Contestants and hosts on CCTV's talent show Show Me First.[Photp/China Daily]
A CCTV talent show features three foreigners with a yen for Chinese songs that recall the fervor of the revolution. Sun Li reports.
They are the surprise guests of Show Me First, a popular talent show on China's national television station, CCTV. They are not Chinese, but sing in Mandarin, and love performing "red songs", or revolutionary songs composed to extol the homeland and the Communist Party of China.
Keson Bernard Tinker is a postgraduate student of business management at Shanghai's Donghua University.
A fascination with Chinese culture and civilization brought Tinker from the Bahamas to China in 2005.
During his undergraduate years, Tinker took to learning the Chinese language and found that listening to, and singing, Chinese songs facilitated this.
The 28-year-old Bahamian says he came to know of China's red songs three years ago.
"There was a gala being held to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China in Shanghai and I was asked to present a song," Tinker says.
"When I listened to the assigned songs, I thought they were quite different from the other types of music I knew and I was amazed by the passion for the country expressed in the lyrics."
To fully understand a song, Tinker would do his homework. As many red songs were created for revolution-themed films, Tinker would search for the movie and watch it many times to get the mood right.
Whenever the name of a person or place cropped up in the lyrics, he would research it immediately on the Internet.
"I want to find out why, when and how the red song was composed. Only by understanding this can I sing it perfectly," Tinker says.
After years of assiduously studying Chinese, Tinker says he now has no problem in understanding the lyrics.
"The only thing is that many red songs were written for those who have a tenor voice, and unfortunately, I'm a baritone," he says.
Tinker's soulful renditions of red songs have won him plaudits and awards. He says he was honored to be invited onto the CCTV program.
"I know a black man singing red songs is a rarity in China. People love to see it, and I love that they love me," he says.
"But the reason I sing a red song is not because I can get recognition or profits.
"It's because I really feel the love expressed in the song. I want to pump my energy and feelings into the song and express my love."
It was love that brought 35-year-old American Haley Yang to China, three years ago.
She married Yang Jingying in the United States in 2002, and accompanied him to his hometown, Linfen city, Shanxi province.
Currently an English teacher at Shanxi Normal University, Haley says she learnt Chinese and came to know about red songs from her husband. She has developed her own understanding of them.
"In a broad sense, red songs could refer to old songs that make you feel good about your country. They are not only associated with revolution themes," Haley says.
In 2008, she participated in a program on Shanxi TV Station that put the spotlight on expatriates, and sang her first red song, The Beautiful Scenery of Shanxi.
"When I sang red songs my husband grew up listening to, I could see his eyes twinkling with delight, which also made me very happy," she says.
Haley admits that she initially found it hard to understand the song because of the language barrier.
Fortunately, her husband often came to her rescue, teaching her the songs word by word. She would also familiarize herself with the new words by using them in her daily life.
The song she sings on Show Me First is Azalea, from the film Sparkling Red Star.
"What is also pleasant is that these songs are musically brilliant," Haley says.
"Take Azalea. It's the most touching lullaby I've ever heard."
To ensure a better understanding of the song, Haley watched Sparkling Red Star.
"Whenever I perform a red song, I hope to get the essence of it. I won't sing a song that I don't understand."
Her favorite red song, however, is I Love You, China.
"It was the first Chinese red song that I could easily understand," Haley says. "Because I love my husband ... the song simply speaks out my feelings."
Iain Inglis, too, moved to China propelled by love.
The 29-year-old from Wales now lives in Hainan province's Sanya with his wife, whom he met eight years ago on a flight from Shanghai to Hokkaido.
Inglis says he first heard of red songs in 2003 when he made his maiden trip to China.
"Back in university, I once studied Russian. I'm fond of revolutionary songs of the former Soviet Union and I guess those songs have their Chinese counterparts, but I didn't know the term," Inglis says.
"After I came across it in a VCD store, I bought a red song album and learnt my first red song, Socialism Is Great," he says, adding that it was also the first red song he performed on stage.
A British man with a keen interest in China's history and politics, Inglis says learning red songs is an effective way to understand the country and its people.
"For example, I learnt a lot about the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945) from revolutionary songs," Inglis says. "To people who are deeply interested in that part of history, red songs are a fabulous help."
Thanks to his amazing language abilities, Inglis seldom has difficulties in learning the lyrics. But the Briton has a major obstacle to overcome - his poor concentration.
"On stage, I'm always wondering where I should look and what move I should make, and that's so distracting that I often forget the lyrics.
"Or, if I see a charming lady in the audience, my mind becomes blank, too," Inglis says, smiling.
To boost his concentration, Inglis claims he drinks a mix of some sorghum-based Erguotou (a brand of Chinese liquor) and Wang Lao Ji (a herbal tea) before every performance.
"It mostly works," Inglis says, smiling again.
In 2010, Inglis attended a nationwide singing competition of Chinese red songs and became China's fifth-best singer. His use of exaggerated gestures and facial expressions during performances has won him many fans.
"I'm not making fun of those respectable songs. It's just my way to popularize them," Inglis says.
The contest experience triggered a wave of invitations to sing red songs. In 2010, he quit his job as a hotel manager.
"I'm now a professional red songs' singer," he says.
"It helps me understand China, it allows me to get a spot on State-run television and enables me to make big money. So why not croon the lovely red tunes?"
The episode of Show Me First featuring the three foreign singers premiered on CCTV-1 at 6 pm on Wednesday.