A win-win for Sing! China and Hartono

Nathan Hartono gave a polished performance last Friday at the Sing! China final in Beijing’s National Stadium.
Nathan Hartono gave a polished performance last Friday at the Sing! China final in Beijing’s National Stadium.PHOTO: ZHEJIANG TV SING!CHINA/WEIBO

The Singaporean singer may have lost the competition, but he won precious airtime on Chinese television

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SING! CHINA

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Late in the onstage voting in the Sing! China final in Beijing's National Stadium, in plain sight of millions of viewers in China and beyond, things just weren't adding up.

It's a show. Maybe it's all just a show. And yet it's a show many Singaporeans have needed too - to discover Hartono and be proud of him.

As Singapore's Nathan Hartono, alias Xiang Yang, and China's Jiang Dunhao stood on huge flashing podiums on the stage, flanking an enormous scoreboard, judges - 81 of them, according to emcee Hua Shao - were casting star-shaped votes into two boxes below the finalists.

"42 to 37," Hua announced, as a live orchestra heightened the tension, cymbals and all. "Now we see Xiang Yang leading, but we see a considerable number of judges in front of Jiang Dunhao's voting machine."

Nine of them appeared in a line - but wait a minute, 79 votes had been counted, so shouldn't there be just two judges left?

But, oh, the drama. One of them, a man wearing a cap, had an apparent change of heart and crossed the stage to vote for Hartono - 43.

Another one, a woman in a pink coat behind him, defected to Hartono too - 44.

The score was 44-43 to Hartono, with three voters remaining at Jiang's box. Two voted for Jiang, as the count somehow became 45, 46, and 47.

The last one, a man wearing glasses and a cardigan, suddenly changed sides and cast the 45th and last vote for Hartono.

This was how Jiang won the competition - with six onstage voters magically casting 10 votes for him, as well as a purported 56.7 per cent of the stadium audience supporting him - but had Hartono lost? No.

Because Sing! China is first and foremost a show - and a successful one that, in its finale, was a win-win for itself, Jiang and Hartono.

Think about it. For a contest at its level, Sing! China was always strangely silent on what its contestants would win.

At the end of the final last Friday, Jiang received a plastic-looking trophy and a car-shaped token that, hopefully, will be redeemable at an actual car company. Honestly, it didn't look like much of a win.

In a knockout round earlier in the evening, the most truthful of the instructors, singer Harlem Yu, expressed his sadness to see his student Yang Meina go. She wouldn't be getting a chance to perform the final song she had prepared, he explained.

In other words, he wasn't sad she wouldn't be winning a car. Because this is a popular Chinese show and the only thing worth winning is precious, golden airtime.

On this count, Hartono won.

He performed all the three songs he had prepared and stayed on the show till the end.

He also played an important role in the programme, which needed him, actually.

Sing! China is an ambitious show that has replaced The Voice Of China, after the Chinese producers lost the rights to the Dutch format. It wants to be a show for the Chinese-speaking world and a global brand, but perhaps without losing sight of its local public.

And so the final round of the contest, between dashing Singaporean urbanite Hartono and reserved Chinese country boy Jiang, was truly a textbook finish.

Hartono was polished, crooning Mavis Hee's Moonlight In The City and Anita Mui's Woman Flower, accompanied by a Chinese orchestra conjuring the sort of exotic oriental soundscape his instructor Jay Chou is famous for.

Jiang's eyes were closed for much of his performance of Wang Feng's Windowsill and he was the picture of plaintive authenticity, awkwardly plucking an acoustic guitar that couldn't be heard over an electric rock band in the background.

It's a show. Maybe it's all just a show. And yet it's a show many Singaporeans have needed too - to discover Hartono and be proud of him.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2016, with the headline 'A win-win for Sing! China and Hartono'. Print Edition | Subscribe