Hit maker Liu Chia-chang's last hurrah

Acclaimed songwriter Liu Chia-chang says his gig here is his final chance to release songs as a singer

Taiwanese songwriter Liu Chia-chang (above). -- PHOTO: TCR MUSIC STATION
Taiwanese songwriter Liu Chia-chang (above). -- PHOTO: TCR MUSIC STATION PHOTO: TCR MUSIC STATION

Taiwan's Liu Chia-chang, 73, is a towering figure in the world of Mandopop, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s.

The singers he helped turn into stars lit up the music scene and included top names such as Fong Fei-fei, Liu Wen-cheng and YuYa.

The songwriter has reportedly composed more than 2,000 songs and, by one count, over 200 were hits. Classics such as Seagull, Dream Behind The Curtain, Meilan Meilan I Love You, Where Is My Home and Memories Can Only Be Reminisced were part of the soundtrack of an era.

And after more than 30 years, he will be holding a concert in Singapore on Sept 20. More than 80 per cent of the tickets have been sold.

He tells Life! over the telephone: "I am a bridge to memories. People come, not for me, but for the songs they are familiar with."

There will also be a special treat for audiences that night. He says: "I recently wrote some new songs and they have not been released yet.

"In the past, I was never a singer and never had the chance to release them at media conferences, so this is a final chance for me to do so and give everyone a CD souvenir."

He speaks fondly of his fans in the region. "Without support from fans from Singapore and Malaysia, I wouldn't be where I am today and I want to express my gratitude in person. It's been 50 years and people still remember me."

And he remembers well his time in Singapore from three decades ago.

He recalls: "I used to stay at the Mandarin Hotel in Orchard Road and I'll never forget the Hainanese chicken rice at the cafe there. I like Singapore a lot but it's too far. I can pop a sleeping pill on a flight to the United States but I can't do so on a five-hour-plus flight."

In the past few years, he has done a series of farewell concerts in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Las Vegas and the timing was right to do one here. He was also touched by concert promoter Cai Yiren and his wife Huang Guixia flying to Hong Kong to persuade him to do so.

Liu adds: "I was very surprised they could sing even my lesser-known tracks. I was very moved."

All this talk of nostalgia and the past might suggest that Liu is a sentimental person but, in fact, the opposite is true. He is not precious about his chosen craft and is pragmatic about the fact that he is in the pop music business.

Asked where he gets inspiration to compose and he says: "I don't really need inspiration anymore. It's become my career and I suppose a chef doesn't need inspiration to cook either."

Liu, who is twice married, adds: "I don't have that many romances. How many love stories can you have in order to write so many love songs? So sometimes, I'll just make something up and write it."

He might not need inspiration, but he certainly has no problem with tapping into his imagination.

He is also very clear about what he does. As a writer of pop songs, he says: "They need to be popular, otherwise, they're classical music."

The veteran notes that when it came to album sales, the figures were actually higher in this region compared with Taiwan. And he can easily rattle off numbers for the singers he used to work with, pointing out that northern and southern Taiwan are very different markets.

"In the south, the Minnan and Japanese flavour is much stronger. A Fong Fei-fei album would easily chalk up 250,000 or even 500,000 in sales, while a Teresa Teng Mandarin album would sell only around 50,000 copies.

"But on the mainland, xiaodiao (ditty or melody) was popular and hence she was big there."

Over his long career, he has had something of a Midas touch when it comes to spotting talent and he was the one who brought the likes of Fong, Fei Yu-ching and Jenny Tseng onto the music scene.

He makes it sound simple when he says: "A singer needs to have something special. It doesn't mean that if I write a good song, he'll become popular.

"What I look for is that special characteristic. Fong, Teng, YuYa and Fei all have distinctive voices. Even if I didn't write for them, they would have been popular regardless."

The other important quality they need to possess is pitch accuracy. He notes disparagingly: "When singers today perform live, which one of them doesn't go off-key? In the past, which one ever went off-key?"

He laments that packaging and computer wizardry can now cover up imperfections. "But in the past, your only option was to sing well. It took Teng 45 days to record one album and that's enough to make a movie. It takes a lot of work to make a good record."

Singer YuYa had previously told Life! Liu can be quite the taskmaster in the studio. Halfway through the recording of Memories Can Only Be Reminisced, she was scolded by him for not putting enough feeling into the song and she cried. She added: "But when I went back to continue the recording, the emotion was there."

And Liu acknowledges that, saying: "Yes, I had high expectations when it came to singing - whether the pitch was accurate, was the note drawn out enough, whether they took a breath at the right moment. Because once it's done, it cannot be erased and it's there as proof forever, so one cannot be careless with it."

Liu was also a director and scriptwriter and he helmed a number of films in the 1970s, including the hit movie, Late Autumn (1972), and patriotic flick Plum Blossom (1975), pairing them with songs he wrote.

Surely it must have been a roller- coaster ride of highs and lows in the fickle world of entertainment?

But he says: "All along, I could either take it or leave it. I've never begged anyone to say, 'Let me do a song for you', nor have I gone to my bosses to say, 'Let me make a film'. If you want me to be in charge, that's fine, if not, use someone else, it's okay.

"I chose the arts. It's a career that's not going to make you a lot of money. I made the choice. There're no regrets."

The one big downside to being in show business is the lack of privacy. He says vehemently: "I hate the Taiwanese media with a vengeance. After reading the newspapers, I would wonder, 'Is that me?' If there's another life, I won't be a public figure again."

Recently, there has been speculation over whether his marriage to actress Chen Chen is on the rocks.

Asked how things were between them, he says: "She's taking care of our son Jeremy, going to the studio, and I'm staying away from them. He doesn't want to stick to me either and that's okay. After all, every child wants to be independent."

When Jeremy, 28, first wanted to go into music, Liu had told him: "In this line, whether you make it or not does not just depend on talent. Learning to deal with people is very important but it's his choice. I can only tell him that it's a difficult path."

Liu has another son from a previous marriage to former actress Jiang Qing.

In the last six years, he has been busy with a different kind of project: He is building a sprawling resort in Jiangxi province's Longhushan, "the birthplace of Taoism", he says, where he was speaking to Life! from. About NT$1.2 billion (S$50 million) was reportedly ploughed into the project by Liu and other investors.

It will be his last work and he says matter-of-factly: "I don't have the strength anymore. It's equivalent to building a small town."

He says it is not about the money. "If I wanted to make money, why not go to Shanghai or Beijing? Why come to this mountain valley?

"I wanted to contribute something that would lift the economy of the area. I've never calculated the profit or loss of such a venture."

Bricks and mortar seem like a long way from melodies and lyrics, but Liu says: "Construction is like a solid form of music. It has its proportions and scale and highs and lows. It has everything."

He adds: "There's no Taiwanese media here so I feel freer and at peace with the world."


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Liu Chia-chang's hits and collaborators

Teresa Teng (1953-1995)

Songs written by Liu: Rouge Tears, Going Up The Western Tower Alone

Liu says: Her voice is unrivalled and the tenderness and beauty of her voice are very hard to find.

Fong Fei-fei (1953-2012)

Songs written by Liu: Knock On The Door, Pure Love, I Am Chinese

Liu says: She can sing even Japanese enka with Taiwanese flavour and she has her own special style.

Liu Wen-cheng, 61

Songs written by Liu Chia-chang: Promise, Drizzle Falling On Me, Adorable Girl, Meilan Meilan I Love You

Liu says: His "nya-nya" nasal tone is very special. Where can you find such a pleasant nasal tone?

ST 20140828 BCLIUBZJ8 613857m

Kao Ling-feng (1950-2014)

Songs written by Liu: You're So Cute, Not The Same

Liu says: He did not enunciate his words clearly. That was his style. Why do lyrics need to be so clear anyway?

YuYa, 60

Songs written by Liu: Memories Can Only Be Reminisced, Deep Autumn, Meilan Meilan I Love You

Liu says: That trembly voice of hers, you can tell immediately that it's YuYa. It breaks off when it should not but the effect is very pleasant.

Jeremy Liu, 28

Songs written by Liu Chia-chang: Thinking Of You

Liu says: My son studied music at Musicians Institute so he has his own thing. And his style is different from his peers and it is not necessarily commercial.

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