In some respects, broadcaster Richard Lai is a typical Taiwanese Canadian. He loves beef noodle soup, peppery chicken, and pineapple cakes. The 24-year-old lives with his sister in a high-rise in Burnaby, the city with the most Taiwanese Canadians in the country.
Like many young Taiwanese Canadians, Lai is also the Canadian-born child of immigrants parents. His dad is from Taichung, where his family operates a 3-D printing business. His mom hails from Shulin District north of Taipei, where her family runs a factory that manufactures spokes for bicycles. His parents met in an English class at Vancouver Community College in the 1990s.
But unlike any other other Taiwanese Canadian, Lai hosts a radio program that focuses on music from South Korea. His K-Pop Bops airs on Spice Radio Vancouver AM 1200 every Sunday at 8 p.m.
“I don’t really have to do much research,” Lai tells Pancouver. “Most of the stuff just comes from my pre-ordained knowledge of K-pop. The preparation is not as difficult as I thought it would be.”
He broadcasts in English, but he can also speak fluent Mandarin. Lai reveals that his favourite K-pop band is the six-member Born to Beat. Unlike many other K-pop groups that focus on dancing and singing simultaneously, Born to Beat emphasizes the vocals.
“They do ballads and slower songs,” Lai says. “I know that not many people are into that. But I think that’s what makes them appealing to me.”
He declares that he can’t be biased with music choices because his show covers the broad spectrum of K-pop.
That, of course, includes playing songs by the hugely successful BTS, which hadn’t even formed when Lai began listening to K-pop in 2011.
Lai explains K-pop’s appeal
“I remember when BTS started in 2013,” Lai says. “They were actually quite unknown.”
Their big breakout song was “I Need You” in 2015.
“They went on to say that song was the make or break—if that song had flopped and failed, they would have disbanded,” the broadcaster notes. “Thankfully, it blew up. It was amazing.”
Since then, BTS members have met world leaders, including Joe Biden, and even recorded a music video at the United Nations. Unfortunately for their fans, however, their record label announced in October that BTS members will perform mandatory military service in South Korea. As a result, they won’t perform together again until 2025.
When asked why K-pop is so appealing to him, Lai responds that it’s not only because everyone in this genre is so good-looking and such exceptional dancers. He also appreciates how K-pop is making people try harder to look more presentable.
“Some people will say it’s unrealistic standards and it’s very negative for young people,” he acknowledges. “But I feel that K-pop as a whole has raised people’s standards a little bit in terms of beauty and looking good.”
In the meantime, Lai says that there are connections between the rise of K-pop, known as the Hallyu Wave, and pop music in Taiwan. He points out, for example, that many music-video directors in Taiwan have worked with K-pop groups.
“If you look at a Taiwanese pop-music video and a K-pop music video, they are very, very similar,” Lai states.
Video: BTS performed “Permission to Dance” at the United Nations.
Jolin Tsai and S.H.E. leave a mark
Moreover, he thinks that Taiwanese superstar Jolin Tsai, who’s known for her dancing, has also had an impact on the world of K-pop. Lai adds that Korean bands visiting Taiwan cover her songs in Mandarin.
“They learn the phonetics and they sing it, which I think a lot of Taiwanese fans really like,” he says.
According to Lai, the Taiwanese girl group S.H.E., which formed in 2001, is another band that has shaped pop music. He believes that S.H.E. not only had an impact on girl groups in South Korea, but also in the West. He cites Miami-based Fifth Harmony, a.k.a. 5H, as one possible example.
Lai took a circuitous route into the broadcasting business.
After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the University of Victoria, majoring in English. Even though his grades were good—lots of B+ marks—Lai decided to drop out after a couple of years. That’s because he didn’t feel overly passionate about the courses.
“If I wasn’t giving it my all, if I wasn’t getting As, it wasn’t a good fit for me,” he says.
Lai has an uncle who is a Taiwanese news anchor. On a visit to Taiwan, he decided to visit his uncle’s studio.
“He said, ‘Hey, Richard, if you ever need a job or anything or if you’re out of luck, you can move over to Taiwan and I’ll give you a job here,’ ” Lai says,
Broadcaster overcomes stuttering
This was the impetus for Lai enrolling in the British Columbia Institute of Technology diploma program in radio arts and entertainment. It’s astonishing that Lai even decided to become a broadcaster, given his difficulties with speaking in public as a child and youth.
“When I was presenting in front of a high school or elementary school class, I would stutter a lot,” Lai says. “It was embarrassing.”
After a great deal of effort, he managed to get rid of the stutter. Now, Lai speaks with the strong, mellifluous voice of a broadcaster, enunciating his words with precision.
At BCIT, he came in contact with Spice Radio Vancouver CEO Shushma Datt. When the legendary South Asian broadcaster spoke in one of his classes, she gave the students her phone number.
That evening, Lai called Datt, wanting to know if he could do a practicum at the station. To his good fortune, Datt invited him for an interview.
“I think I worked for five or six hours on my résumé,” Lai recalls with a laugh. “It was the hardest I had ever worked on anything, I swear.”
Shushma Datt gives Lai a chance
Lai also met her son Sudhir, who’s the station’s vice president and program manager. Almost immediately, Lai began working on The Morning Buzz, which is hosted by Mankiran Aujla, Natasha Mendes, and Meriahza Khan. A month later, he switched to work on the Drive Home Grind, which airs from 3 to 6:30 p.m.
“They often ask me, ‘So Richard, which one do you like better? Which one is the better show?’ I can’t really choose,” Lai says with a smile.
He realizes that fellow workers at the station are just joking around, and he really likes their senses of humour. He’s the only Mandarin speaker on staff. Most of those at Spice Radio AM 1200 are of South Asian ancestry, including Datt, who was born in Kenya.
“She has taught me some things that I never thought I would learn,” Lai says.
That includes operating Apple equipment in the studio.
Lai also helps Datt on her 2 p.m. daily radio show, Gupshup, by turning interviews into podcasts. In addition, he does some of the editing on her weekly TV show, Women in Focus, and uploads the videos on YouTube.
“She’s really good to me because she’s asked me on many occasions, ‘Richard, are you too busy? Are we giving you too much work to do?’,” Lai says. “I say, ‘No, it’s fine.’ ”