One of the most popular artists in Chinese pop history, American-born Chinese singer Alexander Leehom Wang -- known by Asian fans as Wang Leehom -- is a Mandopop singer/songwriter who also counts producer, actor, and director among his many roles. Born in Rochester, New York, Wang picked up his first instrument, the violin, at the age of three. From there, the multi-instrumentalist learned piano, guitar, and drums. While attending Williams College, he sang in an a cappella group, honing his vocal abilities with a group called the Springstreeters. In 1995, at the age of 19, he joined his family on a fortuitous trip to visit his grandparents in Taiwan, where he was offered a deal by BMG. Within months, Wang had recorded his debut album, Love Rival Beethoven, and it was released by the end of that year. Initially, the album failed to make a splash, which resulted in a split from BMG to Decca. His 1996 sophomore LP, If You Heard My Song, helped further push his heartthrob image with R&B-influenced ballads and midtempo love songs. Missing You was issued later that same year.
After Wang released his fourth effort, 1997's White Paper, he made the leap to Sony Music Entertainment. 1998's Revolution became his breakthrough album, producing a number one single (the title track) and garnering him a pair of victories for Best Producer and Best Mandarin Male -- the youngest artist to win either category -- at that year's Golden Melody Awards (the Taiwan Grammys). Despite the whirlwind of success in Asia, Wang returned to the U.S. for his graduate studies, enrolling at Berklee College of Music in 1999. He recorded his sixth album that year. Impossible to Miss You featured the hit single "Julia" and expanded his visibility in Asia. Seizing the opportunity to reach a wider market, he recorded the Cantonese-language "Love My Song" for inclusion on his seventh set, Forever's First Day. The 2000 album contemporized his sound, adding more R&B and dance elements to his previous ballad-heavy output.
At this time, the former Asian studies major began to delve deeper into his Chinese roots, which would eventually lead to his breakthrough stylistic shift. He recorded a cover of the Chinese standard "Descendants of the Dragon," transforming the classic into a rock-inflected dance track that added a cross-cultural rap verse at the end. That song would become one of his live staples and Forever's First Day set him up for his first major hit. The One and Only arrived in 2001 and, with the help of the yearning title track, managed to break the singer into the Japanese market.
He continued his regional ascent in 2003 with the platinum-selling Unbelievable, which he supported with his first Asian tour. Unbelievable began Wang's big shift toward hip-hop and won him his second award for Best Producer in 2004. Riding a wave of creative inspiration, Wang embarked on a trek through China to source sounds for his next album. Recording on the road, he combined R&B and hip-hop beats with folk music elements from Southwestern China, Taiwan, Tibet, Mongolia, India, and Turkey. The resulting LP, Shangri-La, was released on New Year's Eve. Another chart-topper for Wang, it produced a string of hit singles, including "Forever Love," "The Heart's Sun and Moon," "Release Your Heart," and "At That Faraway Place." Wang dubbed his evolution in sound "chinked-out," a misguided but well-intentioned attempt at reclaiming the racial slur. While he persisted with the use of the term, he received moderate criticism from fans and critics. In spite of the controversy, Wang forged ahead with his eleventh effort, Heroes of Earth. Furthering the sonic experiments of Shangri-La, Heroes of Earth fused hip-hop with Chinese opera and became Wang's biggest album to date, reaching platinum status in a little over a week. Heroes spawned the hit singles "Beside the Plum Blossoms" with Ashin of Taiwanese rock band Mayday; "Heroes of Earth" with American-Cantonese rapper Jin and Chinese opera master Li Yan; the er-hu slow jam "Mistake in the Flower Fields"; and "The Perfect Interaction" with K-pop singers Rain and J-Lim. For much of the following two years, Wang remained on the road with an expansive world tour, stopping in China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, and the United States. In between tour dates, Wang filmed scenes for his role in Ang Lee's award-winning international hit, 2007's Lust, Caution, and recorded his 12th LP, Change Me. Inspired by the 1930s setting of old Shanghai from the film, Wang incorporated Broadway and classical elements into the album's songs.
2008 would be another big year for the singer. In addition to his promotional music efforts for the Beijing Summer Olympics, he released his 13th album, the rock-inflected Heart Beat, and kicked off the MUSIC-MAN World Tour. The next year, he starred with Jackie Chan in the film Little Big Soldier and recorded his next album, The 18 Martial Arts. Incorporating electronic elements for the first time, the LP featured Golden Melody Song of the Year nominee "All the Things You Never Knew," the theme song to his directorial debut, Love in Disguise. He won Best Male (Hong Kong/Taiwan Region) and Best Album at the Global Chinese Music Awards, as well as Best Newcomer Director for Love in Disguise. In China, the film became the highest grossing to date for a first-time director.
At the close of the 18 Martial Arts era, Wang took a break from the spotlight for the first time in over a decade and started a family. When he returned to his music, his style took another turn. The first taste of his 15th album was "Lose Myself," a collaboration with electronic dance producer Avicii. The song appeared on 2015's Your Love, alongside "Dream Life" with big-bass Asian-American producers Far East Movement and "Love a Little" with actress Ziyi Zhang. That year, Wang also starred with Chris Hemsworth in Michael Mann's cyber-thriller, Blackhat. In 2016, Wang contributed to another movie, Zhang Yimou's Matt Damon action-adventure flick The Great Wall. Performing the theme song, "Bridge of Fate," with rock singer Weiwei Tan, he merged his pop vocals with her delivery, which was inspired by the traditional folk opera of China's Shaanxi province. At the end of the year, Wang was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from his alma mater, Berklee College. ~ Neil Z. Yeung