Hubert Burda Media

BIG NOISE IN LITTLE CHINA

LEEHOM WANG was an all-American boy till he travelled in his teens to the Taiwan of his forefathers, but now he has the world of Chinese entertainment at his feet. MATHEW SCOTT discovers what makes the multi-talented megastar tick

BIG NOISE IN LITTLE CHINA

LEEHOM WANG was an all-American boy till he travelled in his teens to the Taiwan of his forefathers, but now he has the world of Chinese entertainment at his feet. MATHEW SCOTT discovers what makes the multi-talented megastar tick
LEEHOM WANG has more or less been on the move now for two-and-a-half years, with a concert tour that has taken him from his home in Taipei and out to more than 100 cities across China, feeding the frenzy that surrounds the man’s distinctive style of mandopop music.
Fittingly for an artist who also now lists around a dozen films on his résumé, cameras have tracked his every move along the way; this summer, cinema-goers will be treated to a 3D spectacular bringing the stage show to what the 37-year-old hopes will be a wider audience. Wider perhaps than even the 39 million people following him on social media.
Fresh from a Prestige Hong Kong photo shoot, Wang says he’s taking a few days to recuperate, to eat and to sleep. He’s also taking the time to reflect on a journey that in almost 20 years has seen him go from the relative quiet of Rochester, New York, to playing to 90,000 people inside Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium. Over the same time, Wang’s on-screen work has found him keeping the company of the likes of master storyteller Ang Lee (in 2007’s Lust, Caution) and Hollywood’s Michael Mann, with whom Wang has recently paired for a thriller set for release next year.
The artist’s life was set on its course when Wang travelled to Taiwan from the US in 1995 and immersed himself in the culture of his forefathers. It was then that Wang’s singular vision started to emerge as he began to combine the influences of a rich and varied upbringing, and he became committed to pushing the boundaries of Chinese entertainment to their limits and beyond.
As the fans – and the fanfare – that have followed Wang ever since stand as testament to the man’s immense talent, the artist reveals that the desire to explore and to extend his reach remains the force that drives his life forward.
How did the concept of the recent Bird’s Nest concert film come about?
The real intent behind the film was to document the first solo pop concert at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing. There were 90,000 people there that night. It was monumental. We shot it in 3D because we wanted to capture that moment. There were two things – to document the moment and to show to audiences around the world what we’re doing here with Chinese pop music.
How do you look in 3D?
Multi-dimensional.
Do you have plans to screen the film around the world?
We’re hoping it’ll play in as many regions as possible, and we’re hoping to get more people in tune with the Chinese pop music vibe that I’ve been part of for more than 20 years now.
How have you seen the industry develop in that time?
It’s changed so much. When I entered the industry in 1995 it was actually very Hong Kong-centred. In those days people in Taiwan would be listening to Cantonese songs and watching Hong Kong movies and Hong Kong television dramas. But things have changed with China opening up, such that Mandarin has become the dominant language and that has influenced pop culture immensely. In Hong Kong you see a lot of people listening to Mandarin songs now.
How much were you aware of your own heritage as you grew up in the US ?
Not much at all. I grew up in Rochester, New York, which had a Chinese population of less than one percent. So I was definitely the only Chinese kid in my year in elementary school. I was very American and exposed totally to American pop culture. The first album I ever bought was The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill.
When did you start to explore your heritage?
I think I wasn’t very aware of my ethnic identity, or my cultural identity, or my roots, I should say, when I was growing up. It wasn’t until I came to Asia for the first time that I thought there was a whole other side to who I am. That’s when it presented itself.
So was it a bit exciting but maybe a bit terrifying at the same time?
Exactly. I think musically I’m always driven by what’s in my heart as a composer and about what I believe in. I think none of that can be fake. I think you have to really believe in what you’re doing – and that makes the song and the music moving because it has sincerity in it. I think I was so deeply and heavily influenced by Asia, by coming here and learning the language and listening to the music, immersing myself in the culture. I think that really infused into my music and became what I wanted to talk about.
And did that help you find your own “voice” or what you wanted to say?
The most important thing for an artist in finding their voice is that they have to know what they want to say. I grew up going to conservatories and I was always surrounded by incredibly talented musicians, but not always surrounded by musicians who knew what they wanted to say. I found over the years that that, ultimately, is the most important thing for an artist. Not technique – although that’s important as well. Ultimately it’s what you want to say that’s important.
Did coming back to Asia expand your musical horizons?
It did. We were talking earlier about how much things have changed in Asia – they’ve changed in Western pop culture too. When I started out it was all international record companies, and all those multinational companies would say, “Let’s do an English album.” And I’d always refrain from that because the time was not right. I don’t think in those days America would have embraced a Chinese band.
Do you think that day is getting closer?
Definitely. It’s definitely getting closer. I think that pop culture – music, movies – definitely brings people together. If done well, these things ring true universally, regardless of the language you speak. In movies you can get subtitles so people can follow the story and get emotionally involved. For music it’s a little more challenging. In some ways there’s an advantage because music is a lot more immediate – you can tell whether or not you like a song in just a few seconds. You might not know what it’s about and you don’t even know why you like it.
What about being based in Taiwan – how has living there helped shape your career?
There are so many ways to count. From a creative standpoint, things are very strong here. It’s a hub for Chinese pop music and for music [in general]. And there are many reasons for that, political reasons as well as historical reasons.
Such as?
You know, it always has been that way. Taiwan has a very high level of sophistication and of education. There’s a long tradition of arts and culture here. The country regards the arts very highly. And I think Taiwan’s identity has forced it to be a little bit anti-establishment. It’s like, “We might not be able to have the biggest market but let’s do things that have a lot of artistic integrity.”
How did you start out acting?
There have definitely been some bumps in the road. I got into acting at a very young age because of musical theatre. Growing up in New York, Broadway was a huge presence in my life. High-school musicals and junior-high musicals were always a highlight of the year for me. I could sing and dance so I always got roles, but I didn’t know how to act. But as a kid it didn’t really matter, I suppose. Audiences were more forgiving.
How did the opportunity to get into film come about?
When I got to Asia I was actually very lucky because I think here singers are expected to act. Singers are given opportunities to act. It’s like America was in the old days, with Elvis and Frank Sinatra. It was expected of them. So I was really blessed, because once the singing career took off, all these movie opportunities starting popping up.
And it was an easy fit for you?
I didn’t start off my career thinking I would be an actor but I just love the process so much. And here’s another interesting development – because of the importance of a music video, I was not only acting in so many music videos but also shooting all these commercials, so I was always hanging out with all these film-makers. They were my friends and that’s what rubbed off on me. Then I started directing my own music videos and then made my own movie.
So you think you have stories to tell?
Oh yeah. So many. And working with people such as Ang Lee has been an inspiration.
How did you find that experience, with Ang Lee on Lust, Caution?
He’s a master. He’s the best. I love to see talent stripped down of all its frills. When you’re one-on-one with Ang in any conversation it’s apparent that he’s a great storyteller, and when you watch a director’s film and then you meet him in person you realise the film has the DNA, the thumbprint of the director. It’s like the look in his eyes, the rhythm in which he speaks, the words that he chooses to stress or not stress or the words that he chooses to use – all those things are indelibly imprinted in all his films. And that’s the same with all directors, not just Ang Lee.
What sort of projects would you be interested in exploring as a director?
Well, I love Chinese-language films just like I love Chinese pop music. In some ways it’s much less mature than Western cinema but that naivety is appealing. It’s not jaded and there are not so many formulas that you’re expected to stick to. That’s very freeing and enticing for any creative.
What about working with Michael Mann?
He’s another genius. I can’t talk that much about the film. It’s my first English-language film. It wasn’t daunting so much as exhilarating. To be able to work with and to watch a master like that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
How do you handle the physical demands of your career?
I go to the gym. I try to eat well. That can be tough when you’re relying on room service so much. As a singer my voice is very sensitive to changes in my body and to what I eat. My voice is the centre of my thought process when it comes to eating as I have to be constantly prepared.
What does the future hold for you?
I have at least a year mapped out. It’s exciting to be part of the Chinese entertainment scene and I see myself as being a part of it and its growth. This year we have this 3D concert film to release and that’s part of it too. It’s small but meaningful. The plan is making the best music and best movies that I can and hoping that they travel, that they actually have some kind of cultural impact.
 
+Prestige Hong Kong