Before Occupy Central becomes a reality, two things are occupying the minds of many Hongkongers lately: 1) pseudo model-turned Hong Kong Film Award-winning actress Dada Chan’s claim she will retire from in front of the camera due to depression (which has broken the hearts of many lonely boys); 2) the racy love scenes and commercial airline pilot-cum-womaniser “Captain Cool”, played by Julian Cheung Chi-lam in TVB hit drama series Triumph in the Skies II, which is watched by more than 2 million people in Hong Kong and has more than 100 million internet hits for each episode in mainland China.
But what interests me more lately is how reality show The Voice of the Stars has successfully transformed Frederick “Fred” Cheng from a little known TV actor into an overnight singing sensation in Hong Kong.
The Voice of the Stars is TVB’s latest reality show and offers the stage to an array of little known actors who compete in a singing contest. The relatively easy and low cost production not only sells air time but also gives these young TV artistes an exposure they would not otherwise have. And the biggest winner so far is Fred Cheng.
Cheng has been the top scorer of the show since it debuted few weeks ago. The actor, whose name most viewers didn’t remember, suddenly became a household name. His angelic voice and sincere performances won over the hearts of not only judges but also audiences. He seized the chance to showcase his musical talent in a recent episode in which he performed Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason together with his guitar riffs. Within his two-and-a-half-minute performance, the shy babyfaced Cheng transformed himself into a rock star who owned the stage and the audience. Even veteran music producer Chiu Tsang-hei, one of the judges of that particular episode, wrote on his Weibo: “Just when I thought [judging for singing contest reality shows] has become a routine, last Sunday’s [The Voice of the Stars] is quite a surprise. I have given the highest score I’ve ever given out so far. I love surprises!!! Way to go, Fred!!!”
Cheng’s musical talent is indisputable. But what makes him the new darling of Hong Kong is his story.
Hong Kong people are mean - deep down they hate those who were born rich; they despise the poor who make no contribution to the society. But Hong Kong people are also kind – they appreciate those who work their way up from the bottom. And this is the case of Cheng.
In 2001, the Canadian-born Cheng won the first runner-up in TVB New Talent Singing Awards and was about to embark on a singing career with Capital Artists, the record label that was once the cradle for many Canto-pop super stars ranging from Anita Mui Yim-fong and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing to Roman Tam.
Unfortunately, in that year, the SCMP Group (!), which owned Capital Artists at the time, decided to cease music production and subsequently Cheng’s dream to become a singer fell through. Instead, TVB offered him an acting contract.
Video: Fred Cheng on his music and band
But Cheng was not destined to become an A-list actor. Most of the roles he played were unnamed or minor appearances, or someone’s little brother or cousin at best. Few could remember his name. For over a decade, Cheng was nobody until The Voice of the Stars came along.
The reality show follows a TV formula that has proved successful on the mainland (which is kind of sad as TVB used to be the trendsetter in the region, not a follower). Following the phenomenal success of singing contest Super Girl, a range of singing competition reality shows mushroomed on the mainland. Among them this year is I Am a Singer, featuring lesser known celebrities risking their showbiz careers by competing on the stage in front of millions of TV viewers.
The Voice of the Stars is Hong Kong’s answer to I Am a Singer. TVB picked lesser known young actors to enter a contest that requires them not only to compete through singing, but also to sell their sensational personal stories and be criticised by harsh judges in front of the whole town – and everyone knows how much “face” matters in this town.
Cheng of course recounted his tale of a decade of frustrations and his family’s disappointment in his stagnant showbiz career. But he didn’t give up. He kept his head down, playing minor roles while maintaining his faith in music by performing with his band HOME. It was an honest and sincere account without being over the top sensational and negative. And in his confession, Cheng, who will be turning 30 this year, made one humble wish: he only wanted people to remember his name after all these years.
And he conquered the hearts of not only the judges but also millions of TV viewers with his powerful and moving rendition of Eason Chan Yik-shun’s Si Doi Kuk (時代曲), earning the top score of the night. The following week, Cheng wowed Hong Kong with Robbie Williams’ Angels, which many praised Cheng doing a better job than Williams. He dedicated the song to his deceased grandfather and blamed himself for not being there when he passed away. The tearful Cheng again won the hearts of not just TV audiences but also the judges – veteran singer-songwriter Eric Moo Kai-yin proclaimed Cheng as one of the 10 best singers in Hong Kong and invited him to guest perform at his concert.
Audio: Fred Cheng sings Angels
Overnight success hasn’t changed Cheng’s humble nature: he is still spotted taking the MTR, hopping around in a backpack, and bows to pedestrians who have asked him to pose a photo. He’s the typical good kid that most would adore.
The Voice of the Stars might be getting over the board sensational as the show develops, but it has done some good deeds to a town haunted by political mess: there might still be light at the end of the tunnel. There might still be hope.