Annie Kathryn Lowdermilk, an American singer and actress living in Beijing, has a beautiful face yet a very masculine Chinese name—Tang Bohu, named after a Casanova poet and painter who lived during China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). “He’s a crazy genius and I like a little bit of crazy, I think that’s important in art,” Lowdermilk told Beijing Review.
The 31-year-old has done many outside-the-box things during her time in China: fusing Chinese traditional music, such as Peking Opera, with Western pop music; competing in Chinese music shows; acting in Chinese comedies; and hosting TV galas—in Chinese.
Annie Kathryn Lowdermilk (left), an American singer and actress living in China, performs in a TV talent show on January 7 （COURTESY PHOTO）
Accidental yet fundamental
Lowdermilk ended up in China’s showbiz pretty much by accident. In early 2008, she found out a company was looking for a singer to fill a vacancy in a Beijing-based international band. She sent in a demo and got the gig.
That same year, her family moved back to the U.S. The then 18-year-old decided to stay in China, alone. That marked one of her loneliest moments. “I wasn’t able to spend as much time with my family or my mother. So I tried to dedicate myself to work as much as possible. I still make sure that every day I’m doing something that’s worth being separated from my family for,” she explained.
One year later, she became the lead singer of China’s first international band which consisted of five people from five continents. They were often invited to perform on TV shows around the country. Life was busy.
She tried out different styles, such as folk, rock, or even opera. “You have to be very flexible and open to whatever is needed in that moment,” she added.
In 2011, she left the band. Being jobless in a foreign country, by herself, posed a great challenge to Lowdermilk. The cost of living in Beijing was getting higher, and every day she had to weight reality against her dreams. After more than one year of hibernation, she stepped back into the spotlight by taking part in a singing talent show staged by China Central Television (CCTV) in 2013 and came in fourth. She also started writing her own songs. Her first original work, I Am What I Am, was released in 2015.
Life was back on track and Lowdermilk found a new professional direction: fusing Chinese traditional music and various forms of Western music. Elements of Chinese poems, local operas, pop and rock music all hide in her musical notes.
Mastering the Chinese local operas was no easy feat. “It’s almost impossible for us to imitate the timbre their singing requires. The hardest thing is to make sure people can tell it is in fact Chinese opera and not R&B (rhythm and blues) because it’s very easy to mix up the two,” Lowdermilk said. She held herself to a crazy standard and tried her utmost to copy exactly what her vocal instructors had taught her.
Her efforts paid off. One of her songs, What Bohu Said, went viral on Chinese social media in 2021, and very few people knew, or realized, it was sung by a foreigner. For Lowdermilk, it was a proud moment. “I had achieved what I’d set out to do, which was to be able to be a singer, to create music and me being foreign not making any difference. The song in itself, my voice in itself, resonated with people and made people feel we were all the same,” she said.
In Lowdermilk’s opinion, there’s still a bit of a misunderstanding as to what exactly Chinese traditional music styles, or art styles, are. “It’s still stereotypical,” she said, adding that when talking about Chinese music most Westerners are still expecting music played with traditional instruments such as the pipa, a four-stringed lute. But for her, Chinese music represents much more than that.
“As a foreigner, I’d like to be able to bring some stuff to the table that can be popular, that can be liked by the younger generations there and can really [channel a better] understanding of Chinese culture to the West,” she said.
Annie Kathryn Lowdermilk, an American singer and actress living in China, stands by the moat of the Forbidden City on December 13, 2021 (ZHANG WEI)
Home is where the music is
In her spare time, Lowdermilk loves to visit the Temple of Heaven in downtown Beijing to appreciate the centuries-old trees there. “Being around them, I feel at peace, safe, as if they were old warriors never fallen, always protecting,” she said.
Though she holds an American passport, Lowdermilk was actually born in Denmark. Before the age of 10, she had already lived in many different countries, including Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Russia and the U.S., because of her parents’ career moves.
Moving around a lot is a double-edged sword for a child. “It helps you accept different cultures and gives you a much more open-minded mentality toward new things. But it’s also difficult. If you move around a lot when you are young, you don’t really have a sense of home,” she told Beijing Review.
China is where she has spent two thirds of her life so far. So she never uses the word “back” when talking about the U.S. “All of the important firsts in life happened when I was in China. So for me, this is more my home than anywhere else. I became attached to it and it gave me the sense of belonging,” she said.
In the past two decades, Lowdermilk has witnessed a huge change in the Chinese mentality. “When I first [got] here, there was so much support for the West and its cultures and values and music,” she said. But today she is happy to see that most young people are starting to get back in touch with their own culture and history and the beautiful things about Chinese traditions. One example is the popularization of hanfu, traditional Chinese dress, among the younger generations.
She spends most of her time trying to understand why young people today think the way they do and why they understand traditional values the way they do. She believes that young people are falling in love with traditional Chinese culture again because it contains more value. “They enjoy the idea that in modern times love or emotions or life can be pure,” she said.
The pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to the global entertainment industry. How has it impacted Lowdermilk’s life? At least, it gave her a lot of time to spend at home where she learned how to program music and created her channel on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, and really worked on not just performing, but on actually being a musician. “I think that’s a good thing in the sense that a lot of artists need some time to take a step back from the whole crazy TV [biz] and really get back to their roots,” she said.
Like most artists, Lowdermilk hopes her creations can be remembered and valued long after she’s gone, and “become a part of this Chinese generation, its memories and culture.”
(copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon)