Panda diplomacy has proven to be an effective soft power instrument of culture and goodwill. To think that China presents these vulnerable and near-extinct herbivores as a way to bridge differences, that is one hell of a negotiation in diplomacy.
But recently, another Chinese ‘import’ is set to promote and showcase the country’s talent pool and Chinese culture. Named Panthepack, this supergroup comprises musicians Jackson Wang, Karencici, J.Sheon and ICE.
The name Jackson Wang immediately jumps out at you. Besides being part of the renowned K-pop boy band Got7, he founded his own record label Team Wang in 2017 that manages his solo releases. He also assembled the rest of Panthepack (its members aged between 23 and 36).
The group name is based off China’s epochal animals. “Pandas are iconic for the Chinese,” Wang explains. “For us, we’re exploring and going on this music journey to deliver a new sound.”
Wang flexes his multi-hyphenate talents to steer the group, being attributed as writer, director, actor and editor at the end credits of Panthepack’s first music video ‘Buzz’, which amassed over 8.6 million streams on YouTube in less than two weeks since its release.
Before he arrived for our scheduled Zoom interview, the rest of Panthepack were enlivening the mood with peppy banters. Casual talk was volleyed among the three members. As no one turned on their cameras, trying to discern who said what among the chatter, apart from Panthepack’s only female and also youngest member Karencici, proved to be a challenge.
The Chinese-American and bilingual R&B singer- songwriter’s real name is Lin Kailun, or Cici as the group addressed her affectionately during the Zoom interview. She has penned tunes for Taiwan’s Jolin Tsai, Hebe Tien and Rainie Yang while snagging herself the Best Newcomer nomination at the 30th Golden Melody Awards. The way she speaks exudes confidence; she commands the room.
Her comrade, singer-songwriter/producer J.Sheon also made his mark in Taiwan and was nominated Best Male Artist for the same ceremony a year after her. The eight years that J.Sheon spent in New York since he was 19 exposed him to different genres of western music that had shaped his musical sensibility with a unique style. This comprehension has led him to carve out a niche to flourish in the music industry.
Rounding up the quartet is rap prodigy ICE, or Yang Changqing. Contrary to his frosty moniker, ICE was cordial and forthcoming during the interview. As Wang describes him, “hotter and warmer than the sun”. Having finished third place in the second season of The Rap of China, a mainland China rap competition, ICE also bagged the Asian Music Festival’s Annual Popularity Rapper Award in 2018 and previously worked with Wang on the single ‘Red’.
You’d think that building a supergroup of this calibre would be a convoluted affair but it was as simple as sending a direct message. J.Sheon recalls, “Jackson [Wang] hit me up on Instagram randomly with good vibes. ‘Yo, bro, do you wanna talk? I’ve a fun project going on that’s [sick].’” The same applied to Karencici and ICE.
“And then we’re done,” Wang says. “We’re here.”
Karencici: For me, before I joined this project, I was already a big fan of [Wang] because I’ve seen him on variety shows and other television programmes. So I was a little bit starstruck.
Jackson Wang: No waaaaaay. Get out of here. [Howls in jest.]
Karencici: I’m your fan, bro.
Wang: I was already a fan of Cici, J.Sheon and ICE even before I invited them.
To say that the camaraderie is strong within Panthepack is an understatement. Wang praises J.Sheon for being the big brother in the group and compliments Karencici on her ‘warrior-like’ energy on stage but still being able to chill and be the princess of the quartet.
For ICE, he looks up to J.Sheon who doubles as a mentor and an English teacher. “He always teaches me something new every time, so I appreciate that,” the rapper says. At this moment, Karencici playfully fishes for compliments from ICE. Without missing a beat, ICE cheekily replies that although she exudes a cool aura initially, she also nurtures him while being cute and having a positive character.
Comparing this experience to a summer camp, J.Sheon says the group members “are likeminded individuals who connect via music”. “Basically, everyone starts as strangers. Then you get to know each other and become friends. Throughout the process, there’ll be a bond formed with everyone. Eventually, it turns out that we’re going to become a ‘family’ and everyone got each other’s back.”
Panthepack had been on Wang’s cards for about a year and a half. Before going public in its entirety, Panthepack teased its presence by putting out single releases and making surprise appearances in China, including Wang’s solo live performance of ‘DNA’ in the season two finale of variety TV show Sisters Who Make Waves. Wang and ICE also appeared at the 2021 Baidu Gala, performing their second single ‘Transmit’.
Careful and detailed preparation constituted that veiled period. “It’s all about the timing,” Wang says. A year and a half. That’s how long it took for Panthepack to debut. Even with members based in different cities (Beijing, China for Wang and ICE; Taipei, China for Karencici and J.Sheon), thanks to modern technology it is easy for Panthepack to work on their music by producing their part of the record remotely. “We finally gathered around late July to early August this year because everyone had their respective schedules too. Thus, it took a while to confirm the dates to come together,” Wang shares.
The only circumstance that truly affected them during this pandemic is gathering physically to film content like music videos and interviews, and attend televised programmes and perform live. Otherwise, the Internet can host and realise their other endeavours.
When asked whether the pandemic has also affected Panthepack’s reveal, Wang weighs that this and everyone’s schedules are contributing factors. “No matter what happens, we will gather annually and it’ll be only about two to three months. From releasing an album and going on tour after. [This is] a long-term pact for us,” he says.
Panthepack’s dynamic and upbeat genre-blending inaugural 10-track album The Pack shines a new light on Chinese- produced music. Hip-hop, R&B, pop; you name it, they’ve recorded it. Their bilingual proficiency comes into play too as reflected in the lyrics, revelling in neologism and drawing from popular culture like Dragon Ball: “About to super saiyan on you GOKU/If you ain’t here to party go vamoose ya” (from ‘Buzz’).
Although each Panthepack member tapped onto their own definitive sound and personality, the quartet seamlessly melds the craft together to convey youthfulness and China’s distinctive modern music culture. There’s an emphasis to be themselves along with representing their heritage.
“We get to be ourselves and have full control of our musical craft,” J.Sheon says. “Because we got recruited into this project for what we’ve already been good at in our respective music careers. Each of us specialises in a certain sound. Thus, we don’t have to be anyone else but us.” Karencici agrees, saying they all have “total freedom” in creating the desired sounds.
Wang adds, “We are doing what we believe in and convey that through music. Not changing the game completely, but we’re hoping to instil a new vibe or DNA that could inspire the next generation on the perspective of looking at music.”
Among the tracks in The Pack there are immediate standouts besides the singles, like the chill and sleek ‘Too Many’ and swagger-fuelled ‘Sold Out’. I asked each member to pick their favourite ‘child’.
Wang: All of the songs are gold to me. I think the best part of the whole album is the way that it’s structured and pieced together like a puzzle. Yeah. For me, it’s that.
J.Sheon: It’s really freaking hard to choose. Because I love all the tracks. From when I was recording to the creating process, I enjoyed every one of them. They have their own good points, characteristics and flavours. So, I’m gonna say I love them all.
Karencici: Nice. For me, my current favourite track is probably ‘Sold Out’ because of my verse. I feel I did something different from what I usually do. I don’t really do that much of a rap type of verse, but on the song ‘Sold Out’, I played around with my verse and switched it up a little bit. I think it turned out pretty well, so I’m pretty proud of that song.
Wang: ICE, what’s your favourite song?
ICE: I love all the songs!
Album closer ‘Shanghai Dream’ pays homage to the prosperous first-tier Chinese city in its title and lyrical narrative. The quartet had their first physical meeting in Shanghai, which makes it meaningful, according to Wang. On a personal note, he identifies the city as a paradise from his childhood days. “My mum is from Shanghai and it feels like a paradise to me, so I thought with these coincidences we thought it could make a great title.”
J.Sheon views the city as a metaphor for a paradise, in addition to the connection Shanghai has with all four members. Wang belts out the song’s melodic hook and hints, “If we perform the song in Chengdu, you’ll probably know it when [we] sing the song as ‘Chengdu Dream’. Similarly, if we’re in Singapore, it’ll be ‘Singapore Dream’. We can always change [the lyrics] around.” How versatile.
The Pack’s buoyant compositions complement fittingly to its colourful trajectory, which leaves an impression. Who could remain miserable upon seeing 3D panda motifs and Emoji- inspired illustrations? Vibrant colourful visuals like rainbows, cute pandas and cartoon characters emerged from the initial brainstorming sessions when conceptualising Panthepack. Such juxtaposition does not exist readily in real life but the supergroup’s creative output aims to contribute a sense of wonderland that’s akin to a fun and infectious video game.
This obvious contrast between reality and fantasy highlights limitless possibilities for the latter.
Apart from the vivid still art, one will also discover recognisable icons in Panthepack’s music videos. Like the rice cracker snack and a three-wheel motor vehicle that’s commonly found in the streets of China were featured in the ‘Buzz’ video; these details allow viewers to have a sneak peek on objects that are quintessential to Chinese culture. By giving them prominence, viewers will seek them, should they be in Asia.
As Wang points out, this is a promotion of all things Asian. “Specifically Chinese. We love learning about other countries’ cultures, but when you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s differentiated as the East and the West. There’s only certain stuff that the East knows about the West, and vice versa. As much as we love learning about other cultures, we’d love to share our own too.”
Continuing on promoting Chinese culture, J.Sheon says, “Panthepack wants to become a bridge of the East and West. Globalisation is a trend. You get to know our influences and you get to know our roots at the same time.”
How to appease a worldwide audience while staying true to oneself? Wang points out that music is a universal language that transcends communication barriers: What is presented in China will be the same anywhere else in the world too. “Different people can receive and interpret music differently as it is personal. So, we leave it to the audience to figure out and feel both music and art themselves.”
At the time of this interview, Panthepack was rehearsing for the first concert of their Panthenight tour, which kicked off on 30 September in Chengdu, coincidentally the home of pandas. The supergroup films vlog content on the go too. “We’ve been exploring the city in addition to touring because we will film [vlog content] whenever we’re at [sic] a different city. We seek out fun things to do also,” Karencici says. Furthermore, Chengdu is a food haven and happens to be ICE’s hometown too.
Wang: Chengdu, as you know, is the city where ICE is from. He’s going to bring us to some good places or somewhere with traditional Chengdu food. Right, ICE?
ICE: Right! Firstly, Chengdu is my hometown. I think the people here are great. The food and culture here are dope too.
Wang: What’s one good food?
Karencici: Yeah, I heard Chengdu is famous for its spicy food, hot pot and barbecue skewers. I can’t wait to go try all of that.
In a test of their rapport, the group, sans J.Sheon because of a faulty call connection, shared their opinions on what the latter would like to have too.
Wang: J.Sheon is very strict with his diet. He tends to eat a lot of meat, vegetables and fruits. Sometimes he controls the amount of carbs that he takes. Because of us having to tour different cities, I think he’ll have one cheat day in every city just to try out the best or traditional food in each city.
Karencici: Also, J.Sheon is a very good chef. So I think when we are in different cities, he would try different kinds of food.
True to their refreshing image, Panthepack’s energetic disposition is infectious. The supergroup is always raring to perform on stage. Rather than being nervous and worried, they get excited instead. The adrenaline comes from performing and meeting their audience on tour. It is as natural a high that they can achieve through the delivery of their craft.
Maintaining such high spirits requires one to be committed and embrace both the good and bad of the profession wholeheartedly. Unlike their placid muse, Panthepack gets hyped up when executing their craft. ICE’s inextinguishable passion for music and supportive groupmates are his motivation. “We just want to perform good music from our universe to the world,” he says.
Karencici wants to influence with her music and art— “I hope listeners can relate to my content, feel the intended emotions such as receiving comfort when they hear and see my stuff.”
Wang reinforces the notion of finding the drive to go on. “When you’re doing what you love every single day, you don’t need to be motivated. Because you’re enjoying doing it naturally daily. It’s something you love, believe in and have passion for. We’re doing it for our fans too. We all had highs and lows in our lives. And when we’re down, our fans, supporters, audience and listeners are always the ones who would bring us back up. That’s what keeps us motivated.”
J.Sheon brings up the reality of the industry and abides on being pragmatic while pursuing music. “I’ve always wanted to create music of my own and now I get that opportunity and deliver to the world. That’s one of the reasons that [has] kept me going,” he says. “The second and most apparent reason is the pay cheque. It funds all the stuff that we are doing, which keeps us going. It’s an organic circle. The bigger the pay cheque, the bigger the impact that we can contribute in our production and deliver them to our audience.”
Wang acknowledges this too. “Although we love making music, at the end of the day we still got to live. We love our music and the ideas that we have. For certain songs, the production requires a lot of funds too. So, the bigger it is, the bigger [the] production we can make.”
The future remains uncertain, especially with the ever- evolving COVID-19 pandemic and its mutated strains. One thing’s for sure, Wang asserts, as music and art-driven entertainers, Panthepack will continue to create relatable work for everyone. “That’s the best and the least one can do as an artist. For example, for this pandemic, no matter if they are having it good or bad, partying or heartbroken, we always stand by our audience and entertain by producing music.”
Besides consuming their stimulating intangibles audio and visuals, the Panthepack experience can be enhanced with a variety of merchandise too. This ranges from apparel and accessories including hoodies, T-shirts and hats to objects like stickers. Disneyland and Universal Studios have a new rival now, it seems.
J.Sheon: Welcome and join the pack.
Karencici: Be one of us.
The Pack is now available for purchase and streaming at music sites including Spotify and Apple Music.
Produced by Zhang Tianzhen. Stylist assisted by Kyo, Chiyuan and Nono. Make-up by Simon Zhao/J.Studio (Jackson and J.Sheon) and Nic Lei (Karencici and ICE). Hair by Zhang Chun Jie/MQ Studio (Jackson and J.Sheon) and Jenny Niu/Salsa Studio (Karencici and ICE)
Creative direction and productionBoh Project @boh.project