Q&A: Gary Chaw Ge
No one expected Gary Chaw Ge to be a success, least of all himself. Born into a Malaysian-Chinese family in a village in Kota Belud, Sabah, Malaysia, Chaw's parents separated when he was just a year old. He spent most of his childhood under his grandparents' roof.
At nine, he was sent to study in Canada, where he fell in love with music. But several record labels turned him down, saying he wasn't handsome enough. It was only after he made his name as a songwriter that he managed to get a contract. In 2005, Chaw, 30, had a hit single, Super Woman, a Putonghua version of Karyn White's 1988 hit Superwoman. Chaw's wide vocal range was finally recognised when he was named best male Mandarin singer at Taiwan's Golden Melody Awards last year - the first Malaysian to win the prize. He recently released his fifth album, Supermarket, and began his debut Asia tour last month.
Why did you call your latest album Supermarket?
All my recent albums are named super something. After releasing the single Super Woman, I named my album Superman. My next album was called Super Sunshine. When it came to this album, the name supermarket clicked with me. Like a supermarket, I don't sell one thing; I want to sell a variety of things. There are songs that people can relate to when they are happy or sad. Some people regard me as an R&B singer but this album contains songs from different genres. It doesn't matter if it is a white cat or black cat: as long as it catches the mouse it is a good cat. Likewise, it doesn't matter what genre it is, as long as it is good music I will do it.
What inspires your music?
I grew up listening to Cantonese opera, which was my grandparents' favourite genre. My dad used to be a drummer and loves listening to the Bee Gees and George Michael, while my sister was a fan of New Kids on the Block. Growing up surrounded by different types of music influenced my perspective. I like writing songs about everyday life. Last year, I got married and now have an 11-month-old son, Joe. These changes have influenced my music in different ways.
How important is music to you?
It is a huge part of my life. I was sent to school in Canada when I was nine. Not speaking much English, I didn't know how to express myself, and I'm not much better at it today. So music became a language for me. Without my family and friends around me, music was all I had.
How did you become a singer?
To be honest, I didn't want to be a singer. I thought winning the lottery would be easier than getting a recording contract. My sister convinced me to enter a singing contest by Astro (Asian Satellite Television and Radio in Malaysia) in 1999, when I was 20. I didn't win, but I was offered a singing contract and released my first album, Gary, in 2001. At the time, however, it didn't feel right. There wasn't much of a market for local artists in Malaysia and I wasn't happy with my previous record label. They would tell me I shouldn't say this, or I should do that ... I am a guy who likes to be myself, to do what I want. So I terminated the contract and was jobless. Later, I met Michael [Tu Hui-yuan, a veteran music producer in Taiwan] who invited me to become a songwriter in Taiwan. I had nothing to lose, so I left Malaysia. I remember sleeping on the sofa at the studio in my first year there. But I learned a lot, got to know more about showbiz and met many talented people.
But your career didn't go smoothly
All the record labels told me I was ugly and they couldn't make me a singer. It just broke me. I didn't have any friends to share my feelings with at the time; I had to keep it all inside. That was when I started drinking, and I began drinking more and more because when I was sober I would get angry and depressed. It was the lowest point of my life.
What has changed since you won the Golden Melody Awards?
I was shocked when I won. When my name was announced, I saw people from my record label and my family crying. Then I understood it wasn't just about me: it was an award to share among the people who had supported me and loved me all that time. On a more pragmatic note, my show price doubled after the award.
Why did you choose to start your Asian tour in Malaysia?
My life started in Malaysia and I have never forgotten my country. I want to tell people there that I care about Malaysia and to show that not all talent comes from Hong Kong or Taiwan - Malaysia has talent too.
Chaw's Welcome to My World Asia Live Tour 2009, Aug 21, 8pm, AsiaWorld-Expo; HK$200-HK$580, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2886 9000. Supermarket is out now