Singers strike the right note
WHILE waiting to be rescued from the rubble of the massive earthquake that devastated their hometown in Beichuan, China, last year, Li An Ling and her classmates kept their spirits up by singing.
One of the songs they sang was Tong Hua (Fairy Tale in Mandarin). Written by Malaysian singer-songwriter Michael Wong, who is better known as Guang Liang, one line of the song says “xin fu he kuai le shi jie ju (happiness is the end)”.
It is quite ironic that they would sing the song at such a critical time in their lives, but it proved the popularity of Tong Hua, which became an anthem of sorts in the Chinese-speaking world after it was released in 2005. It went on to win 23 major awards in the Asian region, and along the way it has made Ipoh-born Michael a household name as a solo artiste in China and other parts of Asia.
Before this, Michael was already a successful singer in Taiwan, working with former musical partner Victor Wong, who is from Kuala Lumpur, as the now defunct musical duo Michael and Victor in 1996. (They were better known as Guang Liang Pin Guan to their Malaysian fans.)
Michael and Victor are credited as pioneers in the influx of Malaysians into the Taiwanese music industry. Their debut album in Taiwan – Wu Yin Liang Pin x 2 – was a chart-topper that went platinum.
“When our debut album received very good response from the Malaysian audience, our Taiwanese recording company decided to bring us over to Taiwan to see if the people there liked our music,” Michael recalls.
He says he experienced culture shock upon first arriving in Taiwan.
“I did not know Taiwanese culture very well and whenever we had to do recording for television programmes, I would be very nervous. I am glad I had Victor with me when I first started and we helped and depended on each other.”
But even before the duo entered the Taiwanese market, singer-songwriter Eric Moo and songbird Mindy Quah had already made it big in Chinese-speaking countries.
Others who also made a name for themselves in the Chinese entertainment industry are Sabah-born Gary Chaw, Johor lass Penny Tai, and Sarawakians Lim Yee Chung and Nicholas Teo.
Teo took home the Best New Talent (Gold) title at the TVB8 Awards in Hong Kong in 2003.
In 2006, Tai was named Best Composer at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Melody Awards, dubbed the Chinese-language Grammys, while Lim was Best Newcomer of The Year.
Sabah-born Chaw became the first Malaysian singer to win the Best Mandarin Male Singer award, the top honour, last year.
Of course, the most successful of them all is Negri Sembilan-born Fish Leong.
Her massive hit Yong Qi (Courage), penned by Michael, not only generated a strong fan base for Leong, but it also helped her gain the status of a diva in the Taiwanese and Chinese-dominated recording industry.
Many, including potential artistes, believe the myth that starting a musical career in Taiwan is equivalent to making it big in the Chinese entertainment industry.
But Michael thinks otherwise.
“This is not true. There are people who came here but never made it in this very cruel and realistic industry.
“Many artistes wasted their time planning to go to Taiwan but they never spent time to ensure that they stood out from the rest in this very competitive environment,” he says.
Leong’s cousin, Malaysian singer-songwriter Z-Chen, was dubbed the little prince of R&B for his impressive vocal prowess in the genre when he began his career in Taiwan in 2002.
The boyish-looking charmer from Negri Sembilan enjoyed a smooth start and his career soon took off. But a punishing schedule finally took its toll on him.
“I hardly had any friends during my first four years there and I had no life at all. All I did was go to work and go back home to rest,” he says.
“The only Taiwanese food I knew was luroufan (rice with stewed pork). I did not even know much about the tourist destinations in Taiwan.”
He was so worn down that when his contract with HIM Music ended in 2005, he decided to take a break.
“I am not a born artiste. I am just a singer. There are rules in the industry that I do not understand and will not follow. All these just wore me down,” he says.
Despite the punishing schedule he had to follow, Z-Chen, who recently made a strong comeback with his latest album Secret Love, appreciated having the pool of experienced staffers and professionals around him in Taiwan.
“They have the experience to plan your career for you, and they did the packaging and promoting to make you a success in the market,” he says.
China Press editor-in-chief Teoh Yang Khoon, a former music producer, agrees with Z-Chen, saying: “It is a larger market and people there are more experienced in copyright matters, market strategies and the promotion of singers.
“Even if a singer is not up to the mark, they can still make the singer look good and well liked by the audience.”
Furthermore, he adds, the Malaysian market is too small for all the singers.
“The Chinese only make up 26% of the total population. From this figure, half are English-educated and hardly listen to Chinese songs. And those who are Chinese-educated do not necessarily listen to Chinese songs.
“Therefore, it is very hard for them to earn a living on just the Malaysian market. They need to leave the country and develop their career in a larger environment.”
When many still prefer foreign imports over local talents, Teoh thinks Malaysian singers could easily outshine their Taiwanese and Chinese counterparts.
“In Taiwan, there are many young people who would like to be singers and enjoy the limelight. But they do not have what it takes to be a good singer.
“However, Malaysian singers became artistes simply because they like to sing and this distinguishes them from the rest.
“They are very innocent, natural and genuine in their performances,” he says.
On how Malaysian singers could remain competitive in the music industry, Teoh says they should compare themselves with others from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.
“They should set higher standards for themselves. They should not feel inferior just because they are from Malaysia,” he says.
988 deejay Mike Tan, better known among his listeners as Jia Yi, says Malaysian singers are different from their foreign counterparts as they come from a multi-racial society and had the opportunity to experience different cultures.
“This helps a lot when they interpret songs of different genres and it makes them stand out from the rest,” he says.
On the perception that local talents are inferior compared to foreign imports, he says the audience should not pass judgment too quickly. They should instead give Malaysian singers a chance because many of them do have the calibre to sing, he explains.
Ah Niu, otherwise known as Tan Kheng Seong, is another Malaysian singer-songwriter who has made it big in China. He was not comfortable with the way things were done in China at first, but he gradually took everything in his stead.
“I am a kampung boy, and working in China involves a lot of travelling to the rural areas for performances,” he says.
He grew to enjoy the long journeys, some of which brought him face to face with things he had never encountered before.
Recalling a performance at Jiuquan in the Gobi desert, he says the journey was tiring but the experience was enlightening.
“We had to take a two-hour flight and another five-hour road journey on the desert from Beijing to Jiuquan and the same way back immediately after the performance.
“It was very tiring for many people but for me, it was a precious experience because I had not seen a desert before.”
Furthermore, he says, the trips “allow me to see different types of scenery and give me new inspiration to write songs.”
Ah Niu wrote the song Tao Hua Duo Duo Kai (The blossoming of peach flowers) after a visit to Peach Blossom Hill in Shandong province in 2006. His popularity in China soared immediately after the song was released.
Victor reckons the wider market plays a significant role in the success of Chinese singers.
It took a longer time for him to be known in the market, he says, and he had to attend many fan sessions and television programmes before the audience got to know him better. “But when the foundation is firmly built, the opportunities to shine will slowly open up.”
The multi-racial background of Malaysia was also an added advantage and helped him to develop his career in different countries, he admits.
“I have no problem speaking in Cantonese and it gives me the edge over singers from other Chinese-speaking countries, especially when I am in Hong Kong.”
It looks like Malaysian Chinese singers are successfully tackling the music industry in greater China – and they are making the country proud.
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