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O.C. RELIGION

Ministering to Asians With Song

Junko Cheng of Irvine Uses Her Music to Spread Christian Message

October 07, 2000|ELAINE GALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Junko Cheng moved with her family to the United States from Japan, she was a third-grader in culture shock. She remembers a difficult adjustment and still speaks fondly of teachers in Queens, N.Y., her new home, who helped her learn American customs and language.

Now 39, Cheng has clearly found her voice. A singer with a successful career in Christian pop music, she has produced four albums in the last eight years under her own label, Rising Sun Records, and hit No. 1 last year on the Christian music charts in Japan. Through her distribution and marketing operations, she has sold more than 20,000 CDs, given concerts around the world and logged more than 30,000 hits on her Web site, www.junko.com.

The Irvine resident's impact goes far beyond commercial success. She is making a splash with Asian listeners for whom inspirational lyrics set to a contemporary rock beat is a new concept.

"There, the religious market is mainly for Buddhist chants," said Chin-Ning Chu, an Asian culture expert and author who lives in San Francisco. "It's not lyrical singing. It's more of a meditation. There's not been a market before in Asia for contemporary Christian music."

Music industry experts say Cheng, who writes lyrics in Japanese and English, has a huge following in Japan and Hawaii, where she contributed the song "Living in Harmony" to the collaborative album "Praising Him Island Style," released by Quiet Storm Records. A recent career highlight was opening for well-known Christian singer Michael W. Smith at the historic Hawaii Theater in August 1999.

Christian pop music in general is a growth industry, with U.S. revenue having more than tripled from an estimated $160 million in 1987 to $550 million in 1996, said Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard Magazine in New York.

Even in that context, Cheng's success is remarkable because she has built her career on her own, said Dave Rose, music buyer at Sonshine Christian bookstore in Mission Viejo.

"Without the national promotion and all that hoopla, it's harder to get attention, but she's still well-established," Rose said. "A lot of artists over the years are taking a step back from the whole industry thing. They would rather be more of a ministry-oriented business."

He cites Cheng not only as an artist making the "world music" that is gaining popularity on the pop Christian music scene, but also as one of a growing number of independent musicians going it alone so they do not have to compromise their message by negotiating with promoters or marketers.

Ani DiFranco, a young folk-rock singer from Buffalo, N.Y., has taken a similar path, producing all her own albums--not a cheap process considering that each can cost $40,000.

"There are a lot of other artists who get exposure from magazine articles. That's what a record company does for you; they supply all the advertisers and marketing," Rose said. "But lately a lot of artists, like Junko, are doing their own independent albums and are promoting themselves."

He said of Cheng: "Her products are in style. They are contemporary pop and are very well produced with inspirational lyrics. In the Christian world, there just aren't many Asian artists."

Cheng said her ministry is at the core of her music.

"I often minister to Asians," she said during a recent interview in her family's spacious Irvine home. "They have been starving for a role model. They don't see that many Asians singing, especially Asians singing about things that resonate with them, like perfectionism and being too hard on ourselves."

Cheng practices what she preaches. Married with a 2-year-old son, Joshua, and a newborn daughter, Megumi, she has cut back on personal appearances to devote more time to motherhood and husband David, a family-practice physician. Whereas Cheng used to give as many as 120 performances a year, her goal now is about 60.

At home, she speaks Japanese with her mother, who sometimes baby-sits the children. Motherhood, she said, has helped her shed her shyness and stage fright, giving her more confidence and sense of purpose. Her latest album, "Eternal Treasure," was released in December and includes among its six original tracks "Practicing the Presence," dedicated to stay-at-home moms; and "Christ Dwells in Your Heart" for son Joshua.

For the first time since Megumi was born in late July, Cheng will perform Friday for the International Women's Conference at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. The next day she will sing at the Orange County Free Methodist Church in Costa Mesa. Also scheduled are performances in Los Angeles and Hawaii.

Cheng said album sales are not her main concern. Rather, she has a calling to minister by singing and sharing the Gospel.

"God is in control of my career," she said. "He's my manager, my booking agent."

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