A pair of characters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am


A group of children march into the wet market, chanting slogans and hoisting placards that read 'No to veggies'. Bemused stallholders look on, wondering what the fuss is all about. The youngsters aren't really staging a protest, however - although their aversion to vegetables is genuine. They are, in fact, shooting a music video for I Hate Veggies, an English-Putonghua hip hop song.

Written and produced by singer-songwriter Joyce Lee Lok-si and feisty radio host Crystal Kwok Kam-yan, Veggies is the first step in their new YouTube-based venture called Mandarin Monkeys. The pair hit it off when they first met as new arrivals to Hong Kong 15 years ago (Lee from Toronto and Kwok from San Francisco), at a time when there were few Chinese actresses who spoke fluent English. Both have since married and had children, and it is their concern as mothers that has fuelled the project to encourage youngsters to learn Putonghua.

Having children means 'you've to live your life around them and you have to have the energy to play in their world so that they can express themselves, grow and be free', says Kwok, who is also active in theatre and film. With three children, aged between six and 11, she tries to weave their interests into her career where possible, and set up Red Green Production six years ago to create a Putonghua-English DVD series called Culture Cubs, in which Lee also helped out.

Similarly, Lee says giving birth to her son two years ago turned her life around. 'Before that, it was all about me and my career. After getting married and having a child, my priorities changed; it's family first. We have to do more planning and think of his future,' Lee says.

The idea for a funky music video to be posted online came up over a coffee gathering last year, when their conversation turned to education. Recognising the importance of Putonghua in a world where China is set to be the leading economy, the pair decided to draw children's interest by combining elements they can relate to, such as hip hop, hating vegetables and watching YouTube.

For Lee, the project also springs from personal experience of how frustrating a lack of Chinese can be.

'I regret that I can't write or read Chinese even though I'm a [Canto-pop] singer - everything has to be learned phonetically. It's such a handicap for me. That's why I want my [two-year-old] son to learn Mandarin and to read and write Chinese; it'll open up more doors for the future,' she says.

With more expats coming to Asia, where economies are still thriving, the duo believe there is considerable interest in helping people pick up Putonghua. Unfortunately, 'we don't see cool educational stuff in that area for kids', Lee says.

As Kwok sees it, music is the ideal means to engage children. 'It's a very natural form of expression for young children and we're talking about different languages - even if you don't know a language, music still attracts you and you can learn,' she says. '[Youngsters nowadays] look at YouTube for all their contemporary pop culture and music. So we thought if we're going to try to get the new generation of kids to be motivated to learn something, it better be something that they're enjoying.'

The challenge of creating a music video lies in presenting the energy of the song visually, too.

'Because the song represents their rebellion against eating vegetables, I have to think of a concept that fits into a music video form as opposed to a linear narrative which is a different kind of art. So there're a lot of bits and pieces that you've to put together,' Kwok says.

So they've presented young children with a dinner table laden with fresh vegetables and filmed their responses (and grimaces) when biting into tomatoes, lettuce and the like.

Between the protest scene, they have also woven scenes of older children dancing to hip hop. Filmed at the art space Blindspot Annex in Wong Chuk Hang, the action takes place against a giant graffiti backdrop bearing the song title and some scary-looking broccoli, carrot and peas.

'We want to make it a little bit more rebellious [so] that it attracts kids. It's not like so goody, goody like [the US children's series] Barney and Friends. We try to be a little bit more edgy and interesting,' Kwok says.

Lest parents are worried about sending the wrong message to children on what to eat, they say the clip eventually comes to a healthy conclusion. To be sure, much of it features children rapping about how they hate vegetables - in English and Putonghua - and the varieties they loathe, but it ends with Lee singing a classic lullaby to new lyrics: 'Hush little baby eat your greens. Don't you wanna grow up big and strong? If you eat up all your beans, mama's gonna sing you another song.'

'So we did turn it around - sort of like a reverse psychology working on the kids,' says Lee.

Besides posting the clip on YouTube and other websites, the pair hope to distribute it through schools and television. They have written 10 songs, including more lyrical tunes, which they plan to turn into music videos and release as a compilation. Each will focus on different topics so children will get more out of the songs besides just learning Putonghua and English.

'There are other songs that I co-wrote with my kids [including one] about going to the bathroom. They're [at] the level of things that are important to them,' Kwok says.

YouTube postings have yielded a surprising number of hits and the pair are dreaming of viral success when their first music video is released next month.

'We want people to know that kids can learn through entertaining types of mediums like this. They get more out of it instead of just drilling with the kids.

'Parents are now so pressured to get their kids to learn Chinese that they buy flashcards and educational games. But through something more fun like a music video we hope that they can get that enjoyment as well as take in what they need to learn [such as] the vocabularies and concepts.'

For updates, visit www.mandarinmonkeys.com