Wang Leehom: Changing the Global Game with Music

By Angela Bao

Dec. 12, 2019
Wang Leehom performing
Wang Leehom, Chinese-American singer, songwriter, actor and producer

The King of Chinese Pop talks about xenophobia and why art is the key to overcoming this divide.

Born and raised in New York, Wang Leehom, dubbed the King of Chinese Pop, has been an active player in the entertainment game for 25 years. With over 20 movies to his name and over 50 million albums sold, Wang is a veteran of the industry and one of the most popular and recognizable artists in China. He has won numerous accolades, including four Golden Melody Awards, the “Grammys” of Chinese music.

However, Wang acknowledges that being in the industry isn’t always easy, and that the best way to make change is by staying resilient. “You stay in the game so you can hopefully change the game, because the game wasn’t working out,” he says. “If you can stay in it, maybe you can change it a little bit from inside—baby steps at a time. But over time, hopefully, you can improve it.”

Wang talks more about his inspirations, the challenges Asian entertainers face in the United States, and why he thinks art can help combat xenophobia.

You’re a singer, songwriter, actor, producer and one of the first “double dippers,” people you define as working on both sides of the Pacific. What was that path like?

The first “double dippers,” they would be Bruce Lee, Ang Lee, Jackie Chan—heroes of mine that I think about. They inspire me all the time.

It wasn’t like these things happened by coincidence. They were very focused on being double dippers. One of the things that really motivated Bruce Lee was seeing Charlie Chan. There would be yellow face in Hollywood, on television. This character, Charlie Chan, was on episodic TV—this Caucasian actor would tape his eyes to make him look oriental. Bruce was like, this isn’t cool. He’s from Hong Kong. He came from filmmaking, and he knew the power of film and its educational properties, and that it was important to have some representation in film. That kind of just honed his entire existence. That was his goal. That’s why he came and started making films in Hollywood.

That dream’s still alive—we’re still not there yet. We’re carrying the torch.

Wang Leehom performing at his concert
Wang Leehom in concert

What inspires you to create art, and why do you think we still need it?

We’re not machines—yet. While we’re still human, we still have these emotions, and those emotions really define us, drive us. The reason we make decisions—the way we feel. We have a heart, we have a soul. As an artist, as a musician, that’s really sacred to me.

Life inspires me to create art. I’ve been doing it—music—for a long, long time. Twenty albums, I think? Twenty-five albums, maybe? Hundreds of songs that I’ve written, and 20 movies that I’ve been in. I can’t say that there’s one thing that inspires all my art. I would just have to say it’s my life. Hopefully all aspects of it are integrated in my art.

We live in divided times, not just in the entertainment industry, but across the world. How do you think art helps to address xenophobia?

I honestly think that xenophobia is a deadly disease and it’s very contagious—but at the same time, you can cut through it very easily with things like stories, storytelling, songs and movies. This is what we do, and this is why I think we have the antidote and we should be using it. We should be sharing our stories more and more.

I have this great gift, this privilege, that a lot of people don’t, which is that I live in China, I’m Chinese, and I’m seen as a Chinese in China. And I grew up in America, and when I come here I’m seen as an American. And I’m so lucky because I can go to the mountain top and see the truth on both sides. The people, their lives, their loves, their fears, their hopes, their dreams, are pretty much the same.

I write about these things—humanity—and I sing about it every night. And if it wasn’t true, I think that people would probably not be listening to my songs and probably would not be coming to the concerts. So don’t believe the hype that says we’re so different from one another—trying to divide us. It’s not true.

Wang Leehom at the Asia Society U.S.-Asia Entertainment Summit
Wang Leehom at the Asia Society U.S.-Asia Entertainment Summit

What challenges do you see Asian artists facing in the United States today?

Just getting content created—but it’s getting a lot easier. Back in the studio monopoly days, or the record company monopoly days, it was almost impossible for an Asian artist to become the next big pop star or matinee idol.

Nowadays, though, at conventions like the U.S.-Asia Entertainment Summit, we get a lot of industry people coming together who have like-minded ideas—people coming from finance, people coming from behind the camera, directors, screenplay writers, producers, and you got actors, talent, coming together to say, hey, we can make something together.

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists? Any lessons learned from a time you faced a setback?

I have so many—how much time do we have?

The entertainment industry is really about failure. How do you get knocked down and get back up? There are so many auditions that I’ve been to that I didn’t get a role for; so many times that I’ve attempted something and failed, and got dragged over the coals, got humiliated for it, got chewed out on social media for it. You kind of have to have a certain amount of thick skin to get slapped in the face and then say, but how about if I try it this way? And then you get slapped in the face again. And you’re like, oh ok, maybe we can try it this way? You have to keep at it and not give up. You have to stay in the game.

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