He's 57, she's 17, and they don't care what others say about their romance

TAIWAN - "We owe no one an explanation why we are together." That's what Taiwanese lyricist Li Kuncheng declares right from the start when The New Paper on Sunday approaches him for an interview.

His defensiveness, insists the 57-year-old in an exchange of Wechat and Facebook messages, stems from "my desire to protect my baby".

Li's baby is 17-year-old Lin Jing-en, a high school student.

So he "gently warns" you that he will not hesitate to "cut short the chat" if he feels that anyone is out to hurt her.

He admits: "The media hype and the public attention here (in Taichung, Taiwan) have spiralled out of control. I don't understand why people find it incredulous that a young, sweet girl can fall hopelessly in love with an old man. And by the way, who says 57 is old?"

The couple attracted public scrutiny when the news of their romance leaked out in April - two months after they started dating.

His ex-girlfriend, a 27-year-old PhD student, had tipped off the media, he says.

"She was the one who broke up with me," Li claims but declines to elaborate "because she has asked me not to talk about her or our past romance. "But what I must clarify is, our relationship started from pure friendship."

Jing-en's father, who is the musician's friend and fan, had approached Li to help counsel both his daughters, who were rebellious and had often received complaints from their school.

"The young girls come from a broken home, their parents were separated for seven years before they finally filed for a divorce," he recounts.

He had spent more time on counselling the elder sister, Jing-ju, and was successful in "turning her around such that she made it to university". The girls are four years apart.

"It was only late last year that Jing-en's father told me that she was getting out of hand and asked if I could do something about it," Li says.

He started to exchange text messages with her and on Feb 15 this year, she suggested "swinging over to his home to visit him".

Li had spent most of his time at home recuperating after being involved in a near-fatal accident in Qinghai, China, last August. He had suffered head injuries and numerous fractures, and spent nine weeks in hospital.

He says: "She visited, we chatted for a long time and before she left, she asked me what I was going to do later in the day. I told her I was thinking of going for a movie and she said she was keen to accompany me. We started off as companions but I found myself falling in love with her. She is naive but full of emotions. She is artistically talented, with a love for literature and arts."

After that first date, Jing-en would often visit Li and that was how their romance started.

But unlike previous media reports, Li says that Jing-en's father has not fully given his blessings.

Mr Lin, who is in his 50s, found out about the relationship after a relative discovered loving messages on a computer he was sharing with Jing-en.

Mr Lin initially said he approved of them being together "but he later changed his mind" after reading negative reports.

When Li and Jing-en took a four-day vacation to Taitung last month, her father made a missing person police report. This was despite her calling him daily to keep him updated.

Mr Lin had refused to speak to us about his daughter's relationship. He simply says: "If she is happy, that is good."

Jing-en says: "I think my father needs more time. My mother and my sister are okay with it although they don't really comment about it. But I don't care. It's my life. I want to be with Kuncheng. No one can stop us."

Jing-en adds that she is waiting for next year, when she turns 18 and will be able to marry him. They live apart and she describes the separation after each date as "agony ten times over".

Li is not Jing-en's first boyfriend and the biggest age gap between her and her past boyfriends was 20 years.

"I am still young, I have many more years ahead of me (comparing herself to Li). I don't have anything to lose," she repeats several times.

She says she is attracted to him because, well, "he is Li Kuncheng the man". Not the musician, she adds, because she "did not even know he was one".

She admits that despite her nonchalance most of the time, she is actually affected and pressurised by how "people just don't seem to accept that we are together".

"When we started out, there wasn't much pressure. I didn't care what others said. I just felt that my life has turned out better for the first time after all these years," she says.

Jing-en's mother left her with her father when she remarried and was pregnant with her third child.

"I was very hurt," says Jing-en. "I loved my mother more than my father and he knew that. He'd always tell me, 'You can always go back to your mother but I don't think she wants you now.'"

Over time, Jing-en has learnt how to cope with the social pressure. "Taiwan is still very conservative and not everyone can accept us," she says.

"I used to think 'what the heck, who cares what you think'. But now, honestly, sometimes it can get too overwhelming. So I remind myself to keep happy because when you deal with your problems happily, they disappear more quickly."

"(Li) has also told me that not all adults are bad. Many of them are good and kind, so I should not treat all adults like they are our enemies. And yes, there are many who have shared their blessings on our Facebook pages, leaving encouraging messages for us."

Jing-en hopes she can become friends with Li's son, 33. He has recently set up a software engineering firm with his father and grandfather.

Li had a younger son who was killed in an accident in November 2004.

She says: "We are okay and I think he is not meddling in our relationship now. But I hope we can improve on the relationship."

For now, Li is enjoying the "youthfulness that my baby is bringing out from me", he says.

They go on dates together and "most times, we don't care how others (the public) look at us".

"Those who have not kept up with the media reports sometimes mistake us as father and daughter," he says.

"I am learning to act cute (when taking photos), rediscovering simple things like fast-food restaurants, going for picnics and watching movies, or just holding hands and taking strolls on the beach," Li says.

"There is no sex involved. Holding hands and kissing are not against the law.

"We didn't start off by falling madly in love. It's not the hot, passionate kind of love, but warm, real love. What I want most to do now is to watch my baby bloom into a woman, basking in the love that she has lacked since young. We want to plan for the future but really, who knows what the future holds for us?"

maureenk@sph.com.sg 

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