The Trouble with Hua Li

by Boísin Murphyon November 1, 2012

One-woman electro act and queer vocalist Hua Li (aka Peggy Hogan) juggles identities, desires, and musical styles to make complex songs that hover somewhere between bedroom-art and hip-hop. She’ll perform at the inaugural edition of TROUBLE – QUEER GENESIS, the new “it-benefit” with Mikiki at Espace ReUnion, this Sat. Nov 3.

Life and music are inseparable for Peggy Hogan (aka Hua Li), the British Columbian transplant who has graced the stages of many a bar and benefit party in Montréal over the past year. Trained in classical music and jazz, the purple-banged beauty has made a reputation for genre-bending music that is sexy but thoughtful: she uses the idioms of rap, hip-hop and R&B to trick her audience into thinking she’s not singing about anything serious. Although she goes by Peggy Hogan for her main musical project – with a back-up band and everything – she felt she needed a side project to “take back control” while her album To Lie With was being mastered. For the project she strategically uses her Chinese name, Hua Li, billed for the inaugural TROUBLE -GENESIS benefit party for ACCM this Saturday, Nov 3, at Montréal’s Espace ReUnion.

Hua Li is my Chinese name. My whole family experience when I was growing up was Chinese,” she tells me over hot chocolate one rainy evening. “It’s about having this split personality, how much I did feel an identity-split as a child,” she says of her choice to use the name for her side project. Raised on the rainy West Coast by a white Canadian father and Chinese mother, Hogan learned early on that performing her race is something that would mean oscillating between her Mandarin-speaking maternal family, and her mostly white social circle. The notions of split personalities and bicultural origins are central themes for Hua Li, who would have been born in China had it not been for Tienanmen Square, the massive political uprising which caused her parents to come to Canada in 1989. “They were planning on raising me in China, but the Canadian Embassy was like get the fuck out! There might be a civil war, so I was born in Calgary as a result,” she explains with a laugh.

Added to the fluidity of Hua Li’s bicultural heritage is her ambient queerness, something that she says she started exploring more since playing FTM cross-dresser Yitzhak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch with Antonio Bavaro in Fringe Festivals across Canada last year. “My sexuality is still something that I’m actively trying to figure out,” she says, even though the queer community has really made her their own, especially the Rough Diamond Collective, who put her on a pedestal last summer by booking Hua Li to open for NYC queer hip-hop sensation Mykki Blanco...

..Hua Li’s picture of men seems tainted, although she says not, when you listen to her hypnotic remake of the 1960s ballad “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss),” written by Carole King for Black American girl-group the Crystals in 1962. 

He hit me and it felt like a kiss / He hit me but it didn’t hurt me / He couldn’t stand to hear me say / That I’d been with someone new / So when I told him I had been untrue… / He hit me and it felt like a kiss.

Before you go thinking that Hua Li is making light of misogynist violence, have another listen. As with many of her songs, there’s another layer, a second meaning, and an alternate story. “Hua Li is kind of like me taking control back, and it’s been a huge learning process for me,” Hogan says, referring to her solo project’s eccentric bedroom-art-meets-political-rant vibe. “People are always trying to put me in some kind of box,” she says, a challenge she has met head-on in the unrecorded piece “Eurasian Eyes” which she’ll be singing at TROUBLE this Saturday. “I’m not a fucking Asian Lady Gaga/ I don’t look like Karen O,” the lyrics lash to beats lifted by local DJ Phil Sparks from a Corey Hart tune. Listen closely, look again, Hua Li and Peggy Hogan have something to say."

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