As I’ve said before, I’m trying to get to listen to more Chinese singers to practice my listening. The only problem is, cheesy love songs are all the rage here and they are just about my least favorite things to listen to. So I’ve had to dig a little deeper and find some artists that I can stand to listen to for more than just a few minutes. (They also have to speak standard Mandarin. Korean pop stars are really big here, but seeing as they speak Korean, I’ve decided to rule them out for now.)
So far my favorite is a guy called Wang Leehom. He’s Taiwanese (as most of the biggest stars are) but was born in America. Aside from speaking English and Chinese fluently (the former of which he didn’t learn until he was 18) he also released 2 of his 16 albums in Japanese. So yeah, the guy is good with languages.
Not only that but he is crazy smart. He got a 1600 on his SAT’s and was thinking about going to Princeton or Yale to become a doctor (like his dad and brother) but decided to go to Williams College, then Berklee School of Music instead. He plays about a bajillion instruments and despite being born in America feels his Chinese roots pretty deeply. One of my students (who lurves him) gushed that he was a deep thinker and was more than just a cute boy. She told me he was into traditional Chinese culture and studied calligraphy among other things.
Leehom has a lot of cheesy love pop songs, but that’s not why I like him. In 2004 he released an album called Shangri-La that fused hip-hop with traditional music from some of the Chinese ethnic minority groups in Yunnan Province. He called this new style “Chinked-Out” in an effort to reclaim the negative word and turn it into something positive.
Leehom makes it clear that it’s not world music. Chinked-out is clearly Chinese music, using samples from the other cultures. You can see what he’s talking about with this video called “Deep Within the Bamboo Grove.” (And don’t laugh too hard at the white suit, sexy “ethnic” dancer and the “really profession” flute player. Look, the guy is just giving the people what they want.)
He supposedly traveled all through Yunnan Province and Tibet to meet with many minority groups and record their music. There are many tales on the internet of his struggles with heavy equipment, bouts of food sickness and general illness all for the sake of the music.
But my favorite album is his next one called Heroes of the Earth released in 2005. This is also a chinked-out album, but instead of mixing ethnic minority music and hip-hop, he mixed traditional Chinese music, like Beijing opera, with hip-hop. You can see the most famous example of it in this video called “Beside the Plum Blossom.” If you don’t watch the whole video make sure to watch the last minute. Leehom raps/sings almost 300 words in 50 seconds speeding up and slowing down in the style of traditional opera. The words are crystal clear, even when he’s flying through them, and even I can still make them out which is impressive I think.
Since he’s super famous in Asia he’s done collaborations with all the big names here. What is surprising is some of the duets he’s done with western artists including Kenny G, and, of all people, Tony Bennett.
Like most asian pop stars Leehom is also a part-time actor. His most notable role was in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. he was also in a Jackie Chan film. In 2010 he directed his first Chinese film which went on to become the highest grossing film of a first time director in China making him more than a triple threat. (A quadroople threat?)
Good looking, rich, smart and famous? Sounds like a chick magnet to me! Leehom keeps his love life under wraps, but isn’t married or anything. In fact he keeps his love life so under wraps that there are rumors that is he is gay (which is neither confirmed nor denied. He wants his fans to concentrate on the music, the music people! Not his love life. )
If you’re interested in listening to more Wang Leehom I would suggest starting with Heroes of the Earth as it has the least amount of cheesy pop songs on it.