The (Re)Birth of Cha Sanggu: 39-year-old Canadian Dreams of K-pop Fame

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Cha Sanggu has never been to Korea, but refers to himself as a “synthetic Korean.” Now, at almost 40 years old, he has rebranded himself and is looking to become a K-pop star. Considering his backstory, it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

I recently received an email from a publicist that read: “We have an artist named Cha Sanggu (차상구) in our network who is a non-Korean K-pop singer working with a multiplatinum, Grammy & Oscar nominated producer on his first music release in Korea.”

The pitch went on to say that Sanggu would soon make his debut and that he had garnered the interest of some major Korean media outlets.

I Googled him.

It was there, within the borders of my browser, that the story got interesting. Up popped a small collection of highly stylized photos of an attractive, 6-foot-4, 39-year-old Canadian of the typical European mutt variety – hardly the person one would expect to crack the youthful, plasticized, monoethnic world of K-pop.

I toyed with the idea that this all might be an elaborate joke, but I emailed back a few quick questions to flesh the story out a bit more.

Then it got more interesting.

“I know it’s crazy, but I’ve never been to Korea,” the reply read, this time directly from Sanggu. “I have dreamt of it every day since starting as a K-pop singer, and didn’t want to set foot on Korean soil until I was proficient enough in the language.”

Again, the thought of this being a joke tickled at my cranium. I listened to the songs he sent, and the music showed impressive artistic expression. I proceeded to set up an interview, slightly inebriated at the possibility of committing some interesting journalism.


Cha Sanggu #4


With a little more digging I learned that Sanggu (who asked that I not reveal his given name as he forges his new identity) has worked with, and at times lived with, an impressive list of talent. Back at the turn of the millennium, the Vancouver native worked with acts such as Collective Soul, the late Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes and most recently Ronnie King.

“The discovery of K-pop has changed my life tremendously, and I consider it a gift from the Korean people. I’ll keep pushing until Korea accepts me and my gratitude that I can only return and express through music.”

Like most who take a shot at the big time, Sanggu’s career in music never fully panned out, and by 2008 he went to work in game design at Sanrio & Typhoon Gaming before most recently settling in to a management post at BroadbandTV in Vancouver. Life goes on.

And then, in what his tenor makes seem an almost religious experience, Sanggu “discovered” South Korea – her history, her language and her K-pop.

“When I first discovered K-pop, I was really mesmerized by the beauty and flow of the language, and the more I learned about [the language’s] history and creation through Sejong the Great, it became an obsession.”

Perhaps this was his artistic destination all along.

“I truly feel that Hangul is the instrument I’ve been looking for to truly express myself as an artist. Each day as my language proficiency increases, I get closer to reaching my full potential and creating the music that my heart has been longing to deliver.”

So now he spends his time making contacts on the peninsula for what he hopes is an eventual musical breakthrough in a country he’s never been to but loves from the bottom of his synthetic Korean heart.

The Long Road to Korea

Sanggu’s musical journey began in 1999 when he moved to Atlanta armed with a $1,000 vocal demo financed by his parents. Some diligent door-knocking got his tape in the hands of a rep at Atlanta Mix Factory who liked what he heard and immediately set up an audition with the boss – the late Lisa ‘Left-Eye’ Lopes of TLC fame.

After waiting several hours in a nightclub, Left-Eye finally arrived.

“We went outside and there she was, sitting in her white Range Rover,” recalls Sanggu. “I almost passed out at first, but we got in and popped in my demo. She took one listen and smiled at me and said ‘I want you.’”

“The next day, I was sent a production deal contract through Left-Eye Productions and Sony Music. A few days later, I moved into her house where some other artists were staying too, and the journey began. Sounds crazy, but all true.”

Not a bad start for an aspiring young singer from Vancouver, and yet, by Sanggu’s own admission, he lacked the chops to go further.

“I didn’t have the ability at that time to deliver a product that she could take to Sony and get on the radio; I was too green.”

At a photoshoot during this time, Sanggu caught the attention of Collective Soul manager Farshid Arshid. He too liked what he heard, and Sanggu soon joined the Georgia-based band on tour where he became a close study of lead singer Ed Roland.

Unfortunately, timing was not on Sanggu’s side.

“The Collective Soul era ended right as it was about to really begin,” he says. “When the tour [Roland] was on was over, we were supposed to go into the studio and work on the six songs we had done together at the conceptual stage. Literally a week before, some major drama happened between him and another bandmate that led to him kicking that band member out of the group and divorcing his wife. Not surprisingly, my project was delayed.”


Cha Sanggu #1


Sanggu then spent several years as an A&R scout and talent coach at Feel Me Records, followed by his stint at Sanrio & Typhoon and then BroadbandTV.

And now, he’s back trying to forge his original musical path – only this time, not as an aspiring R&B oddity but as an aspiring K-pop oddity.

For his friends and family, it’s not such an odd thing.

“All my friends, Korean and non, think I’m crazy anyway, so they’re not surprised, but they’re also not in the business of doubting me anymore. When I go for it, I go for it hard.”

This time he’s tapped the production talents of Ronnie King (of Tupac, Snoop Dogg and Mariah Carey fame) who says that Sanggu “has the voice of an angel.” For Sanggu’s K-pop material, acclaimed Korean poet, Sangrim, has helped pen the Korean lyrics – a language Sanggu is still diligently acquiring.

Though some might view his K-pop aspirations with a serious scratch of the head, you gotta give the guy credit for taking another shot at the dream.

And if it doesn’t work out, Sanggu, a man draped lavishly in optimism, is just fine with that possibility.

“Whatever happens, I’ve already been blessed beyond measure, and feel like I’ve already been so successful. Will I get famous, sell a million records? I have no clue, but I’d be happy being a lounge singer at a little bar in Busan, too.”


You can learn more about Sanggu at www.mawheyo.com.

Photos by Francisco Fuentes and Andy Kang

 

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