In our sometimes slightly too sensitive world, people get a little tense when someone tries to dress or speak in a way they think how a different culture is like.

In a world where gender norms and social mores are rapidly changing, and the spectre of cancel culture looms over everything we say or do in the public sphere, it is understandable that most of us would rather take steps not to offend, rather than put a metaphorical foot in our mouths.

But if we don’t push our boundaries, how do we learn about each other?

After all, there must be some stirring in the melting pot of our different cultures.

So when does cultural appreciation turn to appropriation, or not?

Enter Blake Yap, or Chinepaiyen, as he is known to his fans.

#Chinepaiyen
#Chinepaiyen / Image Source: Blake Yap

The Malaysian Chinese influencer from Selangor has been making videos on YouTube for the past 10 years and made a big splash in 2018 on his TikTok, which has 1.8 million followers and racked up more than 240 million views. He even had a cameo in a Kollywood movie, Comali.

He tells The Pride: “Chinepaiyen is a brand where I came up with for people to call me easily and also identify me. Chinepaiyen is a combination of two Tamil words chinnapaiyan (Chinese boy) & cinnepaiyen (little boy) which perfectly describes me physically – Little Chinese Boy.”

In his videos, Blake switches seamlessly between English, Mandarin, Bahasa Malayu and Tamil, but it is his fluency with the latter that makes him stand out.

He says: “It all began when I was 17 in the last year in high school. It was the year I started making YouTube videos and the same year I started learning Tamil. Most of my friends were Tamil speaking, so I asked myself ‘why am I not able to speak even a few words of Tamil at the age of 17 in a multilingual country?’.”

“I used that frustration and turned it into a self-initiative to learn Tamil from my friends. I started with five words a day then I continued by watching Tamil movies with subtitles. It makes sense to me because I love to act, dance and sing, which is everything a Tamil movie has.

@chinepaiyenofficial

Day 14/31 #Chinepaiyen reads & discusses the #thirukkural daily for #merdeka month #Tamil #malaysia #fyp

♬ original sound – #Chinepaiyen – #Chinepaiyen

In fact, Blake appreciates the language and culture so much that he posted clips on TikTok of him reading out and sharing his thoughts on Thirukurral, one of the oldest historic scriptures in Tamil literature, which consists of 1,330 short couplets teaching on virtue, wealth and love.

It’s a bit of a serious turn from a content producer better known for his exuberant Kollywood-inspired videos and whimsical TikToks.

But it’s important to him that he gives back to the community. Explains Blake: “I am doing what I can to elevate the Tamil community while learning the language and culture. (I want to) be the bridge to creating more multilingual content across all the communities and encourage one another to learn a language that’s different than our own.”

“This is how we can not only understand one another but also open up conversations about social injustices and struggles faced by each community.”

First Meet and Greet
First Meet and Greet / Image Source: Blake Yap

He adds: “We live in a world where miscommunication upon miscommunication causes many problems. To break through the noise, being kind and gracious is the first step to reach. To learn another person’s language, to understand another community’s struggle, we all need to step out of our comfort zone and communicate and listen and it’s only through kindness and graciousness that it can happen.”

Scary to start out

Chinepaiyen Poster
Chinepaiyen poster / Image Source: Blake Yap

It wasn’t easy when he first started though.

Says Blake: “(It was a challenge) to find an audience. It was difficult to show people that I was making Tamil content seriously, and for them to take me seriously. My inspiration were mostly from the people who doubted me and even more so from myself, when I doubted my abilities to act.”

It was also scary for him to make the leap into full-time work.

“The decision to become a full-time content creator was really challenging, that meant quitting my job and venturing out on my own to build an audience in Tamil Nadu, India and the journey to visiting Chennai, home of Kollywood for the first time.

Fund-raising for his trip to Chennai was a rollercoaster of emotions, which ended when he took a leap of faith to go with whatever funds he had.

Chinepaiyen
Image Source: Blake Yap

Says Blake: “That trip was the first time I’ve met my audience in person and I was able to see people coming up to me and acknowledging my videos.” That also led to him achieving one of his dreams, as the trip led to him getting a cameo in a Kollywood movie.

Success didn’t come alone

Even though Blake has been learning the language for the past 10 years, he still depends on a close circle of Tamil friends to make sure he gets it right.

“I’ll let them ‘approve’ every video before I upload as I am still learning the language. My friends have and will always be part of the process of my content creation,” he says.

And what about feedback from his non-Tamil friends? Laughs Blake: “They won’t be able to directly access my content, but if they stumble upon it, they are always interest and curious about how I make my content in Tamil.”

#Chinepaiyen Soya Cincau
Image Source: Blake Yap

And his family has always been supportive of his drive to entertain. “After years of me making videos in Tamil, they are able to see the seeds that I have sown turn into fruition by growing not only a local but an international audience. They have been supportive and it’s also a learning opportunity for them!”

Blake says that he wants to inspire everyone who has ever felt like they could never ‘fit into a box’, adding that as an entertainer, he is the perfect example of not being labelled.

“I want to inspire others to stand out among the crowd, and to inspire people to be comfortable in their own skin. And for those who don’t want to stand out, don’t put down other people who are ‘different’ than yourself.”

Short film for Deepavali

One of his proudest achievements was for Deepavali last year, when he shot and posted a short film centred on an interracial couple.

In the video, which was done as a tribute to the Kollywood movies that he loves, Blake plays a Chinese man who learns Tamil after falling for a Tamil woman.

Says Blake: “I am grateful that the projects that I am able to be part of go in line with my ideologies… I hope to inspire more Malaysian-centric content produced on TV, cinema and social media.”

He also wants to reach across the Causeway for more collaborative efforts. “We Malaysians and Singaporeans are so alike… The dynamics might be slightly different but what happens in both our countries can’t be found anywhere else, so I call upon any Singaporeans who would like to collaborate to reach out to me.

“We need to LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN to one another and find strength in our differences, understand each other’s struggles and build upon it in our respective communities.”

Karun S’Baram contributed to this article.

If you like what you read, follow us on Twitter and Telegram to get the latest updates.

Top Image: Blake Yap