Cool Jay

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Outside the practice room, Chou was stubbornly average, caught up in the same kung fu movies and video games as the rest of the suburban teens who played baseball around Linkou's ferroconcrete housing blocks. While other kids were cramming for the joint-college-entrance exam, Chou was skipping school and putting in more time on the ivories. The kid looked like he was going nowhere. Music? If you are middle-class and Taiwanese, math, science, engineering, computer programming—that's how you make a living. But music? That was for rich kids with famous parents, who grow up with silver chopsticks in their mouths. Not kids from Linkou. Not Chou. He flunked his exam and was about to be disgorged into the real world, a gawky kid stumbling toward a future pumping gas or maybe, if he was lucky, helping you pick out a new Yamaha upright and then sitting down at the bench and completing the sale by playing a few bars for you.

But the music, remember, is all that matters in Chou's life. It saves him. It defines him. It's his salvation, his luck. It's the only thing he has. It interceded even when Chou himself had wandered off course, when Chou didn't yet know the true value of his harmonic birthright. Some girl, a junior—Chou barely knew her—filled out an application for Chao Ji Xin Ren Wang (Super New Talent King), Taiwan's version of American Idol. The show's staff got in touch with a surprised Chou and asked if he would perform. No way. Not solo.

He ended up playing piano, accompanying an aspiring singer. And they stunk. The show's host, legendary Taipei funnyman and all-around entertainment impresario Jacky Wu, was always on the prowl for new talent, but he took one look at the nervous kid at the piano and the croaking vocalist and thought, forget it, back to the burbs for this duo. "I really wasn't impressed," says Wu. "The friend's singing was lousy." Then he saw the music. "I took a look at the musical score over the judge's shoulder and I was amazed. It was complex and very well done." After the taping, Wu, who at that time owned Alfa Music, headed backstage to meet Chou, who was wearing a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. "My first impression of Jay was that he was so shy, so quiet," Wu recalls. "I thought he was retarded."

But Wu was swayed by the music. He had seen dozens of sneering pretty boys with slicked-back hair who could barely read a high C, and here was this shy, awkward pianist who seemed like he could scrawl a symphony in his sleep. Wu would do more than write him his first checks as a songwriter—he would also inadvertently give the kid a place to crash between hits, would allow this suburbanite to turn an unused space behind a sofa into a miniature pop-music factory as he wrote tunes for late-'90s acts such as PowerStation and Taiwan-ese diva Valen Hsu. "Jacky is like my elder brother," says Chou. "He taught me how to be an artist, to be professional and to be dedicated to my career." But Chou was doing more than transcribing catchy little ditties at six bills a pop (hit)—he was inadvertently helping to define a sound, an emerging Taiwanese pop presence and style that would, within three years, transform the island into the epicenter of Chinese pop.

But the master still doubted his apprentice could be more than a songwriter. "I didn't think Chou could make it as an entertainer," Wu admits, "because he's not so handsome." It wasn't until Wu handed over the reins of Alfa Music to his friend and fellow singer J.R. Yang nearly a year-and-a-half later that Chou would go from being idol-maker to idol.

"I asked him if he'd written anything for himself," Yang explains. Chou played him Ke Ai Nu Ren (Lovely Woman), a song he had already recorded on borrowed time—hanging around the studio 24-7 did have its advantages. "After four minutes the song finished, and I asked, 'What are we waiting for?'" The kid was living in the studio anyway. Recording the first album in three months was practically a vacation.

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