It’s rare to see Western singers attempt to sing in Chinese.
Celine Dion did it last year during Chinese New Year. An estimated 700 million people watched the Canadian diva sing a famous Chinese folk song — in Mandarin — on China’s state-run CCTV.
Dion’s appearance may have been a one-off event, but in Hong Kong, there’s a Western singer named Corinna Chamberlain who’s fully committed to having a career in one of the city’s most famous exports, Cantopop (Cantonese popular music).
Her song “Yi Jung” opens with lyrics that are unlike any other Cantopop song. She sings that she feels like an “Alien from Mars” who’s landed on Earth.
“In a body with this skin color,” she continues, “I’m not quite like them. In fact, what kind of race am I?”
“Yi Jung” translates as “Different Breed,” which Chamberlain, also known as Chan Ming Yan (陳明恩) — is.
Her parents are from Australia and New Zealand; she’s white and has long, curly blonde hair. But unlike most Westerners here, she grew up in a remote part of Hong Kong, far from any ex-pat enclave. She attended local schools and speaks fluent Cantonese.
Growing up immersed in local culture caused something of an identity crisis for Chan. In high school, she had many friends. But not necessarily close friends.
“When it comes, like, especially to the girls in Hong Kong, to have your best, best friend, it’s always somebody who is the same as them,” Chan says. “Somebody who likes Hello Kitty, somebody who likes Snoopy as much as them.”
A best friend who’ll go everywhere with you — everywhere.
“It’s like, you know, ‘Oh, I need to go to the toilet, come with me, let’s go to the toilet together,’ “ she says.
At school, Chan wasn’t the same as anyone, so she didn’t have a best friend.
“I started to really feel like ‘where do I belong, who am I?’ And I was like, ‘maybe I’m not one of these people.’ So I thought ‘well, maybe I better just be a Westerner like the rest of the Westerners’ or something.”
The problem was she didn’t feel Western — direct, loud, independent. She felt Chinese — non-confrontational, humble, happy in a group.
“If you’re in their circle of buddies, then you’re there for life. It’s really on the inside, the way of communicating that we get used to,” Chan says.
As the daughter of missionaries, Chan learned to sing in church, and she listened to Christian singers like Australia’s Rebecca St James. She later studied musical theater at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, but didn’t listen to Cantopop until six years ago when she had a reality check. If she was going to have a career here, she thought, she’d have to sing local pop music that wasn’t like the Western music she grew up listening to.
“I’ve noticed that Western pop is a lot more in-your-face attitude, really be tough, strong diva. But [in] Hong Kong, a lot of it’s very sweet,” she says.
Those sweet songs and ballads give Hong Kongers the chance to escape from the territory’s hectic pace.
Then there’s the Cantonese dialect itself. Chinese is a tonal language, so the smallest change in inflection will completely alter a word’s meaning.
“If it goes up, it’s different. So it’s a lot more complicated, a lot more restricted,” she says.
Chan’s big break came last year when she acted on a popular TV show called “Inbound Troubles.” Her combination of blonde hair and flawless Cantonese created a sensation. She’d just recorded “Yi Jung,” and the timing couldn’t have been better. After that, she appeared on an American Idol-like show, where she placed third in the singing competition, boosting her visibility even more.
In her second single, “Ngoh dik gwai suk,” Chan again addresses her outsider status, but keeps the storyline old school: she wants to find a husband who’ll take care of her. It’s Chan’s understanding of traditional Chinese culture that’s earned her the respect of locals.
“Now, when I go out on the street, everybody’s my neighbor. ‘Oh, Chan Ming Yan!’ You know, like ‘How’s your mom?’ ” she says.
And they see beyond the color of her skin, which is just the sort of thing she’s been looking for.
“I know it’s really not easy for a Westerner to have that kind of acceptance in Hong Kong,” Chan says. “Westerners are accepted as Westerners, but as one of your own? That’s something really touching for me.”