Ersha Island 二沙岛: Sister Duo's Revolutionary Songs Shine a Light on Chinese-Kiwi Identity Struggles

Explore the unique sounds of Ersha Island 二沙岛, the sibling duo Dani and Tee, as they are set to release their first EP titled, “Back to our Roots.” This launch represents a pivotal moment for the indie-folk musicians. Just a week prior to the official release, the Asia Media Centre (AMC) sat down with the Hao-Aickin sisters in Tāmaki Makaurau, where they shared their musical odyssey.

The two talked about their experiences as a classically trained musicians in China under the watchful eye of a strict tiger mum, as well as navigating life as Chinese-Kiwis in New Zealand. All these narratives are woven into their forthcoming EP, set to be released publicly on the first of March.

Back To Our Roots comprised of six tracks, where each song tells the duo’s tales.

Track 4: Beijing 北京

“Beijing, I love you, I hate you. I just can’t escape you…”

As their song "Beijing" nears its chorus, Dani and Tee reveal their love-hate connection with China, where they grew up.

Their mother is from China, while their father is from New Zealand. Both parents are successful businesspeople who met in China. The elder sibling, Dani, was born in Australia in 1999.

For the first two years, her parents took her on business trips in different parts of the world before settling in New Zealand, where her younger sister, Tee, was born.

However, as the siblings grew older, their parents chose to relocate to China.

"My mum was a pretty significant businesswoman and needed help raising her kids from her parents. From then on, we settled in China. We resided in three different cities: Xi'an, Guangzhou, and Beijing," Dani said.

Settling in China marked the beginning of the duo's mixed feelings of affection and resentment towards music and their life in Asia.

At the very young age, their mother instilled in them the idea that one day they will become successful classical musicians, with Dani on the piano and Tee on the violin. "So, our mum had us start learning violin and piano at ages 3 and 5, respectively, at a music kindergarten in Guangzhou, on a place called Ersha Island, or Ershadao," Tee told AMC.

To honor the place where their musical journey began, they named their band "Ersha Island 二沙岛."

Tee and Dani Hao-Aickin of Ersha Island 二沙岛. Photo: Supplied.

Their mother took their classical music education seriously, and their life in China revolved around rigorous training. This intensity led Dani to develop resentment towards her mother, which eventually evolved into a hatred for classical music and Beijing itself.

She recalled, "It felt like we were trapped, studying classical piano and violin, being told to practice eight hours a day in a highly competitive and brutally strict teaching environment. It was a very toxic atmosphere in Beijing when we were there."

In addition to her dilemma, as a mixed-race child, Dani felt isolated from life outside classical music. "In Beijing, I was extremely lonely. We practiced piano for eight hours a day, and at school, I couldn’t relate to the other students, who had all chosen to be there to a certain extent. I was always seen as the foreigner, the exception, which made me feel like I never truly fit in or made any friends."

Despite these distressing experiences, the siblings were gradually learning to appreciate and embrace their heritage and the life they experienced in China.

Their feelings toward Beijing, whether of love or disdain, have been instrumental in shaping their journey, sculpting them into the individuals they are today – an aspect of their identity they can no longer deny.

Track 3: Do I Deserve

“When you’ll let me free from these chains, and just be me…”
“It’s true, I’m not enough for you.”

The EP's third track would leave an impression on the listeners. Perhaps people can relate to the lyrics based on their own experiences. However, for Dani and Tee, the song "Do I Deserve" is like a letter to their mother, expressing how, despite their best efforts, they never felt good enough to meet their mother's standards in pursuing classical music.

Ironically, their mum is not a trained musician herself, yet her passion for classical music, dates back to her childhood—a dream she never fulfilled due to her family's financial struggles.

Dani recounted her mother's story, saying, "She grew up at the end of the Cultural Revolution. So, she grew up very poor and always tells us about how she would hear the neighbor's kid playing the violin and think to herself, 'Oh, it sounds so beautiful. Dad, can I play the violin?' And our grandfather would respond, 'How dare you even suggest that? That would be like three months' salary.' So, she made a promise to herself that she would ensure her children learned to play the violin and piano."

Indeed, their mum made this dream a reality by subjecting Dani and Tee to rigorous classical music training.

The siblings even referred to their mother as a 'stereotypical tiger mum.' Dani said, "She'd sit at home with us and watch us practice for eight hours a day. She accompanied us to every piano and violin lesson and would scold us afterwards if we weren't good."

The two were even homeschooled for three years to fully focused on their music training.

When they weren't practicing instruments, their mother took them to concert halls weekly to watch renowned Chinese classical musicians and opera performances. Tee shared, "Most of the songs we listened to at that time were opera because I remember our mum taking us to concerts to watch a lot of opera shows."

Dani added, "It was part of our training. When we were on Ersha Island, we went to the concert hall every weekend to watch different artists—we saw Lang Lang, Yundi, and others."

Because Spotify and YouTube were banned in China, the siblings only had access to Chinese songs, opera, and classical music. They were unaware of other genres, especially Western music.

Ersha Island 二沙岛 performance during the Asian (Sound)scapes event on Ponsonby Social. Photo: Ersha Island IG account.

But they discovered a completely new world of music thanks to their father's iPod, which Tee even dubbed it as a 'mind-blowing’ experience for her. "We didn't have access to Western music except through our dad's iPod, which introduced us to the Beatles.”

Dani also added, “I remember it clearly because that was our first experience with Western music, my dad’s iPod had [songs from] Linkin Park, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, The Beatles, and Black Eyed Peas—there were like maybe ten songs on that iPod that we listened to, and that was our first experience with Western music. I was like 13 at that time, and I was like, wow, there’s another [kind] of music; I don’t have to listen to Chopin.”

Their exposure to a different genre inspired Dani to drop everything and break free from piano training, classical music, Beijing, and her mum—a rebellious decision she made at the age of 16.

“When we were in Beijing, it felt like we were losing our entire childhood without education… And I was just kind of like, I need some real-life education and not just music. So, I told my parents I was done, and then they shoot me off to New Zealand, and I went to boarding school,” Dani recalled.

Track 5: Like The Other Kids

“I didn’t look like the other kids. I never looked like the other kids.”

From the bustling city of Beijing to the rural landscapes of Wairarapa, Dani embarked on her new life. The school she attended had only 300 students, and she was the sole Asian student there.

Despite being half-Kiwi, in Wairarapa — her supposed new home where she could finally be herself — she was still viewed as a foreigner, the only Asian child whose appearance differed from the rest.

It seems like déjà vu, another place where she didn't feel she belonged. Yet, according to Dani, Wairarapa was a better alternative than Beijing, "At least [in Wairarapa] I was able to put my head down and study." She then focused on her academics and moved away from classical music and her mum's watchful eye.

On the other hand, Tee had a realisation when her older sister rebelled. "At that time, I was too young; I didn't consider any alternatives. We were told, 'You're going to be a classical musician when you grow up.' So, I never thought there would be another option."

"I was like, 'Okay, this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.' So, when Dani said that she had had enough, I realised, Oh, we can do that. We can say no," Tee emphasised.

Nonetheless, Tee believed that even if Dani hadn’t dropped everything, she too would eventually have rebelled. "Looking back now, I see that some of my diary entries were mostly about me wanting to run away from home."

Since their high school years, the Hao-Aickin sisters have been residing in New Zealand, doing their utmost to adapt to their new environment. Dani went as far as to bleach her hair blonde, aiming to resemble a Pākehā more than an Asian.

Despite these efforts, they couldn't bridge the gap they felt within themselves, as Pākehās always saw them as Chinese, and Chinese people viewed them as "too White," leaving them in a constant state of identity limbo. They struggled to take up space and stand for a culture they could only claim as half their own.

Ersha Island 二沙岛, Iris Zhang, Geoff Ong - Like the Other Kids (Official Music Video)

Track 6: My Mother’s Mountains and My Father’s Seas 

“Love was within, I didn’t have to search.”

In the process of figuring out who they really are, Dani and Tee embarked on a journey of accepting their identity as Chinese-Kiwis. They realised that being a blend of two cultures is actually a beautiful thing. In their search for a place to truly call their own, they came to understand that both China and New Zealand are home.

Therefore, in the EP's last track, "My Mother's Mountains, and My Father's Seas," they express their deep feelings about their mixed heritage. "This is probably my favourite song on the EP; it's all about my mother's mountains, which depict China, and my father's seas, which represent Aotearoa, and how it all fits together," Dani said.

The song's music video was also aesthetically captivating, featuring Dani and Tee in traditional Chinese clothing while filming in New Zealand.

 Ersha Island 二沙岛 - My Mother's Mountains and My Father's Sea (Official Music Video)

On their path to understanding their mixed background, the duo also realised that they could not fully walk away from something that has been a significant part of their lives—music.

It even became their outlet for self-expression. While it may not be in the form of classical music but rather popular music, it was still a powerful medium for them.

Both Dani and Tee pursued music studies at the University of Auckland, focusing on songwriting, recording, performing, and music production. Their decision was initially met with resentment by their mother, who had hoped they would become world-renowned classical musicians. However, all ended well, as their mother eventually accepted the reality that they would never fulfil that particular dream.

“Our mum struggled a lot with the idea of us not pursuing classical music anymore. After I told her I wanted to quit, she went and did a bunch of solo traveling. I never really talked to her about what she did and why, but she had briefly mentioned it because she was incredibly angry at us for quitting,” Dani narrated.

The two stressed that, compared to before, their parents, especially their mum, have completely changed from who they were when they were younger. Dani amusingly noted, “now, [our mum] has turned a corner and is very supportive. She says, ‘I love you’ to us, which is quite unusual.”

“I almost see my mum as two different people now: the one from our childhood, who placed her hopes and dreams on us, and the person she is now, different, and very supportive,” she added.

The sisters also acknowledge that their parents are still concerned about their decision to follow a career in pop music, a field that often depends on achieving viral success or fame, something that requires a great deal of luck. 

“Being a pop musician, no matter how much hard work you put into it, there’s no stable income. It’s not like climbing the corporate ladder; you have to somehow become known by people to make money. [Our parents are supportive], but I think they secretly worry sometimes that we won’t be able to financially support ourselves in the future," Tee justified. 

Prelude and Track 2: (Yeye) and Back To Our Roots

“I’m ready now to go back to our roots.”

As the Hao-Aickin sisters delved into the realm of pop music, they carry a sense of responsibility, aiming to be a voice for individuals navigating the complex waters of identity across diverse cultures, much like themselves.

Inspired by the story their grandfather had been telling them—the legend of the Locust Tree of Hongtong County in Shanxi Province, the duo are wholeheartedly prepared to embrace their Chinese ancestry and go back to their roots.

The legend recounts a period over six centuries ago when around 1 million people living near the tree in Hongtong County were relocated to war-devastated regions to assist with economic recovery. As they left, they continued to look back at the grand locust tree until it was no longer visible.

This tree is significant in the Chinese culture, as descendants from around the world return to trace their roots and search for their ancestors. This has given rise to the Chinese saying, "If you ask me where my ancestors were from, I'd say the big locust tree in Shanxi's Hongtong..."

Dani and Tee grew up knowing this tale from their grandfather, and it became their inspiration in writing the second track in their EP, “Back To Our Roots,” which is preceded by a prelude titled "爷爷 (Yeye)," where listeners can hear the duo's grandfather's recorded voice, narrating the legend of Shanxi Hongtong's locust tree. 

Ersha Island 二沙岛 new EP, Back To Our Roots, will soon be available on music streaming platforms worldwide. Photo: Supplied.

Ersha Island 二沙岛's latest EP is a heartfelt tapestry of English and Mandarin lyrics, intricately woven with strands of traditional Chinese melodies and the vibrant beats of Western pop. This exquisite musical blend mirrors the Hao-Aickin sisters' rich, mixed heritage, laying bare their souls and vulnerabilities for the world to see.

Through their songs, they extend an invitation into their lives, sharing stories steeped in emotion and resonance, in the hope of touching the hearts of listeners far and wide who see reflections of their own intertwined identities within the music.

 -Asia Media Centre