Strait to success

Taiwanese stars conquer China

Strait to success

Star turn: Shu Qi

His face adorns countless advertisements selling everything from China Mobile to Sprite. He’s sold millions of albums and, wherever he goes, he is mobbed by screaming fans.

Known to press and fans alike as “President Chou” and “Little Heavenly King,” Jay Chou is a phenomenon in China. Since the release of debut album, Jay, in 2000, Chou’s music has been heard across the country. Mobile phones ring out his songs. His tunes top the karaoke charts, too.

Chou is Taiwanese. Raised on the self-ruled island, Chou began his career as a contract songwriter. With his catchy songs and boyish good looks, he began to develop an obsessive following across Asia, especially in China. Last year, he was named Most Popular Male Singer at the Beijing Pop Music Awards, the Chinese-equivalent to the MTV Music Awards in the US.

Strange that so many Chinese have opted for a Taiwanese heartthrob? Part of the attraction, some say, is that Chou appeals to a sense of ‘Han Chinese’ national pride. And one hit song Huo Yuanjia is based on a patriotic martial artist glorified in Chinese textbooks for travelling the country to challenge foreigners in physical combat.

His squeaky clean image also adds to his allure. “I hope to influence fans in a positive way, making them care not only about themselves, but also their families and the society,” he says.

Even though China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since 1949 – when the defeated Kuomintang forces fled to the island at the end of a civil war – Taiwanese artists have often bridged the political divide in influencing both music and films on the mainland. Helped by a shared language, Taiwanese stars like Chou are viewed by mainlanders as more sophisticated than their domestic counterparts, and increasingly trump Hong Kong entertainers too.

Chou was not the first to appeal to audiences on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. That title goes to Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese singer who was enormously popular throughout China in the 1980s. Interestingly enough, Teng received her biggest boost in China when the authorities banned her songs, calling them too sensual. Naturally, everyone then decided they needed to get to know her better. Her popularity soared.

Actress Shu Qi also enjoyed a career boost when she crossed the Strait. Famous for her sexy pout – she even beat Angelina Jolie in a ground-breaking survey on the world’s sexiest lips in 2008 – Shu started her film career in Taiwan in forgettable low-budget movies like Sex & Zen II.

Shu went on to prove herself as a more serious actress in Hong Kong’s film industry, with a breakthrough role in 1996’s Viva Erotica. Then respected filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Feng Xiaogang came calling, and Shu got her major chance, in mainland blockbuster If You Are The One. More recently, she sat on the prestigious jury at the Cannes Film Festival.

Shu is still riding high. She has a new film out – City Under Siege, which comes out in May – and Hong Kong’s Apple Daily reports that she has signed an endorsement deal with fashion label Emporio Armani to be its Asian face, replacing Zhang Ziyi who has suffered recently in the popularity stakes (see WiC19 and 49).

Zhang being replaced by Shu has a certain symmetry. That’s because Zhang’s own breakthrough role in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was originally slated for Shu. But the Taiwanese actress dropped out at the last minute because of a scheduling conflict. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon went on to become the highest-grossing foreign language film shown in the US, propelling Zhang to international stardom.

Shu protests that she has never regretted her decision to drop out of the film. Still, replacing Zhang at Armani might be worth a little victory dance.

Not every Taiwanese star has had success in China. No one knows that better than singer A-Mei (see WiC23). In 2000, the popular singer was banned for a year in China after she sang Taiwan’s anthem at the inauguration of former President Chen Shui-bian, a fierce advocate of the island’s independence. Her popularity on the mainland has never fully recovered.

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