The Straits Times
Apr 9, 2015
In 1994, Singapore singer Kit Chan broke into the fiercely competitive Taiwanese market with her Mandarin album Heartache.
Hit records such as Cornered (1995) and Sadness (1996) followed and firmly established her as a powerhouse presence in the Mandopop scene.
Yet she has never held a regional tour, an anomaly given that artists are now touring on the back of one record - not that she is bothered by that.
"You had people like Chang Ching-fang who had never done concerts because it simply wasn't something people did," she tells Life!, making the case that it was not that common for singers to put on concerts in the 1980s and 1990s.
Stella Chang was one of the biggestselling pop stars of that period and her 1990 solo concert in Taipei marked the first time a singer had held a large-scale ticketed concert in Taiwan.
Chan had her plate full with other commitments.
Instead of concerts, she took part in mega musicals such as Snow.Wolf.Lake in Hong Kong in 1997 and Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress in Singapore in 2002.
"By the time concerts were starting to get popular, I was hardly singing at all. That's really the reason."
Better late than never. The 42-year-old kicks off her Spellbound tour in Singapore on June 12 and 13 at The Star Theatre.
More than 70 per cent of the tickets have been sold. She is then scheduled to perform in Beijing on July 3, Shanghai on July 12 and Guangzhou on July 18 with stops in Taiwan and Hong Kong slated for the last quarter of the year and after.
Her comeback is sure gaining steam. She took a break from show business in 2004 and later worked as a public relations consultant from August 2007 to April 2009 at major PR firm Hill & Knowlton.
Her return to music began with the highly anticipated local Mandarin musical December Rains in 2010, and in the following year, she released a new album, Re-interpreting Kit Chan, a record of covers and her first studio disc since 2004's East Towards Saturn.
Recently, she took part in the China reality television contest I Am A Singer, the first Singaporean singer to do so.
She may have been eliminated twice, but the show has raised her profile in China.
While the Singapore Spellbound concert was in the works before I Am A Singer came along, it later became apparent that there was a demand to see her in China as well.
So it became a "natural progression" to take the Spellbound gig on the road. It was still only "talk" as late as February and everything was sewn up just a few weeks ago.
Breaking into China at this point in her career has left Chan feeling like a newbie again. And she is still trying to figure out why she has gained fans there, some of whom are in their teens.
One university student told her excitedly that her rendition of the late Leslie Cheung's Cantonese ballad, Left, Right Hands, was in heavy rotation on campus.
"Maybe what I do is new in China and the young people like it. At the same time, my maturity appeals to older people, so maybe it does give me a pretty wide range of audiences. It'll be interesting to see who comes to my show."
While she had previously gone to China to promote her music in the 1990s and early 2000s, the experience was not one she enjoyed.
"Back then, you really had to pander and you had to sing KTV songs." Hearing about makeshift stages did not help either.
"Even though they paid handsomely, it was a stage set up in the middle of the field and the toilet was in the bushes. It would have been very jialat for a female artist at that time," she recalls, using the local slang for challenging.
If she did not feel compelled to pander previously, she definitely sees no need to do so now.
"It's best that I bring what defines me now and see if they like it. At this point in my life, I'm not prepared to engineer a whole new Kit Chan. It's not going to happen."
Adding a China-friendly segment with songs from the contest is fine, but she is not going to overhaul herself to please someone else.
Dressed comfortably in a navy blue shirt, black leggings and dark purple loafers and sipping on pipagao (literally loquat paste) after changing out of an off-white top for the photo shoot, it is hard to imagine anyone making her bend to his will.
Chan has never been one to play the popularity game, even when she was a young artist in Taiwan.
"I don't like to be made to wear things I don't want to wear or sing songs I don't want to sing or say things I don't want to say. I used to quarrel with my PR as those were the days when they would be churning out stories."
Not playing the game might have hurt her as an artist - even other artists commented on her unwillingness to schmooze, she says - but she has no regrets.
"Being so anti-social didn't help, but it's okay, it's really okay. All's well that ends well. So what if you sold more albums, so what if you won more awards?
"If I'm unwilling to invest, then I need to be contented with whatever returns I get, that's fair. Some artists spend their whole lives being only an artist and they don't invest in their lives and I think that is even scarier."
Investing in her own life, she tied the knot with her long-time Singaporean banker-boyfriend in 2012 and keeps their relationship low-key.
When she casually describes housework as being "romantic", one's interest is naturally piqued.
But she is not referring to "lovey-dovey, Paris romantic" and has an assistant look up the meaning of the word on the spot. "Ah okay, number seven.
Often celebrates nature, the ordinary person and freedom of the spirit."
Aside from housework, she also reads, watches television programmes and hangs out with friends during her free time.
You will not find her poring over social media ("Eighty per cent of the stuff people post are not interesting").
Neither is she consumed with what others say about her: "Even when people praise you to the skies, take it with a pinch of salt.
And when they condemn you, certainly you should just ignore it, especially when it's ridiculous."
Apart from an e-mail account, she has a Weibo microblog account, which she needed to fulfil part of the contract for I Am A Singer.
"I do appreciate that it's become a place where my fans will gather", Chan says and, from time to time, she does use it. When Mr Lee Kuan Yew died on March 23, she was moved to post: "Sadness envelopes my homeland like never before."
She later paid tribute to the former prime minister at the QQ Music Awards in Shenzhen on March 25.
When she went on stage to receive her special contribution to music award, she said in English:
"I would like to honour the memory of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew in my very small way with this award. Rest in peace, Mr Lee, sir."
She had wondered briefly if it was the right occasion to say this, but she felt strongly enough about it, so she did.
Chan "definitely" wants to work on an album of original material next, but only after her concert tour - she prefers to focus on one thing at a time.
While she comes across as someone who knows what she wants, she is also smart enough not to force things to happen.
She took part in I Am A Singer to reach out to a wide audience, "with no thought of what would happen after that, as even the cleverest person cannot tell you what will happen".
Her decision to participate was like planting a willow branch casually and getting unexpected shade, she muses, reiterating the Chinese saying she had included in a press statement after she was eliminated for the second time on March 20.
In interviews with the media in China, she has crafted the analogy of a farmer who "works according to the seasons, according to what nature gives him".
There is a time to work hard, to sow, to harvest, to rest. The smart farmer goes with the flow.
"It sounds so bochap," using the Hokkien word for lackadaisical, "but it is not a passive going with the flow, it is an active going with the flow. You don't have to insist on anything when it's obviously not the right time. It's not a bad way to live."
This article was first published on the The Straits Times.