The mystery surrounding Triad God is substantial. Even in today’s landscape where EDM DJs wear masks and teenagers masturbate to deep fakes, there’s something truly opaque about the man and his music. Triad God is the project of Vinh Soi Ngan, a rap star from New Cross, South London. Over the last 8 years, he’s released two records, the first NXB, through the iconic and now defunct label Hippos in Tanks, and his latest through the cult Italian imprint Presto!? Without touring, interviews, or any real online presence, Vinh’s music earned critical acclaim and gave him a solid foothold in the slippery black hole of the streaming music era.
The process of arranging an interview with him was predictably complicated, only made possible through the efforts of Vinh’s friend and collaborator Benjy Keating. The two met in a rehabilitation center when they were both 23 years old. Vinh had just been released from prison, and into the program where Keating was working. The two became fast friends and in this way, the same violent series of events that landed him in prison led him directly to his future producer, collaborator, and makeshift guardian.
When I reached out for this story, it was Keating who wrote me back, explaining that he handled this sort of thing for Vinh, and that it wouldn’t be easy to make it happen, “He’s just a quiet, closed, and cold character,” he told me. “It takes a while to get him going.” When I asked who Vinh would be willing to speak to, I was given just one option: Edison Chen. “That would be a dream of Vinh’s,” said Keating.
Discovered in a Hong Kong mall as a teenager, Chen was an English-speaking Canadian abruptly recruited to become an actor, rapper and all around cultural institution in China. He learned the language, rose to stardom, and became a household name, all before a sex scandal involving stolen images from his computer forced him to leave Asia for Los Angeles. In the years since, he’s launched a streetwear brand, Clot, had his first child, and invested in a number of fashion enterprises that have connected him with people like Nigo and A$AP Rocky. Here, they talk about origin stories, rapping, and the pull of Hong Kong.
LUCAS MASCATELLO: Because there are a couple people on this call, I think we should all just quickly introduce ourselves. I’m Lucas, from Interview.
EDISON CHEN: I’m Edison.
VINH: Yo, what’s up Edison?
BENJY KEATING: I’m Benjy, Vinh’s friend.
CHEN: You guys in London? I’m actually coming out there in July to chill.
VINH: I live in London, man. Do you live in Hong Kong?
CHEN: No, I live in Los Angeles. I had to leave Asia in 2008 because of some shit. I’ve been here for like ten years now.
VINH: Still doing rapping?
CHEN: Yeah, the last album I did was maybe a year-and-a-half ago. Right now I’m thinking about doing some English tracks, just because I have a lot of homies back around in Los Angeles. I’m hanging around them and trying to make music for fun instead of before when I was making it for the industry. When I was rapping, I had to learn Chinese and try to figure out how to write. It took me like a decade. It’s crazy to lose my second language and shit. I’ve been listening to your shit a lot, man. I’m really into it. It’s really dope.
VINH: Thanks, man.
CHEN: Where are you trying to bring it? You trying to do an album?
VINH: No, I want to bring it to Hong Kong. Do you reckon you can ask someone to sign me with LMF?
CHEN: LMF? Yeah, I know all those cats. I actually played MC Yen your track and he was really into it. Are you trying to make some waves out in Asia right now?
VINH: Oh yeah.
CHEN: So is English your first language or is it Cantonese?
VINH: I was born in London.
CHEN: You ever been to Hong Kong?
VINH: No, I’ve never been there, but I want to go there.
CHEN: I’m going to bring you out there. What mystifies you about Hong Kong?
VINH: Kowloon Tong [a posh neighborhood] and Ocean Park [a 226-acre theme park opened in 1977].
CHEN: So I guess you follow Hong Kong hip-hop?
CHEN: Is that how you know about me?
VINH: I heard about you when I was young. We all knew about you.
CHEN: I’m actually looking for the next me man, maybe you’re him? What is it like living in between both of those cultures, balancing the Chinese with a Western upbringing?
VINH: The best. London is a good place to live.
KEATING: Are there like a lot of Chinese people? Like your crew and stuff?
VINH: My crew? My boys? Yeah man, there’s bare of us the younger lot, younger younger lot, younger younger younger lot.
CHEN: Mostly Chinese?
VINH: Chinese, Vietnamese.
CHEN: Are they into music and shit, too?
VINH: Yeah, some do music as well, it’s shit, doe.
CHEN: So when you were growing up as a teen, you were just chilling with the same crew that you are now?
VINH: Yeah, we meet new people as well doe, innit.
CHEN: So did you ever go to school and shit? I never went to school. I never went to university. I stopped school when I was 16 and I think that actually lends to my creativity. I feel like going to school keeps you in a box. Especially for creative people, because there’s rules, and in the creative world there are no rules. So you know, I was kind of interested to see if you went to art school or music school. What were your teenage years like?
VINH: It was crazy growing up, man. I got kicked out of school, you know. It was good growing up, man.
KEATING: How old were you when you were kicked out of school?
VINH: I was only 15. I beat someone up with a pole. They kicked my brother out as well, because he had another fight on the playground. Me and my boys rushed in, so they kicked me and my brother out.
CHEN: Ever since they reached out to have me interview you, I’ve been really kind of mystified trying to figure out more about what it is you do, or who it is that you are, because I went on Instagram to try and find you, but I couldn’t. I went on the internet to try and find you, but it’s just links to your vinyl and shit, like, sold out. You know what I mean? Who are you, man? What is it that you want to do?
VINH: I want to be a star, a Hong Kong star, innit. I want to be rapping, innit.
CHEN: But why be a Hong Kong star when you’ve got the English, too? You could be a Hong Kong star and be a worldwide phenomenon, you know what I mean?
VINH: I only rap in Chinese, innit.
KEATING: But it’s interesting what Edison is saying. A lot of people connect with your music who aren’t Chinese.
MASCATELLO: I thought it would be good, Benjy, if maybe you could explain quickly just for context how you two met and how your relationship works.
KEATING: Is that cool? I can tell them things?
VINH: Yeah, go on.
KEATING: At the time, I was working at a rehab. Vinh was in rehab because he had just come out of prison at the time, but he didn’t really do anything. He was on remand for like 6 months, because of a like a gang-related—
VINH: For clean up, innit?
KEATING: But you didn’t clean up, someone else cleaned up.
VINH: Should’ve been me, so my brother and my boys got it done.
KEATING: I was working in this rehab place with Vinh. It’s kind of a place to help get set up after going through a really tough experience. Me and Vinh really connected, because I told him I’m a music producer, and he said “I want to be a rapper,” so we spent that whole summer just making NXB, which was Vinh’s old gang, which was New Cross Boys. Was it like a Chinese/Vietnamese gang?
VINH: Yeah. NXB was like a bunch of friends. Some call it New Cross Boys, don’t they?
KEATING: The project was always Triad God. I just always tried to support him, to be the star he wants to be. It’s hard for me to sometimes make the music that Vinh wants, because I think he would prefer someone like LMF or Edison to be on that kind of production. But yeah, I’ve always just been a big fan of Vinh myself. Are you still a gangster?
VINH: I’m a gangster.
CHEN: And that’s why your name is Triad God?
VINH: Yeah. The name is Triad God.
CHEN: Was that a name that you already had before you met Benjy?
KEATING: When we first met, we use to go with Vinh Ngan, which I think is a special name as well. But Vinh kept going on about Triad God, and one of my boys was like, “Triad God is a sick name.” It kind of suits Vinh as a person.
VINH: Maybe call me Triad, because I look like a Triad.
KEATING: You’re also into those Young and Dangerous movies.
VINH: Not even movies, things in general. You have to learn from them. I watch all the films, ninja style. You have to watch all of them, many times over.
KEATING: Do you think that Young and Dangerous has inspired your boys a bit?
VINH: Yeah. Teaching me to be a gangster.
CHEN: You know what’s crazy? I’ve been through trials and tribulations, maybe not in the jail sense, but you know, the peaks and valleys of life and finding those silver-lining moments. I think that whatever happened, happened. But what is interesting is how you guys came to be and started your dream together through what someone would call a setback. What’s interesting is how that can translate into so many different types of inspiration, inspiring youth in China. Why is it so hard to find information about you? Why don’t you have Instagram?
VINH: I don’t like to use it. You know, I don’t like to use anything.
KEATING: Do you want to be online more? Do you want to learn how to use the internet?
VINH: No I don’t want to use the internet. I’ve got Benjy, he’ll back me up.
CHEN: Do you want to act, bro? Do you ever want to do movies?
VINH: Not really, it’s too hard.
CHEN: Everyday we’re acting. We are acting in the game of life, bro. The theater of life.
KEATING: Vinh just doesn’t like to work that much, which I think is a kind of a boss way to be.
VINH: I just wanna keep it to rapping, maybe putting out some videos, not working that much but I see LMF rapping, MP4 rapping, Edison Chen rapping. You know the guy in LMF with long hair? What’s his name?
CHEN: MC Yen, right?
VINH: MC Yen. I think it was him.
CHEN: The godfather of Hong Kong hip-hop. He taught me everything. He taught me from not understanding how to write in Cantonese to writing raps in Cantonese—like bars and bars man.
VINH: You know when you rap, you have to remember it all.
KEATING: Vinh sometimes forgets the lyrics, but that’s just his style. You’ve got to embrace who you are.