COURTESY SHORE FIRE MEDIA
Agnes Chan, born in Hong Kong, found success in J-pop -- Japanese pop music -- that extended to Hawaii a generation ago. Her star power remains strong in Japan, and she's issued a new CD, "Forget Yourself," that builds on her humanitarian work for UNICEF.
Songs from the heart
Former teen star Agnes Chan is engaged in adult pursuits as an ambassador for UNICEF -- and her new music reflects that devotion
LOCAL FOLKS who remember the '70s might also remember a teenage pop singer from Japan by the name of Agnes Chan.
Now all grown up -- a wife and mother -- Chan remembers that time with fondness, despite the name of her first American/English-language album, "Forget Yourself," released two months ago.
Chan built a fan base here in performances a generation ago, and her celebrity in her home country is still solid, but it is her role as goodwill ambassador for the Japan National Committee for UNICEF that has affected her music -- and her life -- the most.
Her missions to impoverished areas 'round the world -- visiting the children of Darfur, East Timor, Cambodia, Iraq, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nepal and the Philippines -- has moved her not only to write songs about their plight, but to lobby for legislation to protect these downtrodden young.
When asked via e-mail if she knew what heartrending work she would be getting into when she accepted the UNICEF position in '98, she answered from Tokyo, "Yes and no. I knew that I (was going to) be the bridge between the Japanese public and the children of the world, but I did not know the severity of the problems.
"It was a learning experience for me ... about child trafficking, child prostitution, child soldiers, children in war zones, displaced children, starving children and more. I also learned how to bow my head to ask for help from people, and to bring people's kindness back to the children. I have grown to be a more effective fundraiser and an (advocate) for children because of UNICEF. They have trained me well and are still training me to be the voice of the smallest voices."
In several songs on "Forget Yourself," Chan poignantly speaks for these children: a Sudanese child soldier on "Sorrow Lives in This Village," a child prostitute in Manila on the dance track "Thirteen," an 8-year-old Ethiopian boy who teaches another orphan to walk, on the touching "One Step at a Time."
Such naked sentiments, while not unusual to Asian pop music fans, could strike some Americans as treacly. Chan agrees. "I know the CD needs some warning before people pick it up. Because there is so much truth in it, it can be difficult to handle.
"I used to feel reluctant to let people know that I work for charities and feel shy about admitting to others that I really care about children around the world. But after I visited Ethiopia in 1985 and saw starving children die in front of my eyes, I have given up all self-consciousness when I talk about children's sufferings. I am no longer bashful about it because I feel that someone has to do it, and it can be me if I am brave enough."
The truth is actually much worse than the images her music presents, Chan said, but the songs will make people uncomfortable -- and that's intentional. "My best hope is to inspire people to carve out a little space for children in their hearts and forget about themselves sometimes to care for others."
COURTESY SHORE FIRE MEDIA
Agnes Chan says she used to be shy about seeking help for children's causes, "but after I visited Ethiopia in 1985 and saw starving children die in front of my eyes, I have given up all self-consciousness."
That is the succinct message of the title track, one of two songs that include guest vocals from superstar Jackie Chan (no relation) that were recorded in Hong Kong. "Jackie is a wonderful friend," Chan said, "and when I told him about the CD and asked him to sing, he agreed on the spot. He is also an ambassador for UNICEF."
You'd think that between her musical career and her UNICEF work, Chan's life would be rich enough. But besides being the mother of three boys (she's married to her former manager, Tsutomo Kaneko), she's also a bit of a renaissance woman.
"I have a Ph.D. (in education) from Stanford, and I am a professor in two Japanese universities. I write regularly for magazines and newspapers and give more than 100 talks in different parts of Japan each year," she said.
The list goes on: She records one to two CDs per year, performs, hosts television and radio shows, and has published more than 70 books. "I really do a lot of things, maybe too many, but I feel fortunate to be able to reach out to so many people."
She'd like to visit the United States -- particularly Hawaii -- "so people can get to know me and the stories behind the songs," but that's proving difficult given her schedule in Japan.
"We are reaching out to Asian media where I still have some recognition to help gain attention to the CD," she said. "When I do promotion for my usual CDs, I find it difficult to ask for help, but this CD is (not usual) and I hope the Japanese community will back it up and spread the message."