“The Mountains” have never sounded this good, but I guess the song isn’t usually performed on piano by “King of Chinese Pop” Wang Leehom ’98, as it was for a surprise opening of his concert in Chapin Hall Monday night.
It’s uncanny to think Wang, the best-selling Mandarin-language musician of his generation and four-time winner of Taiwan’s Golden Melody Awards, once attended the College. The audience went wild when he said that “Love Rival Beethoven,” off his first album in 1995, was written in Sage A. What’s more, Wang became fluent in Chinese at the College, double majoring in Music and Asian Studies.
Disclaimer: I’m also Taiwanese-American and a huge Wang Leehom fanboy myself. I listened solely to his and Jay Chou’s music all through middle and the beginning of high school (who am I kidding — I still listen to their music today).
Chapin is big, but the performance still felt intimate, especially given that Wang usually performs in stadium-sized arenas across Asia. Dressed in a dark chambray shirt neatly tucked into black denim and sporting a classic quiff hairstyle, Wang looked a little like Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys. But perhaps the look was appropriate, given that Wang performed in both Mandarin and English, and that his work is known for blending pop and rock elements with the sounds of traditional Chinese music.
Wang wooed the crowd with “Still in Love With You,” a ballad from 2013 that opened with a smooth keyboard riff and was punctuated by a steady drum beat. Wang’s voice had a bright, magnetic quality, and he delivered just what fans have come to know over the years. He seemed to be enjoying himself, back performing at his alma mater and moving around the stage with ease. In a way, the concert in Chapin was a stripped-down performance. It was just Wang and his music — he’s known for donning elaborate costumes and performing with special effects and dance troupes.
Wang performs in a vein that echoes R&B, but with a tinge of Taiwanese tradition that is hard to put in words. Still, a good number of his songs in the program, including “Your Love” and “You’re Not Here” felt familiar and timeless, like old love songs played on repeat post-breakup. So when Wang opted for “Heroes of Earth,” I couldn’t help but smile — he was really bringing Asian pop culture to our small New England town. The two songs are from Wang’s self-described “chinked-out” period from 2004, when he chose to reclaim the stereotype and infuse hip-hop with sounds from Peking opera and Chinese aboriginal folk music. It was certainly something different and reminded fans of the puzzling aspect of Wang’s fame: he is perhaps one of the biggest American stars that America has no idea about.
But Wang is working to bridge the cultural gap with his remixing of sound and tradition in songs like “Shangri-La,” which opens with a simple yangqin phrase and riffs off the pentatonic scale, with Wang’s suave vocals and pointed falsetto balancing it out.
In an address to the Oxford Union in May 2013, Wang said that “The relationship between East and West needs to be and can be fixed via pop culture,” saying that music wielded a certain kind of soft power. How he will manage to do that through his music and suave vocals is something I’m eagerly awaiting; unfortunately, Wang was unavailable for comment.
Wang closed the concert with Springstreeters past and present, singing “Walking in Memphis” and “Our Song.” Even though he’s a star, he seemed perfectly at place and at home, reminding me that Wang was once a student here, and of the College’s hopeful directive for its students, “Climb High, Climb Far, Your Goal the Sky, Your Aim the Star.” His desire to bridge cultures doesn’t seem so lofty anymore.