Bullied in school, but now musician Hanjin Tan has the last laugh

Having once battled depression, successful singer, songwriter, producer and actor Hanjin Tan now finds joy in simple things

Hanjin Tan playing drums as a child and at swimming training (above). -- PHOTOS: COURTESY OF HANJIN TAN
Hanjin Tan playing drums as a child and at swimming training (above). -- PHOTOS: COURTESY OF HANJIN TAN
Hanjin Tan playing drums (above) as a child and at swimming training. -- PHOTOS: COURTESY OF HANJIN TAN
Tan singing solo as part of the Anglo-Chinese Junior College choir. -- PHOTOS: COURTESY OF HANJIN TAN
Hanjin Tan marked his acting debut with a Hong Kong Film Award for Best New Performer for his role as Skinny (above, second from left) in the biopic Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010). -- PHOTOS: ESPLANADE, COURTESY OF HANJIN TAN
Hanjin Tan (above) marked his acting debut with a Hong Kong Film Award for Best New Performer for his role as Skinny in the biopic Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010). -- PHOTOS: ESPLANADE, COURTESY OF HANJIN TAN

In photos and on his CD covers, Hanjin Tan can often be seen beaming.

Not a smug smirk or a half-hearted smile, but a full-on wide grin of infectious joy.

And why not? Things have been going well for the Hong Kong-based Singaporean singersongwriter-producer-actor. He has worked with the biggest stars in the business, from Jacky Cheung to Eason Chan and from Sammi Cheng to Christina Aguilera.

His hits include Chan's Love Is Suspicion, Jam Hsiao's Marry Me and Love Step By Step, on which he duetted with Cheng.

He has reaped accolades in both music and acting and is on the verge of completing his dream studio, where he chats with Life! for this interview.

Happiness Can Be Simple is the title of his gig at the Esplanade's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts on Feb 22. It is a mantra of sorts for him - it was also the title of his first major concert in Hong Kong at the venerable Coliseum in 2012 and of his memoir that was published the same year.

He says simply: "That's what I want for myself and therefore, that's what I wish for others."

For years, though, a shadow lurked behind the sunniness. In previous interviews with Life!, Tan, 39, had spoken of a dark period in his life without elaborating. It was not until he published his memoir that he opened up finally about the bullying and depression he suffered in his teenage years.

The Anglo-Chinese School boy had transferred to Raffles Junior College briefly to study Japanese, before returning to Anglo-Chinese Junior College. That, he says, was when "all hell breaks loose".

Having done a stint in a rival school, he was seen as a traitor and he bore the brunt of "bullying, nitpicking, rumours". Girls would whisper that he was a lecher while the boys sneered that he was gay and he soon became a social pariah.

It did not help that he had few friends - most of his former classmates from his CL1 (Chinese as a first language) secondary school class did not go to ACJC.

Finally, he broke down. "I couldn't stop crying for a whole week. I would be able to control it in school - I would be numb the whole day. Once I reached home, I cried."

He then saw a doctor and the outward symptoms cleared up quickly, but he adds: "I was numb for a good half a year. I never truly recovered until I came up with the idea for the book - the whole thing that happiness can be quite simple and anything beyond zero is a blessing.

"We really have no control over what happens to us, what others think of us or do to us, or what's given to us. All we can do is to do our best within our scope of control and listen to the reactions to our actions."

In recounting the episode, Tan cracks jokes and appears to have put the bitterness behind him. As he speaks, what comes across strongly is a sense of gratitude for all the positive reactions to his work.

The same sentiment can be found on his deeply personal album, Who Is Hanjin Tan (2011), which includes songs such as No Time For Regrets, Happiness Is Free and Why Be Sad.

As a singer in his own right, he has released four studio albums. From Raw Jazz (2009) to Contradiction (2013), Tan has won a slew of accolades. Time magazine hailed Raw Jazz as "exuberant and unexpected" and he won a Metro Explosive Album Award (organised by a Hong Kong radio station) for Who Is Hanjin Tan.

Outside of music, there is more to his enviable body of work. He made an auspicious acting debut when he nabbed the Hong Kong Film Award for Best New Performer in the biopic Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010). He played the part of one of the action star's pals, Skinny.

That success has been parlayed into a nascent acting career on both the big and small screens, including a turn on the long-running TVB series Til Love Do Us Lie (2011). He has also appeared as a judge on singing contest shows such as Hong Kong's The Voice.

He is realising another dream - the building of his 2,000 sq ft studio, one that he is still putting the finishing touches to. He says: "Since I was 19 or 20, I've been dreaming of having my own facility where I can make my own sound."

Squirrelled away in the industrial neighbourhood of Wong Chuk Hang in a factory building with peeling paint, the studio is located on the same floor as a candle company and a laundromat.

Step through the door, though, and the rest of the world disappears. There is a Scandinavian vibe to the studio with its clean lines and wooded interior. A few vibrant pop art paintings by contemporary Japanese artist Soichi Yamaguchi add bursts of colour, while framed personal photos in black and white hang on the wall.

"I'm trying to build a recording facility and a comfortable place. Most are built to be functional. To me, comfort is important," he says.

Indeed, while he lives in an apartment in the bustling Central district with his wife, Prima Wong, who helps manage his career, the studio has the comforting feel of a second home.

Dubbed the "Singaporean music prodigy" in Hong Kong, he is nonetheless probably better known there than at home. It is an acknowledgement of his versatility: he composes music, writes lyrics, produces, arranges, records, mixes, plays instruments such as the piano and guitar, and sings.

At the same time, he draws on a diverse array of influences from jazz to rap, rock to R&B, reggae to beatboxing. On the track Not Reliable Making Money From Music, the rhythm is cleverly drawn from the sound of someone coughing and gagging.

Tan has his own take on the link between talent and success. "There are two kinds of people who do things well - one is genuinely talented and the other is the hardworking guy, whose main gift is that he has the aptitude to improve even if he's not able to do it right away.

"Here's how you tell the difference. Ask the guy, 'How did you do that?'. If he says, 'I don't know', he's the talented guy. If the guy can write a thesis on it, he's the hardworking guy because he has to intellectualise it."

And Tan sees himself very much as the workhorse. Be it swimming competitively until an ear infection at 14 put an end to it or learning Japanese, he throws himself into it: "I'm the kind of person who would just do my best." His facility with languages is apparent from the way he switches easily between English, Mandarin and Cantonese, depending on who he is speaking to.

The discovery of choral music set him on the path to music. So what if his Primary 1 report card declared "Hanjin loves to sing but doesn't have a good voice" and his piano teacher said he was not fated to do music?

He found his voice in the choir and, eventually, that led to him performing at pubs such as the former Fat Frog Cafe in Armenian Street.

During that time, composing was something he did quietly on the side. He says: "Sometimes, I would play songs that I wrote when I thought it was safe."

After an introduction to Mr Steven Fock of Singapore company Musset Publishing, no less than the Cantopop God of Songs, Cheung, picked up four of his compositions.

Tan relives the excitement of that moment as he exclaims: "Let's do more of these things! This is cool!"

And then Chan chose two of his songs - Love Is Suspicion and Because You're Good To Me - for his 2001 album It's Me.

All these happened when Tan was studying economics at the National University of Singapore.

Chan, who has worked with other Singapore musicians and songwriters such as Tanya Chua, once told this reporter: "To me, there's nothing distinctly Singaporean about them, I just think they're very talented. Put it this way, there's more of a Western influence on them. Take Hanjin's songs - it's very obvious on the arrangement for Love Is Suspicion." With its funky and bluesy vibe, the song stands out from much of Mandopop.

Inspired by albums such as Bjork's Verspertine (2001) and Madonna's Ray Of Light (1998), Tan put a lot of thought and effort into his demos - they "might even be mixed" - when it was common to simply have a piano and voice combination.

Impressed by what he heard, Chan decided to have Tan arrange and produce for him even though Tan had never done it before. "Jacky gave me my first published work and Eason gave me my first produced work, and that made my entry smoother than it would normally be," Tan says.

He made the big move to Hong Kong for work in 2009.

Despite a fairy-tale start, he was no stranger to rejection. He lists the objections: "Your face doesn't match your voice. Your voice is so cool, so powerful, your face is so chubby, you look like Doraemon, doesn't work. You're so fat."

He ploughed on despite the naysayers and he concludes today: "If you know what you want, then you better do it because nobody else will."

It was through music that he entered the world of acting. Actor Tony Leung Ka Fai, who was playing Bruce Lee's father, had caught him performing with rapper MC Jin on a TV programme. He reckoned the pair would be perfect for the parts of Lee's buddies.

Tan and Jin, an American-born Chinese, had gotten together for the album Buy 1 Get 1 Free (2010), which combined jazzy pop and hip-hop to great effect.

And then the next thing that happened was Tan calling home from the Hong Kong Film Awards with news of his win. "My mum was screaming and I've never heard her scream in her life. The whole thing proved one point - they're more excited about me being an actor than being a musician."

He acknowledges that film and television have an advantage over music. "Being an actor makes you more popular because movies have much bigger promotional budgets than albums or concerts. The reach is far wider. My dad is happier, that's the main thing."

His father, who works in the shipping industry, had guilt-tripped him into completing his university studies before doing music full-time. Tan's mother is a housewife and he has a younger brother, 35, who teaches and studies yoga.

At the same time, his music has also had an impact on his acting. "Directors like to tell me, 'Oh yah, your rhythm is really good'. I say, 'What rhythm?'", and he guffaws with amusement.

Apart from his prodigious talent, his wife - they are "around the same age" - was drawn to him for another reason. A Hong Kong native, she says: "It was his kindness. He is honest and simple, very simple. He is not capable of scheming or being manipulative at all."

They first met at a club about nine years ago and he was impressed by "the efficiency of her diplomacy" in rejecting someone else. "And then later on, I thought she was really cute." The couple have been married for six years now.

Outside of work, Tan relaxes by watching movies and cooking. "I'm good at scavenging the fridge and making things up. There's no guarantee on how good it'll taste, but my wife says it's mostly pleasant."

Children are not in the picture because, as he puts it: "If we want to take care of somebody, we'll adopt. If we want to take care of something, we will get a pet. Life is hard enough for people here already. With my ability to give care, why not use it towards somebody who already desperately needs it?"

In fact, he wants to do more to give back to society. "I'm starting to research how charity organisations function and how I can participate more closely. I'm not that cash rich, but I want to see what I can do."

Music could well be a part of the equation. He notes: "Music seems to be the thing I do best and if I can lend myself at my best, that seems quite logical."

Meanwhile, he is still chasing after his dream of "the best-sounding Hanjin album, the best Hanjin concert performance".

To that end, he has invested time trying to master new sound components for his studio. He jokes: "When you start acquiring too many tools, it is a sure sign that you are not spending enough time on your craft. I am suffering from that right now, I have to stop myself from getting any more."

He turns philosophical at one point.

"In life, we seldom get what we want. People who get what they want and say they got it by their own doing, they must be quite lucky, where the stars have aligned and the path is straight.

"I'm more lucky than some, I'm less lucky than some."

My life so far

"Coco Lee's a great friend. She executes exactly what she has practised and she practises a lot. When I work with Sammi Cheng, there's a lot of communication. She seems to task me with the toughest songs, things that are closest to her heart. Eason Chan is fiendishly bubbly. He's quite the effervescent character."

Hanjin Tan, on singers who have left an impression on him

"When on the street and if there was a Japanese tourist around, I'd volunteer to take him wherever he wanted to go and punish him with conversation. I'm that kind of guy."

On being obsessed with the Japanese language as a student

"She thought I was a playboy. Back then, I was wearing hoodies and sneakers and oversized jeans. And I had funny coloured hair."

On his wife Prima Wong's first impression of him

"I think filming is a very complex and very complicated form of art and complicated things attract me."

On acting

"I didn't know I would be based out of Hong Kong for six years. I thought I would be based in Taiwan, later on, I thought it might be China. I don't know what's going to happen."

On remaining in Hong Kong

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