The Western bands who sing in Mandarin and earn a Chinese following
With its huge untapped fan base, many Western acts have tried to crack China’s music scene in recent years. A handful have succeeded by mastering the Chinese language, among them UK duo Transition, who are big in Taiwan
For any Western band looking to enter the Asian music scene, China and its huge, untapped fan base is an irresistible draw – especially if the artist is willing to grapple with the language.
For 12 years, British rock band Transition have been carving out a niche for themselves in Taiwan’s music industry, while inspiring people learning Mandarin in the West with their original songs, written and performed in the world’s most widely spoken tongue.
This month the duo were named an “Outstanding Contributor to UK-China Relations 2018” for services to cross-cultural music at the Hurun Awards, held in London by the Hurun Report – a Shanghai-based publisher whose annual China rich list has seen the organisation likened to Forbes in the United States.
“We were honoured to be recognised for what we’re doing,” says guitarist Jesse Edbrooke, 35, who founded the group with his brother, Josh, 33, who plays drums. “It puts us more on the map.”
Having long played music together, the two were gigging around the UK when a large group of university students from Taiwan came to one of their shows in Bristol, a city in the west of England, and encouraged the band to take their chances in Asia.
Josh began researching performance opportunities and the pair ended up landing a slot on the main stage at the 2005 edition of Spring Scream, a large outdoor music festival held each April in Kenting, Taiwan.
“It was seat-of-your pants stuff,” says Jesse. “We had no money for flights, but decided to go for it. We weren’t sure if the festival really existed or if we were going to get mugged at the airport. We didn’t know anything about Taiwan, but took the leap and never looked back. We dived straight into Asian culture: bubble tea, stinky tofu, karaoke … we loved it.”
They became a three-piece with the addition of bassist Niall Dunne (who left the group in 2013), lived in Taiwan from 2009 onwards, and learned Mandarin; they collaborated with local artists and performed as many gigs as possible to make ends meet.
Transition became regulars on the indie music scene off the back of their hit Sorry My Chinese is Not Good, originally written as a way to remember Mandarin tones. Their big break came when they recorded the official theme song for the Taiwanese athletes competing in the 2012 London Olympic Games.
“The beauty of the Taiwanese music scene is that everyone does everything,” says Jesse. “In England, you’re told to work out your musical niche and subgenre, whereas in Taiwan they’re like, ‘Do you sing ballads? Do you play funk?’ And we’re like, ‘We can give it a go’.”
However, they came unstuck in 2012 when they were found to be performing without the right paperwork. Regarded as having worked illegally in Taiwan by the government, they were banned from applying for new work permits for three years.
Disappointed but undeterred, they released their debut Mandarin album “Kua Yue” in 2013, and ended up being invited back by the government in 2014 thanks to a policy change prompted by the band’s initial ban.
The following years saw the brothers hop back and forth between the UK and Taiwan, raising their profile by becoming regular performers at universities. In 2015, they embarked on a 21-date, six-week tour of China, and the band are now focusing on recording their second Mandarin album.
“We never looked at Asia as a market,” Josh says. “We’re not looking to become superstars. Going to Taiwan in the first place came about through building friendships with Taiwanese people, so it’s always been more about how we can get more deeply involved in the [Taiwanese] music scene and make music that touches people.”
“People say moving to Taiwan was an astute commercial decision,” adds Jesse, “but we just wanted to make genuinely good music; we don’t want to be a gimmick as foreigners singing in Mandarin.”
The band’s success in Taiwan attests to the brothers’ earnestness: they signed to Universal for songwriting and publishing, wrote songs for Taiwanese pop stars such as Rainie Yang, and were the first British band to be named best foreign Mandarin band at Taiwan’s Golden Indie Awards in 2014.
For all their indie cred in Taiwan, the brothers find themselves playing to more people with an interest in learning Mandarin in an educational setting than grungy gig venues in their home country.
Josh explains: “We have two personas: in Asia, we’re part of the local scene, quite a lot of people know us. In the UK or US, we’re seen as the English guys who sing in Chinese.
“The education thing was another accident – we were just using our basic Chinese to write a song. We hadn’t expected the simplicity of our songs would make them appeal to an audience of Chinese learners.”
Jesse lives in Bristol while his brother, the more fluent of the two, is based in Taiwan, where he is a regular on television. “We’re probably one of the only bands that have to travel 6,000 miles for band practice,” the older brother laughs.
As for whether they would advise other up-and-coming groups to follow in their footsteps, the brothers advise caution. “Our story has so much sacrifice involved,” says Jesse. “Where we are now has come from years of blood, sweat, toil, a love of Chinese culture and desire to get under its skin.
“If you’ve got that love, I’d say go for it, but if you’re just doing it as a commercial thing, I’d say it’s just too hard.”
Other Western acts showing off their Mandarin skills
The story of Western artists in China is one of hits and misses: from Pharrell Williams awkwardly shouting Zhongguo (China) alongside rapper Chris Wu at e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Singles' Day gala, to rocker Jon Bon Jovi carefully picking his way through Teresa Teng’s The Moon Represents My Heart, and Celine Dion winning the hearts of a new legion of fans singing folk song Jasmine Flower in a duet with Chinese opera singer Song Zuying.
However, a handful of performers have committed themselves to mastering the tones and honing their vocabulary. Whether savvy rock band or just Sinophiles, these five Western acts have set themselves apart through their wholehearted embrace of Chinese music and culture.
Singing in Mandarin started out as a joke for Barcelona rock group Gas, who realised they liked the sound of their lyrics better in Chinese than Spanish, and quickly enamoured themselves with Chinese internet users when they began uploading rehearsal videos in 2012.
Their pensive, guitar-heavy sound draws from ’90s alt-rock, though lead singer (and fluent Mandarin speaker) Jordi Riba’s impassioned vocals recall the melodramatic sound of ’80s pop stars.
“We think that Chinese is a very melodious language, because of the tones … a good option both for singing slow and moderately fast songs, like the pop-rock songs we write,” the band said in 2015, not long after releasing their first EP, “Everlasting Freshman”, which included six original Mandarin songs.
Shaun Gibson, UK
British singer-songwriter Shaun Gibson went viral in China in 2014 after uploading his take on Mando-pop duo Chopstick Brothers’ hit Xiao Ping Guo (My Little Apple). The accompanying video, shot in Gibson’s native Liverpool and uploaded to YouTube (and various Chinese video sites), quickly racked up millions of hits.
The 27-year-old discovered a fondness for Chinese culture during university and made his first visit to China in 2014, where he heard My Little Apple for the first time. “I decided to write English lyrics so Western people could also appreciate the beautiful melodies that can be found in China,” he said in 2016, before embarking on a 35-date tour of China.
Joyce Jonathan, France
Paris-born performer Joyce Jonathan grew up in a Mandarin-speaking family, as her parents had worked in China. She began writing songs as a child and became an established francophone pop star. From 2011, her interest in Chinese culture eventually led her to cover songs written in Mandarin and release Mandarin versions of her French songs.
After her catchy pop melodies gained a large following in Asia, the 28-year-old began travelling to perform in China regularly and last year she embarked on a multi-city tour. She says: “Music is about love and stories. People of different countries may have language barriers but they can all understand what I am trying to say in my songs, and it is the power of music.”
Jonny Blu, US
Singer Jonny Blu may have grown up in the entertainment hub of the world, Los Angeles, but he found his niche in China after studying at Peking University in Beijing, where he became fluent in Mandarin. He began covering songs in Chinese and moved to Hong Kong in 2001 before signing with Sony Asia two years later.
His career took off and he became known as the first Caucasian Chinese pop star. The kung fu enthusiast’s sound has been likened to jazz and big-band crooners such as Michael Buble and Frank Sinatra.
Christine Welch, US
After studying Chinese literature at university in Illinois and Taiwan, US-born Christine Welch decided to combine her love for singing with her increasing Mandarin fluency. In 2011, her covers caught the eye of Mando-pop producer Skot Suyama, who produced Welch’s 2014 album, “A Million Possibilities”, which saw the singer rise to fame in Taiwan.
“What I really want to do through my lyrics and public appearances is to show that it’s possible to achieve your dreams no matter who you are, and that language and nationality are just social constructs … By learning about other cultures, we learn more about ourselves,” says Welch.