. 

This album also stands out since it includes songs in both Shanghainese and the standard Mandarin, the latter of which is far more common for singers to perform in. With Chen being such a big supporter of the local culture, using his city’s mother tongue -- Shanghainese, not Mandarin -- to sing nearly half the titles on the album roots the lyrics even more deeply within the city's culture. 

“In a song called Wuyuan Road, I include all the street names that are important to my life and sing them in Shanghainese. It just sounds so natural and right to me,” Chen tells us. He also studied Shanghainese master Professor Qian Nairong’s book about Shanghai dialect to get everything just right, and composed a funky disco melody "Story of Hooligan" entirely in Shanghainese.

A tribute to dubbed movies

The album’s addictive hit song is "Jane Love," which pays tribute to Shanghai’s popular dubbing actor Qiu Yuefeng, who passed away 30 years ago. The half-Russian’s legendary voice was the most recognizable one in the media for most Chinese people from the 1950s to 1970s.

"You can hear all of my life's inspiration in this album, from my favorite band The Smiths to my beloved 1930s’ Shanghainese literati Mu Shiying."— Eheart Chen, indie musician

“Qiu was the voice behind Chinese dubbing classics like 'Jane Eyre.' Dubbed movies were culture symbols in Shanghai for several decades. It was the entertainment I grew up with,” explains Chen.

Chen made the song's music video by himself, using rare movie footage and photos he got from Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio and Qiu’s son. Chen also invited his friend Moz Wang, an editor at Shanghai's Chinese Timeout, to collaborate on the lyrics.

“I’m also a fan of Eheart’s music,” Wang says. “[He] might not be the best musician in Shanghai, but he’s definitely the most Shanghainese one. He uses music to relive the city’s past and to tell stories.”

Click here to watch the "Jane Love" music video (Youku).

Not a career for the future

Although Chen is already a popular name on the Shanghai music scene, he's still only a part-time musician. For the last nine years, his nine-to-five gig has been at a local property management company, but that just pays the bills, something difficult to do as a full-time musician in Shanghai.

“I’m not sure if I will ever be a full-time musician," says Chen. "It’s very painful to be a full-time musician here. You can’t earn enough money to support yourself and you will practically become mental and isolated from the society if you only think about music.”

For Chen, his ultimate goal is the path familiar to many musicians in the West: to live in a place like New York's Greenwich Village, where people “don’t need to work and can stick to their hobbies all day long.” 

Although he knows that devoting himself fully to music is far from ideal, at the end of our interview, Chen also hints that he might take his creative intiative down another path: studying directing in the United Kingdom.

Do we see a gritty Shanghai documentary in the future? We can only hope. For now we'll happily settle for  "Once Upon a Time in Magic City."

Click here for more songs by Eheart Chen.

Eheart Chen
Interested in Eheart Chen’s new album?

"Once Upon a Time in Magic City" is now in store and is carries at Xinhua Book Store around the city and Shanghai Book Mall.

Shanghai Book Mall, 465 Fuzhou Lu, near Hubei Lu 福州路465号, 近湖北路, +86 21 6352 2222).

Tracy You is a bilingual journalist based in Shanghai and has worked for several publications including as Editor for CNN Travel. She's a fan of history, British TV and Wii Guitar Hero.

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