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I'm My Own Muse

Some things never change. Throughout his career--when he was a xinyao pioneer in the 1980s and a best-selling singer-songwriter in the 1990s--Eric Moo has always come across as a very confident person.

This adjective has stuck with the Malaysian-born, Singapore-bred star almost like a badge of honour, along with the not-so-nice variants of the phrase.

These include proud, arrogant, cocky, egoistic, as well as the Hokkien equivalent, hao lian, labels stuck on him by the media, industry players and his detractors.

Modesty is not a word in this straight talker's dictionary.

Today, at 44, the veteran performer of Mandarin pop favourites like Chance Meeting, You Are My Only One and Too Silly, is still as self-assured as ever. Especially after his well-received concert here in October, his third in five years.

When the first concert was being planned in 2003, no one thought it would sell because "everyone felt Eric Moo had no market value anymore", he recalls.

After all, his last album, The Winding Road, released in 2002, sold just 200,000 copies, compared to the two million copies he could easily move in the 1990s.

"I've got a gift from God. I don't think I've written any song that is not nice."

To everyone's surprise, the concert tickets were sold out within a week.

This time round, he says he had an epiphany when his fans gave him a rousing reception at the gig, which drew 6,000 people. Most were in their 30s and above, a generation of Singaporeans who grew up listening to his songs.

"I realised it doesn't matter what people say because as long as you know how to move your audience and have enough good songs, you will always have your market value," he says.

He is so unflappable that even a potentially thorny question--whether his barren five-year run without an album is a sign that his musical talents have run dry--is deflected effortlessly.

Holding your gaze, the corners of his mouth curling into a wry smile, he counters: "Louis Cha wrote 14 swordfighting novels. Then he stopped writing. Who dares to say he is not talented? It's just that he felt 'okay, enough already'."

This is classic Moo, unabashedly blowing his own trumpet yet doing it with such style and wit that you just have to admire his unwavering belief in himself.

Put simply, he is his own biggest fan. "I've got a gift from God. I don't think I've written any song that is not nice," he says.

The perception of him being cocky is "a mindset problem caused by Singaporeans' inferiority complex", he says in Mandarin.

"When people see a foreign star wearing a pair of shades, they'll go, 'so cool, that's how a star should look'. But if a Singapore celeb turns up in one, people will say, 'hao lian, who does he think he is?'."

Leaning forward from the sofa in his Goodwood Park Hotel suite, he adds: "If a Hong Kong or Taiwanese star shoots his mouth off, he's funny. When a Singaporean does it, he's hao lian. You see what I mean?"

He is so coherent that it is hard to believe he did not sleep a wink the night before, having flown from Beijing to do a recording for the new Channel U music programme S-Pop Hurray.

You wonder how much more articulate he would be if he was well rested.

Heartfelt vocals

For all his propensity to brag, Moo is a dream interviewee.

Easygoing and unpretentious, there is never a dull moment with him. Throw him anything and he will return with a funny one-liner or an interesting analogy.

When you say his xinyao contemporary Billy Koh, 44, regards him as "the only genius I have seen all these years", he smiles and replies: "He knows me."

But when you add that Koh thinks he has used up all his talents, he retorts: "All I can say is, he knows only part of my talents."

He admits that in the past decade, he has spent most of his time on performing, acting, hosting and his family, making it "impossible to be as prolific as before". A new album, comprising covers of women's songs, is planned for next year, he says.

He also spends long hours on the golf course, which explains his tan.

But home-grown guitarist Jonathan Koh, 47, who has collaborated with him for many years, dismisses talk that Moo is past his prime.

"It is true that record companies nowadays are not so receptive to older artistes, but Eric still has his fan base. Just look at how packed his concert was," he says.

Moo married Taiwanese Sherry, now 36, in 2000 and they have two daughters, aged seven and one.

He had a stormy on-off relationship with model Jazreel Low for many years, but he politely declines to talk about her, saying that "she is already married and I must respect her".

Known for his heartfelt and sometimes over-the-top vocals, he has released over 40 albums since 1983.

Crossing over to TV hosting in Taiwan at the end of 2004, he had been doing well up until last year, when he reportedly quit the highly rated show Happy Sunday after a row with host Li Ming-yi.

There was "a conspiracy to force me out of the show" was all he would say about the matter.

He then moved to Beijing, where he and his family now live in a condominium apartment.

Since then, he has appeared as a host and judge on several high-profile shows in China, such as the reality singing competition Super Girls, making an impact with his trademark acerbic comments.

He performs regularly at company events and has just made a movie, A Room For Two, playing a boxer alongside Hong Kong actor Eric Tsang.

Together with a Chinese partner, he also runs a company that organises golf-related events, with plans to list it in 2009.

Does it bother him when people say China is where entertainers head to when they can no longer make it elsewhere?

"This statement is very true, yet it is not the whole truth," comes his smooth reply. "Do not underestimate the Chinese market. Lots of A-listers are clamouring to be in China. Even Jay Chou spends half of his time there."

To illustrate how much work he puts in to stay ahead, he reveals that when he was invited to judge on Super Girls, he read six self-improvement books for tips on things like how to give compliments.

"I went there with a thick wad of notes. Everyone else was so shocked because they didn't do any homework. But it'd be so boring if you keep repeating the same things on air," he says.

Flashing a knowing grin, he added: "That's why you don't feel bored when you chat with me, right?"

Housewife Anne Quek, 36, who turned from a fan to a close friend, describes Moo as a "very loyal and faithful" guy who goes out of his way to repay other people's kindness.

"But he can be quite a male chauvinist and will not listen to the fashion tips his wife gives him, even though she has a better fashion sense," she says with a laugh.

Loudest in class

Born in 1963 in Kampar, Perak, Moo is the second child of a mechanical engineer and a housewife.

He has an elder sister, two younger brothers and a younger sister. Youngest brother Allan, 39, had a short stint as a singer in the 1990s and is now helping the other brother to run a publishing business.

When Moo was eight, his mother died of an illness. The following year, the family moved to Singapore and his father remarried soon after.

"I was lousy in my studies. Why should I compete with other people using my worst asset instead of my best, which is music?"

His musical talents surfaced from a young age. He sang the loudest in class and whenever his classmates went off pitch, he would wonder why other people "sang so badly".

After completing his O levels at Chinese High School, he went to Jurong Junior College. It was there that his creative juices "suddenly went 'Bang!'"

One day, while listening to a song by the late Hong Kong singer Danny Chan, he wondered if he could write a song too.

Picking a poem from the newspapers titled Dream Lake, he composed a melody for it with his guitar in 10 minutes.

But none of his classmates would believe that the simple but haunting song was written by him.

"In those days, only people from overseas wrote songs," he says with a chuckle.

Undeterred, he went on to write 10 more songs. He was finally taken seriously and formed his first band, Underground Express, with six of his classmates.

They held a concert in school, selling tickets at S$1 each. And it was there that Moo and his band were spotted by a Chinese radio DJ.

They were invited to record a few songs, of which Chance Meeting became the first local composition to top the FM95.8 Chinese pop charts in 1983.

Prior to that, Moo had already made up his mind to make singing his career and so did not sit for his A levels.

"I was lousy in my studies. Why should I compete with other people using my worst asset instead of my best, which is music?" he reasons.

From 1983 to 1986, he became a household name in Singapore and Malaysia, thanks to several hit albums like 21 Tomorrow and Young At Heart.

But while he enjoyed fame, he was struggling to make ends meet: He lived with some xinyao friends in a rented apartment and survived on instant noodles.

He was literally hungry for bigger success and the opportunity came in 1986 when retired Taiwanese superstar Liu Wen-cheng set up a new company and signed him up.

"When he called me out of the blue and said he was Liu Wen-cheng, I told him, 'I am Fei Yuqing'," he recalls, laughing heartily. Fei is another evergreen Taiwanese singer.

Still, the big break Moo had been dreaming of took two more frustrating years to materialise.

Never give up

He took three of his albums to Taiwan, but his music failed to interest the distributor. So he returned to Singapore disappointed, but not defeated.

"My philosophy in life is, 'I will become better'. I never give up and I never complain," he says.

Then in 1988, he hit jackpot with the album You Are My Only One. Overnight, he was the hottest 'newcomer' in Taiwan and then Hong Kong.

But the album which cemented his position was Too Silly in 1995. Thanks to it, he became the first Asian to be awarded the Excellent Artistic Music Award by American Billboard, beating even Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung to it.

Directors came knocking and he clinched the Best New Performer at the Hongkong Film Awards in 1996 for his debut role as a gangster in the movie Those Were The Days.

He also made headlines for the wrong reasons, in a career fraught with controversy.

In 1994, he was sued by his ex-mentor Liu for using three songs owned by the latter in his album. Moo negotiated an out-of-court settlement of S$980,000 (US$676,001).

That year, the issue of his nationality became a talking point when he received local awards from both Singapore and Malaysia. He pulled out of the local categories of the Singapore Hit Awards.

"I'm a Malaysian, but I'm also a very important singer in the Singapore music scene and it could not afford to do without me at that time," he says.

"That's why the Singapore media has a love-hate relationship with me. They want me to do well for the country, but when I do too well, they will try to drag me down."

In 1998, he was slapped with a five-year ban after a work permit row, which stopped him from performing in Taiwan. It was lifted only in 2000.

He wants to retire when he is 50 and devote more time to charity work in China.

Moo being Moo, his parting shot is also one brimming with confidence.

"When someone stands at the peak of a mountain and he sees all these peaks around him, the only way to get to the other peaks is to climb down and then back up again. This is what I've been doing," he says.

"Those who think that I have run dry, I just want to say, you are wrong. In the next five years, there will be a new Eric Moo. Just wait and see." (By MAK MUN SAN/ The Straits Times/ ANN)

MySinchew 2007.12.18



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