Photography by Jumbo Tsui
Styling by Sylar Lu
I met with Cai Xukun in the afternoon. The staff in the studio were rushing around. The photoshoot had started that morning and dragged on until 2 pm; the work was still only half done. The entire studio, surrounded by concrete walls on all sides, was covered with shades, keeping out the scorching sunlight. Only the white screen inside the studio is facing the high-wattage lights, making people forget all about the outside world.
Cai was in the dressing room. Takeout dishes were scattered around him, and the food on them had gone cold. Cai wore a loose white shirt and held an iced Americano in his hand. He said, "I'm not hungry now. I'll eat after I’m done here."
I asked him if he repeats the same answers every time he gets interviewed. He nodded with a smile and said, "In fact, I like to tell the reporter frankly that I have answered such a question earlier but, out of courtesy, I will answer it again."
Perhaps because he was a little tired, Cai Xukun’s response to the interview was not so “formal” this time. When he didn’t need to face the camera and manage his expression, his facial features relaxed a bit. Just a few days ago, he had celebrated his 21st birthday. Today, he was ready to be interviewed, leaning forward slightly on the chair, with clear eyes. I told him that we would talk casually today, since I am not a professional reporter, and we don’t have to be diplomatic. He smiled back, "No, no, there is no have-to when it comes to work."
Ordinary people have got used to stars occupying public spaces. For example, stars’ faces pop up on the opening screen of various social media or on the advertising billboards on top of moving vehicles. But Cai Xukun was not one of those stars. In fact, he engaged himself with charity work on his 21st birthday. He flew round trip that day, with no time to have a meal.
I asked him when the last time he had a relaxed meal was. He said it was a takeout meal he’d ordered himself. There was no one else around and he felt very quiet. He managed to eat the entire meal without even touching his mobile phone.
This is not what I had expected. Most of the people I had interviewed before would fondly recall special occasions with feasts, where and with whom they had the lavish meals. All this reflects the Chinese deep respect for the important role that dining plays in their social life. Cai Xukun did not give me the opportunity to write such a story. At the age of 21, he does not care about formality, or anything other than his music.
Cai said he did feel some sort of urgency when he went from his teens to his twenties. But such urgency is rather a sense of responsibility than the biological pressure. Nevertheless, this does not mean he has a clearer self expectation. He does not pre-set what kind of person he must become. Every current moment is the time to get ready, like make his music pieces into an album or open a concert later. There is no need to hurry, though. As the proverb says, haste makes waste.
Ever since his childhood, Cai Xukun realized that he likes the stage. At that time, it was Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop music that flooded the media. When he watched performances on TV, he felt summoned by the energy on the stage. He would imagine himself standing where the light shines. He was always the leading player in the school's literature and art scenes. In his juvenile years when there was no other way to express himself, school plays were the starting point of his stage dream. Naturally, in such activities, Cai was the best organizer.
If you look closely at Cai’s background, you’ll know that his father was born in Hunan province while Cai himself was born in Zhejiang province, and grew up in the city of Shenzhen, located in Canton province. Later on, Cai went to middle school in the United States. He then worked as an intern in Korea for four and a half months. During his childhood and adolescence, he moved a lot more than his peers did. This experience imprints in him some distinct characteristics of those who grew up on the constant move: lack of long-lasting friendship, strong self-independence, quick adaptability in new environments, and some level of detachment from the crowd.
Cai Xukun confessed that he rarely hangs out with kids younger than him. Instead, he prefers to be friends with people older than him because he can have in-depth discussions with them. Besides, most of the industry people Cai has worked with since he joined the entertainment world are older than him. From his school years when everyone else knew only the examinations and grades, Cai was very sure that he wanted the stage and that he loved music and performance. This desire drove him to think further and deeper than his peers.
During the interview, Cai Xukun talked slowly, conveying a subtle certainty that whatever he says is going to be recorded and widely spread. He talked about how he develops a precise grasp of the stage, how he joined the online TV show The Idol Producer as an individual contestant (as opposed to the group contestants) and eventually won the championship by the most nationwide votes. His fans were actually more interested in the human side of this twenty-year-old idol. For example, they want to see what he is like when he is uncertain. Confused? Impulsive? Puzzled? Fragile? Emotional? Out of control or even mad? To their disappointment, Cai maintained his calmness and focus far beyond his age most of the time.
His youthful face somehow displays before us the oriental Confucian temperament. Only the wise are not confused, the benevolent not worried, and the brave not afraid. Those who had talked to Cai were surprised by his old-fashioned way of talking and said he was like a government officer, an image not exactly fit for a boy of his age. So I asked him, "Is there anything you did wrong when you were young that you think was worthwhile and never regret it?"
He thought for a long time but did not answer. I persisted on, "For most of us, childhood and adolescence are a time for trial and error and it’s also part of growing up. Most of the time youth itself is righteousness as well as mistakes."
He thought for a moment. "Does standing up for others count? Many people are curious about the scar on my face. It’s from a fight I had in my first grade. Some kids in the fifth grade at my school were bullying my classmate so I confronted them. The result was that I was left a scar on my face from a book clip used in the fight. But I don't think what I did at the time was wrong. If this happened again, I would not hesitate to charge on."
Cai Xukun is a Leo. Occasionally Cai would stress on that fact to imply that he is a man of integrity and leadership or to excuse his reluctance of compromise. When he encountered a dispute while working with others, his staff would try to ease the situation by saying that Kun Kun is a Leo.
In the end, he explains himself by telling stories like the one about the scar on his face to show he is reasonable rather than reckless. He has a set of well established values to tell right from wrong, as well as self acceptance.
It’s not that unusual that before he got famous, he had lived his life and pursued his dreams in his own way. But after he became famous, he is suddenly in the spotlight, and a whole team runs him as a business. His value system serves as his mental foundation when facing the crazy world of entertainment or when he needs to be flexible as an idol. After all, he is just 21 years old.
Cai has a clear understanding that he is a star with tremendous popularity and because of that, he has as many fans and critics. Everything about him, be it expression, quotations, nicknames, or video clips, goes viral, and there is a constant fight between his fans and haters. His profile and controversy have turned into a social phenomenon in China. All this is simply because Cai represents something new which strikes a challenge to the old institution.
The only way by which Cai Xukun tries to deal with the situation is through his music. In a diverse array of talent TV shows, young contestants shout the slogans like “music is the most important part of my life” or “only music can make my life complete." But Cai said, "It is OK to cry out slogans but what really matters is what you actually do for your music. Only time can prove if you really mean it when you voice your passion for music. My job is to make good music. It’s as part of my daily routine as drinking water or going to sleep, so I don't need to express my music as slogans."
Cai does not believe that he is well-endowed as a pop star. I talked to him about the first time I saw him on TV. In the talent show, I found, you cannot really tell which one is a better performer unless you compare these guys with one another. Nonetheless, Cai is born with a small head, well-proportioned torso and long limbs. Naturally, he is eye-catching in the crowd. For my observation, Cai immediately corrected me. "Whatever I have now is not born-to-be. Much of it is accomplished by hard training. When people see me dance in the show, I have seen myself in the mirror do it many times. I had practiced lifting my arms the right way for very long. From clumsy to good to perfect, it takes a lot of hard training. Nothing comes easy or starts the way it is.”
There are eight entries in the "The Great Learning" of the Four Books and Five Classics, which is the law of saints. Today, in the eyes of hundreds of millions of fans, their idol is the modern equivalent of the ancient saint; he can't make mistakes, he can't have emotions or desires as ordinary human beings do. But Cai Xukun doesn't think he is a saint. I asked him what words he would like to use to describe himself. Good person? Lucky dog? Cai thought about it for a second, “I’m a person with a focus.” He then added, “I’m extremely focused.”
He has almost no hobby other than his work. He plays video games but never cares about wins or losses. He said that he is easy to feed. Not a picky eater, he eats almost everything. When asked about his favorite food, he gave it a long thought and came up with the answer “beef." In all other aspects of life, Cai is very low-maintenance. I can't help but ask him, “If you didn’t have music in your life, would you still consider yourself interesting?”
His initial reply was that he might not be an interesting person. Then he added, "I can still be interesting if I want to. But I will only show this side of me to those I want to reach for.”
He told me that he must learn how to get along with others. The most effective way for him is to watch the blind date TV shows. In those shows, the male guest has to demonstrate his grace and charm to obtain more votes from the female guests. He then needs to communicate thoroughly with the chosen female guest in the private meeting. Meanwhile he must not hurt those whom he does not choose.
His words made me both surprised and sad. Perhaps such people skills would boost his confidence in his career as a stage performer.
Cai’s focus and discipline allows him to accomplish many things but take gain or loss lightly. He is forever in the pursuit for changes, never satisfied with the old self. However, Cai doesn’t mean to create fads to realize changes. In fact, he is a fan of classic arts. He thinks you can never catch up with fads. Only classics lead to the future.
He said that his favorite movie is Wang Jiawei's Days of Being Wild. The most touching line of this film is, "There is a kind of bird in this world that has no feet. It can only fly all the time. When it is tired, it will be sleeping in the wind..." Cai Xukun felt that this was a portrayal of his pursuit of the stage.
How do you think about the pop music of the previous generation?
In the past, people had a very limited way to appreciate songs. Pop songs were in direct circulation, and the media worked for advertisers only. Now, there are multiple ways for people to enjoy songs and the media serve the audience. Everyone is looking for something new. They are not happy with only listening. They demand visual presentation. They need to watch the music video. That’s why I’ve always believed that music is not only for listening but also can enhance the performing art and such performing art, in turn, can eventually improve the music.
Will you position yourself according to industry change? What are you curious about others?
I may be more curious about people in other industries, such as IT guys and customer service personnel. I would like to know the thoughts of these people whose professions are mainly repetitive work because I too repeat the same answers every time I do an interview except that talking to you (to the author) is fine of course.
What do you think of the Picasso exhibition you attended some time ago?
I have always liked classic art because you can never catch up with the fad. You must look for the future in ancient art.
Will you collaborate with other bands or musicians?
I talk a lot with my musician friends in private. I have a musician friend who plays R&B. I don't understand why he makes every piece of work R&B. He once asked me, "What's your style if each and every song of yours is different?" But I’m not sure what exactly is style. If a singer is in a different emotional state, he would need a different expression. When water is poured in a round container, it is round. When poured in a square container, it is square. My music is like water; it can take any shape. I don't want to repeat myself in my work.
People say the more public attention on the idol, the more perfect the idol will be. Do you agree?
I don't quite agree with them because everyone has a preference or criteria so it’s hard to obtain universal approval. Public attention is not your source of confidence. Only your work is. The first thing I did after I got famous is perfect my music pieces. Your confidence comes only from yourself, not from others.
Being an idol is the expansion of influence. It will force you to be perfect, almost like a saint, at a young age. What kind of person do you think you are?
I am not a saint, that’s for sure. If I have to put a label on me, I’d say that I am an extremely focused guy. In this business, your willpower determines how far you can go. I have had failures in the early days. No one wanted me; my hopes were shattered. It was a nightmare. But I didn’t give up and now I am back in the game.
What are your favorite movies?
I like Wang Jiawei (Hong Kong director). His Days of Being Wild is my all time favorite. I particularly love the lines about the footless bird. I actually believe there are such people in the world.
Artist Coordinator Yao Yucai
Hair Kim Byungwoo
Makeup Kang Yoonjin
Styling Assistants Quinn, Stephen
Location Li Studio