The Life Interview

Singapore musician Chen Jiaming shuns the limelight

Chen Jiaming is an established songwriter-producer, but he keeps a low profile, shunning media interviews

Singapore musician Chen Jiaming has written chart-topping hits and worked with some of the brightest names in the Mandopop scene.

But few people will recognise the established songwriter-producer, who has painstakingly kept a low profile over the years.

His face is nowhere to be seen on the poster for a recent concert celebrating his three decades as a musician. The poster shows a silhouette of his headshot in profile; it could have been anyone, really.

When he finally appeared on stage at the end of the sold-out three-hour gig, Songs From Chen Jiaming, held in his honour at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Feb 13, he seemed surprised when a microphone was thrust into his hands.

He has shunned the limelight for years, refusing media interviews and dodging press cameras.

At this interview in the Bukit Batok office of the tribute concert producer, TCR Music Station, Chen's first words to the photo- journalist are: "Can I hide my face?"

When we performed as Di Xia Tie, it wasn’t a deliberate decision on my part not to sing. But Eric Moo was so good at singing and had a stronger desire to perform, so why not. I was happy to leave it to someone who could do it well. I was content to mostly write lyrics.

MUSICIAN CHEN JIAMING, on being a member of the seminal xinyao (Singapore songs) group Di Xia Tie (Mandarin for Underground Express) while at Jurong Junior College with schoolmate Eric Mo

Given his low profile, people often mistakenly think he is the same person as singer and music producer Wu Jiaming.

Chen chuckles as he recalls how the confusion deepened at one point when both music producers lived near each other in Holland Drive coincidentally.

While he chooses to fly below the radar, his songs have soared and left their mark on the music scene both here and in the region.

At the tribute concert, singer- songwriter Roy Loi said in earnest: "Singapore music would have been andan (Mandarin for dark and dull) without him."

The line-up of performers also included Olivia Ong, Jocie Guo, Jim Lim and MICappella.

Chen, 51, began contributing to the scene as a member of the seminal xinyao (Singapore songs) group Di Xia Tie (Mandarin for Underground Express) while at Jurong Junior College with schoolmate Eric Moo.

He wrote about youthful optimism in Young Hearts and the Vietnamese refugees in Singapore in Feast Of The Departed. He penned the lyrics for Moo's solo hits such as Too Foolish and Why Be Lonely.

Cool outside, passionate inside

His biggest success, however, was as producer and songwriter for home-grown singer Mavis Hee.

She broke into the competitive Chinese music scene in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the late 1990s with elegiac ballads about loneliness and lost love. Dubbed Singapore's Faye Wong, her album sales eclipsed those of the heavenly kings and queens of Chinese pop at the peak of her career.

So why is Chen so media shy?

Dressed to blend in in a long- sleeved dark blue T-shirt and jeans, he tries to explain his aversion to attention.

"Maybe it has to do with my personality. I don't really like to be in front, on the stage," he says.

"Also, the creative process has its own world and you're attuned to a different rhythm when thinking about things. Moving from that to being the centre of attention takes time and I'm happy to just remain behind the scenes."

He adds: "I'm reminded of what (Czech-born author) Milan Kundera said, that a writer should hide in the shadows of his works."

Chen, who studied philosophy at Taiwan's National Chengchi University, insists his behaviour is not an affectation.

Singer Loi, 53, who has known him for three decades, describes him in Mandarin as mensao, cool on the outside and passionate on the inside. But he points out that Chen was never this low-key in the past. "He has heaped more restrictions on himself now and he must have his reasons."

Part of it could be due to his brush with the media in the past.

In 2000, Taiwanese reports linked him to his waifish protege Hee and said that his marriage to former radio deejay Peng Xiumei - they did not have children - was on the brink of divorce. This was denied by both Chen and Hee, but rumours continued to swirl.

When asked about Peng, he gives an apologetic smile and will only say softly: "She was a pretty important source of emotional support for me at one time."

For much of the interview, Chen is thoughtful and open with his answers, but that episode is one area that is clearly off-limits.

As for Hee, she ended her record label contract in 2001 and gradually faded away until she had a mental breakdown in public in 2006 that made headlines.

It was a sad turn of events for an artist who had been hand-picked in 1993 by Chen, then the music director of Accord Music Production, as the next big thing in music.

On what made her stand out, he says: "Of course, her voice. When it came to her voice and her looks, you could guess that there was something beneath, waiting to be uncovered. And, in the end, it was more than what you could have imagined."

Theirs was a winning partnership. Moonlight In The City, with music and lyrics by Chen, quickly became a classic and Hee's signature song.

Yet when it debuted as the theme song of the Channel 8 drama series Tofu Street (1996), it was considered a risky choice.

At a time when catchy pop tunes of the heavenly kings ruled the airwaves, the gentle ballad with its classical feel seemed somewhat out of place.

Nonetheless, it struck a chord with listeners and it has been covered by popular artists such as Chyi Chin and Jam Hsiao.

Others questioned his choice of title for the track Regret on Hee's 1996 album of the same name because it went against convention - the word "regret" did not appear in the lyrics of the song. For Chen, however, "it was about doing something new and not merely following the tried-and-tested way".

His view on music-making may have been influenced by his largely informal music education. He took classical guitar lessons as a student at The Chinese High School, but counts his life experience between the ages of seven and 10 as his formative years as a musician.

During that period, fluctuating family fortunes - his parents came from rich families - forced his family of five to move from a "grand residence in the east" to a kampung house and everything else in between.

In turn, he came into contact with people from all spheres of society who listened to all types of music.

To eke out a living, his father drove a taxi, worked in a rubber- processing factory and then as a warehouse manager, until he retired, while his mother was a housewife and took care of him and his two younger brothers.

The family was at its lowest when he was 10 and they lived on expired canned food that other people had thrown away.

He speaks lightly of that grim period and even finds a silver lining.

"Of course, given a choice, no one would want to go through such tough times," he says. "On the other hand, it was an experience that can't be bought with money."

The never-say-die sentiment in I Can Take Hardships, the rousing theme song which he wrote for the period drama series Stepping Out (1999), seems to have come straight from his own experience.

After completing national service, Chen went to Taiwan for further studies.

To make ends meet, he juggled studies with part-time work at the record label Passion, founded by famed Taiwanese music songwriter-producers Tsao Chun-hung and the late Liang Hung-chih. He wrote songs, learnt about music production and worked with major recording artists such as Ouyang Fei Fei and Regina Tsang.

In a telephone interview from Taiwan, Tsao, 66, says: "He was quiet, but I could feel his passion for music and he had a sensitivity for it from his lyrics. I thought that if this kid was interested in music, I was willing to give him that opportunity."

He is heartened to see that the young man he once mentored has done well.

"In the end, you need to have your own style and ideas. He has found his own path and we're happy for him."

As a producer, Chen says he has mellowed with age and now places more emphasis on a singer's ability to convey emotion than vocal technique.

Still, he is unapologetic about his standards. "It's better for me to pick at something than for the audience to pick the song apart after it goes out."

When singer Olivia Ong, 30, worked with him for her maiden foray into Mandopop in 2008, she was a little worried.

She says: "I heard that he was reserved and quiet. But he's mild and calm in person and that put me in a calm mood."

He was the writer and producer of her lilting ballad Like A Swallow, the theme song for the popular TV series The Little Nyonya (2008). It was her first Chinese hit and paved the way for her successful transition from singing in English and Japanese.

While Chen served as the executive producer on Ong's other albums, he also worked with Hee. He produced the soundtrack for the period music TV drama A Song To Remember (2011), on which she sang four numbers.

She has also been sending him songs which she has been writing over the years.

He says: "In terms of numbers, there are more than 10 presentable songs. The newest one was just from a few weeks ago. We're still thinking about how best to release them."

Chen writes and produces music full-time as a free agent and takes on the role of music director for TCR Music Station's xinyao concerts.

The philosopher in him muses: "I've been moved by songs and have drawn strength from them and if I can do that for others with my works, I'm very happy to do so. It's hard to say whether I chose music or music chose me."

What he has no desire to do is repeat himself.

"I get very scared when I'm approached to write a song 'just like' Moonlight In The City. Some producers work with templates, but I won't be able to live with myself if I did that," he says.

"Innovation and sincerity are very important. I'd rather try something different."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'Low profile, high impact'. Print Edition | Subscribe