Flora Yin-Wong

On life, art, the W Hotel in Hong Kong, living in Berlin, PAN, field recordings, farming and making life beautiful.

(All photos submitted by Flora Yin-Wong)

For someone with a day job in events, the last few months haven’t been particularly easy. That said, for Flora Yin-Wong — a DJ/producer and multi-disciplinarian, inspired as much by the world around her as her own curiosity — it’s also been a time for discovery and reflection. As our FaceTime chat window opens on Saturday morning, mutually bleary-eyed and in need of respective pick-me-ups, we start to unpick life in lockdown. “I was doing the programming at The Curtain Hotel”, she asks, “but obviously that had to shut down. I had a bunch of gigs coming up that I was quite excited about but they were of course all cancelled as well, but I think it was good to have a break and to try and work on other creative projects. There’s things I haven’t been able to do before that I always wanted to, like make clothes, pottery and like … farming and growing stuff.”

Dialling things back to her childhood, Flora had always been creative, almost restlessly so — “I can get bored really quickly!” — and growing up in London, she found herself moving around; different schools, different people. “I grew up in Holborn and moved to Clerkenwell when I was about 15, but it was all just tower blocks”, she recalls, “people were always like ‘oooo Clerkenwell’ but it wasn’t like that at all. I went to a bunch of schools, a really shit school in Camden first off and then I went to a kinda boujie girls school in Victoria, but really a lot of that helped shape some of the things I was into. I guess when I was 11, maybe 12, I was listening to a lot of garage but eventually I got into more … maybe metal, kinda noisy art-rock stuff. I played violin, saxophone, guitar and clarinet too but I gave up a lot of that because I wasn’t really that keen.”

“I’ve always been into music to really, really obsessive levels”, she continues, “and I went through lots of different phases with genres when I was growing up, but even when I had a guitar, I’d try writing music and lyrics … it just all came out really bad. I felt like I could never finish anything, I even tried to start a band with my friends but nothing felt like I knew what I was doing. For me, DJing was just a way of showing people new music and I think that’s why I started out. It’s like music journalism for the dance floor really, it’s like saying ‘here’s something exciting, check it out’.”

“For me, DJing was just a way of showing people new music and I think that’s why I started out. It’s like music journalism for the dance floor really, it’s like saying ‘here’s something exciting, check it out’.”

These wide-ranging musical influences and experiences would inform her time at university too. Flora studied Law at UEA — “I really enjoyed it at the beginning but by the end I realised I didn’t wanna do it for the rest of my life” — and alongside her then boyfriend, started a club night there during her final few years. What was the name of the club night, I ask. “Ahhh I kinda remember but don’t wanna say”, she says, laughing, “it’s just … nah. We played a lot of electro and stuff like that I think, it was just us DJing. I’ve actually been DJing for a really long time, for ages really. I only actually started producing more recently because I could never get my head around it. I’d mess around in Ableton back then but it was too difficult for me to get anything out that way. I probably gave up for about five years or something.”

After graduating from UEA, Flora’s first industry in-roads came via a digital editorial assistant role at Dazed & Confused, where she would spend four years writing and interviewing, travelling all over the world to speak to some of the world’s most inventive and cutting-edge artists across music, fashion and art. It piqued her interest in aesthetics, something she touches on in detail later on, but also opened her eyes to what she really wanted to do — in the background, she never stopped DJing. “It was so much work, it was really mad”, she says, as if almost transporting herself back to her old desk, “It was really bad pay, really long hours but I mean, it was great because it meant I got to travel and meet lots of incredible people. After four years, I knew I needed a change though and felt like I’d done everything I wanted to do there.”

It was a decision that would lead her to move to Hong Kong in 2014, birthplace of her mother, where she would go on to spend 18 months, suddenly working at the W Hotel. It was housed in one of the most extravagant, instantly recognisable buildings in the whole of Hong Kong and was a favourite landing spot for Hollywood A-listers and wealthy businessman from all over. In other words, it was a far cry from anything she’d ever done before. “I took this music director role”, Flora explains, “and it was a really posh hotel, it was crazy. I think we had the world’s tallest roof-top pool or whatever, on like the 80th floor. There was a bar which was like 300-600 person capacity, a 1000 cap room, and parties also on the roof-top itself. It was an infinity pool and the DJ would actually play from the centre of the pool, which was really weird. There’d be like fire breathers, people on stilts … people playing the saxophone. I remember there was a guy who started playing the sax over my set once and I was so pissed off about it. He came over and suggested I play something with less vocals or something and I played more vocal stuff just to get him to piss off. It was so corny, but that was the vibe.”

“I remember there was a guy who started playing the sax over my set once and I was so pissed off about it. He came over and suggested I play something with less vocals or something and I played more vocal stuff just to get him to piss off.”

“Then there was the bigger bar as well”, she continues, “and in there you’d be playing to like no one, except like Jack Black or Jonny Knoxville and a bunch of models… or Ellie Goulding or Paris Hilton. It was a really polarised place. I don’t wanna say it was soul-destroying but back then, culturally there wasn’t a lot going on. There’s probably a lot more now, I know there’s a big art scene, but a lot of it rotates around money which makes it somewhat shallow.”

Flora’s time in Hong Kong also coincided with the beginnings of the Umbrella Movement in the autumn of 2014 — a grassroots political movement defined by 79 days of protest, anchored in the notions of passive resistance in response to Chinese interference in upcoming elections, during the wider Hong Kong Democracy protests of the same year. The term ‘Umbrella Movement’ was coined online after protestors were filmed using umbrellas to defend themselves from pepper spray, which was fired on them by police. “It was a really difficult, emotional time”, concedes Flora. “We’d go to the protests and stuff and it was yeah, just really emotional. Now, it feels like it’s so much worse and nobody really has the power to stop what’s going on.”

It led Flora to return home in 2016, albeit briefly, before moving to Berlin to work for PAN — the boundary-pushing independent label run by Bill Kouligas, which has consistently led from the front at the cross-section between music and art since its inception in 2008. “After the W Hotel experience I was like, “I don’t care how much money I make, I just want to do something I care about”, Flora reflects. “I knew Bill a little bit from my time at Dazed and he’d just started on his Codes imprint with Visionist so I messaged him and asked if he needed an extra hand with anything. We had a long chat and he said there’d been lots of people who had wanted to work with him before but it was never the right fit, so when he said I could work with him there wasn’t really a definable role for me. It was really fluid, and I was able to do a lot of creative stuff and A&R, so it felt like I could really contribute my ideas which was really nice.” One project came in the form of PAN’s first-ever compilation, ‘mono no aware’, which she helped construct. Released in 2017, it featured tracks by the likes of Yves Tumour, M.E.S.H, AYYA, SKY H1, Bill Kouligas and Oli XL, as well as ‘Lugere’ — a new original track Flora wrote specifically for the compilation.

It followed Flora’s debut release on Geng’s PTP label in New York back in 2016. ‘City God’, an intense, seven-track cassette mixtape named after a tutelary deity in Chinese folk religion, formed an important jump-off point as a producer. Compounded by the confidence and trust she’d been given at PAN, it gave her the motivation to write more and more music, and she was also inspired by the multi-discipline approach the label took to releasing and promoting their own records. “When I first joined, we also did a big two-day exhibition at The ICA in 2016”, Flora recalls. “It was really nice to bring visual art collaborations to life and just to see how music could be received in a space like that.”

Her time living in Berlin presented a different challenge too. “I remember being there for three months solidly in winter”, Flora says with a smile, “and it was like, ‘I’ve never been this cold in my life’. it was really nice though because I could walk along the river, walk to the office … I was in Kreuzberg so everything was kinda close. Everything at PAN was really chill as well, we’d start work at like 12 and whatever, but the lifestyle in Berlin was pretty hectic. We went out every night, there was always something on, just all the time.”

“I guess it’s really different to London as a city as well”, she continues. “Like, in London you’re always doing a million things at once. I remember being at full capacity at Dazed but I’d still be writing for another 10 magazines on the side, still DJing and running club nights … everything was to the max. Berlin’s the opposite, the work ethic is totally different.”

In terms of writing her own beats, Flora concedes she never had a goal or an aim of what she wanted her music to sound like when she first started experimenting in Ableton. “It made it quite difficult because things didn’t flow straight away. I guess I just wanted to make club music because that’s all I was listening to but if I tried to do that, I never really got anywhere. I tend to make whatever comes out now and ask myself, ‘is this a thing?’ once I finish something. It’s more personal I guess, the process of writing music is definitely a lot more emotional than I realised. A lot of the moods and the headspace(s) I’m in, that’s what comes out. I hope that’s what people pick-up on anyway.”

“I tend to make whatever comes out now and ask myself, ‘is this a thing?’ once I finish something. It’s more personal I guess, the process of writing music is definitely a lot more emotional than I realised.”

“Last year I was flicking through loads of field recordings that I’d taken using my phone for years”, she continues “and when I was piecing them together, I got so emotional because each one took me back to a different place. I could instantly remember things. It might just be like footsteps or the wind rustling. I was actually commissioned to put together an art piece for Somerset House, which I used a lot of those recordings in, but yeah, it was really emotional.”

It was her work on the commission that’d led to speaking to Modern Love – sister imprint of online retailer Boomkat, formed back in 2002 —about releasing her debut album, which will see her follow the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Andy Stott and Zomby in partnering with the label. “A lot of it is spiritual”, Flora says, “and not that I’m the most conventionally spiritual person but in some ways I suppose I am. I feel maybe connected to things in a way that perhaps not everyone allows themselves to be if that makes sense and the work on the album kinda channels that. There’s a lot of madness in my bloodlines and it was a sort of chaos that formed a lot of my ideas now.”

Some of her field recordings will also feature on the album — the C and D sides specifically — but as she admits, an album was never something she considered until she was encouraged by friends back in 2018. “I didn’t envision how it’d be but people were saying I should work on something, she recalls. “It took ages, honestly it took so long. It was only really last summer that I finished it and that was only after a trip to Japan.” Heading out for three months in 2019, Flora had originally gone to find inspiration to help her finish her first book, which she’ll be releasing via PAN next year. “The two (album and book) were originally written in tandem”, she explains, “but they’re separate projects now. The book is bits of short fiction and also non-fiction. Memories, things that link psychology and philosophy and different phenomena that I find interesting.”

Zooming out for a second, I ask how she manages to balance the depths of her creativity; is it difficult to work on so many projects concurrently? “With personal projects, I guess sometimes it can feel like there’s pressure”, Flora concedes. “Sometimes it feels like people have to do so much to just survive, but writing and music have always been two things that have come naturally to me. To be honest, all the other things I’ve wanted to do and have been doing recently, like making clothes and whatever, it all feeds into how I like things to be … aesthetics I guess. I really care about how things are, not in a pretentious way, but life is short and I want everything to be beautiful.”

“I really care about how things are, not in a pretentious way, but life is short and I want everything to be beautiful.”

Looking back at her experiences in London, Hong Kong and Berlin, it’s clear to see that while each may have proved to be vastly different, together they’ve helped her creativity bloom — and one wouldn’t exist without the other.  “I just feel like I’m really curious about a lot of things”, she reflects, “and I like to be open minded about everything. Even when I was at the W, part of my role was to DJ a lot myself to try and push the identity of the brand. I’d never play anything I didn’t want to and at the time I was into a lot of house, so I’d often play for hours and hours and hours on end. I guess that was the only time I was really able to practice so freely, even on vinyl and stuff like that, so I treated it as an opportunity to hone something. I’m actually helping a friend of mine who works in play listing at the moment and I have to go through hours and hours of deep house and I’m like ‘ah I remember this!’. It’s kinda funny how my tastes have changed.”

Back in London for the last 18 months or so after her time in Berlin, Flora’s continued to work in curatorial roles alongside her music work, programming memorable events at Cafe Oto and The V&A, before taking up her previous role directing events at The Curtain. “The V&A were doing a night on sound (‘Sonic Boom’) for one of their Friday Lates evenings and I got asked to put something together, which was great”, she recalls with a smile. “It was nice to be able to pull together lots of different people I really rate and respect. I had Mark Fell play in the Tapestries Room, Tomoko Sauvage put on an amazing performance with her hydrophones in this incredible theatre space and I had Shannen SP DJ too, to rep the club side. The V&A was somewhere me and my dad would go to when I was a kid, so it was nice to be able to do something there.”

Looking ahead, with both a debut album and debut book on the horizon, it seems as though Flora’s intuition will continue to be the deciding force in how and where she continues from this point. “There’s been multiple times I’ve thought about quitting music”, she concedes, “because I’m always anxious to try new things. It’s like after a bad gig, I can feel like ‘I quit’. Like, what more can I get from building something this way? What more can I achieve? But at the moment, I’m in a music-making headspace and I’m enjoying it, where as before sometimes it’s felt forced.”

“Without the day job, I guess I’ve also got to think about where to go next and I’m not even joking when I say I’m into this farming stuff either”, she continues, before breaking out into laughter. “No, seriously, I want to learn more about plants and trees. What this time has made me realise is that everything has become almost obsolete and looking around, the world’s fucked and I’m here twiddling my thumbs. I’m now thinking, what can I do that’s gonna make a difference? I need to do more.”

“What this time has made me realise is that everything has become almost obsolete and looking around, the world’s fucked and I’m here twiddling my thumbs. I’m now thinking, what can I do that’s gonna make a difference?”

Any parting thoughts on the state of things I ask, just before we close our laptops. “Well, we’ve all gone totally mad haven’t we? We need to learn how to get back to some semblance of sanity. But then again, the original sanity was madness in itself, so maybe there is no sanity. Who knows?”

You can stream and buy Flora’s music via Bandcamp:

https://florayinwong.bandcamp.com/

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