Cover Rapper Zain Syed, Photo: Affa Chan

Zain Syed exposes fragmented aspects of Hong Kong’s diverse and complex society through his music and YouTube channel

Zain Syed is asking Hongkongers to give him a minute. His YouTube channel, GiveZainamin, is quintessentially Hong Kong, the title a playful nod to the impatience characteristic of many of the city’s inhabitants. The content, too, is reflective of the city and its people.

Syed started the channel three years ago, and the initial 10,000 subscribers quickly multiplied to 77,200. He uploads rap singles, music videos and long-form commentary on local pop culture trends and observations.

His most watched video, with approximately 393,000 views, is titled 口不對心, which translates to “You don’t say what you mean” or “double speak”, and sees Syed making fun of trending TikTok and Douyin videos. While the words he speaks are relatively polite, the subtitles reflect much harsher language conveying his real thoughts. He uses a typical brand of dark and critical Cantonese humour to refer to the lack of authenticity found in social media content, an idea that resonates with local audiences. His fluent Cantonese helps.

 

Above A video from Syed's Youtube Channel, GIVEZAINAMIN【口不對心】做個勇敢中國人

While there have been South Asians in Hong Kong for generations, the sight and sound of a member of that community speaking Cantonese still catches people by surprise. This perplexes Syed, who can’t understand why anyone with a long history in the city wouldn’t have learnt the language. “I’ve always wanted to know how you can grow up here as a ‘local’ but not speak Cantonese. How do you manage that? I couldn’t have managed it.”

Syed’s paternal grandparents arrived in Hong Kong in the 1960s from Pakistan; his father grew up in Sha Tin, and learnt Cantonese from those around him. Syed, whose mother is from the UAE, grew up in a trilingual household. He speaks English with his mother, talks to his three brothers in Cantonese, and his father makes them speak English and Urdu.

Yet despite his fluency in Cantonese, he was often made to feel he didn’t belong, especially as a child. “I was told every day that I was different,” says Syed. “It was hard for me to accept that I was different, because I didn’t find [any differences] between me and other kids.” Ironically, his childhood friends were mostly Hong Kong Chinese rather than South Asian, so they couldn’t understand the racism he encountered. He did not want to burden his family either, so he internalised his feelings, eventually finding comfort in rap and hip-hop.

“I felt like I was the one the songs were about, so I instantly connected to [rap],” says Syed. His latest single, released early this year, is an English-Cantonese hybrid Do It.




Syed also runs a T-shirt company, Not for Me, selling merchandise with those three words emblazoned on it. “It seemed like a lot of things weren’t meant for me,” says Syed of his experience growing up and being made to feel “other”. While he endures frequent micro-aggressive racist interactions and constantly has to define his ethnic identity, people often think he is overreacting to racial issues. But, he says, “just because you don’t live it doesn’t mean it’s not real, and this is exactly how I feel every day”.

A sense of cultural responsibility permeates all the endeavours Syed pursues. Currently, he is trying his hand at acting, appearing in RTHK drama series Shall We Talk, directed by Jun Li, whose previous project was Drifting (2021), the most nominated film at the 2021 Golden Horse Awards. Debuting last month, the series explores the impact of mental health issues, prompting audiences to consider how they affect individuals and their families. Syed plays a bipolar visual artist who falls in love with a local woman. The story addresses difficulties in navigating interracial relationships, as well as how families and loved ones can provide support to those suffering from mental disorders.

While Syed is eager to embrace a range of creative outlets to share his message, he is as fond of defining his occupation as he is of defining his identity. “Why do I have to define myself?” asks Syed. “For now, I’m just hustling.”

 

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