Why China singing sensation Shila Amzah prefers life in Hong Kong
Malaysian who shot to stardom on TV talent show moved to city from China to escape the pollution and find some privacy. She tells Vanessa Yung about overcoming the haters as a child, how China changed everything, and her live chats with fans online
It may seem odd that Malaysian singer Shila Amzah makes Hong Kong her base when her career is thriving in China, but there are good reasons. And chief among them is her need to regain a healthier lifestyle.
Audiences in China first came to know Shila in 2012, when she won the reality singing contest Asian Wave, which brought a contract with the Shanghai Media Group. Her appearances last year in I Am A Singer, a popular reality show pitting professional singers against each other, made her a bigger sensation as she impressed not only with her powerful voice but also fluency in Putonghua.
Shila's growing popularity (she has more than 2.5 million followers on her Weibo account) ushered in plenty of province-hopping trips to perform across the country. Celebrity has also put curbs on her life in China: going shopping or working out at the gym is out these days ("I'd be swarmed," she says).
Coupled with a newfound love for Chinese food, the bubbly 25-year-old gained nearly 10kg. An asthma attack last year - her first ever, which she blamed on exhaustion and air pollution - was the tipping point for her relocation.
"When I got the first attack, I was very afraid. I felt like I wasn't going to live. I had to cancel a show immediately and went to the hospital," recalls Shila, who had to travel around with a nebuliser machine for almost a month.
"I struggled with my voice and getting my breathing technique back. It was really awful."
Hong Kong, which she was already familiar with, seemed like a practical alternative base. "To get my China visa I had to go out [of China] every month, but sometimes I didn't feel like flying back to Malaysia so I'd come to Hong Kong to release stress or whatever for a couple of days," she says.
She moved to Yuen Long a couple of months ago, and is already feeling quite at home. Besides the space and fresher air, living in Hong Kong also means she can enjoy the privacy that she lost in China.
Easily recognisable for her hijab, or Muslim headscarf, Shila says: "In the mainland, even if I cover my face, people can still recognise me. That's how crazy it is.
"There're a lot of Muslims [in China] but the way they wear their scarf is different from me."
She even tried wearing a cap to appear like a man, but that cover only worked until she spoke - once she did, people recognised her voice.
"[In Hong Kong], people don't care. If they want to have fun and entertainment, they just go to a concert. But other than that they would just live their own life and don't [bother] if they spot a celebrity in Admiralty."
WATCH the first song Shila Amzah released in Hong Kong
The eldest of four siblings, Shila showed at an early age that she shared a talent for song with her father, Amir Amzah Salleh (better known by his stage name ND Lala), a well-known folk and pop singer in Malaysia during the '80s and '90s.
She won many singing competitions as a child and knew even then that she wanted to follow in his footsteps.
"When I was six or seven, I realised that being a singer and an entertainer is a beautiful job. I saw [my father] singing on stage, and fans were singing all the lyrics back to him. It was just so beautiful. I saw them smiling and waving at him with hopes that he will come back again. It's a job that can give people a smile - and tears, but in an inspiring way."
At the time, record companies in Malaysia would not issue an album from a child, so her father produced her debut recording out of his own pocket when she was 10. Shila became something of a child star, but that attracted bullying and hostility at school along with fans.
"I didn't grow up like the other children. I stayed at home most of the time [because] kids would make fun of me. It is so weird growing up like that. Even my teenage life was not so colourful like other teenagers," she says. "I had haters for being famous. People have also been saying I'm famous because of my dad and I really hate that."
Shila later signed to a record label in Malaysia but she felt it wasn't doing her justice and ended the contract. Instead, she started uploading clips of her singing on YouTube and became an online sensation in Southeast Asia, bolstering her confidence to win a following on her own strengths.
Still, she is grateful to her father for helping her overcome many challenges. For one, she credits him with shepherding her transformation from a shy teen into a polished entertainer.
"When I was 17, I realised I can't just sing. I have to perform and know how to communicate with the audience, and that's what I lacked. When I was on stage I was at a loss for words and became so clueless. My dad is very good at [communicating]. He taught me so much." After few years, she also "finally had the guts" to produce her own album.
Keen to expand her international audience, her father submitted a clip of her singing to Shanghai's Dragon Television, which won Shila an invitation to Asian Wave, a reality-TV talent show, and her first triumph in China.
"Then it all exploded. Everything just changed from A to Z," Shila recalls.
Relocating to China required considerable perseverance to adapt to a different work ethic or lifestyle. The singer worked hard to pick up Putonghua; through constant practice, even when people laughed at her mistakes, she has advanced beyond basics like xiexie (thank you) to comfortable conversation.
As a practising Muslim, Shila admits it took some adjustment at first because her colleagues knew little about the mores of her religion. But after informing them of her practices, they worked out a way to meet her needs.
"Whenever I need time for myself to pray I tell [my colleagues], and they'll understand. I also told them no guys can see my hair, except for someone from my family; so if there's a cleaner coming in at a hotel or a guy delivering food, they would yell at them, 'Just stay where you are!' They are really protective," she says. "Even in Malaysia they don't always take care of me like that."
WATCH Shila Amzah sing the song that won top prize on Asian Wave
Settling into her life in Hong Kong (dad often visits to keep her company), Shila has been able to exercise regularly. She also enjoys cooking, mostly homey Malaysian dishes such as sambal goreng and gulai ikan (a fish curry). Most of all, she loves spending time interacting with fans.
"I have a weird hobby - talking to my fans [on live chat]. I don't think any celebrity would do this. I treat my fans like my friends. Like a family. I like it to be real. Some celebrities like to remain private and focus on just music. I like to engage them more."
She has dabbled in songwriting, penning all the music on her last EP and two recent releases that were both inspired by her break-up with Malaysian actor Sharnaaz Basir Ahmad.
A Putonghua album is in the works, but it is far from complete, she says, although it might even have a Cantonese song or two if her command of the language improves sufficiently.
Now busy preparing for her first Hong Kong concert at the end of the month, Shila says the set will feature her own songs and covers of songs she loves, in a mix of styles and languages: the self-professed language lover will sing in Cantonese, Putonghua, English, Bahasa Malaysia and even Korean (she loves K-Pop boy band Exo).
Audiences may not understand the various languages, but that isn't a barrier, she says. "Music is universal. It's all about the sincerity and feelings you pour into it."
Shila Amzah: Colorful.Live, October 30, 8.15pm, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Hall 5G, HK$380-HK$980, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3618 0750