Charlene Chou Xuan on spreading traditional Chinese music to new audiences
Singer Charlene Chou Xuan, dubbed the “new golden voice” of China, is known for her unique style of music, which blends Western and Eastern elements. Originally from Hangzhou, she now lives in Hong Kong and runs the Zhou Xuan Arts Centre, which she founded.
Were you named after the iconic Chinese singer and actress with whom you share a name?
My name was given to me by my mother. Zhou Xuan was a famous singer in the ‘30s, and she is my mum’s idol. My mum loves all of her songs, and so that’s the story of how I got my name.
I was born into an artistic family. My mum was a music teacher, and my dad was an art instructor. They are ordinary people who love music and dance. I was fortunate to grow up in such a warm and happy environment.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a singer?
My first stage performance was when I was three years old during a Children’s Day event at school. Even as a child, I never felt stage fright. I remember singing one song after another that day. It was then that my parents discovered my talent.
When did I decide to become a professional singer? It was probably when I enrolled at the Zhejiang Vocational Academy of Art. I was about 12 at the time. Now, here I am. I often have the chance to perform on TV and at a number of concert halls around the world. Various media have named me one of the top 10 female sopranos in China. They call me the ‘new golden voice,’ which I am very proud of. I will always try my best to live up to that title.
What has been your most memorable performance?
My first concert ever was held at the Hong Kong Cultural Center on 16 November 2005. There I was, just a girl from Hangzhou performing in the big city. I never would have imagined back then that I’d move to Hong Kong one day. It must have been fate that brought me here.
During my first concert, I was very nervous because I was under a lot of pressure. It was my first time performing professionally on-stage, let alone an international stage. Fortunately, the show was perfect. After the concert, people came up to ask me for photos and autographs. My first concert was a success and an unforgettable experience.
Who are your musical idols and inspirations?
My mum was my first music tutor. I listened to her songs throughout my childhood. I had many other instructors during my formative years, including Professor Jin Tian Lin, who also mentors China’s First Lady, Peng Liyuan, who happens to be a contemporary folk singer.
I have also had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with some exceptional artists, including Lü Jihong, Zhang Ye, Liao Changyong and Dai Yuqiang. We have become very good friends. I also look up to Li Guyi, a well-known singer in China.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I love all kinds of music. I studied Chinese national music at college, but I also listen to Italian music across the genres of bel canto, opera and pop. I have made an effort to learn diverse styles of music. I hope that my songs appeal not only to Chinese, but also to international audiences. I believe that music has no borders.
How do you manage to blend such diverse elements from Chinese and European music?
I take some artistic liberties in my music. For instance, in one song I combined the Italian aria Nessun Dorma with the Chinese folk song Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower). I sing in two languages in that song, and foreign audiences love it. Now, I am trying to combine songs from Madama Butterfly with Taiwanese pop singer Teresa Teng’s songs. Teng was known for her folk songs and romantic ballads.
You travel a lot for shows. How is Chinese music received in other countries?
When performing abroad, I sing both Chinese and foreign songs. As long as the songs are good, music is an international language. Many foreigners have been moved by my music. They loved my songs, even though they didn’t understand the lyrics. That is what I mean when I say music has no borders.
Do you enjoy working abroad?
I do. It gives me the chance to visit new places, and it’s just like a vacation. Italy in particular is one of my favourite places to perform. I often travel to Italy with my family on holiday. There are so many delicious types of food, beautiful landscapes, classic architecture and shopping malls.
As for my family, they have been very supportive of my career, and they love music as well. I have an adorable son, and a daughter who is almost one-year-old.
What’s life in Hong Kong like compared with your hometown?
My hometown is Xi Hu (West Lake) in Hangzhou. Xi Hu is considered a paradise in China. The landscape is beautiful, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was chosen to sing a song dedicated to Xi Hu. If you have a chance to visit the city, you will hear my song as soon as you get off the plane. They play it all day long in the airport and on buses in the city.
Life is very relaxed in Hangzhou because it’s important to the locals to enjoy life. They walk around Xi Hu and have tea time with friends. It’s a slow-paced way of living. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is a very busy city. Everything is fast. After a long week spent in Hong Kong, I like to fly to Hangzhou for the weekend, just to slow down a bit – to rest and enjoy life.
You have opened your own music centre in Hong Kong. What inspired you to enter the field of education?
I opened my art centre last November. It’s something I have always wanted to do. My ambition is to promote Chinese art education in an effort to encourage children who have a passion for music. We offer lessons in dance, piano and violin, as well as vocal training in traditional Chinese music. The centre is for both children and adults. My youngest student is three years old, and the oldest is 70. I also set up a Hong Kong-China musical exchange association. It’s responsible for art education and cultural exchanges between Hong Kong and mainland China. We are going to host an event this August.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
The biggest challenge has definitely been opening the music centre. Education is a long-term cause. The behind-the-scenes work that no one sees is what is most difficult. My school is like my third baby. It takes great effort and patience to nurture it so that it grows up big and strong.
What’s next for you?
I’ll perform in Eastern Europe with a Chinese delegation in July, on invitation from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. For 20 days, we will travel around the region on tour. I’m currently preparing to launch a worldwide tour, and right now we’re just waiting on confirmation from the venues. The worldwide tour could last up to one month. We won’t return home until we finish the tour, and we will visit one country after another.
By Marilin Jakobs
The woder kid, REX TSO speaks to us about how he got started, memorable fights and his new-found fame
Boxing champion Rex Tso is considered to be one of the sport’s brightest stars. Last March, on home turf in Hong Kong, he successfully defended his WBO International and WBO Asia titles against Japanese boxer Hirofumi Mukai.
How did you get into boxing?
My dad taught me how to box when I was five years old, and when I was 16 I joined the DEF boxing gym to train and help out as an assistant coach. Back then I viewed boxing as nothing more than a sport, and this made me lazy.
It wasn’t until Jay Lau Chi Yuen, who is now my manager and the person who brought professional boxing to Hong Kong in 2011, asked me to participate in some amateur fights that I saw it as something I could do as a career. I fought in a few fights when I was 22 and 23 years old.
When did you decide to go pro?
I competed in my first professional boxing fight when I was 24 years old. As an amateur I was a lazy boxer, and I still had that attitude when I turned professional.
“I try not to let the other boxer rest because I want to fight from the moment the bell rings”
At the beginning, I didn’t care if I won or lost. Boxing was something I did out of personal interest. When Jay asked me to turn professional, I kept on thinking to myself, ‘What is a professional? And how can I be called a professional?’
Then I started to worry because my fitness was in poor shape and I hadn’t been taking it seriously. When I was an amateur I’d won fights simply because I’m a smart boxer, and so I felt I didn’t need to train properly. But when I turned professional I realised I needed to train harder.
My first professional fight was four rounds and I wasn’t thinking about winning the fight. I was thinking about trying not to get knocked down in the first round.
But when I won the fight and the crowd stood up to clap and cheer my name, that was when I knew I had to train harder, improve my body and learn new boxing skills from my coach. It was then that I knew I wanted to take boxing seriously.
How would you describe your boxing style?
I would say I have an aggressive boxing style. I try not to let the other boxer rest because I want to fight from the moment the bell rings. Fights are scored every round so I try to win every round.
Where did your nickname “The Wonder Kid” come from?
Quite a lot of people think my coaching team gave me this nickname, but actually it was given to me by a Filipino referee. I had my second, third and fourth professional fights in the Philippines and all of my opponents were Filipinos. At the start of one of the fights, the crowd cheered the Filipino boxer as he made his way to the ring, and they booed and jeered at me. They even shouted that I should go home, which I only understood later when someone translated it for me.
The fight was four rounds, and I felt I was losing in the third round because my opponent’s boxing style was different to what I was used to. I had practiced with a right-handed, short boxer, but my opponent was left-handed and much taller. My coach told me that if I didn’t knock him out in this round, I would lose the fight. Once the bell rang for the third round, I punched him as much as I could until he could no longer defend himself, forcing the referee to stop the fight.
When I was announced as the winner, the crowd stood up and cheered me. The referee was surprised I was still smiling even though the crowd had hurled insults at me and it seemed like I would lose the fight after three rounds, so he gave me the nickname ‘The Wonder Kid.’
How do you prepare for a fight?
I start preparing three months in advance. In the morning I do physical training, like fitness, running and weightlifting. I also focus on boxing techniques to build up muscle. The afternoon is reserved for boxing training.
I follow a balanced diet for the first two months. I eat a fistful of rice and meat, and I usually start to lose weight 10 days before a fight. Normally my weight is 130 lb, but in the build-up to a fight it drops to between 125 and 128 lb. Ten days before a fight it drops to 115 lb, and during this time I only eat vegetables. And 30 hours before a fight I don’t drink or eat anything to make sure I make the weight class. I also run in a sweat suit to help me lose weight.
What’s been your toughest fight?
During my last fight against Hirofumi Mukai I faced a lot of situations that were new to me. In the second or third round, I was hit by a punch that made me lose hearing in my right ear for more than 10 seconds.
I broke my nose one month before that fight, during a training session with a Filipino world champion. I was so worried that I wouldn’t be able to fight and it was so painful that I cried. Mukai punched me in the nose during our fight, but thankfully the bone had healed.
How did it feel to successfully defend your WBO International title and WBC Asia title and win the WBO Asia-Pacific belt in front of your home crowd when you beat Hirofumi Mukai?
It was great that I didn’t disappoint everyone, and I was lucky to fight and win even though I was hurt. I was worried that I hadn’t trained enough because I had to take it easier after my injury.
The atmosphere at the stadium was so exciting. Even when I was in the dressing room I could hear the crowd cheering on the other boxers. And when it was my turn to fight, I felt energised when I heard the crowd cheer my name.
You’ve fought twice on the undercard for Manny Pacquiao. How were those experiences?
Manny Pacquiao’s fights are always huge events. The fights were valuable experiences for me as they helped me get used to the pressure of fighting in front of a huge crowd. I was also grateful to watch Pacquiao and learn from him. He can fight under pressure and he shows that you have to enjoy the crowd, not be afraid of it.
He is very nice and willing to help other boxers. We have met before but my English is not that great so I just said ‘hello.’
What do you hope to achieve as a boxer?
I want to challenge the world champion one day. Before that I want to fight the best boxers so I can learn from them.
How do you think boxing is viewed in Hong Kong culture?
In the past, people had a negative view of boxing. When people thought of boxing, they would imagine gangsters, violence and fighting. They didn’t recognise it as a sport. Nowadays, people have taken the time to understand boxing and they realise it’s a sport because it requires skill. It isn’t just lawless fighting.
I think the change has come about due to more media exposure. I have spent the past two years competing in Macau, and the media exposure from my fights there has opened up boxing to a wider audience. So when we organise boxing competitions in Hong Kong, locals are now aware of the sport and the reaction and attention it receives is stronger. Once someone watches a boxing contest in person, they will have a better understanding of the techniques and skill involved.
Would you say you’re a role model to young boxers?
When I win a fight, people cheer for me and the focus is all on me. Some young boxers might crave the attention instead of taking up boxing for the sake of the sport. When it comes to boxing, you don’t get into it because of the result. You have to first experience the process – go through training and fight in competitions – and then you can start thinking about winning and the pride that comes with that.
I think I am influencing people in a positive way. In the past, I was a very lazy person, but now I can be someone who encourages others. Words can’t express how much this change means to me.
How are you handling your new-found fame?
I still feel embarrassed. I’m still not used to the attention I get when I walk down the street, but every coin has two sides. When people on the street know who you are and ask for photographs, and suddenly a five-minute walk becomes much longer, you might think you’ve lost some of your freedom. But this is a negative way of thinking. I prefer to view it more positively. When more people recognise me it means that more people know about boxing, and that’s the kind of recognition that matters to me. Also, when people ask me for photographs, it means they don’t hate me, I think!
What do you do in your free time to relax?
Eat! I am happiest when I am eating because I have to lose so much weight to prepare for a fight. I don’t have a favourite food, but eating any type of food is a way to pamper myself.
Which sporting figures do you look up to?
I admire Manny Pacquiao. He is a legend in the boxing world. Every boxer knows about him because he is so successful.
What will you do once you retire from boxing?
I haven’t thought about retirement. When I started out as a professional boxer, I never thought about doing it long-term. Even after my first few fights, I didn’t know how long I would last as a boxer. But now, as long as I stay in good health, I plan to continue as long as I can. There is an age restriction for amateur boxers but not for professionals. I am checked before each fight to make sure I am in good health. When my body can no longer handle it, that will be when I call it quits. I know that plans change and something I want to do next year could change tomorrow, so I enjoy the moment while it lasts.
By : Rani Chang