While making his new album Jiang Hu, The Rhapsody, veteran Hong Kong-born singer Wakin Chau says he ended up feeling like a music courtesan.
Before you imagine him in drag, the jovial pop star adds: "A courtesan who doesn't sell the body."
Instead, he is referring to the practice of courtesans during the Tang Dynasty performing poetry by singing it and tweaking its form slightly by repeating certain phrases.
In a way, that was what he was doing with the words of celebrated Taiwanese writer and lyricist Chang Ta-chun on the record, which was released last December.
The result is a groundbreaking work for the singer best known for his love ballads such as You Make Me Happy And Sad and Flower Heart in a career spanning more than 40 albums.
The 53-year-old could have continued performing crowd-pleasing ballads but he tells Life! and other local media on Tuesday: "When I was making pop music, I often found myself up against the wall and wondering if it was erxin (nauseating) for a man of my age to be whispering such sweet nothings."
But Jiang Hu was far from a planned act of rebellion. Instead, it grew from a collaboration between Chau and Chang in 2006 and 2007 on a Peking-opera version of classic novel Water Margin.
Describing the 21/2-year process of making the album as "very painful", Chau says: "If I was someone who was less tenacious or confident or did not want to challenge myself, then the album would not have been completed. Finishing it gave me a great sense of accomplishment."
Coming up with the music for two songs alone took almost half a year.
Chang would come up with the words first and Chau's compositions had to preserve their rhythm and form. And when Chau was stumped by what the words meant, he had to go back to Chang for clarification.
The lyrics draw liberally on Chinese history and literature and the album as a whole explores the meaning of heroism. Lead single Po Mo (Splash Ink) namechecks poet Li Bai, while Shen Zai Liang Shan (Here On Mount Liang) is a reference to Water Margin.
All that hard work paid off with four nominations at the prestigious Golden Melody Awards, including for Best Album, Best Mandarin Male Singer for Chau and Best Lyrics for Po Mo.
Critical acclaim aside, he admits the music business is not in the best shape, a fact which ironically frees him to be creative.
"Records are not selling and that's the truth. But when I accepted that, I realised I could just do what I really wanted to do," says Chau, who can still easily charm a room of journalists. When a reporter noted that he had last won a Golden Melody Award 22 years ago, the self-deprecating entertainer cleverly worked in a reference to "22 years" every chance he got.
Having experienced first-hand how tough the music business can be, you might think he would warn off his children from venturing into entertainment. But he has not.
His daughter Anya, 20, is studying music at university, while his son Andrew, 24, has taken an interest in drama. But Chau, whose wife is American Constance Woods, has advised Andrew: "His face is very Western-looking and he doesn't look mixed so it won't be easy for him in Asia. He might just end up playing the priest or the con artist in Shanghai."
Still, he is prepared to let his children find their own paths.
As for Chau himself, he is not quite done with pop music just yet.
He says: "Where can I take pop songs to now? With no sales pressure, I should be even more daring in trying new things."
This article was first published on July 31, 2014.
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