Photo Credit: 茂木木
G.E.M.: China’s Jewel
Readers in the west might assume that Taylor Swift is the sole female artist who has made her name playing guitar and singing relatable love songs to win over hordes of female fans. However, Tang Tsz-Kei, better known by her stage name G.E.M., is one of Hong Kong’s most iconic stars. Dubbed the Taylor Swift of China, at 25 years old, G.E.M. is the only Asian artist featured in Forbes’ 2016 30 Under 30: Music Shortlist. Her social media followers are in the millions – G.E.M., a Chinese celebrity, has the advantage of access to a truly global fandom, connecting with fans not only vi platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, but also on sites like Weibo, China’s premier social media service. In 2015, she became the face of Apple Music in China. She released her latest album Heartbeat with music videos accompanying all ten tracks, in a move similar to the shock release of Beyoncé’s critically-acclaimed Lemonade. Heartbeat subsequently topped the Chinese iTunes charts. As a measure of her success, G.E.M.’s songs have been played over 9.8 billion times on Chinese music platform Kugou.
G.E.M. was discovered at the age of 17, performing at a local talent show. She signed with Hummingbird Music and released her eponymous EP in 2008. She has subsequently released two concert DVDs and six albums, four of which reached number one in Hong Kong. She received the FPI Hong Kong Top Selling Female Artist award in 2012 and subsequently won the Favourite Asian Act award at the 2014 Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, in a move that highlights her new goal – to crack the biggest music market in the world: America.
G.E.M. is critically acclaimed not only for her skills as a songwriter, but also for her powerful vocal range and musicianship. It’s hard to make it in Hong Kong today. The widespread piracy in China’s music market means that it is impossible for singers to make a living from album sales alone. Hong Kong talent such as G.E.M. face the additional challenge of succeeding as a multi-hyphenate – Asian idols are expected to not only make a name for themselves as singers, but actors, presenters, models and brand ambassadors. In the crush of space-strapped Hong Kong, music studios are few and come at a high price. For the first few years of their career, singers can expect to make little to no profit, as all earnings are used to recoup the expenses of producing their music.
Yet, G.E.M.’s upbringing makes her the ideal candidate to rise to the top of China’s music scene. She is Shanghainese, born on the mainland, and raised in Hong Kong. Having spent time in Los Angeles to hone her skills before the release of her first EP, G.E.M. is fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. Her appeal translates between languages and across borders. The star is well known for writing her own songs in both Cantonese and Mandarin, widening both her skill set and appeal to fans who relate to her lyrics of love and loss. GEM has stated that she chooses her language carefully – ballads are a staple of mainland China’s music scene, making Mandarin the better fit for poignant love songs. Cantonese, with its harsher tone, works well for stronger, more upbeat tracks.
GEM’s recently completed two-year world tour X.X.X. Live which was sold out across the globe, thanks to the singer’s legions of fans across China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South East Asia. She filled London’s Wembley Arena – but played to a crowd of Chinese expats. Here comes a greater issue, it has traditionally been near impossible for fans in the UK to access Chinese music. China’s tight internet restrictions mean that access to sites such as YouTube is difficult. Chinese listeners discover music via platforms such as QQ, Baidu and WeChat, which are unknown to western audiences.
Then there is the competition. Currently it is South Korea, not China, which is making waves across Asia. The Korean government puts great emphasis on creating, promoting and exporting popular culture to develop South Korea’s global soft power, whereas China’s music scene is hampered both by government censorship of lyrics which stray too far from safe themes of love and positivity, and a significant emphasis on tradition. With that in mind, G.E.M. has taken the typical love ballads sung in karaoke bars from Nanjing to Shanghai and made them her own, writing lyrics drawn from genuine heartache that strike a chord with fans across Asia. Just like Taylor Swift, she has learnt that honesty is the best policy – that sense of candid, girl-next-door sincerity which softens her pop star sheen.
G.E.M. has now caught the attention of American media outlets. She sang live at the Forum in LA, and has landed the role of Sleeping Beauty in Ross Venokur’s upcoming animated film, Charming, in which she will star with big names including Demi Lovato, Ashley Tisdale, and Avril Lavigne. It remains to be seen whether G.E.M. will be the first Chinese star to gain international success. She has the talent, the stellar track-record, the vast, loyal fanbase, but the music industry in both Hong Kong and mainland China faces many challenges, from piracy to censorship. These must be overcome to offer Mandopop, and stars like G.E.M., a firm foundation on which to gain global traction and win international acclaim.