Rocker Simon Tam's Toy Car

By Avital Andrews

October 3, 2014

Simon Tam

Simon Tam, 33, is the founder and bassist of the Slants, which he calls "the world's first and only all-Asian dance rock band." His group has gotten international media attention for its hard-charging music and activism. Tam is also the marketing director for the Oregon Environmental Council. Sierra spoke to him about his work, and about the toy car that reminds him of a friend.


Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Our old home videos show me playing my dad's guitar and jumping on the table, pretending to perform. I started formal training on the bass when I was 10 years old, but I also play the guitar, drums, keyboard, trombone, and tuba.

Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill inspired me to start the Slants. There's one scene where this group of Asian mafia walks into a restaurant. It caught me off guard. Asian Americans aren't depicted as confident, cool, or sexy. I thought it would be great to have a bold rock band that honors our respective heritages.

Simon Tam's toy car

We call our music Chinatown dance rock. A lot of people compare us to Depeche Mode. We take on many causes around racial and social justice issues, from rescuing refugees from North Korea to anti-bullying.

Our name has multiple meanings. It describes our particular experience as people of color--a nod to activists who reappropriate words as positive self-referential terms. For music geeks, it's a technical term, a type of guitar chord. 

I want to make the world a better place, something future generations can inherit. Part of my job at the Oregon Environmental Council is to build coalitions with people of color, so I get invited a lot to speak on racial justice issues. I talk about how there's systemic racism in the law that people might not be able to see because of issues like privilege. 

When I was 14, I met my best friend, Perla. We immediately hit it off and became inseparable. As teenagers, we built homes and orphanages throughout Latin America together. When we were about 20, she found this toy car at a thrift store and gave it to me. It's just really silly. When you roll it, one head pops up and the other goes down. It's a quirky little thing that I kept as a reminder of our friendship, especially after I moved to Portland and she moved to New York. 

Because we both grew up in San Diego, we loved the ocean. That was our initial connection with the outdoors. When she lived in Manhattan, she started taking trips to Pennsylvania with her boyfriend. They would take the trail up to Glen Onoko Falls. That's when she really fell in love with hiking. 

Last August, Perla and her boyfriend climbed to the top of the falls, and the ground broke away. She fell 40 feet. Her boyfriend ran down and immediately called emergency services. Unfortunately, they didn't get to her in time. As they were carrying her down the mountain on a stretcher, she passed. 

When I heard, I was in a state of disbelief--I'd just gotten a phone message from her the day before. 

To honor her memory, I want to fight to protect the types of places she loved, which is part of my work at the Oregon Environmental Council.

Perla was full of boundless joy and great humor. She was excited to be alive. The lesson I took from her is to live every minute. Not only to fight for causes but to enjoy life. The car she gave me still sits there on my desk, reminding me to enjoy the moment.