Eason takes it easy

"I'm an extrovert and I overdosed on that. You can use your positive energy up to a certain level and I used that up. I had some time to rest last year and now I'm recharged." - Hong Kong star Eason Chan, who announced last year that he suffers from bipolar disorder

It is Eason Chan as you have never seen him before.

On the cover of the feted Hong Kong singer's new album, Rice & Shine, he is urinating into the wind with a mischievous look on his face. He is completely nude, but his modesty is preserved by a carefully placed hand - and by the fact that it is actually a miniature sculpture of him.

Take no offence, he is not being rude. If there is anyone he is taking the mickey out of, it is himself.

"It looks like a pig. I feel that people like to make fun of me and looking at it will make them happy," he says self-deprecatingly in Mandarin at an Asian media conference in Beijing last week.

The other, complementary album cover is of his grinning face in close-up, splashed by water. Placed side by side with the abovementioned picture, it could even be seen as him getting happily sprayed by urine, suggests Chan.

Playful and irreverent, the pictures cleverly convey his exuberant personality. They also mesh with the vibe of the new record, which is out in shops in Singapore today.

"I wanted to do an album that was very qingxin (fresh), zizai (free) and xiaosa (unfettered)," he says.

The record comprises two parts. The five tracks on Rice were all written by China songwriting producing duo Radio Mars, which is made up of Huang Shaofeng and Zeng Yu. They had previously worked on singer-actress Zhou Xun's solo album, Summer (2003).

For the Shine half, Chan, 39, roped in Singapore's JJ Lin, who composed five tracks, with lyrics by different writers. The Hong Kong star adds: "I wanted to work with JJ for a long time because he writes beautiful melodies."

He went on to explain that Lin, who also attended the media event in Beijing, has a broad range of styles and can write more than just hummable hit songs.

Lin, 33, is not the first Singaporean songwriter he has worked with. The 2001 album It's Me featured Love Is Suspicion by Hanjin Tan, while 5/F Blissful (2009) included How Much by Tanya Chua.

Chan says: "To me, there's nothing obviously Singaporean about them. I just think they're very talented people. You can put it this way, Hong Kong musicians tend to be influenced by Japan and Taiwan, while the Western influence is stronger in Singapore."

He also muses that while the songs by Radio Mars were more in keeping with the easy-going vibe he wanted for the new album, Lin's contributions are "completely different" in style and they deal with memory and the past.

He adds: "But I didn't want to restrict anyone's creativity and so his turn was an unexpected bonus."

When you suggest that "xiaosa" (easygoing) can also mean an accepting attitude, he agrees: "Xiaosa doesn't mean that every song has to sound carefree and relaxed. It can also be about me learning to be xiaosa and accepting."

Rice & Shine represents the first time that the singer is working with Lin and Radio Mars. "I am constantly looking for new collaborators and that's something I've never given up doing," he says. "Some singers continue working with long-time partners, but even if I work well with some people, I want to try something new."

The idea of constant change pervades his music and you never quite know what you are going to get with an Eason Chan album. Since his self-titled Cantonese debut in 1996, he has released more than 40 albums, which run the gamut from the dance- filled Listen To Eason Chan (2007) to a clutch of slightly more experimental EPs in 2010 and 2011.

He has been nominated for the prestigious Golden Melody Award for Best Mandarin Male Singer seven times, winning once for Special Thanks To... (2002).

His insistence on working with new people and keeping things fresh seem to have paid off in the case of Rice & Shine. Tracks were exclusively released through the China Internet portal Baidu, and Ni Gei Wo Ting Hao (Listen Up) has topped the new songs chart for two weeks. Also, the total number of searches and trial listens of his new tracks has crossed the 100 million mark.

Those are just more feathers in Chan's heavily decorated cap. But things do not always go swimmingly even for the anointed successor to Jacky Cheung's "God of Song" throne.

While the numbers do not bother him - "I don't care about sales" - he cares about whether or not fans embrace his work. Don't Want To Let Go (2008) was named Best Album Of The Year at the Golden Melody Awards, but the subsequent Mandarin efforts 5/F Blissful (2009) and ? (2011) did not seem to resonate.

He says: "I thought they were very good albums, but I didn't seem to hear people talking about them. And on tour, I didn't hear people clamouring for the songs either and I wondered if they connected."

But then with a bright smile, he says: "I'm particularly excited with this new album. In the past, I needed to spend a long time memorising lyrics, but this time, the moment I finished recording the songs, I was familiar with the words." He has shrugged off what he calls "residual millennial malaise".

"Also, I'm an extrovert and I overdosed on that. You can use your positive energy up to a certain level and I used that up. I had some time to rest last year and now I'm recharged.

"For a period, I didn't even want to see anyone and there were rumours that I was suffering from depression. Maybe there was a little of that. I would meet so many people every day and everyone seemed to be so friendly, but I really didn't know him/her." In fact, he announced in August last year during a concert that he suffers from bipolar disorder.

Rested and recharged, he is back to his irrepressible, chatty self. He can be considerate, as when he got up during this interview to shush his staff in the adjoining room for being too noisy.

But his energy also means interviewing him can be something of a challenge. Once his train of thought takes off, there is no stopping it. It might not go past the stations you expect, or even end up where you think it might but, sometimes, you get to take the scenic route with him.

Asked if fame is a price that is too high for doing something that he likes and you get an airplane anecdote to go with a straightforward answer.

"I've never had a so-called normal life and so I've never felt that fame was a particularly big sacrifice," says Chan, who has had to live under media glare along with his wife, former actress Hilary Tsui, and their nine-year-old daughter.

This leads him to observe that he still takes public transport, "though not during rush hour". Of course, "things would be easier if I could fly first class but I'm okay with taking economy class too".

From here, he segues into a mild diatribe against people who sneakily snap photos of him. Once, an air steward asked for his autograph while he was in the middle of an in-flight movie.

"It's not professional. You're on the job and that was my private time. After he hovered around for a while, I took off my headphones and said, 'Sorry, but can I finish watching my movie?' You might think I'm being arrogant or throwing my weight around, but I disagree. I was merely insisting on my personal space."

But that is now water under the bridge and he even seems to regret recounting the incident the moment he finishes telling it. More important is his proclamation: "I'm happier this year."

This article was first published on May 22, 2014.
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