By: Nick Corwin Lee
As I met with Lhu Wen Kai under his void deck for this interview, little did I expect to be shocked by his refreshing and unapologetic perspectives on things in Singapore. This guy is responsible for three viral videos in the past year alone – the first was a spoken word poem about elitism (https://www.facebook.com/wenkai31/videos/10207643513876582/), the second was a satirical campaign speech based on stupid remarks by the government (https://www.facebook.com/wenkai31/videos/10209366151621449/), and now, a rap parody of Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself titled #OwnselfCheckOwnself.
I did not know what to look forward to when I first accepted this assignment. Does he always look so angsty? Who does his work for? Why is he so anti-establishment? Is his luscious hair real or is it all just a wig? What kind of person is he exactly?
As an earlier article on TheOnlineCitizen noted (http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2016/05/pushing-the-envelope-through-intentional-provocation-and-factual-presentation/), the unassuming 18-year-old has a particular talent for making things go viral. His articles on his blog (http://lhuwenkai.com), which he updates sparingly, have been shared tens and thousands of times, and not too long along, he surpassed half a million streams on Spotify with just two songs – piano mashups of Descendants of the Sun’s Always and You Are My Everything, and 那些年 and 小幸运 (https://lhuwenkai.com/piano-mashups/).
The Ngee Ann Polytechnic student is also ridiculously multi-talented, as I soon found out. Firstly, he’s a graphic designer by trade, despite “not having any form of design education or diploma”. Secondly, he’s a photographer, who has already attained the dream of many professionals by launching his debut solo exhibition last year when he was just 17 (https://lhuwenkai.com/2015/08/06/tbac/).
Unbelievable. He’s also a documentary filmmaker who’s certified by Apple (yes, that Apple), who has traveled to places like India for assignments, and at the same time, he writes for one of the largest lifestyle portals in Southeast Asia, TheSmartLocal.com. It’s also interesting to note that according to a prior interview he gave on WakeUpSG.com (https://wakeupsg.com/ownselfcheckownself-3248cf3f8090#.68bx3nnwx), Lhu is the youngest ever musician to top any Spotify viral charts in the region, and also the first to do so with a pure instrumental.
“I actually feel embarrassed when my clients or my friends ask me what do I do with my life. I have to repeat everything I’ve just said to you and after awhile it just sounds like I’m showing off.”
Yea dude, stop bragging, we get it, you’re cool.
If I were to tell you the stats of his videos, you’ll probably think that he’s one of those strawberry generation millennials who whines and throws in vulgarities to make it sound ‘cooler’ and westernized. After all, only stuff like that goes viral in Singapore… right? But quite surprisingly, as I revisited his earlier videos, he barely uses them – and when he does, it’s contextually amusing, not just swearing for the sake of it. He even has the decency to add bleeps and censor them. So how did he manage to consistently engage hundreds and thousands of viewers, when he hardly curses or make inflammatory remarks?
“I don’t intentionally provoke people,” Lhu explains. “I’m not trying to be a saint or play the good guy here. It’s really because there is absolutely no need to. You really think Singaporeans don’t get mad at the government’s nonsense? Hell no, Singaporeans are so quick to jump on bandwagons and coupled with the conformist culture in this nation, hate is something that manifests easily in this country.”
Wouldn’t it create more of a splash if you provoke your audience? I probed further. Lhu’s latest video touched heavily on the issue of foreigners and intentionally made light of the situation by getting foreigners from 21 different countries (yes, 21, I counted them in the credits) to sing the chorus and hold up placards with the hashtag #OwnselfCheckOwnself. I wanted to find out if there was a more ‘local’ way to bring about the message, one that’s more direct and inflaming.
“I don’t think provoking our countrymen intentionally is the right way to go about trying to get them to understand the issues facing our country. Saying things like “look at these foreigners, they are coming to steal your jobs, snatch your women, let’s do something about it and send them back to their countries etc.” isn’t going to work. Yes, it’ll attract the extreme opposition fans, but the main target audience – the neutral youths, the normal lower and middle class, undecided incumbent supporters, and those who are already fed up with their living conditions and told to “be grateful” when they raise an issue – they’ll leave. They watch videos to escape reality, and I thinking stirring them up instead of making light of the issue is not a particularly wise move.
Remember, the fault doesn’t lie with the foreigners. The fault lies in the government’s policies, and encouraging disdain for foreigners who are really just taking advantage of a favorable opportunity in a dog-eat-dog world isn’t going to change things.
And there’s also a reason why I use screenshots instead of images – I want people to focus on the news and not on the faces. I want them to realise that hey, this is a national issue that we’re dealing with. It doesn’t matter who’s behind the nonsense and bullshit. It could be a senior minister, it could a junior MP, it could even be someone from the opposition parties. If we don’t eradicate the root cause that is self-entitlement, privileged thinking, and the ivory tower syndrome, Singaporeans will continue to be punished by the establishment. It’s just a different face that will do the damage.”
I then decided to ask him about some of the criticisms he has received stemming from the satirical/comedic nature of his works. A few netizens have expressed concern about how shallow Lhu’s content was (well technically they are right I mean his satirical campaign speech is made up of our ministers’ controversial remarks. Talk about plagiarism am I right!).
“Well, what I do is, I take whatever content I have, and repackage it in a medium that appeals to the lowest common denominator. I mean, sure, articles are great, talk shows are fantastic, one-on-one interviews are insightful and valuable, but how much impact can you really make with those ‘longform’ formats? Despite Singaporeans spending the most amount of time on social media, we have easily one of the worst attention spans in the world. The people who are going to sit through a 20 min video or an article that’s 3,000 words long are those who are already familiar with the issue at hand, which is not the audience I want to primarily target.”
It can be quite frustrating when I see netizens complaining that my content isn’t in-depth enough or superficial. It’s not that I can’t be more intellectual, it’s just that the demand isn’t there. It’s a little bit like complaining about the media not covering terrorist bombings in the Middle East countries compared to the immense coverage when they happen in European cities. People just don’t care, and I have the research to back that up. You can read more about it here (https://lhuwenkai.com/2016/03/29/why-should-the-media-care/)
I just want to reach out to as wide of an audience as possible, start a discussion, get these people talking, and once they’re into it, those who feel strongly will proceed and find out more on their own accord. If they exit the video having gained some awareness, I’ve succeeded already.
In short, you can’t fault me for creating works that are apparently “shallow” when the very same group who are making the criticisms won’t bother watching content that’s deeper and longer!”
“So are you suggesting that Singaporeans do not care enough if they’re not exposed to so-called “un-dry” content?” I clarified.
“I disagree with political observers who claim that Singaporeans are neutral or apathetic towards local politics. The issue isn’t about how to make them care – it’s about getting the relevant information into their hands. Nowadays, more and more content creators are jumping onboard the social media train and pushing out their own content. Now, as the number of these outlets grow, the length of your timeline, the time you spend on the sites, doesn’t. See, that is the main issue right there. People’s timelines are getting dominated by crappy articles from GoodyFeed, shallow listicles with reposted pictures, and one-minute videos from biased, far-left liberal outlets. How do you make sure your content gets a spot in that limited space and ensure Singaporeans see them? You can’t expect to beat a video like 10 Types of Girlfriends with a 20-min video explaining why the government is terrible. You need to fight fire with fire and adapt your content to current trends. After all, your idea, your message, they’re liquid. You just have to find the correct medium, the correct “cup”, so to speak, to present it in.”
So, to answer my original question, Lhu is an 18-year-old who has created this amazing video that people are genuinely considering an alternative NDP song for this year, and it’s one that has earned him the endorsements of people like Anita Kapoor, Ivan Heng, and Paul Tambyah among many others. At the relatively tender age 18, he has also already worked with over 60 companies worldwide, had his own football column on one of Britain’s top websites, worked with the largest lifestyle blog in Singapore, garnered over half a million hits on his blog, held his own solo photo exhibition, and is certified by f****ing Apple. And today, he gave me a lecture on the fabric of Singaporeans and their media consumption habits. Oh, I almost forgot, he’s a chart topper as well.
I am 25 this year, and before today I never knew it was possible to feel so inspired and utterly demoralized at the same time.
These are some comments Lhu received for his music video, 2016’s alternative NDP theme song #OwnselfCheckOwnself.