Refuse To Behave – Chen Sheng 陈升

Chen Sheng 1988

Taiwanese songwriter Chen Sheng (Bobby Chen) 陈升 has once been dubbed the modern day Li Bai 李白- just as talented, just as rebellious, unworldly and insensitive to sociopolitical cues. As a result of his refusing to behave (or submit) and his somewhat idealistic approach to the business of pop music, the commercial success of his compositions, though impressive, is way behind that of his peers like Jonathan Li 李宗盛 and Luo Da You 罗大佑.

At one of his concerts, he sold a special class of tickets (in addition to the normal tickets) one year ahead of time. The offer for these special tickets was two seats for the price of one. It was an absurdly good deal, but there was a catch.

1. Each pair of tickets must be bought by a courting couple.
2. When the concert starts a year later, the seats must be occupied by the same couple. If not, the tickets would be null and void.

On the day of the concert, there were many empty seats. Yes, many of the couples who thought that their love would last forever had broken up. Any astute businessman would have capitalised on the terms and conditions of the “couple tickets” and sold the empty seats at the last minute. He could have earned the price of three seats for two seats, but Chen Sheng was adamant that the seats must be left empty to prove his point in the song 明年你还会爱我吗 Will You Still Love Me Next Year. It was a costly way to make a statement and that is the hallmark of Chen Sheng. Ironically, Chen maintains that he first entered the industry out of the need for a job.

Throughout his career (since 1988), Chen Sheng had only one outstanding disciple and that is Liu Ruo Ying (Rene Liu) 刘若英. Several others had left him after discovering that he was more suited to the role of tormentor than a teacher/producer. He could literally take years to record an album. Unlike the others, Liu tolerated Chen Sheng’s eccentricity and his extreme, humiliating training methods. Chen had maintained that Liu was only marginally talented and he had the onerous task of 死马当活马医 and Liu humbly accepted it. The well-trained Liu burst into the music scene and silver screen, passing with flying colours.

Then, much to the shock of the industry, at the height of Rene Liu’s popularity, Chen Sheng dismissed her. The reason? He discovered that she had fallen in love with him. It might still have been possible for the two to work together, but Chen Sheng, already married by then, felt that it was not right and against his principles. A top performer was thus given away to a competitor. Turning Rene Liu away was painful in more ways than one as the video excerpt of that interview reveals.

The struggle that they were going through is so palpable. Chen Sheng tried very hard to be cool about it, admitting yet denying, but did he succeed in hiding the fact that he too was devastated? Rene, on the other hand, left no doubt in our minds as to how she felt about Cheng Sheng. At the end of the day, Chen Sheng’s principles were upheld. As an artist, he is worlds apart from Li Ao’s flippant attitude towards relationships. Chen Sheng’s unwavering stand may earn him a lot of support in superficially moralistic Singapore, but his idealism and lack of pragmatism and flexibility will not get him very far here where greed and exploitation are openly and officially practised.

If Chen Sheng could let go of an income-generating artist like Rene Liu, what else could he not renounce? Never a stranger to controversy, Chen stirred the hornet’s nest when he expressed his thoughts on the controversial Cross-Straits Service Trade Agreement. It would grant mainland investors almost unlimited access to Taiwanese markets but apparently, it only happens on paper the other way around. Opponents argue that the treaty would benefit large Taiwanese companies while devastating small and medium-sized businesses. It’s all too obvious that overwhelming mainland Chinese holding in Taiwanese media companies, on top of already substantial Chinese investment in the Taiwanese news media, would imperil free speech in Taiwan.

Chen Sheng said: “I don’t think we [Taiwan] should earn more money, and I think the richest era that Taiwan residents had was abnormal. Some said that by refusing to sign the agreement, Taiwan will become marginalised. But why should we lower our quality of life? I disagree with signing it. I don’t want the mainlanders to come here.”

Not surprisingly, his statement provoked much wrath from mainland netizens. Chen Sheng was called all kinds of names on Chinese social media. Many wanted the government to ban him for life.

Chen calmly added that while he has a lot of mainland friends and likes them a lot, he often tells them that he will talk about unity when they learn to close bathroom doors.

As a result of these “insensitive” statements, his works were banned from the majority of China mainland streaming music platforms. Of course, he was also banned from performing there. Most performers would quickly retract his/her statements and apologise, but then, he is Chen Sheng.

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