What a buzz
A hearing problem is one of many pitfalls that fails to stop Hanjin Tan enjoying a career in music
If Beethoven could write songs despite being deaf, it is no surprise music producer Hanjin Tan – who has had hearing problems ever since suffering an ear infection when he was 12 – has still managed to make his mark on the entertainment industry.
“I don’t go to places that are loud and won’t sit in the front row of a concert because it will make my ears feel really uncomfortable, like having a buzzing in them,” he says. “It affects me when I am mixing music, but the more I do it the better I am, so I have no problem making music at all.”
Born in Singapore, Tan – now based in Hong Kong – is one of Asia’s most sought-after singer-songwriters. But when he was young, very few people – except him – believed he had a talent for music.
“I love to sing – I would hum songs when swimming and I love listening to music on the radio,” he says. “At primary school though, my teacher said: ‘Hanjin loves to sing, but doesn’t have a good voice.’ My piano teacher even asked me to give up because I was so bad.”
Secondary school was not much better for Tan, with music the only good thing that happened to him. He went to junior high at Singapore’s Anglo-Chinese School before transferring to a rival school, Raffles Institution, for his senior secondary education.
“I transferred to Raffles because I wanted to learn Japanese, but the course they offered was not what I wanted so I went back to the Anglo-Chinese School. Before that I thought everyone was my friend, but everybody hated me because they thought I was a traitor for attending a rival school. I fell into a deep depression,” he says.
Therapy sessions with a psychiatrist failed to cure him. “It really didn’t work. The medication just made me drowsy,” he says.
Music was the only thing that could cheer him up. “At junior college [high school in Singapore] I was coached by a world-class conductor. I got to travel overseas to perform and it was a world-class music experience. I remained with the choir after I graduated,” he says.
Like every Singaporean male, Tan went into the army after graduating from secondary school. He served as a combat engineer, trained to make explosives and clear mines.
“Army life was boring,” he says. “My unit had the highest suicide rate because it was so strict. It was during this time that I started performing in public. In my free time, I would play the guitar and sing in pubs and bars. The first place I performed at was a hooker pick-up joint. Nobody was listening and I was paid S$20 [about HK$120] a night to play.”
After the army, Tan studied economics at The National University of Singapore and thought of becoming a teacher. “In the end I gave up the idea because I found out that teachers in Singapore spend more time handling administration work than educating young people,” he says.
During his life at university, Tan continued to perform at cafes and bars. “I was offered a chance to play at a cafe for S$80 a night. My friends and I also organised mini-concerts. I just played whatever I wanted to there. It was fun,” he says.
Tan’s music eventually caught the attention of artists in Hong Kong. “I was approached to write songs for Jacky Cheung and that opened a lot of doors for me. Later, Eason Chan asked me to produce the album that brought me here,” he says.
In Hong Kong, Tan’s entertainment career took off. He not only excelled at music but also found himself making appearances on TV and in movies. “The problem was that my Cantonese really sucks,” he says. “Luckily my wife, who is from Hong Kong, helped me get better. My wife always thought the way I spoke Cantonese was cute, until she watched me on the music talent show The Voice. She didn’t think it was cute anymore and started correcting me, so I got better as the show moved on. I also got a lot of chances to practise my Cantonese when I hosted the Mr Hong Kong show with Dodo Cheng.”
Despite enjoying huge success as an entertainer in Hong Kong, Tan’s parents still had doubts about his music career. “They told me music was a good hobby, but get a job. They were worried about me because music production is a very demanding industry. What I make, I invest in my production,’ he says.
“My father used to tell me: ‘Yeah, son, music is nice. Everyone needs music. Music is a good hobby.’ But after I showed them my Hong Kong Film Award for Best New Performer, he was telling everyone his son was in the movies. I have never seen parents so happy.”
After tasting success by starring in Bruce Lee, My Brother, he found a new direction in his entertainment career. “Filming movies is definitely something I enjoy doing, and will continue to do,” he says. “After all, it is not easy for entertainers to make a living from music only and I really love making movies. I get to work with big-name actors and learn from them, and the attention to detail in a movie production really impresses me.”
As for his music career, Tan is looking forward to releasing his own album and going on a world tour. “I hope to release two albums every year. I want to convey the message that happiness can be simple,” he says. “There is unhappiness in our society, and lots of problems. My mother said the past is better but I disagree. I think we should be grateful for what we have. Today, fewer people are hungry and medical support has improved. The world is indeed getting better.”
TAN’S TOP FIVE MUSICAL MUSES
Al Schmitt “A recording engineer and record producer whose music-mixing inspires my work.”
Quincy Jones “He is a genius in arrangement. His ability to work with all kinds of bands, from an orchestra to a punk band, amazes me.”
William Orbit “He is a very daring musician and his creativity is groundbreaking.”
Frank Sinatra “The way he sings is a great inspiration for how I perform.”
U2 “Their style influences me a lot.”