Sun who? Why Sun Ho failed to crack US market
Wife of City Harvest Church founder could not replicate her Asian pop success in the US
Ho Yeow Sun wanted to be a pop star but also someone who could use her celebrity status to promote the church she co-founded with her husband, Kong Hee.
But did she have a real shot at making it big?
By 2002, she had already scored a number of hits in the Mandopop scene and had a following in Taiwan.
While her fortunes were good in Asia, her attempt to make it in the US was followed by a police complaint here alleging misuse of church funds and a trial that led to six church leaders being found guilty of fraud.
And among the six was her husband, who helped engineer and support her singing career.
The music business can be a cut-throat industry and Sun Ho's (her pop moniker) team may have been naive in their westward push.
For one thing, the timing was off, says US music career consultant Robert A. Case.
He says: "I've never even heard of any of her music. If I had $24 million back then, I wouldn't even put the money in the music business."
He tells The New Paper on Sunday that Ms Ho entered the market at a bad time as the US music industry was in a downwards spiral. She had moved to the US in 2003 to carve out her singing career.
But in 2003, the emergence of online music services such as the iTunes Store was killing off the retail music industry there, says Mr Case.
Many upcoming independent artists failed to see that and simply kept on spending.
For her, the seven years in the US were the glamorous years. She received personal dance lessons from top choreographers and worked with top artists, directors and producers for her music videos.
She was even invited to an awards show.
PAYING TO GET A BREAK
But where she had success in the East, her team had to pay for her to work with personalities just to get a break in the US.
A total of $24 million in church funds was spent on Ms Ho's singing career.
E-mails revealed in court showed that US$1.5 million (S$1.9 million) went to rapper Wyclef Jean. Another US$1.5 million was for rapper Missy Elliott to get her to appear in Ms Ho's music videos, in the "worst-case scenario".
The money spent also got her the chance to work with veteran record producer and 16-time Grammy Award winner David Foster, who helped produce her debut English single, Where Did Love Go.
The song reached the top spot of Billboard's dance breakout chart.
But Mr Case, who has managed several artists who made it to the Grammy Entry List, in categories such as Best New Artist and Album of the Year, said making the charts is also "useless" if she was unable to capitalise on the momentum.
"So she charted on the Billboard. That's cool. But if she didn't have the team or the experience to go out and follow up on this success, then it doesn't matter," says the consultant, who has been in the business for 28 years.
The chart is also not representative of success, says London-based freelance actor Alex Liang.
The Billboard dance chart is compiled from reports from a nationwide panel of club DJs, detailing the tracks that elicit the most audience response, according to the Billboard website.
Says Mr Liang: "It really reflects the opinions of a relatively small handful of DJs in the US who are willing to play these songs, so while it is nice to be popular among this small group of influential DJs, it doesn't necessarily translate into commercial success."
Mr Liang wrote a scathing review of Ms Ho's US endeavours from his perspective as a freelance entertainer on his popular blog, Limpeh Is Foreign Talent. The UK citizen has worked on music videos alongside Madonna, Duffy and Mylo.
'Right song, production & image more important'
Sun Ho had signed on with David Foster's record company, Tonos Entertainment, in 2003.
He said of the singer: "I am happy to report that I have given up being financially driven many years ago... When you do things for money, it will never work out. Ever."
But cracks emerged soon after.
By Sept 2003, Tonos was out of business and Ms Ho had moved on to work with Wyclef and Mr Justin Herz of JH Music.
Mr Gingio Muehlbauer, founder of several international artist management firms, believes it is unnecessary for newcomers to collaborate with established stars.
"The right song, production and image is way more important.
"Take (Korean singer) Psy for example, he used a dance move, a beat and a fun video to get there," says Mr Muehlbauer.
While Ms Ho did assemble established production teams which included Mr Foster and Wyclef, they took a big chunk of the budget, says Mr Muehlbauer.
Speaking in general, he says that it is common for Asian artists with large budgets to spend millions without any guarantee of success.
"It's all about people. I think it is very clear that Sun Ho got connected to the wrong people instead of starting with a humble beginning, with very talented and humble people."
Collaborating with high-profile artists can still be a good thing for newcomers as it would bring them exposure and establish their credibility, says Mr Case.
But there is a caveat. The music still has to be good.
"You can be working with the greatest producer in the world but a piece of crap will still be crap," he says.
Mis Ho's singing career ended in 2010 after the police began probing into misuse of funds at CHC.
Her swansong was an English single, Fancy Free, in 2009. It was meant for an album that never materialised.
June 26, 2012, changed everything.
Her husband, Kong Hee, and five other senior CHC members were arrested that day.
All six were found guilty of misusing $24 million to fund her singing career and another $26 million to cover it up.
She found out during her husband's trial that her earlier success may have been overstated too.
Her apparent success in the Mandarin-speaking market also turned out to be unfounded as church members had to fork out $500,000 to buy 32,500 of her unsold albums.
Two of her Mandarin albums made losses of almost $1 million, the court heard.
In his 270-page written judgment, Judge See Kee Oon criticised Kong Hee saying he had exaggerated the success of his wife's music career.
The trial ended her pop career. But to followers at her church, she remains a star.
On Oct 19, Kong posted on Facebook that Ms Ho had been ordained as a pastor. She was back to where she started all those years ago.
Ms Ho declined to be interviewed when asked.
- NG JUN SEN
She wouldn't succeed in the US
Her provocative music video, China Wine, caused a stir in 2007. It showed a scantily clad Sun Ho gyrating to the music.
Mr Gingio Muehlbauer, who also has a management firm in Los Angeles where Ms Ho was once based, saw the video for the first time last week. He found it wanting.
"Sun aka Geisha, what a confusing name. She is a new artist and already she has two names," he says.
"The message is not clear. The title of the single is also poor."
There were other warning signs that Ms Ho would not be successful in the US, adds Mr Robert A. Case.
He explains: "(Foreign) artists have to be established in their regions first."
Alex Liang agrees, pointing out that even K-pop bands such as 2NE1 and Wonder Girls had limited success in the US.
He says: "The Wonder Girls had so much support from the Korean-American community and still failed. So what made Sun Ho think she could succeed where others have failed?"
- NG JUN SEN