Celebrity Spotlight is a monthly column where we introduce a famous individual from China (or of Chinese heritage) that you should know more about.
How do you know you’ve officially made it? Is it your first primetime TV appearance? Your first sold-out stadium show? Or, perhaps, the day you realize that you can no longer attend a movie without being photographed by random people? For Canadian Henry Lau, believe it or not, it was when he was offered free apples in the supermarket.
“I’ve never gotten free stuff, ever. [The store clerk] was like, ‘Take a few more apples. You could take them, you know.’ And then that’s when I knew, yo, I made it,” he tells RADII.
Henry Lau during an exclusive interview with RADII earlier this month. Image by Docky Chen
But Lau’s story didn’t start there. Before the free apples, a deal with one of South Korea’s leading agencies — SM Entertainment, and before debuting as a member of the musical group Super Junior-M, he was a self-declared “very nerdy” Canadian teenager with a passion for classical music.
Born and raised in Toronto, Lau, better known as Henry (and hereafter referred to as such), grew up in a Chinese-Canadian household.
At the urging of his mother, Henry began learning to play the violin when he was 6 and the piano when he was 7, with classical music being the backbone of his musical education. He explains, “It was actually my mom’s dream to make music, but she never had the opportunity … and she was like, ‘I’ve got to give [my kids] an opportunity and get them to learn music.”
Once he started playing, Henry’s classical music point of view was greatly influenced by the Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman, who is sometimes referred to as among the most exceptional performers of the major violin repertoire of his time.
Henry playing piano as a child. Image courtesy of Monster Entertainment Group
Henry later learned to play the guitar and drums. He credits his skills on the violin and piano for giving him a solid musical foundation, which made learning other instruments easier.
In middle school, he was known as the ‘classical-music dude’ because of his love for the musical tradition and the fact he was nearly always within the arm’s reach of a violin. But teenage Henry’s musical trajectory was destined to change: He saw a fellow student dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” at a school talent show and was immediately hooked.
“Everyone [in the audience] went crazy … I was there watching him, and I was like, that’s what I wanna do,” says Henry.
After that, the classical-music dude started learning to dance, and he soon became the club master of both the violin and dance clubs. Although classical music and hip-hop dance could seem incompatible, Henry saw the fusion of these two as an opportunity to create something special.
View this post on InstagramA post shared by Henry Lau 刘宪华 헨리 (@henryl89)
A post shared by Henry Lau 刘宪华 헨리 (@henryl89)
On one particularly busy middle school day, Henry tells us, his dance and violin clubs were double-booked — forcing him to jump back and forth between the two sessions frantically. The hecticness of the situation inspired him to combine his passions into something new and unique (and frankly, I think we can all agree that combining the two classes would undoubtedly save time).
“I had to go back and forth … and I was like, wait, I could just put these together. So, what I did was I ended up dancing and playing the violin at the same time,” says Henry. “And at that time, I think I was probably the first person in the world to do so.”
When asked who his most significant musical influence is now, Henry tells us, “I would say just myself, because, at a certain point, you want to look into yourself, like, oh, what can I find within myself?”
Because he is incredibly talented at dancing — particularly a style known as popping — and creating music, Henry’s rise to pop stardom likely did not surprise those who knew him in his teen years. In fact, it was his friends who encouraged him to attend the SM Entertainment Global Audition in 2006 that would lead to his discovery and set him on a collision course with the southern portion of the Korean peninsula.
Out of the thousands of participants at the audition, the agency chose Henry and another individual. Henry recalls, “I didn’t really expect that I would get in. It was almost impossible because there were so many people. But I was confident.”
His selection by the South Korean entertainment agency forced Henry to reevaluate his future: Continue the classical music route, or jump headfirst into the world of K-pop.
“If I just chose the classical violinist route, then I would only be able to play the violin. But then, with this one [being a K-pop star], I could play the violin, play piano, I could produce, I could dance, and I could sing and do everything — including the violin.”
Without a doubt, Henry’s life changed completely: He was no longer a high school student applying to college but a K-pop star in the making. Instead of living in Toronto, Henry would be moving to South Korea, even if he couldn’t speak a single word in Korean.
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To SM Entertainment’s surprise, Henry — at the time — could only speak minimal Chinese. This, it turns out, was a bit of a problem, as the agency assumed he was fluent in Chinese when it signed him. As a result, after he arrived in South Korea, Henry went to language class every day for six hours. He was also required to join other trainees for dancing and singing lessons.
But he was learning Chinese from Korean instructors who could not speak English, something that was a challenge — to say the least.
The language classes went on for years, according to Henry. But it was not for nothing: Henry is now widely praised for his ability to speak four languages.
Originally, SM Entertainment planned to launch Henry’s career as a member of Super Junior. But fans of the group organized to oppose the plan, and the agency ultimately assigned him to Super Junior-M, a Chinese sub-unit of Super Junior.
Super Junior-M in Bangkok in 2013. Image via Wikimedia
But Henry took the setback as an opportunity to enhance his musical skills, going to Berklee College of Music to study singing and production, according to Forbes. Moreover, to prepare for his role as a chef in the film Final Recipe, Henry took a five-hour cooking class daily.
His hard work paid off.
In 2013, Henry released his first solo album Trap. Three months later, the film Final Recipe premiered in South Korea. And things started taking off.
The rising star also began appearing in hit TV shows, the most recent of which is the now-airing reality TV show Street Dance of China Season 4, in which he serves as one of the four dance crew captains alongside fan-favorite Wang Yibo. As a captain, he heads a group of world-class dancers and fearlessly leads them into dance battles with other teams.
Henry Lau on Street Dance of China Season 4. Image via Weibo
Henry shared that, before the show, he put dancing secondary to music and hadn’t danced seriously for 10 years.
“I would always be dancing with the mic in my hand, which means you don’t need to be dancing that much. But [in Street Dance of China] you’ve got to battle somebody with your dancing — and there’s no mic. So, I had to relearn how to do all that,” Henry tells RADII.
As a result, he started to relearn the popping technique while quarantining in China.
“During the two to three weeks [of quarantine], I had a self-made mirror made of small pieces of tin foil. I would have Zoom lessons with a poppin’ teacher, and I relearned how to pop during my quarantine.”
After being released from quarantine, Henry continued his popping training six hours per day over the following few months.
His hard work seems to have paid off, but whether or not he’ll be able to walk away with the top honor during the finale of Street Dance of China Season 4 remains to be seen — the show concludes this Saturday (October 30) live on Chinese video platform Youku.
While some artists stay comfortably within their chosen artistic lane, Henry does not. Case in point: The pop star’s artwork was recently featured in Saatchi Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in London.
Henry’s art pieces on display in London are examples of pendulum painting, a type of art created by dripping paint from a swinging pendulum. He became fascinated with the painting style due to its stunning visual effect and the ease to which it can be integrated into live shows, explaining, “It was one way of basically making this artwork into a performance.”
Henry previously used a loop station to help audiences ‘see’ his music, but since discovering pendulum painting, he has begun using the medium to visualize his art.
Although he has viewed the painting style as a visualization method for his audience and nothing more, Saatchi Gallery apparently thought otherwise. It reached out asking to exhibit Henry’s artwork in London.
Henry is posing in front of his pendulum paintings. Image courtesy of Monster Entertainment Group
Henry’s brother Clinton shares, “Henry always approaches his performances from a visual perspective — how would the audience experience it. So, pendulum painting was perfect because the process is such a visual experience.”
It’s an unpredictable form of artistic creation, and in Henry’s words, “You never know how it’s gonna turn out.”
Whether it’s creating art or learning new languages, whether it’s singing, dancing or acting, without a doubt, Henry proves himself to be an impressive individual who is incredibly dedicated and persistent.
We don’t think we’re alone in saying we can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.
Additional reporting by Matthew Bossons
Cover image by Docky Chen for RADII
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