Two decades after leaving his native California to launch his career overseas, musician and actor Van Ness Wu is celebrating the release of his first all-English-language album “Take a Ride.” Over the years, the multi-lingual artist has collaborated with singers like Beyonce and Bruno Mars, but Wu’s latest collection of songs pays homage to his childhood musical influences (Michael Jackson, Prince, A Tribe Called Quest), while putting a fresh spin on his unique sound that incorporates hip-hop, pop and rhythm and blues. Given that his busy schedule takes him around the world often, it’s not surprising to learn that the singer-songwriter penned songs for “Take a Ride” while in London, Kyoto and Malibu. As for this interview, Wu answered questions from his hotel room in Changsha, China.
Q: Many Asian American artists have told me they moved to Asia for their careers because they didn’t see themselves represented in the United States. What was it like for you?
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A: It was truly exactly that. Racism and stereotypes were too often seen and experienced growing up back then in Los Angeles and Orange County. I actually applied for an inter-district transfer to go to school in Irvine rather than Newport because it was pretty bad at the time with faculty and everything. I got into the (music) business at the beginning of 2000. Back then there was zero to no proper representation of Asians in entertainment in the States. Who did we really have back then? For me growing up, one was Ke Huy Quan from “The Goonies” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” But even after he played those roles, they didn’t give him any other roles that represented us well. [Editor’s note: Quan’s performance in 2022’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was critically acclaimed.] So right after my 22nd birthday, I packed my bags and left with about $1,200 bucks in one pocket and the other full of dreams.
Q: What's the most important thing you've learned from your travels?
A: To make sure you have all the right travel necessities, to be adventurous and explore as much as you can and to also be fully present in the moment of where you are. Above all be grateful and soak up as much as you can for inspiration to draw from later on. I really enjoy nature so to see things in their natural state is a real treat.
Q: How many foreign languages do you speak?
A: I speak English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Japanese, and very poor Spanish. The list goes from best to worse. [Laughs] I do feel like I’m able to pronounce different languages quite well. When I was growing up, I watched a lot of anime and learned to sing K-pop songs. But remembering definitely takes longer.
Q: Where are your favorite weekend getaways?
A: Probably the mountains in California somewhere. Went camping with a couple buddies of mine last year and we camped at a private shooting range where we were able to practice and camp there. Cooking your own food, survival of one’s own abilities – was a real fun guys’ trip.
Q: What is your favorite vacation destination?
A: It’s so hard to just narrow it down to one place because each destination has inspired me in so many different ways. I could say Japan because of (my) friends, good food (and) the hot springs in the wintertime. Or the seafood and sea views of Positano (Italy). I could even say the excitement of raw nature when on safari in South Africa. But the one that sticks out the most right now was the simplicity of Hawaii. The North Shore was a very relaxing time when I took my family with me and we just lounged out at a beach house for 10 days. It was seriously one that has been hard to top.
Q: What untapped destination should people know about?
A: I really enjoyed my short trip to Munich when my sister and I traveled there for “The Amazing Race China.” It was so beautiful and clean. I haven’t had enough time to fully venture out, but I told myself I would definitely want to go back again. I remember seeing a castle in the far off mountains and it just seemed so magical.
Q: What was the first trip you took as a child?
A: I remember my family took us kids and our cousins on a tour bus trip to Yellowstone. I just remembered the bathroom on the bus was small and smelly and we often more or less got quite car sick. I think the Disneyland trips were quite memorable. [Laughs]
Q: What are your favorite cities?
A: Tokyo, Osaka, Taipei, Paris, Costa Mesa, Amalfi Coast.
Q: Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?
A: Egypt to see the pyramids. It blows my mind – the magnitude of the architectural scale (and) how it was built. So I really want to see it in person. I hear many different stories, though. Some say it’s safe and some say be careful.
Q: When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?
A: A good camera, a speaker for my music, and vitamins and cold and flu meds. Good pair of walking shoes, gym clothes, and a pre-plan for good places to eat. Maybe a good bottle of tequila. And my Bible.
Q: What is your best vacation memory?
A: This last trip to Baja for deep-sea fishing was quite a good memory. I’m not sure if it’s the best one, but it was a good one. We drove 11 hours from California. On the way we ate great Mexican food, bought awesome fireworks and caught 36 yellowtail during the three days of fishing. We would wake up every morning at 4:30 a.m. before the sun’s up to pack the boat, drive to the water and fish. The experience was something that if you love it you love it and if you don’t, well, then you’re going to be enjoying the room by yourself because it’s a very remote village with not a lot around but fishing. My friend goes three times a year and I was blessed enough to finally go with him and I’m trying to plan to go again soon.
(Jae-Ha Kim is a New York Times bestselling author and travel writer. You can respond to this column by visiting her website at www.jaehakim.com. You may also follow “Go Away With…” on Twitter at @GoAwayWithJae where Jae-Ha Kim welcomes your questions and comments.)