Reference Library: Mui Zyu Wanted to Sample the Sounds of Her Family’s Restaurant

The artist on recapturing the noise of her youth.

The banquet of sounds at our family Chinese restaurant became a familiar lullaby that backdropped large portions of my youth. This blurry mix of noise, usually heard through the floor while I was upstairs working on homework or working on sleeping, was uniquely comforting. That feeling is something we chased on my new album.

My debut record, Rotten Bun for an Eggless Century, is about self-exploration and identity, at times told through a lens inspired by fantasy video-games and Chinese folklore. In the process of pulling together the themes for this collection of songs, I reflected on my own childhood and began to uncover sounds from my memory. In addition to the obvious — like my parents singing along to their favorite Cantonese pop songs (by Faye Wong, Jackie Cheung or Priscilla Chan), or the sounds of Disney singalong videos — one particular collection of sounds was more omnipresent than I’d fully appreciated at the time: the sound of our family restaurant.

My family moved to Ireland from Hong Kong in the 1970s. Like many immigrant families, my grandparents opened a restaurant offering a cuisine somewhat representative of their own culture in a configuration that would be palatable for locals. My parents took over the family business and moved several times, trying life in different places — Sligo, Dublin, Belfast, then coming over to England where I spent most of my childhood. 

Periods of this time were soundtracked by the hubbub of our restaurant. For the most part I would be hearing these sounds filtered by walls and floors in the flat upstairs. I could hear the busy kitchen, my dad shouting in Cantonese, wok’s smashing against burners, cutlery and crockery clattering juxtaposed with the more serene calm of the dining room where I could hear a gentle murmur of happy customers, the same CDs on repeat (an unlikely mix of Celine Dion, Teresa Teng, and Rod Stewart) and tipsy guests wandering out in to the car park. The combination of these sounds were comforting for a tiny me trying to sleep upstairs. It felt as though the world was moving fast and I would be checking out momentarily to doze, unnoticed. It was a soothing sound to accompany the transition from wake to sleep — that I’d only come to appreciate later when I’d struggle to nod off in “silence.”

Fast forward many moons to when I started working on my debut album — this feeling would be among several from my childhood I wanted to be present in either the making of the album or literally in the recordings themselves. Lucci (who I made the record with) and I usually had our dictaphone with us when we’d go for walks or to eat and captured lots of sounds from Chinese restaurants in London. I also asked my parents to send me voice notes too (from Hong Kong, where they now live). My dad would send me voice notes of recipes for me to try, and my mum often sent short messages, usually asking if I’ve gone to pick up the Chinese dried ingredients from the most recent family member to return to the UK from Hong Kong. These recordings are forefront on some of the album tracks as well as hidden at the back on others. Some of them are intentionally placed far away to conjure these memories, or whispered quietly in gaps in the music. Sometimes when we were writing, the deadness of the room could feel overbearing so we’d play our field recordings in the background while we wrote songs on top — less judged by the silence.

Since we worked on this record, I feel even more tuned in to sounds around me all the time. For the most part, this has been a wonderful shift in my consciousness. Abrasive sounds that used to cause me stress are now intriguing — I’ll think about how they are made, what is causing the friction, how the air is moving, and I might even try to find rhythms in the chaos. I have welcomed this new found relationship with my sonic surroundings and wonder if it’s played a role in my overall wellbeing. 

The ambient sound in video games can be so immersive and therapeutic too. We worked on this record in 2022 during the COVID-19 pandemic. After hectic shifts at my day job, I’d open Zelda or Skyrim on my Nintendo Switch and place the character in spots of the game I liked the ambient sound of, like taverns or stables, then get on with whatever chores I had to sort around the flat — pretending I was a kid again, but now next door to a weird fantasy family restaurant where a dragon or moblin might come and kill me at any moment. 

Ironically, I now live above a restaurant again, but I’m a few floors up and hear nothing — so I have to fake it instead.

(Photo Credit: Holly Whittaker)

Mui Zyu is the solo project of the Hong Kong-British artist Eva Liu (of the band Dama Scout). Her debut record Rotten Bun for an Eggless Century is out now on Father/Daughter.

(Photo Credit: Holly Whittaker)