It’s 2:00 pm on a Sunday. I’m speed walking through Alexandra Park, feeling anxious and a little wired because I’m both late for my interview and I just took a Prozac. I find the five-piece band cutsleeve at a picnic table by the skate park, after initially mistaking a group of teenage boys for them. The spot was chosen because it’s close to the band’s practice space at the Rehearsal Factory — and because I didn’t think we could find a coffee shop with a table for six people.
The first thing I notice is how they’re all wearing darker colours, like punk rock vampires. I’m immediately intimidated. One after another, they introduce themselves: drummer Lian McMillan, lead guitarist Hannah Winters, bassist Hillary Fong, lead vocalist and keyboardist Chanel Fu, and rhythm guitarist and backup vocalist Amanda Wong.
Finding inspiration from artists such as Paramore, Le Tigre, Moaning Lisa, and Wolf Alice, cutsleeve describes themselves as alternative rock but clarified that they’re “still trying to find [their] sound.” Moreover, even though cutsleeve’s members are all indisputably talented in their own right, their personal backgrounds in music are still diverse. Their experiences vary from the classically-trained McMillan to the self-taught Winters, who says she got her start at 14 when her dad bought her a guitar for Christmas.
“I’d sit in my room after school, just going through the pages, playing those old songs like ‘On Top of Old Smokey,’” she said, “and I felt like I had a Joan Jett moment where I was like ‘I don’t want to play these nursery rhymes, I want to play rock ‘n’ roll.’”
Evidently, the girls of cutsleeve are a self-possessed and badass group of young women. As such, they have an appropriately badass name, the origin of which, I soon discovered, has its roots in an East-Asian legend.
“I found out about this Chinese folklore story,” Fong explains, “about an emperor who was sleeping with a partner, and he wanted to wake up and get water or whatever — you know, go to the washroom, self-care.” At that they all laugh, and, smiling, Fong goes on to explain how the emperor noticed his lover sleeping on the sleeve of his robe, and, not wanting to awaken him, cut the sleeve.
“It became a euphemism for queerness,” she says, “and it’s just a reminder that queerness is always in our history, no matter what.”
And this is a history that is important to cutsleeve, since their music stems from their shared experiences of being queer and Asian in Toronto. They are all familiar with alienation from the white male bands that dominate the Toronto music scene.
As McMillan explains, “When I was playing with guys specifically, especially white guys, I just felt super alienated and intimidated, and a lot of imposter syndrome, so I specifically went out seeking these lovely people.” She motions to her bandmates, “especially queer people as well, because that’s been a really big part of my life, and I was like, I don’t really know that many queer Asians and I need to go find them, and now I think I know every single one.”
“If you’ve got durian eyes / I’m tired of being fetishized”
“Once you find a few you find them all,” Winters said, laughing.
This message that queer people have always been — and continue to be — an integral part of both the East-Asian and punk community is something that the members of cutsleeve find important to convey in their music. Moreover, cutsleeve uses their music as a tool to express their discomfort with discriminatory behaviour toward them. For example, their songs “Durian Eyes” and “Yellow Fever” address the fetishization of Asian women.
It seems as if being East-Asian and queer is the perfect double-whammy of fetishization.
“The key lyric [in “Durian Eyes”] is ‘If you’ve got durian eyes / I’m tired of being fetishized,’” says Amanda, a testament that holds true for many East-Asian and queer women, myself included.
I remember the anime-loving white guys who told me they only like Asian girls — one of whom pointed to a Japanese schoolgirl outfit in a store window and said, “Damn, you’d look good in that!” — and the guys who yelled, “Yo, you give head?” at me on the street, and after I responded that I did but “not to men,” yelled back: “I like that! Get over here.” It seems as if being East-Asian and queer is the perfect double-whammy of fetishization.
cutsleeve satirizes the objectification of East-Asian women specifically in their song “Yellow Fever,” the chorus of which goes: “Yellow fever / yellow fever / the doctor diagnosed her with yellow fever / and I don’t think I can be the cure for her.”
As McMillan explains, this song was more about “dating expectations and being fetishized and just kind of noticing a pattern in terms of people’s dating history… like when I’ve hung out with my guy friends and I’ll be like ‘who’s the new girl you’re talking to?’ and I’ll just notice a pattern. I mean, I’m not going to say anything, but… you’ve got yellow fever.” McMillan continued, “When you want to take an East-Asian studies class at school, and you go in and it’s just filled with white guys like trying to like, you know…” She trails off, but we all know exactly what she means.
However, it would be wrong to presume that cutsleeve’s music is just a reaction to prejudice, as it is also an exploration of identity. As Wong explains, “Durian Eyes” was inspired by a friend’s art installation of a giant durian, and that song came together through their multiple perspectives and shared feelings of being lost in the Asian diaspora.
“It’s kind of like you’re in this in-between place,” says Wong, “where you’re not technically from here [or] there, and it’s just kind of like trying to figure out who you are around expectations that the world from both sides have on you, but that’s not necessarily indicative of who you are.”
This refusal to be defined by stereotypes is what makes cutsleeve a truly unique and valuable new addition to the Toronto music scene. By committing to the ownership of their identities, they are making space for queer East-Asians in Toronto, like myself and many of us here at U of T.