Why Malaysian Muslim singer Shila Amzah had to move to China
Spot on Hunan TV talent show 15 months ago propelled 25-year-old to stardom. Now she's mastered Putonghua and is learning Cantonese with an eye to Hong Kong market
Her signature look - the hijab, or Muslim head scarf - may draw instant recognition, but her voice, back story and hard work are what have won Malaysia-born singer Shila Amzah (known to her fans as Shila) millions of fans all over China.
After appearing on Hunan TV's popular singing competition I Am a Singer last year in February, Shila became an overnight sensation. Later in the year, she was hired as a mentor on the TV programme Let's Sing, Kids and today the Muslim singer has almost 2.5 million fans on Weibo, China's micro-blogging platform.
Shila started singing at the age of 10 and has a celebrity father - N.D. Lala was one of Malaysia's most popular singers. However, she wanted to be a singer in her own right rather than being known as "N.D. Lala's daughter".
So, in 2012, Shila went to China to develop her career.
Listen to Shila sing...
Being a Muslim already makes Shila, 25, stand out in a crowd. "To create curiosity is the best part," she says.
But not knowing much Putonghua beyond ni hao (hello) and xiexie (thank you) was problematic at the start. Even during last year's I Am a Singer, her skills were still minimal.
"After I sang my song and went into the room full of performers, I had no idea what they were talking about … I nodded when they called my name. When people laughed, I laughed too," Shila recalls.
So she began taking lessons, and her hard work has paid off. From her rendition of The Night I Was Missing You, you'd have thought she was a native Putonghua speaker. She can now distinguish regional accents and is, reportedly, also learning Cantonese as she wants to break into the Hong Kong market, according to local entertainment reports.
Shila says relocating to China was the right decision for her. She has received more respect and encouragement from mainland audiences. But with that, she also feels the pressure.
"I have to work harder than I did in Malaysia - pushing myself to become a better person, a better singer, a better performer. This brings out the best in me," she says.
Shila has also become a cultural ambassador. She sang for President Xi Jinping in October 2013, when he visited Malaysia. In December 2014, the Chinese government gave Shila an award for her "special contribution to building friendship between China and Malaysia".
As a Muslim, she is aware that her religious beliefs and practices may be a sensitive issue in some parts of China. For example, in one city in Xinjiang, citizens with head scarves, veils and long beards are banned from public buses. Some view this as discrimination against Uygurs; the authorities think the ban strengthens security especially when major events are being held in cities.
Shila has a different view. "There are a lot of things in our religion that are really simple. It's not the religion that makes it hard, but it is the people who make it hard.
"Religion is about trust, about believing in yourself. Whatever your religion, it's really beautiful to have something to believe in. All religions teach us to be nice, to be kind and to have courage. Those are the values I want my fans to have."
Now that she has established herself in the mainland, a triumphant return to Malaysia is on the cards.
"If someone becomes famous abroad, they will also become popular back in their own country … Don't people think that way?" says Shila, looking forward to the day when she will no longer be just N.D. Lala's daughter.