G.E.M packed

G.E.M packed
Hong Kong singer G.E.M.

The biggest stars in Chinese pop naturally command the biggest audiences over two or more consecutive days when it comes to live concerts.

Cantopop God of Songs Jacky Cheung sold out five shows at the Indoor Stadium in 2011 for his 1/2 Century Tour. Mandopop king Jay Chou racked up three packed nights in 2013. Pop diva A-mei drew a 9,000-strong crowd for two at the same venue in 2012.

Add to that glittering list of top draws Hong Kong-based G.E.M., who pulls off a three-night run at the 5,000-seater Max Pavilion at Singapore Expo from tomorrow to Sunday.

And she has done it at the age of 23 and without the same stature in the wider Mandopop world as those before her.

Speaking in Mandarin over the telephone from Hong Kong, she says: "I've been on Facebook for a few years and there haven't been many fans from Singapore. So the good response is really beyond expectations."

Her Singapore stop started with one night, grew to two and finally three as tickets sold briskly.

Most people outside Hong Kong discovered G.E.M., an acronym for Get Everybody Moving, after her muchheralded turn on the China reality competition show, I Am A Singer, early last year - never mind that she was eventually the runner-up to China veteran Han Lei, despite being the hot favourite to win the contest.

The platform showcased her stirring and emotive singing and boosted her popularity to such a degree that the singer-songwriter herself seems to be coming to terms with it still.

Indeed, she was not expecting much when she joined the second season of the show along with Golden Melody Award winner Gary Chaw and popular China artist Bibi Zhou.

"I thought I would be eliminated very quickly," she says with a laugh.

G.E.M., whose real name is Gloria Tang, was just hoping to make it past the first elimination round. "I didn't think I would make it to the end. Just thinking of what to sing for the first few weeks was already causing my head to explode."

Clearly, she is a savvy and thoughtful performer. Many of her song choices - including mainland rocker Wang Feng's Exist, David Huang's You Made Me Drunk and Mavis Fan's I Want Us To Be Together - won over the studio audience, whose votes decide which singer on the show is eliminated.

Her thoughtfulness extends to her analysis of why Singapore's Kit Chan was the first to be eliminated in the third season, which is now airing in China. While G.E.M. praises the singer for being the "most unique", she thinks that Chan's style was not particularly suited for the format.

"Everyone tends to go for the big strokes, whereas she goes for the soft and gentle approach. That means she stands out from the others, but it puts her at a disadvantage in the competition.

"The way she sings, you need to be very focused to slowly appreciate. But the previous contestant may have just performed a piece which leaves the audience on a high and when she suddenly comes on with a quiet song, it can be hard for their feelings to turn around so quickly," she points out.

G.E.M.'s success on the show might have surprised many, but not music fans in Hong Kong, where she is one of the most popular artists in recent years, with her albums of Cantonese and Mandarin numbers.

She won acclaim from the get-go, with her debut self-titled EP in 2008 sweeping a clutch of awards, including Jade Solid Gold Best Ten Music Awards Presentation's gold award for Best Female Newcomer.

My Secret was the best-selling album in 2010 and she was named the top-selling female artist in Hong Kong in 2012 by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

Along with the newfound success G.E.M. has reaped from I Am A Singer has come the perhaps inevitable backlash.

There have been accusations of her becoming too big for her boots, with even veteran singer Alan Tam reportedly weighing in on her behaviour.

In November last year, there was unhappiness over the interview arrangements to promote her concert at Hong Kong's Coliseum and the brusque threat her management made to call it all off.

But there are no signs of any airs during the chat, during which she also respectfully refers to Tam as "principal", a nickname reflecting his stature as a mentor.

She says: "Actually, principal's comments were not criticisms at all, but some media tried to play them up.

He has been very encouraging from the moment I joined the industry and would give me a lot of suggestions each time we meet."

Since releasing her debut EP at the age of 17, G.E.M. has no doubt had to grow up quickly.

The media reported on her romance with Taiwanese singer Yoga Lin as well as on the bitter end of the three-year relationship which both parties acknowledged in March last year.

She said he had refused to acknowledge their relationship previously but was happy to use her name to promote his concert after her meteoric rise.

In any case, she has learnt to be more circumspect when talking about relationships and, in particular, about Singaporean singer-songwriter JJ Lin, with whom she collaborated on the love ballad Beautiful for his new album Genesis.

She gushes: "I've always known that he's very good at writing and singing songs, but I didn't know he was so good at production as well. It was also the first time I recorded a duet together instead of separately and the chemistry is very different."

Asked if he could be someone she likes and she says cheekily with a laugh: "I've liked him since my secondary school days. Well, he's probably the dream lover of many of his fans so I shouldn't destroy that."

At any rate, her red-hot career probably does not leave her with much time for distractions at the moment.

As a contestant on I Am A Singer, she also sang Beyond's Liking You and Beyonce's If I Were A Boy, certainly demonstrating her range and versatility, but you wonder if it needles her that she might be better known for her covers than her own material as a result.

She says lightly: "No, no. Although people might be more familiar with Liking You and You Made Me Drunk, they also know that I'm the singer of Bubble and I'm already very happy with that."

Bubble, which she wrote, is a Mandarin track from her album Xposed (2012).

G.E.M. is looking to add to her body of work. She has bigger musical ambitions than merely being the breakout star from I Am A Singer.

"I'm working on my new album, which should be out soon. At this point, all the songs are written by me, so I have a lot of ideas which I want to share with everyone."


Book it


Where: Max Pavilion, Singapore Expo

When: Tomorrow to Sunday, 7.30pm

Admission: $128 to $248 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)G.E.M. is the only singer of note from Hong Kong to break out in the world of Chinese pop in recent years.

Breakout star in China

Before her, one might have to reach back to Hong Kong-based Khalil Fong, who made a significant impact on the scene. And he made his debut back in 2005 with Soul Boy.

(Born in Shanghai, G.E.M. moved to Hong Kong at the age of four and is now based there.)

In particular, her path to regional success via a China television show, I Am A Singer, reflects how the centre of the pop world has shifted over the years.

The paltry number of widely popular Hong Kong artists is a striking turnaround for the territory, which was once the epicentre of Chinese pop.

Cantopop hit its golden age in the 1980s and 1990s and its stars were seen beyond its shores as trendsetters and the epitome of cool.

Leslie Cheung was melancholy on Wind Blows On (1983) and suave on Stand Up (1986), while Anita Mui was the bold shape-shifter on the cover of records such as Temptress (1986).

The likes of Cheung and Mui did have Mandarin releases, but their focus was very much on their home market. They were Cantopop artists, first and foremost, who would dip their toes into Mandopop every now and then.

The influence the territory exerted was so strong that it was in Hong Kong that Beijing-born Faye Wong launched her music career in 1989, even if it was not exactly by design. Still, she built a substantial body of work in Cantonese before releasing her first Mandarin album, Mystery, in 1994.

Hong Kong was so dominant that its Four Heavenly Kings - Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Aaron Kwok and (Beijing-born) Leon Lai - held sway in the world of entertainment, from music to movies, from the 1990s well into the 2000s.

Gradually, Taiwan began catching up in the sophistication of its pop machinery and it became the new hotbed of Chinese music.

The likes of A-mei, who debuted with Sisters in 1996, and Jay Chou, who released his debut Jay in 2000, enjoyed, and still enjoy, massive success in the Chinesespeaking world.

Taiwan attracted Singapore artists such as Stefanie Sun and Tanya Chua to launch their Mandarin music careers there. In contrast, just a little earlier, Kit Chan was straddling both Taiwan and Hong Kong with her Mandarin and Cantonese releases in the 1990s during the transitional period.

Meanwhile, as the China market began to open up, it grew in importance, given its large size. A singer could really be a regional star only if he or she was big in China as well.

In this regard, Mandarin-speaking artists from Taiwan had a language advantage over their counterparts from Hong Kong. It is not a coincidence that Fong releases his albums in Mandarin and G.E.M. sings in both Mandarin and Cantonese on her discs.

China is increasingly part of the equation in how success is defined, not just with its huge market, but also due to the widespread influence of its popular TV talent shows such as Voice Of China and I Am A Singer.

The country is starting to be a tastemaker and not just a passive consumer of trends and stars created elsewhere. It is also producing talent who are making inroads abroad, including Golden Melody Award winner for Best New Artist Li Ronghao.

And that is the route taken by G.E.M. In doing so, she has broken out to a wider audience than she could have if she had remained focused on only Hong Kong.

There are Hong Kong artists who continue to put out mainly Cantonese fare and, among those who stick to that template, the most successful include Joey Yung and Denise Ho. And yes, their popularity does extend beyond the territory.

Tellingly though, Yung's concert at the Max Pavilion in Singapore Expo in 2009 was a one-night engagement, as was her gig at the similarly sized Compass Ballroom at Resorts World Convention Centre in 2013.

That is nothing to sniff at for sure. But it also underlines G.E.M.'s sparkling achievement of a three-night run at the Max Pavilion.

This article was first published on Jan 29, 2015.
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