Singaporean crooner Nathan Hartono is unfazed by mounting expectations at home that he will lift the crown at tonight’s Sing! China finals in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium.
A famous victory in the widely followed Chinese reality TV singing contest will almost certainly propel the 25-year-old to idol status in tiny Singapore, a global overachiever in most areas apart from sports and culture.
The Southeast Asian city state was sent into delirium in August after national swimmer Joseph Schooling pulled off a stunning upset at the Olympic Games to take home the country’s first ever gold medal.
“It’s only natural that Singapore would want me to walk away with the champion’s title,” Hartono, who is of Indonesian Chinese parentage, told This Week in Asia.
“But it is music after all, not a race, not an exam, it’s all subjective. I just want to put on a good show and I don’t really care if I come out first or sixth,” he said.
There is a palpable excitement about his chances in the competition in Singapore after he emerged as the highest scoring semi-finalist in the competition last week.
Sing! China, which airs on the Zhejiang Satellite TV network, has amassed over 37 billion views in the current season.
The previous iteration of the show called The Voice of China – similar to the popular The Voice series created in the Netherlands – was also a rating hits in its four seasons.
The current contest is coached and judged by Jay Chou, Harlem Yu, Na Ying and Wang Feng.
Hartono goes by his Chinese name Xiang Yang on the show, which started in July with 48 contestants from various countries including Malaysia, the United States and Brazil.
Hartono, an alumnus of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, said he was outside his comfort zone singing in Mandarin.
He has recorded soundtracks in English and Indonesian.
“Chinese is the farthest thing from a comfortable language for me. I’m struggling everyday with learning and understanding it better,” Hartono said.
“Honestly, to make it this far in a competition like this, I’m already happy. I hope people see through this achievement that tackling seemingly impossible tasks can be worthwhile,” he added.
The singer, who has an older brother and a younger sister, said he was “apprehensive, scared even” before he signed up for the show.
“But being scared of something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and conquer it,” he said.
Hartono brushed off online vitriol that has cropped in Chinese social media ahead of the finals.
Some online comments suggest Hartono’s success is down to favouritism by the judges, while others question his singing ability. “It’s completely normal. I don’t think China specifically has any problem with me,” Hartono said.
“There have been a lot of amazing supporters from China who have been very generous in their support since the auditions were aired,” he said.
“But like with anything on the internet, the more people like a thing, the more people will hate a thing.
“So there will be the occasional hate comment here and there [and] they get my attention a bit more because they’re pretty imaginative.”
Hartono, who made his acting debut in the HBO Asia television series Halfworlds last year, said he was “absolutely enamoured by Hong Kong”.
“It’s such a nice place to visit and I love how the city breathes life,” he said.
“I’ve never performed there, but hopefully that changes sooner than later. I don’t know any Cantonese songs unfortunately, but it’s never too late to learn,” he said.
Hartono also waded into one of Singapore’s biggest talking points in the last week – his promise to treat Singaporeans to “iced Milo” if he won the competition.
The chocolate malt beverage is very popular in the city state.
Global food company Nestle, which owns Milo, yesterday announced it would dispense the beverage for free at the downtown Plaza Singapura shopping mall following days of online hand wringing over Hartono’s quirky promise.
Hartono said the promise was “just a passing joke” he made to a reporter from Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper after his semi-final win.
“The question asked was ‘what are your plans if you win’ and I didn’t really have a plan yet,” Hartono said.
“So I didn’t want to answer with something boring like ‘weigh my options and figure it out’, ‘plan to branch out overseas etc’ and made a little joke about Milo vans.
“But yeah. Thanks internet,” the singer said, adding that he was thrilled that Nestle had reached out to make his passing comment a reality.