First impressions are important. That initial meeting is an opportunity to set the field of how you’d want to be perceived by others. When Disney wanted to announce the arrival of its streaming platform Disney+ in Singapore, the House of the Mouse made it an event: a live broadcast on all the major local channels that included projection mapping on several iconic buildings around the Singapore River and a star-studded lineup of performers at the A Night Of Disney+ showcase.
The bill had local musicians like Nathan Hartono, Sing! China 2016’s first runner-up, croon-ing “You’ve Got A Friend in Me” from Toy Story; followed by Benjamin Kheng and Annette Lee singing various songs from Beauty and the Beast, Mulan and The Little Mermaid. The first two performances were filmed at the ArtScience Museum’s permanent exhibition space, Future World: Where Art Meets Science. But for the third and final act of the evening, JJ Lin took his place on the roof of the ArtScience Museum, belting out a medley of four songs (“A Whole New World” from Aladdin; “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” from The Lion King; “Let It Go” from Frozen, and a self-composed track from Soul, called “Embark”).
JJ Lin would later call it a childhood dream fulfilled, having to sing and perform for Disney. As the drone films him overhead, the ‘petals’ of the museum start to look like fingers. Immediately the image of the Monkey King standing in the palm of the Buddha comes to the fore. If he was afraid, Lin didn’t show it. There was nary a glimpse of a safety harness or net and there was always the danger of strong winds. But if we were to hazard a guess, the only emotion that Lin was feeling at the time was glee. And why shouldn’t he? He’s the first and only artist to perform on the Welcoming Hand of Singapore.
He may be up there and all alone but Lin has left one hell of an impression.
Hours of planning went into the performance. I mean, you have to. More so when you’re placing one of Mandopop’s greatest commodities on the top of a building 60 metres tall. Lin had numerous practice sessions, both in the studio and on the roof of the ArtScience Museum but he managed to engage in some personal downtime. Prior to his appearance on A Night Of Disney+ showcase, Lin had returned home for Chinese New Year. No one knew he was flying back until he revealed it during his fortnightly livestream session, JJ’s Bloom n’ Tunes. Having been based in Taiwan for close to a decade, Lin occasionally shuttles back and forth between Singapore and Taiwan. “Taipei has become almost like a second home to me,” JJ Lin says. “As much as I’ve become acquainted with the people and the culture of Taiwan, every time I’m back in Singapore, I’m reminded how much I’ve missed home.”
His Instagram offers snippets of his activities here: bicycle rides with the family; Chinese New Year visitations; hanging out with his esports team, Team SMG, which he manages; attending a concert at the Esplanade. He even visited friends, like the local artist Jahan Loh, at his new studio. “When I met Jahan, he was already very active in the street art scene,” Lin explains. “He was the guy who actually gave me a lot of insight into street art and introduced me to some of his peers.”
Lin collects art. It’s a kidult’s hobby, one that he readily indulges. His homes in Taiwan house these artworks by the likes of Jahan Loh, Futura, Yue Minjun, Takashi Murakami and many others. Limited edition Bearbricks and plushies also make up a portion of his collection. The contemporary artist, KAWS, holds a special place in Lin’s heart. When the artist wanted to present his 110-feet tall inflatable instalment, Lin’s production company, JFJ Productions, took up this project in collaboration with AllRightsReserved, a Hong Kong creative studio. Titled, KAWS: HOLIDAY, the instalment was placed outside the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
"I think I draw my energy from knowing that I still have so much to give in life, and it could range from the most massive plans to the simplest things in life. I do have a secret fear that one day I might just wake up and not feel inspired anymore, and that will be the darkest day of my life… I just tell myself to be grateful at all times, no matter where I am."
Lin has a constant need to be inspired. He obsesses a lot about what will be the next big thing, or how he can elevate his art. He’s powered by the knowledge that he still has much to give while he’s alive. “I do have a secret fear that one day I might just wake up and not feel inspired anymore.”
Lin’s creative output doesn’t stop there; in 2009, he launched his own fashion brand called SMG. “There are moments when music isn’t the best medium,” Lin says. “That’s when I choose to share ideas through concepts and stories in SMG.” He opened a brick-and-mortar (called SMUDGEStore) in Ann Siang Hill and carried his SMG line alongside other street labels. The flagship store moved to Orchard Cineleisure until the closure of the Singapore branch. “[I was] disappointed, yes, because the space [at Orchard Cineleisure] no longer felt like a suitable spot for SMG,” Lin laments, but he hinted that there may be a Singapore-based SMG soon.
SMG stands for ‘Still Moving Under Gunfire’ and it’s quite telling of Lin’s personality. Earlier in the same year that SMG started, Lin lost his voice. A hectic schedule and a recent bout of acid reflux were probable causes for losing his vocals. He spent the next few months recuperating, during which Lin had to consider a possibility that his singing career was over. “That was a period in my life when I had to learn to fall and pick myself up,” Lin says.
“I’ve always believed in striving in the face of adversity—just like David when he faced Goliath.”
When faced with calamities, Lin channels the helplessness, the fear towards music composition. Once he has exorcised the negativity, consolation washes over him and he’s reminded that there is power in songs and it gives the solace and strength to keep moving under the hail of gunfire.
On a Saturday in 2019, during his Zhenjiang leg of his Sanctuary 2.0 World Tour, Lin was admitted into the Zhenjiang First People’s Hospital for a fever. It is possible that the toll of the tour and the weather contributed to his condition and as soon as he was done with his concert he was swiftly warded and placed on a drip. Soon after, a WeChat post surfaced with an image of a drip bag and syringe that were used by Lin. The caption called for interested parties to bid on them, and made references such as “JJ Lin was here”. Then a video on Weibo showed nurses taking turns to lie on Lin’s used hospital bed after the singer was discharged. There was an uproar over the indiscretions and the following Monday, the hospital announced the staff involved in the incident were suspended and waiting for disciplinary actions.
“Being an artist for 18 years now, I’ve become accustomed to the fact that there’s no point feeling upset about the lack of privacy,” Lin says. This is the lot that comes with his career and while what his perpetrators did was predatory, Lin empathised with them. “Not saying that what they did was right… I do hope from these past situations, more of us can learn to respect one another as human beings.”
There is a superstition among certain cultures that a photo steals a piece of the subject’s soul. Modern people would laugh at that but today’s celebrity culture is a sort of soul trap. You sacrifice a piece of yourself every time you’re in the limelight. Fans want your autograph, they clamour for your attention. If privacy is the cost in this transaction, then you might as well control how much of your personal life the public needs to know about you.
“On a personal side. I feel everyday life for me would slowly but surely become more mellow and low key.”
Lin may be a cog in the fame machine but he’s still pulling the strings. Like many personalities, Lin’s social media presence is meticulous work of curation and gatekeeping. It allows you a peek into Lin’s world without intruding on it. Maybe it’s the cynicism talking but it’s hard to imagine anyone this transparent (hell, we’re unsure if his answers were further edited by his management). His Instagram account—aptly titled JJ Lin—is wholesome: copious shots of himself, scattered moments with his family and friends, announcements of new projects. It’s safe, nothing provocative. It’s an Instagram account you can take home to meet your mother.
Still, Lin knows what his fanbase wants. Any sort of creative experimentation he has ventured into happened to fall in line with what the audience wants. “You have to constantly be mindful that in the world of pop music, you have to speak the language that the masses speak: always be original and different, but don’t stand out for the sake of standing out.” Lin thinks the best way to “give back” is, quite simply, to be the best artist he can be. It’s a responsibility that he doesn’t take lightly.
His latest work is an English EP, his first English EP, called Like You Do. It stands as a testament of another side to him. Effectively bilingual, Lin always felt more at ease expressing himself in English. “With this EP, I hope to share a more vulnerable side of my inner self to a wider audience.” And then there’s his online concert, Sanctuary: FINALE, which is scheduled for a June 6 screening. “It’s the show that fans have been waiting for and will be the next milestone in our company’s portfolio, as we have been working hard to put together a whole new level of virtual entertainment,” he says.
He has crossed the milestone of 40. Forty years of JJ Lin on this earth, the last 18 years spent building a career, amassing accolades, a household name a million times over. He has started from nothing and worked his way towards success. This new phase in life offers him a little more clarity, especially as the head of his own music production company, JFJ Productions. He has to look at the “bigger picture”, rather than from the viewpoint of a singular artist. There’s an urgency to constantly manage and train his team so that one day they will take the torch and run with it. “On a personal side,” Lin adds, “I feel everyday life for me would slowly but surely become more mellow and low key.” He has started picking up more assured hobbies, like brewing coffee and camping.
Does he ever look at where he is today and just pinch himself? Surviving the low depths of his life, JJ Lin is, nonetheless, grateful for everything. He wants to make use of his celebrity status to influence his followers or the general public to “make [the world] a better place…”
Be kind. Do unto others. Be the change you want to see. These are notions that border on the Pollyannish. And yet, is it so wrong to want an improved future? How jaded are we that we cast suspicion on something as earnest as “[making] the world a better place”? It is a safe conclusion that Lin operates on a higher plane, one that we could aspire to.
JJ Lin appears on the cover of the May 2021 edition of Esquire Singapore, the magazine's celebratory 100th issue. Purchase your copy today.