Auckland Fringe, The Basement
March 7 | Reviewed by Ezra Low

THE FIRST THING one notices when stepping into the setting of Funky Oriental Beats is the mandatory red Chinese Lanterns. But that’s where the “oriental” connotations end. Guitar amps, DJ turntables, a bright yellow drumset bore no resemblance to the evening’s theme, save for the Asian, yet very diverse lineup.

This wasn’t Funky Oriental Beats’ first incarnation, and from what I’ve previously heard, it promised an evening into a world where everyone on stage was “Asian” yet not atypically so.

First act, New Zealand-Filipino Jamie Banks, was the self-proclaimed “token white boy” of the evening, pleading for the audience to let him know if we ever saw his estranged father who he’s never met. Standup jokes aplenty, Jamie’s candid yet sincere about poetry about relationships left some laughing, some unexpectedly muted.

Samoan-Chinese-German Misa Tupou burst on stage next with ‘Painted Apple Moth, a poem firmly rooted in the Waitakere Ranges. Uncannily fixating to watch, Misa’s poetry had themes from racism and migration (‘Intrusion’, which was developed into a short play for Asian Tales: Native Alienz), and adolescent infatuation (‘Penny’, which had the audience rolling in laughter). Tupou pushed the hilarity to the brim with an impromptu poetry/hip-hop improvisation with DJ Dor@emon impishly titled ‘Keep It in Your Pants’.

Host and MC for the evening Renee Liang interspersed the evening with excerpts from her poems, which resounded as deeply as her previous work along themes of identity and “Asian-ness”. No stranger to performance poetry , Renee’s raw themes about her childhood and ethnicity summed up the evening’s inspiration.

The first departure from poetry, Fiona Soe Paing’s eclectic electronic compositions in Burmese jarred the senses, like a cross between Bjork and Sigur Rós. Aptly entitled ‘No Man’s Land’, the taster platter of five short pieces was as surreal as the visual artwork of Zennor Alexander, who was lurking behind the scenes with a laptop and caver-style headlight.

David Tsai changed the pace after the interval with a selection of his bilingual rap pieces, backed by the head-bopping beats of DJ Dor@emon. Willis Hsu of Infinite Flying Kick (IFK) followed up with a rare solo performance that got the younger members of the audience screaming with fanatic glee. The evening ended with alt-rock Korean/Taiwanese band Pyon, who showcased their signature sound which saw them through their tour of Singapore with critical acclaim.

Oddly, The Basement was made for poetry. Having just seen Misa Tupou’s solo show Cycles in the exact same seat a couple days ago, the visceral impact of the raw theatre and the recited word was no less diminished. However, the same couldn’t be said for the musical performances. David Tsai’s solo rapping felt muted, while Pyon’s energetic set would have been more at home in the Kings Arms or Dogs Bollix. The only musical act that felt just right for the venue was Willis Hsu’s acoustic crooning, which although a tad draggy at times, left the enthusiasts wanting more.

Somewhere along the night the audience seemed to change its personality to mirror the diverse quality of its performers. Gone were the curious white folk of the first half; after the interval, the driving force were definitely younger fanboys (or fangirls in full-force, in Willis’s case).

There was definitely something for everyone who came, but unlike the proverbial cup of tea, it was more like the Taiwanese pearl milk tea over which Renee and David conceived Funky Oriental Beats – far from universal yet strangely familiar – and now to be found from New York to Auckland.

For a night, The Basement was transformed into a rollercoaster of self-expression, or a “mish-mash kaleidoscope of everything possibly contemporary Asian in New Zealand”, as another fellow observer noted. Talent-show as it sometimes may be, Funky Oriental Beats looks set for bigger and better things next year.