Diaspora diaries

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am

Michelle Chuang Mei-lien has reason to be excited: she's about to produce a Chinese pop-rock album, perhaps the first of its kind to be made in the French capital.

'In Paris, Chinese music usually comes in the form of lion dances, oldies or traditional music. People do listen to Canto- and Mando-pop, but no one creates this kind of music. I'm looking forward to being the first,' says Chuang, originally from Taiwan.

The 45-year-old has been preparing for the album for two years, dipping into her own pocket to enlist musicians to compose a series of pop-rock songs, some of which include Chinese instruments such as the erhu.

Three years ago, Chuang says, she was a 'depressed' housewife, rarely leaving her Paris home.

'I came to Paris in my 30s, knowing little about French culture. My French was poor. I had to learn everything from scratch. It was hard to start anew,' she recalls.

Chuang's predicament was not only the result of having to adapt to a foreign culture: she also had to cope with the anticlimax of leaving behind a glamorous singing career.

Chuang started in bars and lounges as a university student in Kaohsiung, covering everyone from Whitney Houston to Guns N' Roses. She soon attracted a fan base, which included a Frenchman who would become her husband.

In the 1990s, the couple moved to Paris. After a brief spell of excitement, she lapsed into boredom.

'I felt completely useless because I could only speak English. I wasn't motivated to learn French or understand the culture,' she says.

Chuang vacillated between despair and irritability. Her husband started visiting a psychologist to help him deal with the stress caused by her temper while Chuang maintained she was fine. Eventually, Chuang realised she could not go on living like a recluse, suppressing the urge to sing.

Encouraged by her husband, she got a gig in a bar.

'Singing reminded me of the power of music. It enlivened me and reconnected me with the world,' she says. 'Now I shudder to think how many years I've wasted being depressed.'

Three years ago, Chuang established a society to promote modern Chinese music through small concerts. Inspired by the originality in French live music - as opposed to the Taiwanese tendency to perform covers - she embraced novelty.

'I was fed up with doing covers,' Chuang says. 'Making an original album is something I've been wanting to do. But I'm not doing it for money. It's all about passion.'

Chuang's newfound enthusiasm has led to other positive changes. Today she is a cheerful mother and wife who regularly tells her children she loves them - something she never did before. And she plans to support other Chinese wives in Paris.

'After completing the album I'd like to organise forums and social events for women who need a social support network,' she says.

'Moving to a new place and culture may be tough, but now I believe that regardless of where you are, it's important to open your heart and mind to new things and people.'