At the end of a long day of interviews, Karen Mok Man-wai saunters through the Hong Kong offices of Universal Music wearing an army green jacket, grey high-top sneakers and a fuchsia Shiatzy Chen dress with qipao details. Somehow, she has ample energy for one final chat about her English and Mandarin jazz album, Somewhere I Belong, and her upcoming film, Man of Tai Chi.
This year marks her 20th anniversary in the entertainment industry. She launched her career in Hong Kong with the 1993 Canto-pop album, Karen.
“My first album was not even successful, but it opened other doors,” she says. “Then I got into movies, which was also a great experience.”
While some of the pop stars and actresses of that period have become the stuff of nostalgia, Mok remains in the spotlight. Along the way she’s captivated the Taiwan and mainland markets with her music, and gained an international following with roles in Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow Sing-chi films. She’s also garnered critical success, winning a slew of awards, including a Hong Kong Film award and a Golden Bauhinia award for her performance in Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (1995), along with three Golden Melody gongs.
“The whole world is different now,” she says when asked about how the industry had changed during the past two decades. “When I started, we were still recording on analogue. Just the process of music making is a lot different now. For me, it would be really boring if nothing changed and all you had to do was repeat yourself. I’d probably kill myself out of boredom. It’s fun to move with the times, take up new challenges and to be always a little bit ahead.”
In this case, being a bit ahead means leaping from Mando-pop stardom to jazz. “I fell in love with jazz when I was at university,” says Mok, who studied Italian litreature in London. “Since then I had dreamed of being a jazz singer, even before I became a singer and a performing artist. I always kept this dream inside me and when the right opportunity came around, which is now, I just took it.”
She has seized the opportunity with style. The tracks on Somewhere I Belong include standards such as Love for Sale, My Funny Valentine, and A Fine Romance, but Mok went a step further, including some pop covers and original material in the mix.
“It wasn’t easy to put together the track list because there are so many songs I would love to reinterpret in my own way,” she says. “We focused mainly on the jazz standards, but then being a pop singer myself I thought it made a lot of sense to have contemporary choices. At one point I thought about covering a Michael Jackson song, then maybe an Abba song and then The Beatles.”
The Fab Four’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps made the final cut. “First of all it’s a beautiful song,” she says. “I love the melody. Secondly, I chose it because of Eric Clapton’s guitar solo, which is so famous and so distinctive. In my version I substituted the guitar solo with my guzheng instead.
“I knew from day one that I definitely had to feature my Chinese instrument and possibly also a few other Chinese instruments because we wanted a different sound on this jazz album to make it stand out. I don’t think there’s been very wide use of Chinese instruments in jazz. For this project, we wanted a strong Oriental flavour, because that’s who we are – that’s where we come from.”
Mok started learning the guzheng, the ancient plucked-string instrument, when she was a teenager and continued with lessons until she left Hong Kong at age 17. “I’ve always liked to learn anything to do with performing. So I started learning piano like most other kids did. After years of learning piano I wanted to learn a second instrument. Most kids would do the violin or cello, or some western musical instrument. It was actually my dad’s idea for me to pick up a Chinese instrument because that’s different.
“For me that was a cool thing – being different and doing unusual things. He sold me the idea and it was definitely a good choice. I joined the Hong Kong Youth Chinese Orchestra and went abroad a couple of times. So it paid off.” She laughs.
Another standout track on the album is a cover of Portishead’s Sour Times – it also features the guzheng. Mok and her band capture the song’s eerie quality and put their own spin on it.
“I thought, ‘Why not do something really outside the box?’ I had heard Jamie Callum’s version of a Radiohead song, High and Dry. And I thought, ‘Wow, it’s so cool to cover Radiohead in jazz’. It inspired me to go down that road.”
Four songs in on the album, she switches things up with a Mandarin track, The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships. It’s not a Death Cab for Cutie cover, but an original song Mok wrote a few years ago. It didn’t fit with her last album, but is a seamless part of this one.
When it came time to select a recording location, Shanghai was the obvious destination. “We knew we had to do it somewhere in this part of the world and we picked a city which has some sort of background, a history of jazz.” In honour of the city, Mok recorded a cover of the Mandarin classic Shanghai Nights.
As recording wrapped up, the title of the album posed a challenge. “We wanted something meaningful and not just use one of the titles of the songs.”
A member of her team was flipping through a photo book she had done some years before. “Somewhere in the book I had a poem called Somewhere I Belong. It really is about identity. It’s not about any actual place or location or city where I feel I belong. First of all. I don’t have an answer for that – it’s a life-long question for myself.”
At the moment, she’s based – “in theory”, she says with a laugh – in London. “That’s where my home has been since I got married. I know London very well because I used to study there. It’s like home for me anyway. It’s a lot of long-haul flights, but actually it’s a good thing because otherwise I wouldn’t have any time for myself. Now I’m conscious of the fact I have to leave enough space and time for myself, my family and my husband. Before I would dedicate every single minute of spare time to work,” she says.
“Of course, I’m still doing a lot of work in this part of the world. I kind of divide my time between London and Asia. I hardly spend any time in Hong Kong because most of the work is concentrated in greater China. So it’s just a lot of flying around for me.”
One project that’s kept her in Asia is the film Man of Tai Chi, a co-production shot in Hong Kong and Beijing, which is slated for release later this year.
“That’s another dream project, to be able to work with someone like Keanu Reeves,” she says.
“And even better, it’s his debut as a director. For me, the fun thing is to work with different people and try out different things. I like to try new things. That’s just part of my character. Whenever there’s an opportunity to try something different, I just go for it.”
Mok plays a police officer in Man of Tai Chi. “A tough, Hong Kong, kick-ass cop,” she clarifies with a laugh. “I’m quite good at playing cops.”
Yet, if she had her way, next she’d star in a West End or Broadway production or make a movie musical – she loves the stage version of Les Misérables. Previously, she played Mimi in an Asian production of Rent, doing eight shows a week for several months. “I learned a whole new set of skills, which I did not have, which I could not have learned no matter how many pop concerts I did,” she says.
In many ways, starring in a musical would bring her career full circle. “When I was a student in London I actually auditioned for Miss Saigon at the West End,” she says.
“It was an open audition. I got taken into the training group, but at the same time I was offered a recording contract back home here. So in the end, I thought about it for a long time and I chose the latter and then … “ she pauses and gestures, and in this moment of silence 20 years of a distinguished career goes by, “that’s what happened.”