Alec Su on Making His Return to Music After Decades Away: ‘Today, I Am a Singer’

“Today, I am a singer,” Alec Su You-peng says shortly after he sits down.

After nearly three decades, Su, formerly a member of one of the earliest Chinese boy bands, is ready to make a comeback as a singer in another band this year with new music.

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Such is its power — music always has a way of making enthusiasts return to it no matter how long they have been away.

Music is as vital as water

Su learned to play the keyboard at a very young age. However, when he was in middle school, his parents wanted him to excel academically and therefore made him give up his music lessons. It was also then that Su became fascinated with pop music. He followed Billboard hits introduced by radio DJs. Music gradually became the most reassuring haven and source of companionship for teenage Su. He rattled off the names of some of his favorite superstars, such as George Michael, who had a glorious singing voice, and Mariah Carey, who can sing beautiful melodies with pearl-like clarity.

“It may sound like a bit of an exaggeration, but at that time, music was like water to me. I could not live without it,” Su says. Looking at the Billboard logo during his Billboard China cover interview, Su says, “This had been a window to my life.”

Growing up in Taipei, Su was a teenage singer in Taiwanese boy band Xiao Hu Dui (also known as Little Tigers). The record company provided the band members with basic performance training before their debut. Blessed with his previous theoretical foundation and musical knowledge, Su excelled in his musical studies and gradually enhanced his songwriting skills. By the time of his solo release, he had a better opportunity to gradually showcase his creative talent. He composed songs in a variety of styles, such as “Ca Jian Er Guo” (Like ships that pass in the night), “Xun Zhao” (Seeking) and “Da Bu Liao” (Big deal). However, Su rarely brings up his original works. In his opinion, creation is highly specialized. An abundance of creative energy, continuous inspiration, and a huge time investment are all essential. He believes if he cannot even satisfy himself with the music he creates, there is no need to describe himself as a composer to the public.

Over the past 30 years, Su has dabbled in several trends, including folk music, love songs, R&B, hip-hop and electronic music. He says he would always keep up with the latest trend even though he may not be able to pull off every style. This is something that singers must try to achieve.

Su also misses the older days of music where it was simpler. “Back then, to get your song on the music charts, you only had to ensure that it sold well and did well on radio and TV,” he says. “Now the evaluation is much more complicated. Streaming data is also taken in account. In short, I feel that the value of songs hitting music charts is not quite the same now.”

Customized playlists and smart music recommendations that are popular on the Internet do not seem to reflect Su’s preferences very well. However, making playlists used to be his favorite thing. When he was in middle school, he recorded songs from the radio onto cassette tapes and then transcribed them into his exclusive collection. Only his best friends could receive such a tape on their birthdays. Su admits that now he, like most people, does not have the time or energy to select songs and make his own playlist. He has gradually become used to being “fed” by streaming media. However, no matter what stage of his career he was at, his love for music has never strayed.

Keep going, there’s always a door open for you

In the late 1980s when they rose to fame in their native Taiwan and throughout Asia, Xiao Hu Dui had an unparalleled influence that was beyond the reach of the idol bands that followed. After the band split in 1995, its three members each started a new phase in their lives.

From singer to actor, Su was rejected many times because of his baby face and idol status. He left everything behind to travel overseas for leisure and further his studies in the United Kingdom. But after returning home, his will to achieve his goals still remained strong.

Su devoted his full attention to each of his records and eventually composed classic songs such as “Bei Bao” (Backpack), “Zhen Xi” (Cherish), “Deng Dao Na Yi Tian” (Waiting for That Day) and “Wo De Hao Xin Qing” (My Good Mood). In his acting career, he has portrayed different personalities in roles such as Yong Qi (My Fair Princess), Du Fei (Romance in the Rain), Zhang Wuji (Heavenly Sword and Dragon Saber) and Bai Xiaonian (The Message). His progress is evident with each passing role.

Later in his career, Su turned to directing. He does not see The Left Ear or The Devotion of Suspect X as perfect, but the rigor and meticulousness displayed in his work makes the detail of his films worthy of attention.

Su is now working on his third film. According to the initial plan, shooting will start in October. In March, he unexpectedly received an offer to star in the show Call Me By Fire. At first, he politely declined the offer because the show’s shooting schedule conflicted with his film production schedule. However, the show’s crew was unwilling to give up on him. His film partner later learned of this situation and was willing to set up a film crew for him in Changsha, allowing him to work on the film production between his show recordings. Su agreed to join the show two days before shooting began.

Su was told that the show’s audience would determine whether celebrity contestants would stay or leave. As most of the audience was between 20 and 30 years old, they would have been familiar with his film and TV hits. But Su felt that since he was returning to the music stage, there was no reason for him to sidestep Xiao Hu Dui’s songs. “Xiao Hu Dui has a lot of hits, but I am not a great dancer,” he says, “I had to prepare for more than three months before I performed ‘Qing Ping Guo Le Yuan (Green Apple Paradise)’ on my debut as a mentor on Produce Camp 2019. So I just avoided songs that would require dancing. I thought I would never ever forget the dance using sign language for the song “Ai” (Love), but to my surprise, I had trouble remembering the details. Later, I found a sign-language video from a young girl on the Internet to refresh my sign-language skills.”

When rehearsing, Su realized he was out of practice; his moves and control over his expressions never seemed to be precise. “It was easy for me to tell the trainees how to perform while mentoring them,” he says. “But when it came to my turn to perform, I realized it was difficult to regain the skills I had back then.”

In the end, the performance of “Ai “(Love)  went viral online.

When he returned to the stage, it was as if he was once again the young man who was not afraid of the arduous journey ahead. He fought hand-in-hand with his band and eventually won another opportunity to establish his boy band in a starring role. Su often considered himself a poor dancer. But with the help of his team, he started to enjoy dancing. It was more gratifying to Su than being the center of the boy band. “It was a miracle for me,” he says.

Su went from being an idol singer to a popular TV and movie actor, then a director, and now a singer again. “We should seize the present moment, and not worry about where it may lead,” he says. “You just keep moving forward, and sometimes you do not know which door will open for you.”

Catching up with everyone through new work

When Su first debuted, the route to becoming a star was monopolized by various companies. There was a high entry requirement to become a star. However, in the era of self-media, everyone has the opportunity to become famous. From his perspective, that is definitely a good thing, but it also means the superstar era is gradually fading away, as celebrities are slowly becoming less mysterious and less distant from the audience.

In the past, the young and famous Xiao Hu Dui members were adored by a large number of fans. This made the band members quite nervous, so they made a pact with their fans to place an emphasis on honor and order, hoping that everyone would focus more on their individual lives. Su, as a first-generation idol, is a bit puzzled by  fandom behavior today. “As idols, we must understand our value and responsibility, then set examples for our fans, and continuously strengthen our performing skills,” he says. “The adoration of celebrities should never be quantified in monetary terms, nor should it be used as an excuse to interfere with other people’s lives. Celebrity fandom is supposed to be a positive thing. How does this become a shackle between celebrities and their fans these days?”

While the release schedule is still being finalized, fans should be able to hear two of Su’s new songs before the Lunar New Year (beginning Jan. 22).

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