Creatively Different: Expression, inspiration and representation through writing and music

Madelyn Chung talks about her career as a fashion journalist and her new path in music therapy.

Creatively Different is Cold Tea Collective‘s series on Asian professionals working in advertising, public relations, marketing, and creative fields and their experience as an Asian in their space. 

This interview-style series will focus on questions around the opportunities for Asians in this field, the challenges they may face, how cultural values have impacted their career and how their upbringing is reflected in their work.

Madelyn Chung is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and the founder and editor of The RepresentASIAN Project. With almost a decade of experience under her belt, she has previously worked as the Style Editor of HuffPost Canada and Digital ‘Chase’ Editor at FASHION Magazine and has bylines in FLARE, Best Health Magazine, Strong Fitness Magazine and more. She has been on-air video host and producer, providing live red carpet coverage at the Toronto International Film Festival, iHeartRadio Much Music Video Awards, Canadian Arts And Fashion Award. 

A proponent of Asian voices across different mediums, after the last ten years as an experienced fashion journalist, she pivoted to pursue a career in music therapy and is currently pursuing a Master of Music Therapy at Wilfrid Laurier University. 

Chung chatted with Cold Tea Collective about her experience as a fashion journalist, what led her down a new path of music therapy, and why she created a platform that she would have wanted to see when she was younger that celebrates Asian voices. 

Photo credit: Rebekah Lim

You were a journalist for many years, what made you choose that path? 

I’ve always loved reading and writing, from a very young age. When I was four, my mom signed me up for a writing class at the public library (even though I was too young for it!), and I still remember how much joy it brought me to write stories. Since I had a lot of interests as a child (music, dance, theatre, sports, etc.), I had various career aspirations, but by high school I had decided that I wanted to be a fashion journalist — the next Jeanne Beker, to be exact (I grew up watching FashionTelevision with my mom). From there, I just never stopped pursuing that dream, until about three years ago when I decided it was time for a new and completely different challenge. 

Now you’re doing a Masters in Music Therapy, what led you down this new path? 

In late 2016, I was laid off from my job at HuffPost Canada. As it happened, it was the most horrible experience I could imagine. I had based so much of my identity on my job title that when it was taken away, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was fortunate enough to land a job at FASHION magazine a month later, but as I worked there, I realized that I had lost my passion and spark for this type of job, and was craving something more fulfilling. I knew that I didn’t want a regular desk job anymore, and for a few months, I was extremely lost, since fashion journalism was my goal since I was 16. 

Prior to my layoff, I had heard about music therapy, and so during this time of “finding myself,” I decided to explore this profession more. I am a classically trained pianist and music has always been a big part of my life, as I have an innate passion for helping other people. I began speaking to people in the field, and once I saw music therapy in action, I knew it was the right next step for me. So at the end of 2017, I quit my job at FASHION and decided to dedicate my time to pursuing a career in music therapy. 

Photo credit: Marius Masalar

Growing up, did your parents try to influence your future career path? With both journalism and music therapy, did you have any challenges with your parents when you decided to go into more of a creative path?

I am extremely fortunate to have an incredibly supportive mother who has always encouraged me to go after my dreams, no matter what they were. She used to work in broadcast journalism (and loved fashion as much as I did), so she was happy to support my goals of being a fashion journalist. My dad is very much the kind of father who wants his child to go into medicine or science (both of my elder sisters are engineers), and so in that sense, I felt a bit like the black sheep in the family for choosing a more creative route. Interestingly enough though, one of my sisters recently told me how she wished she went into a more creative field and nurtured that side of her, so I feel very fortunate to have gone down this route. 

My dad seemed to be OK with me going into journalism, so long as it was “serious” journalism (ie. covering the war in Afghanistan), which obviously didn’t happen. There was a bit of pushback there. However, as my career progressed in the journalism world, he became much more accepting of the path I chose. Honestly, I will never forget the feeling of him telling me how proud he was of one of the articles I wrote, to the point where he told me to share it with the rest of the family, telling them that “Papa says it’s a must-read.” That was HUGE. 

In terms of pursuing music therapy, he has been very supportive. Maybe it’s because he’s older now and just more supportive in general, or maybe it’s because I’m finally pursuing a graduate degree. Either way, I am very thankful to have the support of both my parents and my family members on this journey. 

On your music therapy path, do you feel like there is a gap in understanding among the Asian community around music therapy? 

There is just a general gap in understanding around music therapy. A lot of people seem to think it involves “performing” for patients to make them happy, when really it is so much more than that. As per the definition by the Canadian Association of Music Therapists, music therapy is a discipline in which credentialed professionals purposefully use music within therapeutic relationships to support development, health, and well-being. It is the job of a music therapist to use music safely and ethically to address human needs within cognitive, communicative, emotional, musical, physical, social, and spiritual domains. The field is so fascinating, and an evidence-based practice, so it’s a bit of a shame that there is confusion around what music therapy actually is.  

What can be done to fill that gap? 

More advocacy is definitely needed in order to inform others of what music therapy really is and for the profession to be taken more seriously. If there was a way to make the field more known or mainstream, that could also help. 

Let’s go back to your journalism life. How are Asians represented in the field of fashion journalists? 

I wouldn’t say they are a rarity — Michelle Lee is the Editor-In-Chief (EIC) of Allure magazine, Eva Chen was the EIC of Lucky before she became the director of fashion partnerships at Instagram, and Lainey Lui has a wildly popular celebrity gossip website and is also a co-host on The Social, reporter for etalk and the host of Cravings: The Aftershow. However,  there is still a large discrepancy between Caucasian journalists and Asian journalists in general, not just in the fashion/beauty/lifestyle world. Perhaps the reason for this discrepancy is that many Asians still choose  the “traditional” route of going into finance, law and medicine, but I think things are changing, and more and more Asians are feeling more comfortable going into more non-traditional careers. Perhaps it’s because people are seeing more people of colour (POC) in creative fields and are getting inspired, or maybe it’s a generational thing — if families have been living longer in Canada (ie. first-generation Canadians vs. second-generation Canadians), they may be more open to their children following non-traditional career paths.  

Photo credit: Madelyn Chung

You write about topics on the Asian experience such as Crazy Rich Asians Isn’t Just a Movie—It’s a Sign That I Matter, Too but that’s not all you write about. How is your cultural upbringing expressed in your work for the topics about the Asian experience? 

The ironic part about the work I do regarding the Asian experience is that I am very open about my experience, which kind of goes against the whole “saving face” notion that Chinese families live by. I don’t think any of my family members would be as open or public about their experiences as I am. It’s funny — I’ve always been the sensitive and emotional one in my family, the one who cries at everything and really expresses her feelings. I used to think it was a weakness, but now I see my vulnerability as my “superpower,” and I try to convey that in my writing and the work that I do. The way I see it is that I have the opportunity and platform to share stories that people can relate to, but may not be able to share themselves. If I have this opportunity, I’m going to use it. 

How do you choose your topics on the Asian experience?

Sometimes the topics are linked to current events (ie. the release of Crazy Rich Asians), other times they’re inspired by things happening in my personal life. I wrote about how the death of my Poh Poh made me realize how Chinese people deal with grief, and the disconnect I felt from my family’s way of grieving. And sometimes, I try to create the content I wish I had as a child. For example, beauty tips and tricks specifically for Asian women

For non-Asian topics, what are the influences from your upbringing that you find enters the writing process? 

My dad always reminded me of the importance of being honest and trustworthy, and I think that’s something I try to convey in my writing. I really try to make sure that it comes from a place of authenticity. Both of my parents are incredibly hard workers, so I definitely get my work ethic from them as well.  

As a visible minority in the creative industry, do you think your difference in upbringing or cultural background is a competitive advantage or competitive disadvantage compared to peers? 

It’s hard to say. Personally, I think the advantage is that I can bring a different perspective and point of view to stories that non-person of colour can’t. I think these days companies are trying to make more diverse hires, and so in a sense, that is an advantage too though not necessarily for the right reason (especially if the diverse hire is only to “check off a box”). But I think that systemically, POC are still typically at a disadvantage.

You’ve been a freelance journalist for many years and was the Style editor at HuffPost Canada, being the on-air expert for the publication. A lot of what you did was putting yourself out there. What would be your advice for those of us that feel held back by that Asian notion that the “nail that sticks out will be hammered down”?

To be honest, at the time, I don’t think I was really aware of how much I was putting myself out there — I just knew I loved being on camera, so I went for it and embraced every single opportunity that came my way. To those people who feel hesitant or feeling like they should hold themselves back, I would say just think of the impact you could have on someone else by being on screen. If I had seen more people that looked like me on-camera while I was growing up, I would have been more accepting of my cultural background. Representation matters, and if you have the chance to represent people who look like you or share your experience, you should take it. 

You’re also the founder of The RepresentASIAN Project. Tell us about it. 

The RepresentASIAN Project is a platform that is meant to celebrate, elevate and advocate Asian representation in media and beyond. I really wanted to highlight individuals of Asian descent who have been successful in their respective fields to amplify Asian representation in many different areas. The heart of it is the profiles where entrepreneurs, creatives, CEOs, etc. explain, in their own words, how their upbringing has affected both their personal and professional lives. 

Image credit: RepresentASIAN Project

Why was it important for you to start the project? 

In the past few years, it really just dawned on me how much representation matters — it has truly been a huge factor in me becoming not just comfortable with my race, but proud of it. With my background in journalism, it seemed like a natural next step to create a platform that could hopefully help other people celebrate their cultural backgrounds. I like to think of it as the site I wish I had when I was younger. 

One of the goals of The RepresentASIAN Project was to tell stories about successful Asians in their respective industries. Were there any in your field that inspired/mentored you? If so, how important was it to you that they existed and visible? 

I remember reading a column in a magazine by Lainey Lui and thinking to myself, “Wow, a Chinese woman is writing a column, that means I can do it, too!”. Eva Chen was also a big inspiration to me, especially when she was beauty director at Teen Vogue. Her visibility gave me hope that I could pursue a similar career. 

Now that you’re a successful Asian in your respective industry, what is your advice for those joining the industry? What are the practical things they could be doing? 

My biggest advice would be to work hard and stay true to yourself. Don’t let anyone minimize your experience or make you feel less than. I know that’s way easier said than done, and it’s something that I am still trying to work on myself. Practically, it’s important to reach out to other people and make connections. If you can connect to other Asians in the field you would like to go into, even better. And be sure to support your Asian peers, rather than try to compete with them. 

Photo credit: Rebekah Lim

Last thoughts? 

Right now is a more important time than ever to support the (East) Asian community, especially with the racism and sinophobia happening because of COVID-19. Personally, it has been something that’s taken a big toll on me — it was like I finally felt proud of being Chinese, and now I’m scared of being targeted because I’m Chinese. It’s really disheartening, but what we need is a sense of support within our community and from outside members in order to get through this and come out stronger. It’s times like these when Asian voices are more important than ever, so if you have the means to speak up and share your story, I would encourage you to do so, because the impact you will have on others is tremendous. 

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