On November 25, 2011, Time Out received a text message from Eason Chan’s assistant. It read: ‘The [London] ticket officer is asking who the hell Eason Chan is! All the servers are down because his tickets sold out in 20 minutes… faster than Lady Gaga!’ The text referred to his impending concert at London’s largest indoor music venue, the O2 Arena. Three days later, the same message was posted to Chan’s Facebook page and within the hour it had received 10,000 likes. A day later it went viral across Weibo. This, to put it mildly, was ‘news’.
When we meet with Chan a week later, his reaction to this announcement is nonchalant to the point of disinterest. “O2 has good feng shui for ‘sons’”, he quips. ‘Son’ is a homonym of ‘God’ in Cantonese. Blasphemy? Maybe. Yet the singer has a point. With the speed of his London ticket sales seconded only by Michael Jackson’s ill-fated This Is It extravaganza, it probably isn’t far off the mark to hail Chan as the Messiah of Cantopop.
We’re in a photography studio nestled within a factory complex in Kwun Tong. Eason Chan walks into the studio, sans baseball cap and superstar shades, with all the bravura of a boy waltzing into his own birthday party. After plonking himself down on the sofa, he picks up a guitar and starts strumming while a hushed crowd of studio assistants quietly huddle around him. There’s a bit of small talk. He’s been having trouble with his home stereo; he disapproves of surrogate mothers; he recently purchased his first new car in eight years, an Aston Martin. Suddenly he stands up. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I’ve been so rude.” He puts down his guitar and greets everybody with a big party handshake. “Hello, I’m Eason Chan.”
So then, this is the King of Asian pop, the man who sells out Coliseum concerts in the flicker of an eye. He isn’t your usual rock n’ roll megastar who cruises dangerously close to the heavens while looking down on the world as if every word he says comes from Yahweh’s hymnbook. Rather he’s more like your long lost friend, someone who guffaws at shared jokes and tells you to buzz off or shut up; someone who rolls about on the sofa trying to make a fart as audible as possible, or sneaks up behind you to steal your cigarettes. If anything, Chan’s boyish charm does nothing to diminish his supernova aura. In fact it makes you adore him even more.
“I know, lucky!” he giggles. “Generally I am very truthful. And actually I trust everyone. Am I gullible? [Laughs] I am gullible! I think Hong Kong has a lack of trust, but having trust gives you peace of mind, and you have to do it sincerely. I joke around and make people who don’t know me very confused. You see, I grew up in England. I have a different sense of humour [to Hongkongers]. But I don’t think I’ll ever have to explain myself.”
Still, Eason knows that sometimes he has to straighten up and stop playing the holy fool; especially in the case of mainland China, Eason’s major market where most of his tour revenues reside.
In the Middle Kingdom, one might have to pay a hefty price for a slip of an ill-judged tongue. Any superstar, no matter how bright their wattage, can have the lights turned off immediately if the Motherland gets wind of the ‘wrong type’ of behaviour. Take the example of Taiwanese singer A-Mei Chang Hui-mei, whose ‘incongruous’ performance at the then Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian’s inauguration resulted in her being called a ‘separatist’ by Chinese nationalists. The A-lister was subsequently banished from Chinese soil for years, her voice erased from the airwaves, her image wiped from the TV stations. For Chan, whose verbal diarrhoea is a charming mixture of Freudian slips, epic Spoonerisms and a heavy splash of plain old foot-in-mouth disease, the art of Chinese self-censorship is something he doesn’t take lightly.
“Sometimes I complain about reporters asking dumb questions. They are always into sex, you know? ‘Oh, kissing! How does it feel?’ In a way, I really treasure those questions now because they aren’t political at all. Recently in Taiwan I said: ‘I can squat really well now because I go to China a lot’. [The studio breaks into laughter] See? I totally didn’t expect you guys to laugh about that, but I didn’t stop there. I went on to say, in front of many reporters: ‘I can spit really well too, and I can spit accurately’. Then I thought, ‘Shit, I’m in Taiwan, and I’m teasing the mainland Chinese people’. In the end I rounded it up by saying something like ‘Hong Kong is part of China too. Hong Kong belongs to the People’s Republic of China’. My manager wanted to come over and mute my mic. They can get quite worried.” You don’t say.
As a major celebrity figure – singer, actor and brand ambassador – Chan admits there are heavy burdens on his shoulders. His popularity means that babies are named after him, that fans imitate his actions, and that sponsors breathe down his neck. Chan certainly has responsibilities in society, and knows his free-spirited hands are not completely free. “Not that I hope it happens,” he confesses, “but say if I get a divorce from my wife, probably everyone in China, Malaysia, Singapore, and anywhere where there are Chinese people to care, I would feel 200,000 pairs of eyes on [me]. Same as Nicholas Tse, one of my best friends, when he crashed a Ferrari and didn’t hurt anyone – although he did kind of run away. He got so much attention and we were really worried about him.” But still he can’t help himself. “[Laughs] By the way I have never seen a Ferrari that trashed! Anyway, I don’t believe that people have no temper. If somebody asks if my ‘mother is well’ (a Cantonese insult), I won’t just sit there and take it. I don’t care about the endorsements and sponsorships. I think I can [say] ‘fuck you’ because I’ll just be representing myself. But I do realise I have a lot of responsibilities to society and to my family. I can get a lot of hassle from people. But I don’t treat my responsibilities as sacrifices.”
Chan is certainly waging many battles in Asia, where media hypersensitivity constantly pushes acts towards the entrances of psychiatric wards. Chan explains he wears different masks in order to stay away from ill-reported controversies. “I react to different people differently,” he confides. “It’s simpler in China because I speak Mandarin there. I might elaborate more in Cantonese (his mother tongue) and have more fun, and can be more animated and probably divulge more information. And I communicate with my staff in a mechanical kind of way. But if I interact privately with my friends such as Josie (Ho) or Convoy (Chan), we still go ‘diu, shut up, fuck off’. And what’s wrong with that? I have a lot of pressure but I’m used to hiding that side of me. Basically the real me is very unserious. I am very playful. I never take anything seriously. Even if I am very sincere I still go ‘he he’ and just takes things at face value.”
In the past few years, Time Out has met Eason Chan on several occasions. The first was at Loungelover, an obscure and stylish Bohemian bar in a back alley in East London’s Shoreditch area in 2010. We bring up this chance meeting, which occurred a day after his sell-out Royal Albert Hall performance. His reaction is unequivocally awkward. He shoots a sideways glance at his manager before offering up an abrupt denial: “I don’t go to bars. I don’t drink.” So that’s the end of that. Then, in March last year, a huge shoebox marquee was erected on the roof of Tsim Sha Tsui’s Harbour City car park. The weather was bitter and we had been waiting for Chan for several hours. As he ascended from the level below, we strolled up and said ‘hi’, but his entourage pushed us away. As Chan’s silhouette diminished on the horizon, his head turned towards us to mutter, ‘sorry, so sorry’. It was very clear that Chan has a nurturing team who safeguards his every action.
“I have people constantly telling me, helping me, grabbing Starbucks cups out of my hand,” he admits (Chan is a spokesman for Minute Maid). Yet he has a Tom and Jerry relationship with his assistants. When a glass of champagne is placed in front of him during our interview, he turns and looks at his team coyly. “These guys know I’ll glow,” he says, “but there you go.” He cheekily takes a sip, “Just one sip!” His team also frowns when Chan asks for yet another cigarette (Time Out is not allowed to film Chan while he is smoking). “I need my assistant to get my Starbucks for me, but I won’t sit [and drink] by the window,” he says. “People ask me why am I so happy all the time, but I can tell you, I am not. I am not completely happy all the time. It’s part of my job. That’s why I am so used to it. It’s natural that it comes out and it’s my presentation to look happy. [Laughs] But I guess I get paid well for this.” How about giving up the multi-million dollar contracts to live more happily? “Oh, but I never initiate,” he says. “I never asked to become a spokesperson. My manager has the right to go and talk to these people. The contract is probably drafted and they just come and tell me, ‘you’re now the spokesperson for Adidas’. And I’ll sign the contract and that’s it. I am very easy in that way. It’s cool. I never ask for it, but I get it.” When asked if he knows his true interests better than the people around him, Chan laughs: “I probably do not know. Yes, I don’t think I know. And I don’t care!”
Chan is one of the most carefree celebrities we have ever interviewed. He is extremely comfortable with who he is. His body language is free and there’s not a twinkle of worry in his large Bambi eyes. His 37-year-old face is mostly free from worry lines and he has a healthy and happy body which he’s not afraid to show off. During our photoshoot he takes off his T-shirt and rubs his ample belly. He then sits in the dressing room with the doors open wearing only his black underpants, waiting to be made-over. We wonder if he ever worries about his public appearance. “I can only tell you what I am not worried about,” he says, taking a long drag on a cigarette. “I am not worried that I won’t be as successful as I am. People do lose it, they lose faith and confidence. I am easily satisfied, I am content and happy. I never asked for the stuff I get. I [just] think it’s amazing. I get paid well to play, you know?”
Chan’s bright eyes then take on a darker aspect as he leans back on the sofa: “If you asked me this question three months ago… I wasn’t in a very good state of mind. It was July and I was in London’s Brick Lane. There were so many people and there I was having a holiday. I was worried. I think I was having a little bit of a depression.” It’s a small but revealing glimpse into the king’s interior castle.
Yet Chan is the type who plays his defences with schoolboy charm. He pulls faces when he doesn’t like a question. He jibes when reporters ask him dumb questions, but he frankly tells Time Out: “Very few people understand the way I grew up, my background and my sense of humour. I can ask you to fuck off and you know I am not angry. But with some people around me, with some media, I might offend them.” Originally, Chan had more concert dates than the three planned on his announced schedule between December 2011 and February this year. These intended dates in China were cancelled due to a knee operation which is due to take place later this month. He has been actively discouraged by his management to mention this ailment to the public, as it might cause unnecessary speculation. Yet he acknowledges to Time Out that his knee has been a major problem. “For me, personally, I can talk about anything, but if my manager asks me not to tell anyone then I won’t,” he admits. “I can’t share this information with everyone, and it’s against who I am. It made me very depressed. The London show was supposed to be in early February and initially I can’t even go to Wyman’s new show. But I think I want to go. Even if I’m in a wheelchair, I don’t care!”
Wyman Wong is a long time collaborator of Eason Chan, penning almost 70 song lyrics for the star throughout his 16-year career, as well as occasionally designing stage costumes for concerts. Wong tells Time Out what Chan is really like. “He is a voice actor. And his interpretation of my words often amazes me,” says the songwriter. “I really enjoy his singing, and his performance kind of upgrades and crystallises what I am trying to say. He always surpasses my expectation.” It’s an open secret on the Cantopop scene that Wong often saves his wittiest, funniest and most agile lyrics for Chan’s acidic delivery.
Although Chan loves the tricky playfulness of Cantonese lyrics, we ask if he has any perceived notions of making music in English? “Is there a difference?” he replies. “I never really looked into it. When I was at boarding school (Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire), my roommate used to say ‘this is a Chinky song. It has a synthesiser in it’. And he would go ‘dong-dong-dang-dong’. And I was like, you don’t know shit! This is Jacky Cheung! The Man! But I guess Cantopop in the 90s does have a unique sound. The main difference now is the sound of the instrument or whatever the modules or programming we use. You can easily identify a U2 song or a Coldplay song in the same way you can identify an Eason Chan song.”
Chan still admits that language plays an enormous role in how his songs are ultimately arranged, therefore contributing to a unique Cantopop or Mandopop sound: “Cantonese is actually very complex. More complex than English or Mandarin. I have this really popular song called Under the Fuji Mountain. It goes ‘誰都只得那雙手/怕擁抱亦難任你擁有’. There are 20 notes here, 20 different syllables. It’s got so many combinations of characters and it complicates the delivery and it makes it difficult to write the scene, the sentiment and the mood. English and Mandarin songs? They are easier to write.”
Still, with his massive sell-out gig at the O2 Arena, can we reasonably expect an Eason Chan album in the English language soon? “They always turn me down, but in a very gentle way,” he says. “I would speak to the people at Universal Music in the UK. I have been doing English songs on the past three Mandarin albums, and I guess [when it comes to making an English album] I would prefer to use people in England. The sound will be different. The industry in Hong Kong at the moment is all linked up. They all know each other. They go ‘what do you use? What do we use?’ and even if they listen to the same Lenny Kravitz song and they go ‘oh I know this machine’ they still have a different interpretation [of the sound].”
And yet what a year 2012 will be for Chan. He is the first Asian artist to perform at the O2, thereby sharing the same venue as Beyonce, Madonna, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney. But in terms of the general outlook for the Year of the Dragon, we suggest a few tricky scenarios…
Time Out: Europe might go bankrupt...
Chan: What? I might go bankrupt? I better go and buy a new house!
Time Out: No, Eason, Eu-rope might go bankrupt…
Chan: Oh I thought you said ‘you’ll go bankrupt’! Bloody hell, I don’t read the news! I am very ignorant. I just work!
Time Out: Okay, President Obama might get kicked out of the Whitehouse…
Chan: I don’t care. I don’t know America. [Laughs] I don’t like Americans. I think America is already quite mental.
Time Out: Fair enough. How about something closer to home. Hong Kong will have a new Chief Executive...
Chan: Hell, whoever becomes the new Chief Executive is doomed. Everyone loves to complain, but nobody is helping Hong Kong. Everyone is a professional critic with no constructive comments to make. Everyone only knows how to moan. Just shut up, you know?
Time Out: It’s going to be Henry Tang. Do you prefer someone else?
Chan: Mmm. I just sincerely wish that whoever is going to be the new Chief Executive at least please try, just keep trying. I think sincerity always shows.
So, what about the rest of the year? And what will the Water Dragon hold for Chan? Firstly, he’s looking forward to beginning production on his next studio album with Cantopop singer songwriter Eric Kwok and his band Swing. “One thing my wife recently mentioned is ‘how come your songs are always so sad? Why are you always making these draggy and sad songs?’ But my next album is definitely going to be swingy. I think people in their late thirties will understand pretty much what Swing tries to express. Music-wise, it will be less heavy.” Is there anything else he’s looking forward to? “How about surgery to remove my eye bags?” he laughs. “I have four of them now! Eric Kwok went under the knife recently... Aha!”
Before we wrap-up the interview Chan whips out his Blackberry and scans our PIN. “What if everything is set to zero?” he asks elliptically. “Your bank account, all the military information... if everything is reset it will be the end of the world. It doesn’t take a natural disaster. It will be a technological meltdown. I truly believe that on December 21, 2012, at 11.11pm Hong Kong time the world will come to an end.”
Is Chan pulling our leg? Or has he been sucked in by the Mayan calendar? He looks extremely serious for a moment and seems to want to confide something of great importance to Time Out. “I will organise a party,” he eventually whispers. “I will invite all my lovely people and I will spend it with [my wife] Hilary and [my daughter] Constance. It’s all about the people I love and care.” Ah, that’s the Eason
we all know and love...
Stranger Under My Skin is now on sale. Chan’s London Duo Tour takes place at the O2 Arena on April 23.