SINGAPORE - It is no secret to Chinese pop music fans: The best American Idol-like singing shows are emerging from China, and not Taiwan, for years the heart of Mandopop.
Six years ago, it was the Taiwanese singing programme One Million Star which created buzz and made stars out of alumni such as Aska Yang, Jam Hsiao and Yoga Lin.
Today, China-made shows such as The Voice Of China (Zhongguo Hao Shengyin) and I Am A Singer (Wo Shi Geshou) are the ones winning applause from Beijing to Taipei to Singapore.
"To be honest, Chinese shows are now nicer to watch than those from Taiwan," said Taiwanese housewife Daphne Lo, 38.
"The main thing is that they have bigger budgets. Be it lighting or musical effects, they are all much better than those in Taiwan."
Singapore's Y.E.S. 93.3FM DJ Xie Jiafa said: "There's no doubt that China is the Big Brother when it comes to singing shows."
The success of these Chinese shows has raised a question: Is China fast catching up with Taiwan and on its way to becoming the new capital of Mandopop?
For sure, the mainland has the bigger market and stage.
Taiwanese singers such as Julia Peng, Winnie Hsin and Terry Lin, once popular in the 1990s, are enjoying a second wind in their careers after appearing on I Am A Singer, produced by Hunan Satellite TV, China's top provincial station.
Many have seen their market worth go up after the show.
Lin, who thrilled fans with his flawless rendition of songs such as Night Night Night Night, has seen his performance fees more than triple to 550,000 yuan (S$114,000) a show.
Chinese singing shows have proven to be such a draw that many Taiwan TV stations, including news channels, interrupted their regular programming to screen the finals of I Am A Singer in April, which had featured Taiwanese singers.
China also has a much larger pool of talent.
"The biggest difference has to do with the contestants," Taiwan's "godfather" of variety shows Wang Wei-chung told the New Culture newspaper of Jilin province, north-east China.
"The mainland has people singing folk songs, opera, rock, all kinds. Some are really peasants from the north-east." Previously obscure Chinese singers have piggy-backed on these popular shows to become better known both at home and abroad.
Take, for instance, singers Li Daimo and Wu Mochou, household names in China after their star-making turns on The Voice Of China on Zhejiang Satellite TV.
Their songs can now be heard on the Y.E.S. 93.3FM station, noted Xie. Others such as Chinese rocker Wang Feng have also gained new currency, with hits such as Beijing Beijing being sung in KTV lounges outside China.
Besides the rising fame of its singers, China is also well-positioned as a Mandopop hub as it embraces talent from outside the mainland.
Hong Kong artists such as singers Nicholas Tse and Paul Wong as well as Taiwanese ones such as host Matilda Tao and singer Harlem Yu are among a long list of names from outside the mainland who have gone on Chinese shows.
In contrast, Taiwan is more wary about letting in mainland artists, as the island is generally fearful of its much bigger neighbour.
These days, made-in-China songs are no longer just folk or revolutionary songs. China can do pop too, observed UFM 100.3 DJ Anna Lim.
Hits from the mainland such as You Exist In My Song, written and sung by Harbinborn Qu Wanting, do not sound all that different from Taiwanese or Hong Kong ones, she noted.
They are also better produced than before.
"They're no longer songs with a lot of electronic sounds, similar to those performed at our seventhmonth getai shows," said Lim.
While China looks like a contender for Taiwan's Mandopop crown, observers say music lovers should not bet on a knock-out soon. China may pack a punch with cold, hard cash, raw talent and the bigger stage, but it lacks a softer, creative touch - and this is where Taiwan still has an edge.
Most songs on China's singing shows actually hail from Taiwan.
Mainland songwriters just do not have the same grasp of Chinese tradition to pen songs rich in cultural references, said China music composer Fu Lin, citing Blue And White Porcelain (Qing Hua Ci), a Jay Chou hit written by Taiwanese lyricist Vincent Fang.
Traditional culture had been viewed with disdain by the communists and not taught in schools until recent years. The Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s to mid-1970s also saw an all-out attack on traditional arts and culture which were consequently suppressed for many years.
"The language ability of the Taiwanese is stronger. In China, our language is still influenced by politics. We can't build up our depth of cultural expression in just one or two days," added Fu.
Certainly, for all its success in staging singing contests, going back to Hunan TV's wildly popular Super Girl in 2005, China has yet to produce a bona fide star popular across Mandarin-speaking markets such as Singapore's Stefanie Sun, who started out in Taiwan.
Singer Li Yuchun might be big in China after winning Super Girl in 2005, but she does not have any truly memorable songs, said Singaporean music composer Billy Koh.
Chinese singers are also not very keen to conquer markets abroad given their huge domestic one, said Xie.
The average Singaporean, for instance, does not know of Chinese singers as most of them have not visited Singapore to promote their albums, he added.
So Taiwan, with its creativity and savvy in packaging and marketing, is still the beating heart of Mandopop, said Lim.
After all, popular singers such as American Wang Lee Hom, Malaysian Fish Leong and Singaporean JJ Lin all earned their spurs in Taiwan first before moving on to the bigger Chinese market.
Lim added: "Taiwan is still the testing ground for Chinese pop music. If you are popular in Taiwan, you'd be popular elsewhere too."
For now, it is hard to say the same of China.
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