Kong Hee: Sun Ho and I were uneasy with Asian-reggae sound US producer wanted
China Wine was supposed to be an example of how singer Sun Ho could break into the American music market.
But behind the scenes, Ho was uncomfortable with the Asian-reggae fusion music that she was asked to perform, despite the number of hits that the single, featuring hip-hop musician Wyclef Jean, was getting on YouTube.
Her husband, City Harvest Church (CHC) founder Kong Hee, said he was also having concerns working with her producer, Wyclef.
But they persisted for as long as they could because breaking into the US entertainment market was part of CHC's mission to reach out and spread the gospel to the rest of the world, said Kong in court yesterday.
Kong and five other CHC leaders are on trial for allegedly misusing more than $50 million of church money through sham bonds.
Some of this money was allegedly used to fund Ho's music career through two companies - music production firm Xtron and glass manufacturer Firna.
Kong, 49, is the second accused to take the stand after former board member John Lam.
Yesterday, Kong said renowned songwriter and "hit-maker" Wyclef was brought in by American music producer Justin Herz to "polish up" Ho's English album in 2006. By then, Ho had already released some English singles.
While Kong said he was initially uncomfortable with Wyclef's high asking price, he was also very excited to have the famous producer on board.
Wyclef then said that the songs that were already recorded for the album were "too white" for Ho and did not sound authentic, said Kong.
So he suggested re-recording the entire album and introduced "a unique sound just like the way he did with Shakira, to have an Asian-reggae album", he said.
Colombian singer Shakira had collaborated with Wyclef on a hit Latino-reggae song, Hips Don't Lie.
But after recording China Wine, Kong said his wife felt really uncomfortable as it was not a natural fit for her and for an Asian to do reggae music.
With this and concerns about the escalating costs quoted by Wyclef, negotiations eventually broke down in 2008, Kong said.
For example, in 2008, Mr Herz said in an e-mail that an additional US$10 million (S$12.5 million) was required for "marketing costs", on top of the US$5 million that was already invested in Ho's album.
"In fact, later on, Lisa Ellis (Ho's US-based marketer) and Wyclef further increased their budget, which made me very, very uncomfortable. The net profit that they projected was also very high, but I just felt that they were asking too much," Kong said.
So they then engaged another producer, Johnny Wright.
Ho's English album is yet to be released.
Kong said that he tried to drive a hard bargain and was always "conservative" when it came to the budgeting of Ho's expenses and revenue.
He maintained throughout yesterday's hearing that it was because the costs were paid by Xtron, which was Ho's artist manager from 2003 to 2008.
And as CHC had invested money in Xtron bonds, Kong said he worked hard to ensure that it would get its money back to redeem the bonds.
He said: "The church cannot lose a dollar of what it has invested into Xtron. All the investment must come back with interest.
"That was my motivation and that is why... I'm very vigilant... and I try to be rigorous with the budgeting."
LIAISE & NEGOTIATE
Kong also repeatedly said that while he was the one who came up with the Crossover Project, his role in the US was merely to liaise and negotiate with the Americans.
He said he tried to answer and submit whatever information he gathered to the Xtron directors, particularly Indonesian tycoon and CHC member Wahju Hanafi, with "a good conscience".
"Wahju has publicly proclaimed that he's going to support (and) underwrite the Crossover Project, and I want to be fair to him," he said.
Previously in the proceedings, the prosecution had sought to prove that Xtron was not an "independent commercial entity at arm's length" from CHC.
But Kong said yesterday that he did not "ride roughshod" over the Xtron directors.
"Xtron directors, they are all my church members. To that extent, what I say, of course, they will listen to it, and consider it.
"To some degree, I have some control, but I don't have... overriding control," he said.
The trial continues today.
Her singles topped US, UK dance charts
Her English album was never released but Sun Ho did have some success with her singles. Ho's husband and City Harvest Church (CHC) founder Kong Hee highlighted to the court yesterday that two of her singles topped various dance charts in the US and UK.
Their foray into the US entertainment market started in April 2003 when Kong received an invitation by pastor Robin Harfouche to speak at her church in the US.
Kong said Dr Harfouche was intrigued by CHC's Crossover Project and even helped circulate videos of Ho "to stir up interest".
From there, Kong said he met with various figures in the American music industry, including publicist Tas Steiner, who Kong said had worked with actors Hugh Grant, Uma Thurman and singer Courtney Love.
Kong was also introduced to producer Justin Herz, who was engaged to produce and promote Ho's first English-language single and album in the US.
In July that year, Ho flew over and recorded some singles.
Her first single, Where Did Love Go, was released in December and went on to top the US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Breakout Chart, he said.
Kong admitted it was a minor chart but it served as an early indicator of how popular the song was.
As for her other single - One With You - it topped the American Billboard Dance Club Play Chart as well as the UK Music Week Dance Chart after it was released in mid-2004, he said. The song stayed on a chart for nine weeks, he said.
A song's placement in the club charts is determined by how many times it is played by authorised DJs in major clubs and not by sales, explained Kong.
"Justin (Herz), Tas Steiner ... they were all quite happy and positive about the results, because, to date... they can't remember another Asian artist or Chinese artist... (who has) topped any Billboard charts yet," Kong said.
From there, it gave Kong the confidence that Ho could succeed in the US music market.
"So they felt that we should do a little bit more, we should keep on taking baby steps, to see if there's really a possibility of her succeeding in the US," he said.
ABOUT THE CASE
ACCUSED: Former finance manager Serina Wee outside court yesterday. TNP PHOTO: GARY GOH
City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee and five others are on trial for allegedly misusing church funds through sham bonds.
This includes $24 million to fund the music career of Kong's wife Sun Ho and another $26.6 million to cover up the first amount.
They are said to have done this through production firm Xtron and glass manufacturer Firna, which are run by long-time supporters of the megachurch.
Kong, former board member John Lam, finance manager Sharon Tan, former investment manager Chew Eng Han, deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng and former finance manager Serina Wee, face varying charges of criminal breach of trust and/or falsifying accounts.
Prosecutors had sought to show how Xtron and Firna directors had simply done the bidding of the accused.
Meanwhile, the defence has argued that the transactions were legitimate, with the accused acting "in good faith" on the advice of lawyers and auditors.