After a decade of challenges in the Malaysian music industry, graphic designer Tian Long had given up on making a living through music. Then he made a funny animated video about being a Hakka Chinese guy pleading with his girlfriend not to go to England. His YouTube inbox was flooded with messages from thousands of Hakka Chinese the world over, and he’s never looked back. Here’s how he told that story to me, when I met him in 2011.
[Excerpt from: Funk, Joanna. SabahSongs: Contemporary Music in Sabah. Kota Kinabalu: Opus Publications, 2013. 93-96. Print.]
A lot of people tell me , ‘Wah, you really got good luck. You simply write a song, and already got a hit!’ I keep quiet; they just don’t know how it’s really like.”Tian Long – the Hakka Singer
Tian Long is a busy man. He met me in Kenny Rogers Roasters, in Suria Sabah. We talked for just over an hour before he drove to Keningau for a show. He had just come back from China the day before.
Tian is still a graphics designer despite being a well-known musician.
“Luckily, some of the clients know that I am the Hakka Singer, so when I say, ‘Sorry I have to go outstation for a few days’, they say, ‘Never mind, lah, you come back and then finish the job.’”
Tian’s family moved from Johor to Sabah when he was three. He went to Tshung Tsin Secondary School and then Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) in KL to study Graphic Design.
“I composed my very first song in high school. It was in Mandarin. There was a competition for the whole of Malaysia, and I put my song there. I managed to get to the semi-final, and to go to KL!
“When I was in KL, I saw a lot. It was a big competition, I saw different performances, how people compose music; it made me want to go back.”
While studying in KL, that’s when Tian got into music in a big way.
“We started a band, I was vocalist and rhythm guitar. We went for competitions – Chinese original songs. We didn’t win, but for all those competition we entered, we made the finals. By then, I really wanted to be a musician. I worked as a graphic artist, and did music all the rest of the time.
“People from recording companies started asking us for songs, they said they will take care of us.
“The first time a record company wanted my band, they wanted to bring us to Taiwan. I was crazy happy! The composing was mostly done by me. We signed. Of course we didn’t know what all those terms were. We just signed and faxed back.
“We were a five-piece band, and our KL manager didn’t tell us that one more letter needed to be signed, to agree that two of our members would be dropped. He never gave us that letter to sign.
“After a few months, we thought, ‘How come no news?’ My manager just shrugged his shoulders. ‘Tidak jadi, lah.’ Like, ‘It doesn’t work’.
“We continued to perform for a few years. One day me and a band member asked the manager why the contract was signed but nothing happened? The manager told us the Taiwanese wanted two members out of the band, and my manager didn’t want this. His thinking was – if you want them, you take the whole band. Not separately. We asked why the Taiwanese wanted those two guys to go. It was because of looks.
“I don’t know what to say, lah. I understand they are businessmen. I cannot say anything about them. After that, my band was losing heart. Every week we had three practices, then it became two, then once a week, and some still didn’t come. So we stopped after four years. It’s hard to keep a band going.
“I decided to stay in music. I still wrote songs. I got to know people in KL, to try and push my songs. “
Several companies wanted to sign him, but not as part of a band.
“They said, you are the one that compose the songs, you are the one that is singing, you are the one that writes the lyrics and all that.”
Tian eventually signed with a management company which didn’t promote him at all.
“So in the end I tried to leave, to go with another company.”
Tian learned the dark side of being signed up.
“The manager I was signed with didn’t want to let go. He said, ‘You tell them to look for me.’ So it’s back to business again. Of course, the new management people went away. There’s no reason why they would be willing to share with the previous manager.”
Tian was stuck with management he didn’t want, and there was nothing he could do about it.
“So, five years gone! I cannot do anything. I did talk to the manager. I asked, if you don’t want to let me go, please do something, lah. But he did nothing, and they own everything that you write, while you are with them.”
“In that period, I got a call from Taiwan. This man said he was a producer and introduced himself. (Later I asked my friend, who is this guy? He was very famous!) He said he needed my song. He heard it on a demo from me, before I was signed up. They wanted Nicholas Tse – aka Tse Ting-Fung – to record this song. They wanted my song to be the single for his new album.
“But I didn’t want to sell! I said, I still wanted to do something with it, one day. Even if I have to wait until I am free from my contract.
“A few days later, the Taiwan producer called me again. ‘How much you want?’ At that time, I just started working, you know. I earned RM 1000 plus only!
‘How much do you want?’
“I really didn’t know! Honestly, I just want to keep the song for myself. Then he said, ‘Make it this way. I will pay you the same rate as the top ranking Taiwanese composer’.
“Aiya. I didn’t know what to do. Anyway I didn’t ask what he was offering, because I really didn’t want to sell. After that, I called my friend who was working in the music industry.
‘Eh, what is the price for the top ranking Taiwanese composer?’ My friend scolded me! Sell it! Sell the song! You can get a brand new sports car! You can make the deposit for a new house!”
Tian kept the song. After 5 years with that management, he was free.
He picked another management company, a global brand.
“I thought I knew how to judge things now. They said we can make an album, ‘You can handle it yourself, you do your design, and you do your song’. Which is very good, right? So I signed. But it was the same!
“After a few years I went to the company’s boss, to his office. I said, ‘If you don’t do anything for me, if you don’t sell my songs, if you don’t try to push my songs to other artists or something, why you sign me up? When you meet me, you tell me I’m a good musician, you like my songs very much, push me very high and all that.’
“We started to argue, in front of all the employees.
“The guy talked very bad to me. He told me I’m just rubbish. He said very bad things. So I said, ‘I’m going to tell your boss, who is in Hong Kong, what you just said to me right now.’ I was mad. I had had enough.
“Then, he said. ‘Come on, let’s be reasonable’.
“I said I don’t want to hear any of that. Let me go!
“He said, ‘Okay. I let you go, on one condition, you have to give me THAT song’. He meant the one the Taiwanese producer wanted.
“I was so mad; I had already lost eight years of my life! I said, ‘Okay. You take it’.”
The song was sold to people in Hong Kong.
“That song is a pop rock, slow rock song. They recorded it with a singer who did not sing it very well, and the recording was very poor. So, my song was gone.”
Tian said you can get advice from people in KL, but in the end you can only rely on yourself.
“I did ask people in the industry for advice. But when things didn’t work and I went back to these people, they just smile. I find that people talk, but not everyone takes responsibility for their advice. If I tell someone they should do this or that, and they come back and tell me that I gave wrong information, at least I will say I’m sorry. But some people, they don’t care. They say: it’s your life, you chose it.
“So for me, my experience is that you have to walk your own path. Only then you will know. No-one can help you.
“So, when I look back, lah, I see it as very good experience, even though it meant that for ten years I did nothing, and I was considered a failure, a loser. It’s true! I’m 34 this year, and I started to really concentrate on music when I was 20. It’s a long time.”
Tian had two more bad experiences with management companies. They both wanted him to quit his day job and concentrate full time on music.
“One agency wanted me to resign from the design company, to have more time for songs. I said, ‘You have to give me a solid plan, in black and white, only then can I decide.’ They said, ‘Who do you think you are? If you’re so good, how come after ten years your first album not out yet?’ So, when they say it like that, no more, lah.
“Later, my friend – who is a well-known lyrics writer – formed a company and asked me to join. I could see he was working hard trying to promote me. But maybe because of my age (by that time 27) he couldn’t make anything happen.
“Then his company wanted to bring me to China, and asked me to resign. I thought, ok, let’s try it once. I resigned. One week later, the company changed its plan!
“That was it! I didn’t want to touch music again! Enough! I needed to take care of my family, my wife. I love music, but I could not live like that. My family needed to eat.”
Tian returned to Sabah and set up his own graphic design business.
“I was now thirty years old! I totally gave up.
“After a while, one of my friends in KL called me and said, ‘Hey, I’m now running a recording business. Come have a look, lah, who knows, you could be your own recording studio!’ ”
Tian told him he didn’t want to touch music again. But in the end he went to KL for a week, and came back to Sabah with a load of home recording equipment!
“I built a very small studio at my work place, using my own savings to buy software and small equipment. I was laughing at myself, since I’m supposed to give up, but somehow I still kept one part of my heart for music.
“I decided I don’t want to do commercial music. Now I just want to have fun. I made some soundtracks, mixed some nonsense. But I still thought, ‘Life is so boring, being a graphic designer and even mixing the music.’ Then one day I thought, ‘How come in Sabah, there’s no Hakka music? Let’s write a Hakka song.’
“You know, when I seriously wanted to do music, nothing happened. When I just wanted to have fun… I made my first Hakka song, and I made some funny animation. I put it on YouTube, and said to my friend, ‘Hey, I wrote a Hakka song, just for fun. Go look and have a laugh.’
“When I checked the next day, the views were like 1000 plus. I was so shocked! My email inbox became over 300 a day from all over the world. I was so, so surprised! That was March 2009. People were saying please write another one!
“So my second Hakka song was Don’t Go To England. Lyrics, melody, arrangement, plus the animation took 5 days only! It was also for fun. I was not thinking about making any money from that song or from Hakka music. But there were so many hits, and people were saying, ‘Come on lah, come out with your own Hakka album. Just do one!’
“I also thought, I don’t want to make myself pressured like the last time I did music. If you listen to my songs and you like them, I’m happy. If you don’t like it, never mind. It’s just for fun.”
Sports Toto is Tian Long’s major sponsor.
“My very first show for them was in Sandakan. The person in charge of Sports Toto in Sandakan called me up. ‘We got a show here, we would like to hire you.’ I said, ‘Hire me? Alone it’s quite boring. Why not hire a full band?’
“Any time someone wants to hire me, I always suggest the full band first. I love the full band. Live band.
“So they said, ‘Okay, come.’
“The first show, they were impressed, and I was very happy also. They paid us to play in West Malaysia, Kuching, and from there, I approached the management team; my second album is coming out, are you interested?
“They said, ‘Can, we discuss!’ So I flew to KL to meet them, and from there they sponsored me!
“The guys in my band now, I can tell you, they are very hard working, and I’m happy with them. Anything, we talk about it. We are not a permanent band, but whenever I have a show, they are my first choice. If they are not free, I look for others.”
Tian just came back from two performances in China.
“I sang my Hakka songs in China. Surprisingly they know my songs and they sang with me! I was so shocked!
“One show was in Shenzhen, and the other was in Meizhou. It was just me, not the full band. But there were dancers! I’ve never performed with dancers before! This was the first time and it was really fun!
“At the rehearsal I was totally out! I didn’t know how to do it! Then I asked my friend to video the rehearsal. Before I went to sleep, I looked at the video, and just did my homework! Looked at the step, the timing, where should I go, where should I stay. I just kept watching it, watching it.
“The second show was in Meizhou. It took 3 1/2 hours driving. There was a radio interview, and a tv show. It was really fun and I’m really, really happy.
“It’s very touching, you know. There was one man, he calls himself a fan, lah. Four hours train journey from his place to Shenzhen, to come to the show. Four hours! My goodness, I was like ‘Wow’. I could not believe it! (Laughs). Then, I went for the radio interview and the tv shows, live, they talk to me in Hakka plus Mandarin.
“Before I went, I was like, ‘Aiya, who knows whether people know me or not, I go on my own. Have to, lah! I knew one fan from China, he visited me here before. Because of him, I dared to go to China. He helped me a lot and took me out a lot. He didn’t charge the organiser a single cent. He said, ‘Just because I like your music.’
“So you can see: When I really went for music, nothing. When I’m now doing it for fun, all this happens. So just enjoy.
“In the future, I hope I can mature and go far, maybe explore other markets. But I will never forget my start, and I will still do Hakka music. I don’t know how far I can go. I just work. If I can’t go further than Malaysia, I’m still fine.
“I have one daughter, 1-year-old plus. Yes, I hope she will have music in her life. But …Oh I don’t know! (Big laugh and shakes his head) Aiya, music is really, really tough!
“I can see, when my Hakka album came out, people change. Some, you can see they genuinely support you. Some, they just try to make profit from you.
“Also, people here need to be educated; they need to learn that you should pay for professional musicians! Some people asked me to perform. They say, ‘I give you a chance. I will let you stand up on stage, so people will get to know you! No need to pay me.’ (Laughs.)
“I didn’t reject him, I said I would think about it. The last question I asked him was, ‘Your show, are you selling tickets?’ Yes. He was selling tickets, trying to make a profit. But he is asking for my full band to play for free.
“I like it this way, to do music for fun. But actually, because of music, you have to be very hard working in your day job! Otherwise, how are you going to support your music hobby?”
Tian sighed and smiled, as if he sometimes wonders if it’s all worth it!
“But then,” he said, “Life without music is kind of boring…”