Unlike many other Khmer American singers, Jay Chan is finding success in the United States with original Khmer lyrics and melodies rather than copying Khmer classics to an American tune. His first video, The Final Answer, had more than 20,000 views during the first week of its release: its production standards are fairly high, and its story fits with the dramatic theme of many Khmer videos and the melancholy of teens in love.
In the video, a Khmer singer breaks off a relationship after his girlfriend forces him to choose between her and his career. Four years later, after he has become a superstar he tries to reconnect with her but discovers she died. The ballad depicts a freshly shaved and handsome Chan wearing white till he discovers the death of his former girlfriend, after which he switches to a black leather jacket, sunglasses, and black jeans and boots.
He’s obviously inspired by American pop star Usher and other rhythm and blues singers and is making a play for a similar audience, but is doing so in two languages: his video has English subtitles.
Chan’s Khmer name is Pen Chanthoeun. He was born in Battambang province in 1980, and lived under the remnants of the Khmer Rouge near the Thai border. He, his sister and mother (Pen Chantha, a famous singer before the Khmer Rouge) eventually made it to a refugee camp in Thailand, from where they emigrated to the States in 1985.
Chan now lives in Stockton, California, where he works as an employment recruiting agency. Despite growing up in the States, he speaks fluent Khmer and differs from other Khmer-American singers who often opt for rap or hip hop. Instead, his passion is for Khmer classics of the 1960s, a style he aims to blend with rhythm and blues. He is especially fond of singer Sin Sisamouth, whom he has been listening to since he was 12. His lists Sin Sisamouth Eh Na Tov Than Sour? (Where is heaven?) as his favourite song.
“I like to listen to his songs. I sang Eh Na Tov Than Sour? a few times and one night my mom heard me singing it and she praised my voice like a memory from the past,” Chan told the Post. Besides singing, he also plays the piano, writes lyrics (in both Khmer and English) and composes music.
“For the last five or six years I wrote lyrics in English, but in 2009 I started to write in Khmer,” Chan said. “The Final Answer is my first video, but others are in production,” he said, adding that his colleagues are also Khmer-American and their collaboration helps him write songs that are meaningful in Khmer. He says he goes for a mixture of Khmer and American styles in his videos, and also uses 3D.
“We try to make our music and videos attractive in the US, but Khmer is just as important,” Sophaline Mao, Chan’s PR agent said.
“Loving Khmer songs lead us to begin this music and want Americans to listen,” Chan said when asked why he wanted to be successful in the US. Mao said: “We want to promote Khmer culture and language so Khmer kids here start to learn Khmer and listen to Khmer songs. Most Khmer kids don’t like to speak their own language.”
“I have more difficulty in writing lyrics because no one can help me to recheck the Khmer words, spelling and grammar,” Chan said, adding “most of us work full-time, so we just have time on the weekends.”
Most of the more than 20,000 views of his YouTube video have been Khmer Americans, and an album is in the works. Half its songs will be in English and the rest in Khmer.
To contact the reporter on this story: Seth Kimsoeurn at [email protected]