Tag Archives: Cantonese

Carinna Chamberlain’s beautiful Cantonese singing, and Coca-Cola’s beautiful multilingual America

Corinna Chamberlain, aka Chan Ming Yan (Photo courtesy of Corinna Chamberlain)

Corinna Chamberlain, aka Chan Ming Yan (Photo courtesy of Corinna Chamberlain)

Listen to the audio above for a quick take on Coca-Cola’s multilingual Superbowl ad. That’s followed by a Big Show contributor Charlie Schroeder’s report on Carinna Chamberlain. Below is Charlie’s post…

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.”

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    Mademoiselle in Song, and Translating Jargon


    The French government has turned its back on Mademoiselle, eliminating the title from official forms. Mademoiselle roughly equates to Miss. Though it means unmarried woman, it also implies that said woman is young—25 or younger. And that just doesn’t fit with the times. In fact, it hasn’t for several decades.

    French singers love Mademoiselle. Aside from it being rhyme-friendly, the word rolls sweetly off the tongue. Will singers now take the government’s lead and stop using the term?

    In a way, they already have. These days, Mademoiselle is often used self-consciously and ironically. Consider Zaza Fournier’s 2009 song Mademoiselle . It’s about a cross-dressing man. In the video, Fournier returns the gender favor, and wears male clothing and a painted mustache.

    That’s a far cry from the breezy, if tearful, 20-year-old who struts along some of Paris’ poshest streets as described by Jacqueline François in her 1948 classic Mademoiselle de Paris.

    We sample those songs in the pod, and hear from my French-born colleague Adeline Sire, whose two sisters take opposing views of Mademoiselle’s official demise. Adeline has a very funny post on that here (and another post on an overlooked moment at the Oscars here).

    Also in this week’s pod:

    • Native speakers of Russian, Vietnamese and Arabic discuss how they translate English language news jargon. As one of them describes it, journalists and politicians like to “hide behind a pyramid of nonsensical words.” And for all your nonsensical word needs may I suggest that you consult the very fine Newswordy site?
    • As Britain’s Sun newspaper faces questions over alleged payments to police officers, we consider the language of tabloid news.
    • Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese clash over language and politics.

    Listen via iTunes or here.


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    Pharaohs, Cantonese and the Gang of Four

    Was Mubarak Egypt’s last pharaoh? Maybe only if Putin is Russia’s last tsar. Names for strong men may say as much about public expectations as they do about a leader’s style.

    There is a comfort to thinking of the year of your country as the father or mother of the nation. And it’s not just countries with dictators that name their leaders in this way. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher was the Iron Lady (soon to be a biopic of the same name starring Meryl Streep). Finland’s President Tarja Halonen is often referred to as Moominmamma— partly ironically, but also out of pride. (The Moomins are a cartoon strip and set of children’s fantasy stories that are as big as Disney in Finland).

    In Mubarak’s case, the pharaoh moniker is an insult.  It’s shorthand for absolutism, state violence and destruction.

    “If we go back four thousand years pharaohs were kings that ruled for life and built grand monuments to themselves,” says Joshua Stacher of Kent State University. “It’s not a good term.”

    It wasn’t always that way. A few decades ago, the pharaohs were remembered proudly as demi-gods who “ensured the provision of water to the Egyptian peasants in the Nile Delta and upper Egypt,” says Tarek Osman,  author of Egypt on the Brink. That is “an extremely positive role in the deep Egyptian psyche.” Maybe that sense of the pharaohs will return, now that Mubarak is gone.

    Check out this post on Language Log for Chinese signs held by protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Were these people protesting Mubarak, or sending a message to China’s Communist rulers?

    Also in the podcast, fears for the future of Cantonese, once the lingua franca of many Chinatowns around the world.

    Beijing is stepping up its efforts to establish Mandarin as the official tongue of China. As a result, Cantonese is spoken by fewer people — and in fewer situations outside the home — even in Cantonese-speaking parts of China. There have been protests in the cities of Guangzhou and Hong Kong about proposals to expand the use of Mandarin on TV and in other public settings.

    In the rest of the world, students of the Chinese language and their teachers see the writing on the wall: they are choosing to learn Mandarin rather than Cantonese.

    These days in New York’s Chinatown,  a mix of dialects is spoken. That means people often fall back on the common dialect Mandarin.  But not Kim Mui. She teaches a Cantonese class. It’s going to take many people like her to ensure that Cantonese survives in the long term.


    Finally, British cultural revolutionaries Gang of Four talk about their name, which derives from a group of notorious Chinese cultural revolutionaries. The bandmembers also talk about their new CD, and about phrases that include the word farm.

    Listen in iTunes or here.


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    Words your grandmother taught you in Chinese, Dutch and Yiddish

    Did Barack Obama learn a word or two from his grandmother? Well, maybe not — he didn’t grow up with the gran pictured here (it’s his Kenyan stepmother). But many people did learn their very  first foreign words from their grandmothers. The Big Show’s Marco Werman learned a Dutch curse. Nina Porzucki learned a Yiddish word that speaks to a existential Jewish mindset: dafka. Nina’s grandmother didn’t think she was conveying such a Big Idea. She was just describing the stubborn behavior of her granddaughter.

    Marilyn Chin learned insults, puns and tongue twisters, many of which later found their way into her poetry. Chin has published three volumes of poems. Many of her poems are linguistic investigations of her own Chinese-Americanism.  Now she’s published her first novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. It’s the story of two Chinese-American twins, Moonie and Mei Ling Wong,  and their search for double happiness. Or maybe single happiness. Double Happiness is just the name of their family restaurant (wordplay and irony abounds). Between episodes of Chinese food delivery gone hilariously wrong — thanks to Mei Ling’s souped-up American need for sex and drugs — the twins enter a mythological world of Chinese fable. From profane to sacred, and back to profane again. In the pod, I interview Marilyn Chin, who like the twins in her novel, had an overly protective Old World grandmother raising her. Chin can still recite her grandmother’s curses and sayings, delivered in the Toisan sub-dialect of Cantonese. She also recites a super-punning poem from her 2002 collection, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow.

    Listen in iTunes or here.


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