While Hong Kong performers often look West to further their careers, the reverse is rare. But there have recently been a few Western entertainers who have carved out niches in local show business – in Chinese.
Corinna Chamberlain is arguably the best known, thanks to a breakout role in Inbound Troubles, a TVB Jade comedy series which screened earlier this year. The show demonstrated her flawless Cantonese diction. Since then, she has become a regular guest on chat shows and reality programmes, and is now preparing her first album – in Cantonese.
Chamberlain says that she has not found being Caucasian a problem in going forward in the Hong Kong entertainment industry. “Whether it’s an advantage or disadvantage depends on how you see it, and how you use it,” Chamberlain says. “It’s like the glass half-full, glass half-empty question.”
Chamberlain has deep roots in Hong Kong. Her parents came to the city as missionaries, and she was born here. She’s more comfortable using her Chinese name Ming Yan, by which she is better known to the public.
A natural performer, Chamberlain studied musicals at the Academy for Performing Arts, where she was engaged in more local shows than expatriate productions.
She took on variety of gigs after graduating, from bit parts in TVB series to singing backup at pop concerts, and appearing as guest singer for Canto-pop stars such as William So Wing-hong and Jade Kwan Sum-yin. While teaching drama and working as a choreographer, she looked for a chance to break into the local entertainment industry.
It was fellow academy alumnus and television personality Wong Cho-lam who gave her a moment to shine. “[Cho-lam and I] are very close friends,” she says. He was her senior at the academy, but they used to take the same dance class, and they quickly bonded. Since then, the pair have collaborated in a couple of musical productions with Wong as director, and Chamberlain his choreographer.
Wong invited Chamberlain to take part in Inbound Troubles, which poked fun at the conflicts between Hongkongers and mainlanders. The backstory centred on up-and-coming singers with diverse, mostly socially unfavourable, backgrounds, pursuing their musical passions.
Chamberlain played a Cantonese-speaking gwei mui, and the ratings-grabbing series, which aired in January, shot her to fame. “Looking different certainly helps. People remember who I am, and call me Chan Ming-yan, as soon as they hear me speak Cantonese,” she says.
Hong Kong-based a cappella quartet, Metro Vocal Group, also think that the “white factor” works for them. The quartet is made up of vocal percussionist Michael Lance, and vocalists Sean Oliver, Eric Monson and Kevin Thornton, all from the United States.
Despite not being able to speak Putonghua or Cantonese, the group covers versions of popular Canto-pop and Mando-pop songs.
Their music videos achieved a buzz on YouTube, and this later led to real-life popularity for the band in the mainland and Hong Kong. The group released their first Cantonese album, No Borders, last year.
“As soon as the first Chinese word comes out, the audience is surprised,” Lance says. “They don’t know what to expect when we come out on stage. It’s a niche. It’s something that we found that’s unique. Not many people can do it.”
Sean Oliver, who sings lead in the group, says, “People care about it here, because we’re singing in their language.”
But unlike Chamberlain, who speaks fluent Cantonese, Metro members need a translation of the lyrics to learn what they mean. Romanisation helps them pronounce the Chinese words. This method has served them well for the past few years, but the group admits they may face stumbling blocks as the wow factor slowly fades.
“Now we’re getting to a level where we actually have to speak [the language]. The audience will get bored with you after a while. That’s just the way it goes. If you cannot make your show better, you fail,” Oliver says.
They had been invited to appear on radio and television interviews but none worked out as they couldn’t talk back to the host in either Cantonese or Putonghua.
Now three members of the group are taking regular Putonghua classes, while Monson gets help brushing up on his Cantonese from his wife, a Hongkonger.
Chamberlain and Metro are planning to focus their career in Asia.
“I want to enter China and Taiwan. I want to base in Asia, and bring a different perspective to Hong Kong via my arts,” says Chamberlain, who will be releasing her debut Cantonese album this summer.
Metro’s plan is to reach out to fans in other parts of Asia, including Malaysia and Singapore.
This May, the group will play two gigs in Taiwan: one in Taipei and the other in Kaohsiung. Metro is hoping to conquer Asia one city at a time, it seems.