Late to the game

Late to the game

Pop music is oft considered for the young, by the young. Witness: Chinese pop legend Teresa Teng, only 15 when she came on the scene; and 1970-80s Taiwanese songbird Delphine Tsai Hsing Chuan, who released her first album when she was 14.

In comparison to them, Taiwan's reigning King of Pop Jay Chou was already slightly advanced in age when he released his accomplished debut album at age 21.

But a handful of relative late bloomers, of late, are bucking this youth-oriented trend.

Singapore's Kiat Goh, 34, has orbited into Mandopop with his album Pluto, while American-Chinese Wang Dawen, 32, and Malaysian actor-turned-singer Lawrence Wong, 32, have become mature debutants in the Mandopop industry.

"I'm at a good stage in my life where I am comfortable with myself and know what I want to achieve when it comes to music-making and songwriting," says Goh, about being in his 30s among younger musicians.

"And of course, the complexity of emotions that comes with life experiences is so interesting and important. Without these, there would be much less to write and sing about."

Still, there can be downsides to jostling with the younger, hungrier and more energetic in a cut-throat business. Take, for example, the case of China's Shane Cao (below), 34.

He returned to the music scene with the album Shane_Shine last year, after a decade-long hiatus.

His first album in 2003, which was released coincidently during the Sars epidemic and barely promoted, had sunk without a trace. That album rates no mention on the singer's online discography.

The singer recalls a make-up artist telling him: "Brother, you're already 34 and you're still competing with those born in the 1990s. Are you overestimating yourself or under-estimating others?"

While acknowledging that he is not at his physical peak, Cao says: "My heart has never aged. To me, 34 is a very appropriate age. I don't feel old, I still have hopes and aspirations and I'm more sure of myself. I like this stage very much."

As Wong puts it: "To me, there's no difference. Music is music, regardless of age and era."

Maybe, as the late Aaliyah once sang on the title track of the album, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number.

She was 15 when it was released.

No longer an angry young man



When Rebecca Black released the single Friday in 2011, it was met with an outpouring of derision. That did not stop Wang Dawen from covering it in Mandarin shortly after.

"I was bored and had nothing to do," the American-Chinese singer explains, calling the move a joke. "The English-speaking world already hated the song, but people who don't speak English had no way of understanding why the song was so bad. So I thought, 'Let me translate it into Mandarin and share it with over a billion people'."

Since it was uploaded on YouTube in April 2011, his Mandarin version has attracted over 992,000 views.

The American also covered Backstreet Boys' I Want It That Way and Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe in Mandarin in 2011 and 2012 respectively. He also did more straightforward English covers and his take on Bruno Mars' Just The Way You Are caught the attention of Taiwanese producer Adia.

When Wang first received an e-mail from Universal Music asking if he was Chinese - it thought he was Korean - he thought it was a prank. He eventually signed with the label, arrived in Taiwan on April 30, 2012, and the next day started taking Mandarin lessons to strengthen his poor command of the language.

His debut Mandarin album, Hello, was released in January. In addition to the bright and breezy title track, the album contains sunny songs about love such as Firecracker and Beautiful.

There is no sign of the angry young man who tackled hard-hitting topics of racial stereotypes and prejudice on his independent English release, American Me (2009).

But before anyone yells "sell-out", Wang says that the change came about naturally.

Speaking to Life! at Universal Music's Taipei office, he notes: "I love being an American. However, growing up in the States, I encountered racism and prejudice. And then living in Hong Kong and going to college moulded my identity and made me very aware of social issues of this kind."

At 14, he moved to Hong Kong to live with his mother and later returned to the United States to study at Northwestern University, where he majored in English and vocal performance.

When he went to Taiwan, he says, "I was all of a sudden embraced by the culture of my parents. It sounds very dramatic, but I really mean it sincerely - the minute I set foot in Asia, I felt overwhelmingly loved".

"And so a lot of the sadness, bitterness and experiences I had in the States simply did not become relevant."

As a singer-songwriter, he says, his songs reflect how he feels. Impressively, he had a hand in the lyrics of six of the nine Mandarin tracks on Hello.

When he started his language lessons, his vocabulary was "very limited" and he could not understand a lot of things. Now, he can read the newspapers.

He says: "I've always been interested in lyrics and now I work with a partner. But my goal is to write them on my own."

The title track is the first time he wrote a song using Mandarin. The bachelor says: "That's why the lyrics are direct and simple but they are also very earnest."

He notes: "I think my character and my musical identity have changed because of this new environment."

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