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Homing in on a star's 'soft power'

Wang Leehom

Publication Date : 04-12-2013


A Mandopop singer is suddenly all over the news because he got married. But there is a lot more to him than that


We met too soon. If it had been, say, five years ago, I would have hung around, done a selfie, Instagrammed it and exchanged e-mail addresses.

Unfortunately, at that time, I only vaguely knew him as a Chinese pop singer, so I had no idea that I was standing before a megastar in the making.

But in the years since, I have carried a little torch for him and tried to follow his career as a singer and an actor. And now I am one of his million fans who were rather heart-broken (even if I have no right to be) to find out he’s gotten married at the ripe old age of 37.

It’s Wang Leehom, folks, I am talking about. I can’t recall the year we met but I remember where: Alexis restaurant in Bangsar Shopping Centre, Kuala Lumpur. It was dinner time when I walked in and I saw an old friend, famed percussionist Lewis Pragasam, there.

After we exchanged hellos, Lewis introduced me to a tall, good-looking young man dressed in white.

We shook hands, smiled and then I said goodbye. It took a while but I have since learned what an amazingly talented man Leehom is.

He is blessed with not just good looks but with a fine mind as well.

That became evident when we ran an interview with him on Dec 28, 2008, in the now defunct Sunday Star pullout, StarMag, of which I was the editor.

I looked it up in our archives and my goodness, what a wonderful exclusive we had. Our own award-winning author Tash Aw (The Harmony Silk Factory, Five Star Billionaire) had done the interview with Leehom in Taipei for us.

Our introduction to the article was this: “What do you get when you put an erudite author who loves music with an intelligent singer in love with language in a small room for two hours? An intriguing pop literary analysis.”

And indeed it was a fascinating article even though it had obscure musical references like Bernstein’s Norton Lectures and “Bartok’s investigation of gypsy folk music”.

In the years since 2008, both these men of Chinese descent but coming from opposite sides of the globe have gone to achieve great things, winning acclaim for their work.

Both have used what Leehom alludes to in his address at the Oxford Union Society in May this year: soft power.

This is a term coined by Joseph S. Nye which is the ability to attract and persuade. Leehom quotes Indian politician and author Shashi Tharoor’s definition of soft power: the ability of a culture to tell a compelling story and influence others to fall in love with it.

This American Chinese artiste sees himself as an ambassador for Chinese culture and his mission is to use pop culture and music as a way to bring people from East and West together.

He says there is a lot of China phobia and he used Bloomberg Business­week’s cover with the banner headline, “Yes, the Chinese army is spying on you” as an overwrought example (which is of course ironic with the more recent revelations that everyone is spying on each other, the United States in particular).

This China phobia is misinformed, misleading and dangerous, says Leehom but he also pointed out the Chinese also view the Westerners in unflattering ways.

To overcome this, Leehom wants to foster understanding between China and the West.

“I believe there is a love story waiting to be told. I believe it is these stories that will save us and bring us together,” he told his audience.

He went on to share that as a child born and raised in Rochester, New York, he was “American as apple pie”. He could barely speak Chinese and couldn’t tell the difference between Taiwan and Thailand.

He was in third grade when he first experienced racial teasing and the harsh reality of being a minority in Rochester.

What saved him was music and art which helped break down old stereotypes and replace ignorance with understanding and acceptance in his life.

But it was an “epiphany” at 17 when he went to Taiwan to visit his grandparents that changed him.

He went from being “a Chinese kid in America to an American kid in Taiwan” when he first heard Chinese pop music.

To his American-raised ears, the music was of low quality and cheesy and he couldn’t understand or appreciate it. Then he attended his first concert in Taipei and saw the huge crowd loving every minute of it.

He realised it was he who was lacking, not the music. Thus began his journey to learn and understand Chinese music and culture. He took up Mandarin and various Chinese instruments. It’s been 20 years and he is still learning, he says.

But in the process he has composed and recorded several award-winning albums and hit singles and starred in films like Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution and with Jackie Chan in Little Big Soldier. He is making his Hollywood debut in Michael Mann’s Cyber which was partially shot in Malaysia in September.

Leehom also has a big heart: he sponsors many underprivileged children around the world through World Vision and takes part in fund-raisers for disaster relief efforts.

So you see, how can you not love this guy? I totally get what he said about rejecting or disliking something, simply because it’s new and alien to what you are familiar with.

I have touched on this before and I return to it now because it’s relevant. I thoroughly disliked Korean music, food and didn’t have a clue about its culture.

That was why the 1988 Seoul Games opening ceremony was boring and horrible to me.

Not any more. Thanks to K-dramas, I enjoy Korean food, language, music and culture, despite a rather unplea­sant first visit to Seoul last year. I even think the hanbok (Korean traditional dress) is super feminine and elegant. Previously, I just thought it made a woman look fat.

Like Leehom, I am a living example of how dislike for something due to ignorance and non-exposure can turn into love and admiration once there is better knowledge and exposure. Unlike Leehom, I didn’t use that knowledge and exposure to become a superstar making buckets of money. But truly, I don’t begrudge him.

Now that he has married, he has achieved yet another milestone in his life and I wish him much happiness.

He has had 20 years of fame as an entertainer and has proven he is not a pretty boy who composes love songs. His intelligence has depth and breadth. Maybe he should take up politics and become the first Chinese-American President in 2028 of the United States. More soft power to him!


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