Over winter break, I picked my brother up from the train station after a Wang Lee-Hom concert and asked him about it, with no previous knowledge of the artist. He said it was “Amazing!” (as could be expected), but also “Kind of embarrassing at some parts.” Hmm…
Apparently, Wang Lee-Hom came out in a red robe (with a dragon embroidered on the back, if I recall correctly) and busted it open to reveal his outfit underneath. He shouted into the microphone: “Wo shuo ‘Merry’, ni shuo ‘Christmas’!” (“When I say ‘Merry’, you say ‘Christmas’!”) to which the crowd responded as expected.
George (my brother) was really uncomfortable. He’s learning Mandarin at Berkeley, so it wasn’t a lack of language comprehension. It was just the cheesiness of it all, maybe the even “Fob-iness”? I asked more about Wang Lee-Hom and was surprised to find that he wasn’t born in the China or Taiwan like Jay Chou (this comparison of their music could be an ignorant one). On the contrary, Wang Lee-Hom was born in Rochester, NY and received his undergraduate degree in Music and Asian Studies at the liberal arts school Williams College in New England. After that, he spent a semester at Berklee School of Music, concentrating on his vocal abilities. Wang Lee-Hom only began learning Mandarin Chinese at age 18 – now he writes songs in the language that are popular internationally.
Wang Lee-Hom's mySpace bio emphasizes "rebel" aspects of his personality, displayed in his choice to pursue music over medicine (the path most of his family members took). Here's a direct passage:
"Lee-Hom's family, besides his mother, were against him making music his lifetime career. Being academically capable, Lee-Hom's father hoped that Lee-Hom, like his brother, would go into medicine in college, due to LeeHom's academic achievements good enough for major universities such as Princeton and Yale, but Lee-hom opted for music instead when it came to choosing his career. His father, naturally, was very unhappy, but accepted his son's choice. In college, Lee-Hom chose Music Composition as his major." (http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewProfile&friendID=46182578)
Another interesting bit I ran across was Lee-Hom's new, personally-coined musical style called "chinked-out". He claims to have repossessed the derogatory slur to describe a kind of music that is international, and at the same time, Chinese. (Wangleehom.com) I've noticed a theme of rebelling against political correctness in a lot of these other Asian/Asian-American artists, but I suppose Lee-Hom here is trying to do something entirely different. This song comes from his "Shangri-La" album, created in the "chinked-out" style:
Anyway, the Wang Lee-Hom followers I know are all Asian American, born in the U.S. and educated here, often born to Chinese-speaking parents. They listen to American hip-hop, pop and even a bit of indie rock, but all have an earnest appreciation of artists like Wang Lee-Hom and Jay Chou. I wonder what their interest in Chinese music stems from—I know that for me, it is the excitement of utilizing the Chinese skills I was not raised with (but learned in class painstakingly since middle school). For many of my multilingual peers, this isn’t the case. Perhaps it is the stereotypical Chinese American upbringing (and expectations) Wang Lee-Hom experienced that draws so many Asian American youths to his music now. Any other ideas?