Sad China's 'ilyimy' Captures the Power of Community

BY Leslie Ken ChuPublished Oct 21, 2021

Nanjing-born Vancouver artist Sunny Chen, a.k.a. Sad China, turns darkness into light on their debut full-length, ilyimy ("I Love You I Miss You"). Like other hyperpop albums made during the pandemic, ilyimy is about wanting to sing and dance with friends and touch each other's faces. But more than that, ilyimy captures Chen's shifting ideas of community — how it can create a false sense of safety and what true support looks like to them now.

ilyimy was partly shaped by Chen's past experiences with abusers in the arts. Their processing of the manipulation, gaslighting and gatekeeping they've endured is ongoing, but ilyimy's fulsome set of collaborators is a testament to how far Chen has come in learning how to trust again.

Over the tunnelling, tumbling electronics of "Toxic (friends)," Chen points out that "solidarity's not a perfect picture for the 'gram / My real ones, I got you / And I know you got me, too." Rapper JERRYCHERRY makes his recording debut here: "Lose a couple people from my life / I just might," he chimes in. "Bless.bliss," featuring soulful singer Khamisa & Afrohop artist Adewolf, is the purest distillation of the R&B influence that courses through ilyimy. The slow jam practices what it preaches: take time to appreciate life's little joys.

Most prominent of all Chen's collaborators is electronic pop composer KERUB. Not only did they co-produce seven of the album's 10 tracks alongside Chen (pop maven pseudo-antigone and I Am Omo handled the rest), KERUB also helped workshop "Seen," a track about the mental trappings of the virtual space. "Watching the numbers going up / I shouldn't equate that with love," Chen sings over a luminous, swelling synth line. Despite their desperate question, "Can you understand me from this tiny screen?" they realize "people come and go." Likes, comments and shares are no substitute for tangible support; at most, they're Band-Aids where stitches are required.

Chen also addresses colonial violence — settlers systematically dismantling Indigenous nations. "We settled on the lost creeks of Vancouver / On stolen lands / You claimed stolen names," Chen indicts on the mournful yet shimmering "Mt. unPleasant," a reference to one of the city's fastest upscaling neighbourhoods, Mount Pleasant.

Elsewhere on ilyimy, Chen turns their attention towards their own ancestry. "Between the realms / We'll make you proud / You know our ancestors / They're watching over us / They guide us home / Among the stars," they sing on "hum人n." On the bilingual "nbl," which emulates the downbeat electro of guest vocalist Yukari*, Chen warns in Mandarin: "My ancestors can see you." Though Chen never spoke with their maternal grandparents due to a language barrier, they thank them for all their love on "永远在我的心里 forever in my heart," a song that urges listeners to "remember our shared past."

Despite it all, ilyimy brims with undeniable optimism. "Good things come to those who wait," they sing on the chirpy title track. Such patience is key to one of the album's core tenets, care — of oneself and of others. "Trust me to take care of you even when it's hard to do / 'Cause I want to trust you too / ... / It's a new beginning / You can do it all again," they encourage. And on the crystalline "VirgoVenus<3," even in Chen's dark moments, they put others first. "Don't cry for me / Don't die for me / Even on bad days / Live your life for me." Chen manifests their future on "nbl," declaring, "I'm a natural born leader." But Chen has already proven themselves to be a leader who fosters community: equipped with a psychology degree, they offer marginalized creatives professional and personal coaching.

"Why do all good things come to an end?" Chen asks over the dreamlike weavings of Vancouver harpist/producer desire process. The almost-namesake song, "all good things (come to an end)," is rhetorical, of course. With ilyimy, Chen has only started building new beginnings atop a solid foundation. Adversity's shadow will always fall on Chen — they are "hum人n," after all. But as ilyimy proves, light and love will always prevail.

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