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Jay Chou - The Renaissance Man of Chinese Entertainment

Written by Kevin Ma Tell a Friend

Among the Chinese pop artists that emerged during the early 2000s R&B renaissance, no one has found success in as many forms of mass media as Jay Chou. In his ten years in the entertainment industry, he has become one of the biggest pop acts in Asian music and one of the most successful young actors in Asian Cinema as well. He's even become one of the most successful young directors in contemporary Chinese Cinema with a hit debut film. And to think - he started his entertainment career as a failing contestant on a talent show.

Musical Pioneer - Jay Chou the Musician

Jay Chou began to play the piano from the age of 4 and even majored in piano in high school, where he began writing songs. While he was working as a waiter, his friend entered a music talent show and enrolled Jay to accompany her on piano. Even though they lost, popular Taiwanese entertainment figure Jacky Wu, who was the host of the talent show, decided to take him on as a songwriter. Wu also paired Jay up with lyricist Vincent Fang, who would become his closest collaborator. Since 1998, Jay Chou has written at least 114 songs for other artists, including Jacky Wu, Landy Wen, Leehom Wang, Leo Ku, Edmond Leung, Jolin Tsai, Eason Chan, S.H.E., and three of Hong Kong's Four Heavenly Kings (sans Leon Lai), just to name a few.

In late 2000, just before his 22nd birthday, Jay released his self-titled debut album Jay. Featuring a unique mix of R&B, hip-hop, ballads, and even traditional Chinese melody all written by Jay himself, the album caught Chinese pop music fans around the world by surprise and turned the young singer-songwriter into an overnight star. For ballad fans, there are the acoustic guitar-driven "Starry Mood" and the karaoke-friendly hit "Black Humor". For R&B fans, there are "Adorable Woman" and "Bullfighting". There are even tracks such as "Wife" and "Old Indian Turtledove" for fans of alternative hip-hop. With his unique genre blending and now-signature slurred vocals, Jay almost became an instant music sensation throughout Asia. In 2001, the young star won 15 major music awards from Malaysia, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. This was only the beginning of Jay Chou's reign over Chinese pop music.

On the heels of Jay's success, the singer quickly churned out a second album within ten months, thus beginning the tradition of the yearly Jay Chou album. Fantasy is both a continuation and a deviation from the style established in Jay. The album opens with the mid-beat R&B ballad "Love Before A.D.", which features Jay's usual slurred vocals and a smooth bass-driven arrangement. The album then takes a surprisingly dark turn with "Pa, I'm Home", a powerful hip-hop track about domestic violence that shows a serious side Jay had not revealed before. Fantasy also features "Ninja" and "Nunchucks", which began a series of hip-hop tracks featuring traditional Chinese musical elements that would ultimately become another one of Jay's signature musical styles. The album would go on to win six major awards throughout Asia, as well as 20 additional awards for Jay himself. With the awards and sales rolling in, Jay was now a bona-fide star.

The 2002 album The Eight Dimensions is a bit of a transitional album for Jay. By now, there's a sense of expectation for a Jay Chou album, and the lead-up to its release became somewhat of an event. The first release was the music video for the first plug song "The Last Battle", which was essentially a six-minute-long short film. The level of expectation Jay's record company had for The Eight Dimensions was expressed by all the money spent on multiple explosions and gunfights in the video. Furthermore, lyricist Vincent Fang also wrote a photo essay book featuring Jay Chou named "Peninsula Iron Box", the name of a track on the album. Despite its heavy commercialism, The Eight Dimensions retained Jay's signature blend of multiple genres such as hip-hop, R&B, and karaoke-friendly ballad. As expected, The Eight Dimensions again earned Jay multiple awards across the Greater China region and was the best-selling Chinese-language album in several regions, including Hong Kong.

Even though Jay insisted that he had no intentions of changing his musical style, his fourth album Yeh Hwey Mei (named after his mother) offered a more sophisticated Jay. Like Fantasy, it's both a continuation and a slight deviation from his usual style. The first sign of that came with pre-release radio plug, the elegant European-flavored R&B track "In the Name of the Father". The album also features "Coward", one of Jay's first attempts into a more heavy metal-style rock, even though it still featured the signature Chou-style rapping throughout. With another prime summer release date and hungry fans, Yeh Hwei Mei was another multi-million seller and multiple-award winner.

Jay's subsequent albums would continue the established formula - a bit of rock and a bit of R&B fused with Jay's usual slurred rapping, in addition to a few heartwarming ballads. Nevertheless, Jay always added in something new in his arrangements for each album: Common Jasmine Orange featured liberal use of electronic synthesizer; November's Chopin saw Jay's first duet "Coral Sea" (this excludes his cover of "Rooftop", which was first written for Jacky Wu and Landy Wen), as well as his first bubble gum rock song; Still Fantasy featured not only his first Spanish trumpet-driven song, but also his first Bossa Nova ballad. In 2007, Jay took his biggest risk with album On the Run featuring his first American Western country song, "Cowboy on the Run", which ended being a hit with fans as well.

Like his mentor Jacky Wu, Jay has also used his clout in the industry to promote up-and-coming artists. In 2004, he put together the rock-pop group Nan Quan Mama and even contributed a song to their debut album. The group would win numerous awards in the Greater China region, including Best New Rock Group, Outstanding Mandarin Group, and even Most Promising Group. Meanwhile, Jay remained involved in the group's development over the years, attending award ceremonies with the group and putting members in his own music videos. Most recently, he even brought them around the world, putting them on stage as part of his latest worldwide concert tour.

From Music Videos to Feature Films - Jay Chou the Actor

2003 marked Jay's acting debut. However, it was only a cameo in the Hong Kong film Hidden Track, in which he played the object of obsession for the film's main character (the Chinese title of the film literally translates to "Searching for Jay Chou"). Despite his brief appearance in the film, he contributed two songs to it, reinforcing his true role as a musician. In actuality, Jay was actually getting acting practice over the years by playing a variety of roles in his music videos, including a traumatized soldier, a globetrotting spy, and even an Italian gangster.

Finally in 2005, Jay Chou took on his first feature film role in Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Initial D, the big-budget, Hong Kong-Japan co-produced adaptation of the hit Japanese comic. Jay's introverted personality and cool looks made him a perfect fit for the main character, quiet aspiring racer Takumi. The star-studded film pitted the first-time actor against a cast featuring Shawn Yue, Edison Chen, Jordan Chan, Chapman To, and Hong Kong Film Award winner Anthony Wong. Fans of both Jay and the comic alike flocked to the theaters, making it the highest-grossing Chinese language film in Hong Kong that year. Jay's performance also won him the Best New Actor Award at both the Golden Horse Awards and the Hong Kong Film Awards.

Jay took a slight step back for his second feature film role, playing a pivotal supporting character in Zhang Yimou's period epic Curse of the Golden Flower alongside international superstars Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat. Touted as the most expensive Chinese film at the time, Curse of the Golden Flower remains Jay's biggest project to date. In the film, he plays a warrior prince who conspires with his mother in a coup against his father, the king. Jay's appearance in the film helped attract the younger audiences to the theaters, making it a major hit in the Greater China region. Jay's performance also earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards. While he didn't win the acting award, he managed to pick up the Best Original Song award for the film's theme song "Chrysanthemum Terrace", originally featured in his 2006 album Still Fantasy.

Taking the Reins - Jay Chou the Director

Jay began his directorial career with a music video for Nan Quan Mama's debut album in 2004. He then directed four more music videos in 2005, this time for his album November's Chopin. In the following year, he began to take on the role of director for all of his music videos, starting with the songs from Still Fantasy. Jay is now responsible for all the major creative stages of his music videos, from conceptualizing to editing. Director Zhang Yimou, after watching a few of Jay's videos, even publicly said that Jay's directorial skills may surpass his own in the future. With two high-profile roles and many music videos in his filmography, Jay took the next natural step: directing a feature film.

Jay's directorial debut Secret is very much like his music - a unique blend of multiple genres that makes the finished product stand as its own. Co-written by Jay and young Hong Kong screenwriter Christine To (who made a high-profile debut herself with the screenplay for Jiang Hu while she was still in university), Secret stars Jay and young actress Guey Lun Mei as music school students who fall in love at first sight, despite a secret carried by one of them that threatens to tear them apart. Co-starring Anthony Wong and featuring impressive visuals by famed cinematographer Lee Bing Pin, Secret had the right formula and the right hype for a hit film. Thanks to strong word-of-mouth, the film became one of the highest-grossing Chinese-language films in both Hong Kong and Taiwan that year. It was also nominated for four awards at the Golden Horse Awards and managed to pick up three of them - Best Original Song, Best Visual Effects, and Outstanding Taiwanese Film of the Year.

What's Next for "President Chou"?

Despite Secret's success, Jay has said that directing film is considerably more difficult because of the time constraint and storyline. In the meantime, he continues to direct all of his music videos, including the ones from his latest album On the Run. He also starred in the hit 2008 Lunar New Year sports film Kung Fu Dunk. Thanks to its success in the Chinese box office, a sequel for the film is now in the works, with Chou already signed up to reprise his role as a basketball player with powerful martial arts skills.

Even with all the acting and directing credentials, Jay is still first and foremost a musician. In addition to starring in and directing Secret, he co-composed the film's score with Terdsak Janpan. In April 2007, he established JVR Records, a record company Jay developed with Vincent Fang and his agent. Later in the year, coinciding with the release of On the Run, he embarked on a successful worldwide concert tour, making 2007 his most productive year yet.

Like every year, Jay will be working on a new album in 2008, with its release planned for the second half of the year. With his proven talent in multiple forms of the arts, what else will Jay Chou pull out of his sleeves next? In ten years, the introverted young man from Taiwan has established himself as not only a musical pioneer, but a true pop star in every way.

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Published May 26, 2008

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