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Bumpy road to stardom for local Mandopop acts

Four local Mandopop acts share the obstacles they have faced pursuing a career in the music industry

Singapore's biggest Mandopop exports are Stefanie Sun, JJ Lin, Tanya Chua and Kit Chan. Besides these stars, there are musicians such as Kenn C, Goh Kheng Long and brothers Peter and Paul Lee, who work behind the scenes in various roles with Taiwanese and Hong Kong superstars.

Then come the many local singers trying to pursue careers in the regional music industry.

To stay on the radar of listeners inundated with music options, they upload music covers online or diversify into acting and hosting. Some take on side jobs, be it making coffee or backup singing, to supplement their income and raise funds for their next album.

Along the way, they celebrate small milestones, such as selling out tickets to a concert at a small venue and winning praise from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The road to stardom is a bumpy one and many on it will not reach the astronomical heights of Sun or Lin. But four local acts tell The Straits Times they are enjoying the ride anyway.


Playing to an audience of one in Taiwan

THE FRESHMAN

Carrie Yeo, 34, and Chen Diya, 30

Singers Carrie Yeo and Chen Diya were in Taiwan on a performing tour five years ago when they got a gig to perform at a cafe in Taipei.

The local Mandopop duo, who call themselves The Freshman, got on stage only to find themselves performing for an audience of one.

"We sold only one ticket and it was bought by Diya's friend. I felt like crying, but we had to carry on," says Yeo.

Chen adds: "We were upset, but we bit the bullet. We were encouraged by the positive vibes from the waiters and cafe owner watching."

The dismal turnout was just one of the setbacks that the singers took in their stride in the pursuit of a music career since debuting with Life Experiment 101 (2010).

Chen and Yeo, both alumni of reality TV singing competition Project SuperStar 2007, realised that they should have done more to publicise their 2012 Taiwanese shows, a series of eight small-scale showcases at live houses and cafes around the island.

While their profile was raised, they did not have any income in those two months and it was back to reality when they returned - they took on other jobs so as not to "starve" and earn funds for their next album.

Yeo, who majored in Japanese studies at the National University of Singapore, designed webpages, coordinated corporate photo shoots and even set up an online shop selling clothes. Chen, who studied mass communications at Nanyang Technological University, went back to giving tuition to schoolchildren.

Previously, after the release of their first album, she had worked as a barista at a cafe in the Central Business District for seven months.

She says: "I would meet ex-schoolmates, high-fliers in power suits and high heels coming in for a double-shot expresso. I felt a bit paiseh (embarrassed in Hokkien).

"There I was, earning $7.50 an hour. I wondered if I had made the wrong decision.

"One of my ex-classmates changed my perspective when she told me she envied me for having the courage to chase my dreams."

The pair's perseverance paid off six years into their singing career. Last year, they released their second full-length album, Growing Up.

This time, they engaged a local team to maximise their exposure in Taiwan. They performed 13 live shows, went on 30 radio shows and appeared on popular variety shows such as Showbiz and University.

They followed up with the selfpenned Remember To Ask Me Out When You're Free, the theme song for telemovie The Provision Shop (2016).

The viral tune even caught the attention of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who shared it on his Facebook page.

"My brother sent me a screengrab of the Facebook post and a message saying, 'Mummy can't nag you anymore. Prime Minister says you are talented,'" says Chen, who is the younger of two children of a housewife mother and regional sales manager father.

The icing on the cake came with the confirmation of their engagement as backup vocalists on Hong Kong Heavenly King Jacky Cheung's ongoing tour.

The long-running gig means a stable income for the next two years, says Yeo, whose mother runs an interior design firm and father works in the construction business.

The oldest of three children, she says: "I was troubled by the fact that I was not young and not financially stable. Then this gig came along and it was a relief. Now, we are amassing funds for our next album."


Different treatment after leaving K-pop group

FERLYN WONG, 25, who performs as Ferlyn G

After singer Ferlyn Wong lost her "K-pop branding", she was no longer given the same treatment reserved for K-pop stars, even those just starting out.

Part of Singapore's first K-pop venture SKarf, she found idol life restrictive and left the girl group to pursue a solo career in Singapore in 2014.

"Whether I am in SKarf, I am still Ferlyn. I'm the same person, but the industry treats me differently. I felt demoralised," says Wong, who goes by Ferlyn G (G stands for her Chinese name, which is spelt as Gilleen).

Even though SKarf were newbies then, their K-pop branding got them better resting areas and transport arrangements than she gets now, Wong says. Gig organisers now haggle with her over fees.

Debuting at the age of 20, she harboured dreams of touring Asia with SKarf, which are no longer active and have been sold to South Korean entertainment company CJ E&M. The student at Temasek Polytechnic quit her business studies for a shot at a pop star's career.

Another Singaporean member of SKarf, Natasha Low, is reportedly undergoing training at the agency.

Wanting creative control over her works, Wong set up an independent record label, GIF Music, in 2015. She is now in talks with a China-based concert promoter to further her career in that country.

"I love South Korea, but to be practical, I need to go into the Mandopop market. There is more potential for a Singaporean artist to grow in China and Taiwan," says Wong, who performed at countdown concert Rock On! at The Float @ Marina Bay earlier this year.

She has released her solo album First (2015) and two singles Gif To You (2015) and Killer Boy (2016), but they did not have the same reach as SKarf's releases.

The music video for English hip-hop tune Gif To You has had more than 12,000 views since it was uploaded on Gif Music's official YouTube channel in 2015, while SKarf's track Luv Virus (2013) on K-pop music YouTube channel CJENMMusic Official has recorded more than 650,000 views.

Wong, who has also had bit roles in local movies Young & Fabulous (2016) and The Fortune Handbook (2017), says: "Although I have to start from scratch, I have no regrets. I found myself, I found what I want to do."

Her housewife mother and airforce officer father have been supportive of her dreams since she was a teenager. Wong, who has an elder brother, started vocal training at local record label Ocean Butterflies at age 12 and later fell in love with dancing. She was a backup dancer at local performances by big Mandopop names such as JJ Lin, Rainie Yang and Wang Lee Hom.

She says: "There is no reason to stop. There are too many reasons for me to keep going. I started when I was 12, I've invested so much. If I were to stop, I would be letting my family, fans and myself down."

Gwendolyn Ng


Worries over concert turnout

KELLY POON, 33

Twelve years after she came in second in 2005's singing contest Project SuperStar, Kelly Poon faced a popularity test in the form of her first ticketed solo gig at the Esplanade Recital Studio in February.

"I was worried if people would buy tickets to come and watch me sing. It has been three years since I released an album," says Poon, whose last offering was a five-track EP, Miss Kelly (2014).

She passed the challenge. Even though the venue was small, her selling out of all 255 tickets served as a form of encouragement.

While she has not released any original works recently, she has been working to maintain some sort of presence.

Her minders at local talent agency Mode Entertainment suggested she put out song covers.

"I never thought I would do YouTube covers. My boss and colleague thought it was a way for me to stay connected with my fans while I was preparing for my next album.

"Through the songs that I choose to cover, fans will also get to know me better," says the older of two daughters born to an architect father and a housewife mother.

A fan of the mega-popular South Korean television romance Descendants Of The Sun (2016), she chose to sing a Mandarin rendition of the series' theme song, Always.

The video, uploaded onto her official Facebook page, has received more than 1.7 million views since last May.

The video also raised her profile overseas, earning her an invitation to perform Always at the music festival Viral Fest Asia in Indonesia.

Coverage in the Taiwanese media for the song could also have landed her the female lead in a micro Web movie this year, 180 Days To The Wedding, to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Week in Taiwan, she says.

After acting in Channel U series Dream Chasers (2006) and Mandarin Web series A Starry Night (2009), she had decided not to act anymore as she was not confident of venturing outside her comfort zone.

"I did not want to host or act. I just wanted to be a singer. But I've realised that I should be open to all opportunities and stretch myself. Even A-list singers are versatile and are seen hosting and acting," says Poon, who was a panellist and host for the outdoor segments of the Singapore edition of Lady First, a hit beauty and fashion talk show from Taiwan, in 2013 and 2014.

In November last year, going further outside her comfort zone, Poon - who graduated with with a diploma in maritime transport management from Singapore Polytechnic - and two friends set up production company-cum-talent agency Sixtwigs, which helps its stable of singers and hosts secure gigs at weddings and corporate shows.

She says: "These days, it is hard to become a singer due to the unfavourable market conditions. I want to give these singing enthusiasts a platform to perform. Helping them is my way of giving back."


Mistaken for a notorious China blogger

JOCIE GUO MEI MEI, 35

For Jocie Guo Mei Mei, the voice behind Mandopop earworms Mouse Loves Rice (2005) and No More Panic (2005), a Singaporean singer knows she has made it big when she gets to sing at the National Day Parade.

"I've been telling my friends that I want to perform at the National Day Parade because I am a Singaporean. I want to sing a song like Home.

"Everybody seems to have had his chance, but what about me? Nobody seems to remember there is a Singaporean singer called Guo Mei Mei," she says, referring to the rousing classic Home (1998) originally performed by Kit Chan.

Guo might have fallen off the radar somewhat, given that it has been more than 10 years since she has had a hit, but she is still singing and recording albums.

In fact, she just released her fourth album, My Name, last month and is signed with major China record company Taihe Music, whose stable includes Chan and Singapore sibling duo By2.

Record companies in Taiwan reportedly fought to sign the doeeyed singer when she entered the scene in 2005.

The Singapore Polytechnic engineering graduate became an instant hit with her debut disc No More Panic, which sold more than 30,000 copies in the first month when it was released in Singapore in 2006. It reportedly achieved platinum status based on global sales.

She went on to release two more albums - My Darling (2007) and I Am Jocie (2010).

Like many Singapore singers, she ventured overseas - to China, in her case - to make a name for herself. She achieved it, but not in a good way.

Netizens confused Singapore's Guo Mei Mei for China's Guo Mei Mei, a notorious blogger who flaunted her extravagant lifestyle online and was later charged for illegal gambling in 2015.

The identity mix-up resulted in cancelled gigs and a barrage of online vitriol.

"What bothered me was how people thought No More Panic was sung by her. For all the years I have been singing onstage, how could they not recognise me. I felt depressed," says Guo, who relied on the enduring popularity of No More Panic to perform commercial gigs around China.

Another unfortunate incident occurred when she suffered a cancer scare. She underwent surgery in 2011 to remove an ovarian cyst which, thankfully, turned out to be benign.

"The doctor told me that it might be a tumour. I freaked out. My first thoughts were that I might die and I want to hold a concert immediately. That's when I realised how much I love singing," says the younger of two children of a retiree dad and a mum who works part-time at a department store.

Now at peace with the trials she went through over the past six years, she says: "Everything that happened to me is to prepare me for this particular album.

"I channelled the depressing emotions into my ballads. I'm thankful for the lousy experiences."

•My Name is available on digital platforms and at CD-Rama stores.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'Bumpy road to stardom'. Print Edition | Subscribe