Portrait of a hit man
Hanjin Tan has spent the past decade learning the rules of the Chinese pop music industry in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. 'I got into a lot of fights during the first half of my career, but in the second half of my 10 years in the business I learned how to deal with it,' says the singer-arranger-songwriter-producer and the man behind a catalogue of popular Chinese hits.
The multi-talented Singaporean, who has introduced new sounds to Canto-pop and helped shape the scene, is happy with the recognition and commercial success he has earned. Yet deep down, he knows talent is not enough to ensure success in the commercial music world: one also needs to understand the art of compromise and, most of the time, a bit of luck.
'In this world, you don't get results simply because you do things well. This is just one aspect. You have to learn how to respect the people you work with,' says Tan, who has collaborated with Hong Kong stars such as Eason Chan Yick-shun, Sammi Cheng Sau-man, Leon Lai Ming, Joey Yung Cho-yee, Denise Ho Wan-sze and Edison Chen Koon-hei.
'I understand my place. I'm just a third-party service provider who helps my clients get what they want. So, I realise their needs. Even when I was fighting with them, at the end of the day, I still had to give in to them. You never win. You only win when they don't care - let's say when they're working on their final album. Those were the few occasions when I won and was able to create some really fun work,' he says.
'Since I learned those lessons, I've become a much better producer and service provider for my clients, record labels and management companies.'
Tan first showed his flair for songwriting on Jacky Cheung Hok-yau's No Regret Mando-pop album in 1998, penning the bluesy Set Me Free; the young writer followed up with more tracks for Cheung's Cantonese and Putonghua albums in 1999. In 2001, Tan achieved his breakthrough by producing Eason Chan's Putonghua album It's Me, Eason and the single Love is Suspicious, which he wrote, produced and also provided a rap.
Tan initially focused on writing hits for the Taiwanese market, since the island is the main market for Singaporean musicians. In his early days, he also tried mixing, rapping, writing lyrics, producing and arranging. With increasing opportunities to work on more Cantonese albums - such as Edison Chen's well-received hip hop record Please Steal This Album in 2004, and Denise Ho's concept album Ten Days in the Madhouse in 2008 - he moved to this city three years ago.
'I didn't choose to shift base to Hong Kong - I think Hong Kong chose me. Over the years I was doing more and more Cantonese albums for Hong Kong artists. If I'm doing a whole album for them, they'd prefer that I did it in Hong Kong,' he says.
Tan is co-founder of The Invisible Men, a music production house that he established with fellow producer Alex Fung in 2004. Although it produced a pile of chart-toppers and award-winning songs, the studio shut down last year when its lease ended.
Tan has since moved on to acting and his own projects. The company 'was an entrepreneurial move', he says, not a visionary plan aimed at changing the music scene.
'I don't think it's up to me [to change the scene]. It's up to the people who make up the Canto-pop community,' he says, adding that the Chinese music industry has been limited by its focus on short-term profit.
'You need this because of the way record labels are structured. Most CEOs sign on for a term of two years - and this period is too short to develop musical acts. Bands and musicians take three to five albums to start to bloom.'
The limits of the Canto-pop industry have pushed him to pursue his own projects and get his creative juices flowing freely. In 2009, the jazz aficionado released the widely acclaimed album Raw Jazz, on which he performed jazz standards with a three-piece band.
A year later, he collaborated with American-born Chinese rapper MC Jin (Jin Au-yeung) on the album Buy One Get One Free. Last year, he released the solo pop album Who is Hanjin, a summary of his 10 years in the music industry. He says these projects are 'his outlet for pursuing good records and performances'.
Tan, who began learning the piano at the age of nine, has always been an enthusiastic singer and hoped to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. But his family could not afford the tuition and he wound up studying at the National University of Singapore.
At the time he started to write music, he also played in pubs in Singapore where he polished his guitar playing and performance skills. After recently releasing an English record, He is Hanjin, featuring some of his most significant demos, the hitmaker is now preparing to stage his first solo concert at the Hong Kong Coliseum later this month.
The concert, divided into various segments such as rock, ballads and piano songs, jazz and acoustic, will end with a mash-up of his hits.
'Hanjin is known to some as a rapper and to others as a singer, writer, lyricist, arranger, engineer, producer, actor and TV personality,' says Tan, speaking of himself in the third person. 'I'd like to put all these elements into perspective at the show.'
Tan made his film debut last year playing Bruce Lee's best friend in Bruce Lee, My Brother - a role that won him the best newcomer accolade at the 2011 Hong Kong Film Awards. He also appears in TVB sitcom Til Love Do Us Lie.
'We have no control over anything in our lives except our bodies and minds. All I can do is keep doing the best I can, so that I have no regrets. That's all I can do - chase my dreams and ideals, do something to help people, and try to become a good and useful person, and a good musician.'
Hanjin Tan, Feb 24, 8.15pm, Hong Kong Coliseum, 9 Cheong Wan Rd, Hung Hom, HK$180-HK$480, Urbtix. Inquiries: 2734 9009