Shenzhen is well known for offering numerous opportunities to tech professionals. This is what first brought American Stephen Merchant out here. But it is one of Shenzhen’s lesser known qualities that has helped Merchant really stand out in the city – its live music scene.
An operations manager at Amazon and a former employee of Apple, Merchant has had career success and started a family since moving to Shenzhen in April 2009. But what he is most known for in the expat community is his singing, songwriting, and contribution to the city’s music culture.
He kindly took time to talk to The Nanfang about his life in the PRD.
Coming to China
While with Apple in California from 2007 to 2009, Merchant helped successfully launch the 4th Generation “iPod nano” and 7th Generation “iPod classic” product lines as well as the 6th Generation “iPod classic” product line. He was initially brought to China by work but it was meeting a woman that led him to move out here.
“I would be sent to Shanghai 10 days a month and that is where I met (my wife) Rita.”
They were in a distance relationship until April 2009 when he moved out to Shenzhen and they both worked in a start-up for a year.
Merchant’s professional career took him to Amazon, for whom he manages manufacturing operations for the Kindle Fire tablet. For this job, he moved out to Shanghai in April 2011 to be put in charge of manufacturing operations. He then returned to Shenzhen in April last year to oversee engineering operations.
Having formed so many friendships in Shenzhen, Merchant was glad to be back. Moreover, of particular importance to Merchant, Shenzhen has what he calls “a way more vibrant live music scene than Shanghai.”
Having described Shenzhen as “certainly the music capital of China,” Merchant states that, despite having a much smaller population than Shanghai, there are many opportunities for musicians to perform live. He told The Nanfang that this may be because the make-up of the expat community is very different. “In Shanghai, there’s a smaller proportion of English teachers, and the expats are mostly older and at executive level.”
When Merchant released his 2011 debut album “Just One More Day,” he wrote on his website: “A few years ago music was not a large part of my life and at that time I had no idea how much of a role it would play in my future.”
Merchant’s initial spell of living in Shenzhen coincided with the rise of the La Casa open mic night. Now held on Sunday nights at 10 p.m., the open mic nights are an institution in the expat community, even though La Casa has been encircled by much bigger and noisier competitors since it opened in early 2009.
Much has been written about the La Casa event and the format has proved so popular that there is now one almost every night in Shenzhen. Merchant is one of the best known performers in town.
Merchant told THAT’S PRD in 2011 that he doesn’t know quite how to categorise his music. “Some songs are adult contemporary, some rock, some a little country. If I had to pick, I would go with ‘Adult Alternative Rock that would be considered Contemporary in the Country’.”
Life in Shenzhen
Merchant claims that both Shenzhen and Shanghai have been important to his music career, but for different reasons. He wrote and recorded his first album in Shanghai, but later explained that part of the reason for doing this was because he missed the friends he made and the live music he enjoyed in Shenzhen.
He told The Nanfang: “I’m less productive in Shenzhen when it comes to writing songs.” In Shanghai, he wrote more songs but, he explains: “Most of them were garbage.”
He puts this down to the fact that in Shenzhen, there is more room for collaboration and there are more opportunities to perform. “In Shenzhen when you write, you’re writing with people.”
As well as being the place where he rediscovered and honed his craft, Shenzhen is the place where he has had countless memories and saw the birth of his first son.
The birth itself was testing and going out in public with young children in China can be testing (he told The Nanfang that his biggest peeve here was strangers touching his children). But he cites having children here as his best memory.
Other good memories include days out at the Secret Spot at Xichong Beach and, of course, the numerous live performances he has given.
This is his best-known original song: