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Mandarin R&B Singer Hits It Big

Xu Mo, a 20-year-old junior student from the Beijing Printing Institute, looked anxious but excited while sitting at a press conference late last month for Jay Chou's September 12 Beijing concert.

She said she did not mind the long, drawn-out wait before the Chinese "Little King of R&B" entered the conference room, escorted by two burly men of African origin.

As the daughter of a journalist, Xu was one of the few lucky fans who got permission to attend the press conference. Her mother's colleague, a photographer, took Xu there for the chance to have her photo taken with Chou - also known as Zhou Jielun - and to get his signature.

The shy young woman did not know what to do when she could not even see her idol, who was immediately surrounded by the well-prepared photographers and a few bold and screaming fans.

Xu anxiously stood up and sat down several times, listening to Chou's murmurs from behind the wall of photographers and TV camera operators.

"I was just too excited to run to him. I could hardly even believe I really saw him. It was not a dream," Xu said.

"All of my room-mates would envy me if they know I saw him and listened to him speaking from such a short distance," she said, unable to conceal her overwhelming joy.

Xu is one of millions of Chinese young people who love Jay Chou, and she is one of thousands of fans in Beijing eagerly looking forward to attending Chou's first concert at the Workers' Stadium on Friday.

Few people in China's major cities can have escaped hearing the name and songs of Jay Chou, who was described as the "new king of Asian pop" by the US magazine Time in March.

The 24-year-old from Taiwan Province is one of the most popular Chinese singers today.

Rapid rise

Chou began to capture the Chinese-speaking world's attention with his self-titled debut album "Jay," released in November 2000.

He composed all of the album's songs himself. The 10 brooding, soulful, surprisingly sensual ballads and quiet pop tunes made the album an immediate hit. From then on, Chou's popularity grew at an alarming rate.

After two more studio albums - "Fantasy" (September 2001) and "Eight Dimensions" (July 2002) - plus numerous CDs of live concert recordings, Chou's music has ruled and may be transforming the Asian pop universe.

Almost all his fans are fascinated by his unique rhythm and blues (R&B) style and soulful lyrics, although it was not Chou who first introduced R&B to the region.

David Tao and Wang Lee-hom (Alex Wang) have both been around for a while, but it was not until Chou's debut that waves of Mandarin rappers and crooning R&B singers took over MTV in China.

Sun Weisi, a 14-year-old junior high school student, recalled that she was first impressed by Chou's "Love Before the Century" when she saw the video in a department store.

She was stopped in her tracks by the special melody and novelly produced video broadcast at the CD section. She fell in love with it and bought the album at once.

Thus she joined the majority of the more than 50 people in her class who are fans of Chou. The remainder - less than one-third - seldom listen to any pop music, she said.

Some say that girls just tingle with excitement at the mention of rebellious young men. The angry, guitar-smashing and cursing Nicholas Tse is such a type, but shy and quiet young men such as Chou are also a kind of rebellious character.

"He is not that handsome but is absolutely cool and unique," Sun said.

Chen Shuyu, a 16-year-old senior high school student in Beijing, said she considers herself independent enough not to follow the herd instinct. "When many of my friends started to listen to Chou, I did not care about him," she recalled. "But, as his songs are heard in the streets and lanes and his music videos are broadcast on TV so often, I was able to follow his singing unconsciously and then I knew I had been captured."

Boys also like Chou as much as the girls.

Lu Haolan, 15, said: "His style appeals to me because the melodies he creates are always fresh, impulsive and influential and, unlike many other pop singers from Taiwan and Hong Kong, his songs have heartfelt feelings and various themes other than love."

It is not just teenagers. Some adults also listen to him.

Xiao Chao, a 32-year-old journalist, said: "I'm not really a fan of him, but I do like some of his songs, such as 'Nunchucks' and 'Tornado.' I think his music, which combines Chinese pop and the Western R&B style well, sets the trend for the Asian pop scene."

Parents have learned to listen to Chou with their sons and daughters. One mother said: "I have no idea what he is singing, but the way he raps and the long lyrics sound really similar to the children's monotonous studying."

In a industry where transient pop stars and prepackaged icons abound, it is a wonder that Jay Chou exists at all.

Moreover, he has won a dozen awards, include Favourite Artist (Taiwan) at MTV's Asian Music Awards and the annual Channel V award for Best Male Singer of China.

He played at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas in the US state of Nevada to an audience of more than 10,000 on Christmas Day last year.

For years, teenagers and pop fans in China, as well as in East and Southeast Asia generally, have seen so many pretty boys who could barely carry a tune, divas who had attitude but no talent, and boy bands whose members were chosen for their dance steps instead of their vocal ability.

That is why Chinese pop fans needed a new star, an anti-hero such as Jay Chou who could produce an album, write and harmonize all the music and occasionally step in as a lyricist and guitarist.

On all four of his studio albums "Jay," "Fantasy," "Eight Dimensions" and "Yeh Hui-mei," people listen to a man who believes in the musical choices he is making and who knows he is right.

He does not sing what managers expect him to sing but sings his heart out, his fans say.

Ultimately, it is Chou's talent that has brought him fame.

Musical talent

Growing up in a single-parent family in Taiwan Province, Chou had a solitary childhood. He was never very good academically but daydreamed about his world of music.

He said that, when he was little, he would seldom pass maths tests. All he could do was comfort himself by saying: "People with musical talent do not do well in maths."

His mother, Yeh Hui-mei, noticed that her quiet, shy boy seemed to get stirred when he heard the Western pop music she used to play.

"He was sensitive to music before he could walk," Yeh said. So she enrolled Chou for piano lessons when he was 3 years old. He later learned to play the cello and guitar.

Chou focused on the keys the way that other children his age focused on a scoop of ice cream. By the time he was a teenager, he had developed a knack for improvisation .

In high school, he started to grasp pop melodies and chord combinations. Playing pop made him feel really happy, relaxed and free of pressure compared to playing classical music at his mother's insistence.

When he refused to take the college entrance exams, his mother often worried about his future but Chou said he knew he still had music to depend on and he never took the exams.

He was proved right. In 1998, he performed at a contest for talented young musicians, for which one of his friend filled out an application for him. The show's host was the entertainment impresario Jacky Wu, who owned Alfa Music in Taiwan at that time. Wu was swayed by the nervous young man at the piano.

Shortly after, Jay moved into an Alfa Music studio to create songs for many of the most popular singers and groups, including CoCo Lee, Valen Hsu and Power Station and Jacky Wu himself.

Chou has proved to be a sponge when it comes to music, absorbing styles and trends. He especially excels at incorporating them seamlessly into his Oriental-flavoured R&B.

He makes use of traditional Chinese instruments, such as the dizi (bamboo flute) and the sanxian (three-stringed guitar) and he has also adopted Chinese five-tone melodies rather Western 12-tone ones.

His music is like magic, it has variety, it is ephemeral, changing and evolving, critics have observed.

"It is the music that matters, more than the looks and the moves and the images," said Jiang Li, a critic with the Beijing-based newspaper Music Life.

"His music is a fusion of many different styles that most find hard to imitate. And his Chinese rapping skills are also unparalleled, giving his songs a unique identity that none can imitate," Jiang added.

(China Daily Sep 9, 2003)


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