Taiwan-based singer-songwriter Wakin Chau produced a number of popular tunes such as You Make Me Happy and Sad and Flower's Heart in the late 1980s and 1990s. With more than 40 albums to his name, the Hong Kong-born multi-platinum-selling artist is known for his catchy music, smooth vocals and 'nice guy' persona. In 2008, he formed Super Band with acclaimed Taiwanese songwriter-producer Jonathan Lee, rocker Chang Chen-yue and singer-songwriter Lo Ta-yu, and for the past couple of years has been touring the world.
Chau also acted in movies such as Just Married and Who's the Woman, Who's the Man? In this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival, which opens next week, Chau, 50, takes on the role of musical director and composer of 108 Heroes, Tales from The Water Margin. The theatrical musical adaptation of a Chinese classic novel is directed by Taiwan's Wu Hsing-kuo and written by novelist Chang Ta-chuen.
You first collaborated with Wu and Chang in 2007's Water Margin musical. How does it feel working with them again?
I've been a fan of Wu for many years. I watched his production of a Shakespeare play adapted and presented as a Peking opera. It was a groundbreaking performance. I'm also a big fan of Chang. He's young, but he has already produced many works of literature. When they asked me to write music for the show, I said yes right away. They are serious about what they do and I totally trust them.
I was intimidated at first because both of them are so respected. But they welcome input and everyone can express their ideas in meetings. So I decided to be confident and enjoy this opportunity. All I needed to think about was how to blend Peking opera with pop music. At first it was tough, but we managed to make it work. The last production was about the beginning of The Water Margin; this time we are doing the ending of the story.
How do the three of you interact?
The interaction between us is very interesting. We communicated really well last time. For this production, we had a few meetings and since then we've been exchanging ideas mostly by e-mail and over the phone. I recorded the first song in Beijing. The other four songs were done in Shanghai. I also completed two demos when I was in Singapore recently.
It's busy, there's a lot of pressure, but it's fun. This project has given me a few sleepless nights. When Chang sent over the lyrics, I started to imagine how Wu would present it on stage and, after a few phone calls, I began to think about the music.
Did you have any new ideas for this production?
Our idea is to blend Peking opera with jazz music. We're still experimenting. We're not sure how it will end up, but we won't make it sound too strange. It's something very new. As a pop singer, I get a bit bored with writing pop music and ballads; the process is more or less the same each time. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to try something different.
Is writing music for the theatre very different from making pop music?
Yes, it's quite different. But it's a good challenge. There were a few nights when I pondered on whether the music I wrote for this play was going to be too close to pop, and whether it was the right style for a play based on The Water Margin. I don't want to make music that sounds like it belongs in a television drama series.
With this production, I was inspired to use a different approach. There's one song in the play that could belong in a Western musical such as Cats or Phantom of the Opera, but tinged with Peking opera and jazz. It's something I could never do with my own albums.
Where did you get the inspiration to write the music for this play?
Everywhere, from wuxia television drama theme songs to movie soundtracks to pop. I think Wu would like to make Peking opera more accessible to the audience by adding pop music elements. Movies and television have overshadowed other traditional performances. If they did a very classic Peking opera today, I think there would be a lot of obstacles. So I have to make sure the music is a good blend of traditional Peking opera and pop music.
Do you like the story of The Water Margin?
Yes, it's a real classic. There are so many characters in it and each one has a very different personality. It talks of politics, love, hatred and friendship. I remember, during the 70s, I watched a Japanese production of The Water Margin. You can see how influential the story is.
After this production, what projects do you have lined up?
I'm working on a solo album, set to be released in April. I haven't released a CD since In the Rain in 2006. I'm working on the show and my album at the same time.
You haven't been back to Hong Kong for quite a long time, right?
Yes, I'm based in Taipei and I don't visit Hong Kong often. I'm not the kind of singer who seeks out publicity or has songs topping the charts all the time. I'm over that stage already. I'm enjoying my career. I'm touring the mainland most of the time. I just finished a concert in Guangxi. Since the Hong Kong market is so small, I have few chances to come back.
108 Heroes, Tales from The Water Margin, 8pm, March 4 to 6, and 3pm, March 5. Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Tickets HK$420, HK$320, HK$260 and HK$200, Urbtix. Reservations: 2734 9009