Springstreeter turns Chinese superstar

Singer Leehom Wang ’98 is the most famous Eph, ever. He’s more famous than George Steinbrenner ’52, he’s more famous than Stephen Sondheim ’50 and he’s definitely more famous than President James A. Garfield, Class of 1856. He’s too famous to perform at Spring Fling, and he’s also too famous to answer my e-mails, apparently. But if he’s so famous, then why haven’t you heard of him? Well, he may not pop up in American gossip magazines as much as LiLo, but “Wang Leehom,” as he is called in China, is a household name 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. It’s hard to miss Wang’s face in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei. Pass a McDonald’s, and you’ll see a poster of him rockin’ out next to a life-size frosty drink. Stop by a convenience store and pick up a bottle of Wahaha water, and there’s Wang again smiling at you on the label. Look across the street, and there’s Wang listening to music on his phone for a Sony Ericsson ad.

But who was the pop superstar when he was just another one in 2000? For starters, he didn’t actually speak Chinese – at least not during his freshman year. Despite the fact that Wang has released 10 albums in Chinese, starting in 1995, he started as a lowly Chinese 101 student with Professor Cecilia Chang, and Professor Neil Kubler taught the Asian Studies major third-year Chinese. “He was a very good student, he was very smart,” Kubler said, “but to be frank, he wasn’t always there because he’d leave a week before spring break and come back one or two classes late because even then as a junior he was hipping, hopping all over the world.”
That’s because Wang had already started recording with BMG Music by his sophomore year, after he won a talent show while visiting his grandmother in Taiwan in the summer of 1995. However, Wang still managed to find time for his studies, and Kubler said that by the time he graduated, he was somewhat fluent in Chinese, and became completely fluent after college. According to Kubler, Wang still remains interested in Asian studies; not only did he read up on classical Chinese, but he also recently asked Kubler to send him Cantonese textbooks so he could learn how to sing “Cantopop.”

Interestingly enough, Wang’s studies seemed to have prepared him perfectly for his career: his other major was music. Andy Jaffe, professor of music, had Wang in his jazz theory improvisation and jazz piano classes. “He was a very serious student,” Jaffe said. “He was always interested in finding things he could apply to his own music.” But Wang was also active in the music department when he was out of the classroom. “He was definitely someone who always spent a lot of time and was very involved with our performances, and he was in a lot of student music groups,” Jaffe said. “He was always involved if my students were writing a thesis. Some of the jazz ensemble students would play with him in musicals.”

Although Jaffe observed Wang’s trained talent in jazz and classical music, he did not foresee Wang’s future success in pop. “I had no idea when he was a student that he had this potential to be a pop star,” he said. “I heard his album but I didn’t really appreciate that he was going to be a huge star. He was very modest so I didn’t really realize it was going to go where it went.”

The people who did see Wang’s talent in pop were probably those who went to see Springstreeters shows. Wang was an active member of the a cappella group since his freshman year, and became extremely close with his fellow singers. He still keeps in contact with Conrad Oakey ’98, and video chats with him about once a month. Oakey said that although Leehom had a budding career outside of school, he still dedicated his full attention to the Springstreeters and did most of the arrangements. “I think he really liked doing a cappella arrangements because he had total freedom to make it jazzy,” Oakey said. “He was artistically smart with music; he had perfect pitch.”

Oakey, along with Wang’s other friends, was able to see Wang’s success build over the years. “We gave him a lot of flack for being a pop star,” Oakey said. “[His fame] only showed up on campus when the film crew would come to shoot a video with him. They were music videos of early songs – we had to play basketball and we were all horrible at basketball, but the director felt that that was what American boys did.”

Wang’s fame did not come without drawbacks – he was constantly traveling to promote his career, especially as he grew more and more successful. “He’s a workaholic – he forgets to eat when he’s in the middle of a creative process, he goes without sleep for long periods of time,” Oakey said. “He really has a staggering work ethic.”

Despite Wang’s busy schedule, Oakey said that it didn’t get in Wang’s way of enjoying a little romance at the College. “He had a girlfriend, and I think he was a serial monogamist,” he said. “He liked being in a relationship.” Nor did his fame keep him from having a social life. “I think he had a lot of fun here; he just had not as much free time on his hands,” Oakey said. “He had a lot of musician friends. He’s a friendly guy and can make friends with mostly anybody, but he has the most kindred association [with] people who are musicians.”

Most of these friends were in Wang’s senior thesis: a musical called “The Bite that Burns.” Wang’s mother, Mingshu, said, “This experience prepared Leehom for a music career [in that] he dedicated himself each day to its challenges, his creative energy and new discoveries.” The musical was about a small town guy who gets his big break in a vampire movie called The Bite that Burns. According to Oakey, who played a drag queen’s lover and a drinking buddy, the musical was also about the price of fame, and was somewhat based on Wang’s personal experience. “He got more successful by the time we were seniors – he was on his way to being a Prince or Justin Timberlake of Taiwan,” he said. “At that point he was experiencing the consequences of fame and being recognized everywhere.” Oakey said during an a cappella spring break trip to New Orleans, Wang was recognized by two girls on the street.

Certainly, Wang’s star was only beginning to shine back then. Kubler recalled sitting front row at Wang’s concert in Taiwan where Wang gave him a shout-out during the show. Kubler said that when Wang walked into the audience of 1200 tween girls, his fans ripped off his shirt and clawed at him to the extent that he had scratches on his bare back during the show. They even hounded Kubler after the show. “There was this long line of 20, 25 girls who ran up to the first row because Leehom had told the audience I was there, and some of them just practiced their English with me,” Kubler said. “One of them said, ‘Teacher, could I touch your hair?’ And another one said ‘What are you doing tonight?’ and my wife and mother in law were right there. It was sort of like I was the closest I could get to Leehom, their idol.”

Oakey has also had a few brushes with Wang’s fame. He visited Wang in Shanghai on the set of his movie China Strike Force and got to hang out with Wang’s co-star – none other than rapper Coolio. Oakey also visited Wang in Taiwan – Wang personally picked him up from the airport, which had been planned by the minute so that Wang would not be ambushed by fans (and he was asked to sign a few autographs on his way in and out of the airport).

After 13 years, Wang’s career is stronger than ever. Along with the many albums he has released since his debut, he recently starred in 2007’s critically acclaimed and controversial Lust Caution, directed by the esteemed Ang Lee. However, Wang is still Leehom from the block, and he knows where he comes from – the Purple Valley. According to Kubler, Wang will be returning to the College this summer for his 10-year reunion.