Wang Leehom (Chinese: 王力宏; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Ông Le̍k-hông; born May 17, 1976), sometimes credited as Leehom Wang, is an American singer-songwriter, actor, producer, and film director. Formally trained at Eastman School of Music, Williams College and Berklee College of Music, his music is known for fusing hip-hop and R&B, with traditional Chinese music (Beijing opera, Kunqu, Chinese orchestra, and tribal music from Tibet, Yunan, and Mongolia). Since his 1995 debut, Wang has released 25 albums, that have sold over 60 million copies. He is a four-time winner and 19-time nominee of the Golden Melody Awards, the "Grammys" of Chinese music. His sold-out concert at the 90,000 seat Beijing Bird's Nest on April 14, 2012 was the first solo pop concert to be held at the iconic venue. With over 72 million followers on social media, Wang is one of the most followed celebrities in China (peaked as #1 most followed person in China's social media in 2014). In 2018, CNN dubbed him "King of Chinese Pop" and the LA Times called him "the biggest American star America has never heard of." Wang was listed as one of Goldsea's "The 100 Most Inspiring Asian Americans of All Time."
In addition to his music, Wang has also acted in over twenty films, including Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, Jackie Chan's Little Big Soldier and Michael Mann's Blackhat. He won Best Actor at the 2018 Macau Film Festival. Asia Society presented the 2019 Game Changer Award to Wang Leehom at the U.S.-Asia Entertainment Summit.
He is an environmental activist, and his album Change Me was dedicated to raising eco-awareness among Chinese youth. Wang was one of the first torchbearers for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, and performed in the Olympics' closing ceremony in Beijing. He was again a torchbearer for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, making him the only person in the Mandarin pop circle to have taken part in the event twice. He is a longtime ambassador for World Vision Taiwan and Malaysia.
Wang holds honorary doctoral degrees from both Williams College and Berklee College of Music.
Life and music career
Childhood and early beginnings
Born in Rochester, New York, Wang is the second of three sons of immigrants from Taiwan. His father, a pediatrician, and his mother, moved to the United States to further their college studies in the early 1960s. Influenced by his older brother, Leo Wang, who had been taking violin lessons since he was seven, Wang began to develop a curious interest towards the violin and its musical counterparts when he was three. He begged his mother to put him in violin lessons with his brother but his mother was against it, reasoning that he was too young. When Wang turned six, his mother enrolled him in violin classes, performing along with his brother. As he became a teenager, he began taking piano lessons, also teaching himself the guitar. He also worked several jobs to earn money to buy a second hand drum kit.
He attended Jefferson Road Elementary School, Pittsford Middle School, and Pittsford Sutherland High School in Pittsford, New York. He graduated from Pittsford Sutherland. Passionate for a career in music, he chose to attend Williams College double majoring in music and Asian studies. He joined an all-male a cappella group, The Springstreeters, and the group recorded several demo tracks.
In the summer of 1995, while Wang was visiting his grandparents in Taiwan, he was offered a professional recording contract by Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG) after he participated in a talent competition hosted by the label. Not wanting to lose the opportunity, he immediately began preparing for his debut, and released his debut album Love Rival, Beethoven (情敌贝多芬) that December. The record received little limelight, forcing him to leave the label. He signed with Decca Records the following year, a label then famous for producing "powerful singers" (實力派歌手) in Taiwan. Wanting to also have control in the idol market, the label initially planned to market Wang as the mainstream "romantic idol", like with their previous artist Mavis Fan. However, after discovering Wang's talent in music-making, Decca began promoting him as Taiwan's "quality idol" (優質偶像) instead. Wang released his second album If You Heard My Song in 1996, which included some of his own compositions. He co-wrote the album's eponymous title song, which earned positive responses from the audience. The album drew moderately successful sales, and he became a rising star in the idol market, also finding similar successes with his third and fourth albums. During this time, Wang was asked to leave his college studies to pursue a full-time singing career, but he insisted on finishing school first.
Rise to prominence (1998–2000)
Wang's contract with Decca Records was terminated after the release of his fourth album White Paper in the summer of 1997. After graduating with honors at Williams College, he released his first award-winning album Revolution under Sony Music Entertainment in August 1998. The album became his breakthrough album, immediately selling over 10,000 domestic units in the first week of release. Critics rated the album highly, and it won Wang two Golden Melody Awards—Best Producer and Best Mandarin Male Singer. He was the youngest artist to win in either of the two categories. Wang has been nominated the Best Mandarin Male Singer at the awards every year since the success of Revolution. The singles of Revolution also achieved similar success–"Revolution" became Wang Leehom's first No. 1 single, becoming one of the top 20 songs of the year on Channel V Taiwan.
He continued his studies by attending Berklee College of Music's Professional Music program, with voice as his principal instrument. In 1999, Wang released his sixth album Impossible to Miss You, which combined the catchy pop melodies of Revolution with a quirky style of new-found dance-pop. It became his then best-selling album, selling over 1 million copies. All of the album's promotional singles topped KTV charts and yearly music charts, including the upbeat "Julia" and the ballad "Crying Palm". His album also attracted international attention–Wang won three Best Male Vocalist awards at three different award ceremonies and was also awarded for his musical merit in the album at the 1st annual Asia Chinese Music Awards.
At the beginning of the millennium, Wang began filming for several Cantonese-language Hong Kong blockbusters, which inspired him to study the Cantonese language. He included a Cantonese track, "Love My Song", in the Hong Kong release of Forever's First Day (2000), his seventh album. Unlike his previous two albums, Forever's First Day consisted mainly of melodic R&B tunes. The album's eponymous single is a tragic romantic ballad, speaking of a separation of two individuals. Although raised in New York for most of his life, living in Taiwan made Wang realize the deep roots of his Chinese heritage. Forever's First Day yielded a cover of his uncle's signature song "Descendants of the Dragon"; Wang re-arranged the song with heavier rock and dance elements. The song also included a rap bridge that summarized experiences of his parents living as a Chinese American in New York.
International success (2001–03)
Wang's next album, The One and Only (2001), received phenomenal international success. Selling over 1 million units in Asia, the rock-inspired album won him over seven different prestigious awards throughout 2001 and 2002. The album's title single "The One and Only" peaked No. 1 in almost all available music charts of Taiwan and was on the Ringback Tone No. 1 Download Charts for over a year, becoming his signature song. The One and Only also found success in Japan, opting him to release his first full-length Japanese album The Only One on May 9, 2003. The album only promoted one single, a Japanese version of "The One and Only", but it did not meet success on Japan's Oricon Charts. Wang also began filming several Japanese films, establishing his rising star status in Japan.
Eager to experience and perform different musical genres, Wang embarked on his first Asia-wide concert tour The Unbelievable Tour a few months before the release of his ninth album Unbelievable (2003). His concert tour received great reviews from both fans and music critics; they were impressed and shocked with his new-found hip hop image. His R&B/hip hop-inspired album Unbelievable involved new urban pop numbers, drawing hip hop influences from different styles of popular music, such as Indipop and urban pop. The album marked a milestone in his musical career; his new image received international critical acclaim and the album a chart-topping success, selling over 1.5 million units by 2004. A celebratory version of the album was released three months later, also becoming a chart-topping album. The album's ballad "You're Not Here" also experienced international success, ranking No. 1 on several music charts for over 10 weeks. Unbelievable yielded his second win for Best Producer of the Year at the Golden Melody Awards in 2004.
Since 2004, Wang became known for his brand of China Wind music, known as "chinked-out". Having established himself as one of the most important, influential, and prolific artists in Chinese music, Wang continued to invent and experiment with new sounds and voices. For most of 2004, he traveled to remote villages in China, collecting often unheard tribal sounds of aboriginal Chinese music, Tibetan music, and Mongolian music. With his younger brother Leekai as his assistant, they carried 15 kg of music equipment as he recorded these sounds, recording and producing his album on the way. He incorporated these sounds into R&B and hip hop music, coining the style as "chinked-out". Despite the derogatory nature of the term "chink", Wang had wanted to repossess the term and "make it cool." Shangri-La was released on the last day of 2004, selling 40,000 copies within the first ten days of release. Shangri-La became an international music sensation, especially catching the attention of many youths in Asia. Within a month, the album sold over 300,000 copies, ultimately selling over 1.5 million units.
Wang continued to infuse chinked-out elements into his next album Heroes of Earth (2005). Unlike the aboriginal tribal music heard in Shangri-La, Heroes of Earth contained mixes of Beijing opera and Kunqu. Following the concept of "heroes", he collaborated with Ashin of Mayday ("Beside the Plum Blossoms"), Chinese American rapper Jin and opera master Li Yan ("Heroes of Earth"), and also K-pop artists Rain and Lim Jeong-hee ("Perfect Interaction"). Heroes of Earth was the fastest-selling album of both 2005 and 2006, selling over 1 million copies ten days after its release. Subsequently, the album stayed as No. 1 in the charts for six weeks, and remained in the charts for 23 weeks, ultimately becoming 2006's third best-selling album. By 2007, about 3 million units were sold, and has since been Wang's most commercially and critically successful album. The album earned Wang a Golden Melody Award for Best Mandarin Male Singer for the second time.
Three months after the release of Heroes of Earth, he began the Heroes of Earth Tour, his first major world tour. The concert commenced with two shows per night in the Taipei Dome in March 2006, breaking Taiwan's concert attendance records.
Professional breakthrough (2007–present)
Wang took a break in working on his music to film Lust, Caution (2007), an espionage thriller film directed by Ang Lee. He released a promotional single "Falling Leaves Return to Roots" on June 20, 2007 through Hito Radio, a month before the release of his twelfth studio album, Change Me. "Falling Leaves Return to Roots" incorporated Broadway-influenced musical elements, with classical instrumental accompaniments, such as the violin and piano. When asked about the sudden change of music style, Wang explained that the inspiration behind the song was due to the influence of his portrayal of Kuang Yumin in Lust, Caution. "In the past, I have only been releasing mainstream pop and chinked-out related hip hop. Lust, Caution made me return to 1930's Shanghai, re-living the moment."
Change Me was released on Friday, July 13, despite the superstition generally attached to Friday the 13th. Unlike his previous albums, Change Me mainly concentrates on pop rock, including influences of Broadway ("Falling Leaves Return to Roots") and old-school Taiwanese pop ("You Are a Song in My Heart"). Through this album, he promoted the issue of global warming and raised environmental awareness. The packaging of the album used only recycled paper and contained no plastic. He believed that small changes by each person can change the world. "To change the world, you start with changing yourself." Reviews of the album were generally positive, defining the album as "mature". An online album poll organized by China's Sohu, however, suggested that Wang's album did not meet expectations. Netizens remarked that his chinked-out productions were more impressive, although that genre itself has also been criticized. Nonetheless, over 1 million units were shipped on the first day of release. The album broke past 2 million sales, becoming one of Wang's best-selling albums.
In August 2008, Wang sought US$320,000 in damages for plagiarism by Pritam, an Indian composer. The lead song for the movie Race (2008), composed by Pritam, was allegedly copied from "In the Depths of the Bamboo Forest", a single taken off from Wang Leehom's Shangri-La album. In November 2008, Wang was selected to conduct the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra for their 2008 annual grand finale, being the first Asian pop musician to conduct the orchestra. The concert Hong Kong Music, Leehom Wang (港樂‧王力宏) was held in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre for three nights, with four shows, receiving CNN International coverage throughout.
Wang embarked on his second world tour, the MUSIC-MAN Tour, in the latter months of 2008. The tour commenced with two shows per night in the Taipei Dome in September 2008, three months before the release of Wang's thirteenth studio album, Heart Beat. Heart Beat was released on December 26, debuting at No. 3 on the weekly G-Music charts. The album peaked at No. 1 on its seventh week of release, ultimately staying on the charts for 17 weeks. Like Wang's previous album, Heart Beat showed a similar emphasis of rock influences. The album largely focused on guitar and electric guitar solos, which Wang also used for performances in most of the album's music videos. Wanting to continue a similar "chinked-out" element, the album's first single, "What's Up with Rock?!" incorporated rock influences with Chinese flavor. For the track, he worked with pipa artist Liu Fang, and the two concentrated on mixing both electric guitar elements and pipa strings into the song.
On April 15, 2011, Wang Leehom took home the Best Male Singer (Hong Kong and Taiwan region), Best Album for The 18 Martial Arts, and Best Newcomer Director Award for his directorial debut, Love in Disguise at the Global Chinese Music Awards.
On September 7, 2011, it was announced that Wang hired Wong Fu Productions to direct his upcoming music video.
On November 30, 2012, Wang received the 2012 MAMA (Mnet Asian Music Awards) for "Best Asian Artist".
On December 2, 2012, Wang Leehom surpassed actress Yao Chen to become the Chinese with most Weibo (the most popular micro-blog in China) fans.
On April 21, 2013, Wang became the first Chinese singer invited to speak at Oxford Union at the University of Oxford.
On February 27, 2017, Madame Toussauds revealed Wang's wax statue in their Beijing museum.