Gold mine behind
the idol sparkle

by Clarence Tsui
South China Morning Post

If you ever need a security team in Beijing capable of handling pandemonium with ease, do not turn to President Jiang Zemin's bodyguards - look for the men at the Swissotel


The swanky establishment in the eastern part of the capital has been playing host to celebrities of all ranks for several years. Anyone who has tried to hunt down visiting political figures could tell tales about the efficiency of the in-house police contingent's crowd control methods.

Where notepad-wielding journalists failed last week, however, squealing local youngsters managed. Even the battle-weary suits were on high alert, vexation written all over their faces as the teenagers hovered in the hotel lobby for hours on end, mobbing smart cars and their shades-encrusted pop star occupants. A sprint to the lifts was the compulsory exercise for singers and fans alike. Compared with this rowdy bunch of screaming youngsters, even shady assassins might have looked like meek tourists.

With the biggest pop stars from Hong Kong and Taiwan all flying in on Thursday for the annual Channel V Chinese Music Awards 1999, these young followers were in their element. Naturally, the drama continued all the way to the show itself on Thursday evening - young girls spent three hours screaming at hunks like Jeff Chang or Leon Lai Ming, while teenage boys howled at the sight of Faye Wong and Mavis Fan. One fan even managed to surge on to the stage and land a big smack on Andy Lau Tak-wah's cheek when he came on before she was dragged away by bouncers.

While all this was happening, however, another set of pop singers managed to sneak in and out of hotels and the venue without raising an eyebrow. The attention lavished on the contingent from Hong Kong and Taiwan looked like a fantasy for their mainland counterparts.

The response to the mainland artists was also comparatively lukewarm when they performed, and several audience members looked bewildered when these performers were announced as winners. Some unfortunate artists were met with a deafening silence as they came out for their awards or prepared for their performances. To them, it was possibly like playing at home when all the supporters were siding with the visiting team.

Not that they lacked ability. In fact, the talent on show from these home-grown artists easily put the pretty boys and girls from Hong Kong and Taiwan to shame. Some even managed to win a huge round of applause from an audience that looked indifferent when they began their acts. At any part of the show, most performers from the mainland sounded like thundering roars to the whimpering pop from across the Shenzhen River and the Taiwan Strait.
In one 15-minute section, for example, Lingdian Band rocked out in full force with the angst-drenched Dream, burying the whimsical little ditties that Canto-pop artists had delivered before them. Then came Han Hong, a singer without the prettiness required of Hong Kong pop stars but whose gigantic voice was as sweeping and octave-scaling as Aretha Franklin's. Her vocal acrobatics in her self-penned number, The Beauty Of The Storm, brought the house down.

So what did Canto-pop offer to contend with that musical exuberance? Jordan Chan Siu-chun with his Love Flu, a lightweight song made worse by Chan's exaggerated facial gestures and near-spoken singing as a bank of dancers performed behind him.

The audience might not yet be enlightened, but Channel V has done much in its recognition of the eminence of mainland pop music. Perhaps seeing how the lesser-known mainland artists would be out of place in the more commercially driven mainstream shortlist - only two mainland-based singers, Na Ying (It's Just A Dream) and Chou Huei (Not Wanting To Let You Know), managed to strike gold in the 15 Popular Song Awards, with Na taking Best Album Award, too - for the second year running there were China Special Recommendation Awards dedicated to mainland units.

Mainland talent remained a huge mine to be unearthed, said Gareth Chang Cheng-chung, executive chairman of Star TV, the satellite television giant behind Channel V. "The potential for development is enormous," he said. "There are so many songwriters and singers on the mainland and they have well-established artistic foundations as well. They are just waiting to be discovered."

Indeed, the mainland pop scene is a much more diverse organism than its counterparts in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Among the winners of the China Special Recommendation Awards were rock bands, singer-songwriters and good-looking idols; the songs that triumphed included gushing ballads, slow-burning rock anthems, and karaoke-like fodder.
But Mr Chang says there are many obstacles to recognition of these performers. The quality and quantity of recordings from these artists remained average, he said, and it would take more of an effort from record companies to promote these upcoming talents.

One way for mainland artists to make it big was, ironically, to do it abroad first. Faye Wong and Na Ying did just that, returning in triumph after dazzling starts in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The decision to follow up on last year's event in Shanghai with another stab at a mainland city spoke volumes about the faith Mr Chang and his colleagues had about the mainland market and the creative capacity within.

Obstacles abound, however. Authorities, still sceptical about pop music, insisted on a conservative dress code for the show including a ban on shades, which turned into irritating red tape.

Considering the number of people Channel V would be reaching with this show, however, the pain was definitely worth it: their collaboration with Beijing Cable Television would bring the three-hour extravaganza to more than two million mainland households, adding to the millions of viewers who already have access to Star TV channels through other means.

Mr Chang's belief in the inevitable rise of China's own musical culture has led to preliminary plans to establish a separate channel for the mainland, a further addition to the six existing channels dedicated to different regions. Channel V has also helped in the making of eight promotional videos for mainland artists. The current domination of Canto-pop and Taiwanese pop on the mainland would not last, he said.

When that happens, the screaming teenagers will not have to wait for just a few times a year to get their autograph books out and enjoy a bit of fan frenzy.

Han Hong and her peers might be pleased at the idea of year-round respect and attention - just do not tell the Swissotel security team about it.