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Strengthening ties through music
STUCK in traffic in Beijing, Singaporean singer-songwriter Tanya Chua is mulling over a sweet business idea.
Chauffeured to yet another radio interview, the popular Mando-pop singer - and this year's Business China Young Achiever - tells you over her cellphone about her passion for baking and French pastry: "I see an opportunity for this in China, especially in Beijing. I've been asking around, asking people to recommend a good pastry shop for dessert, and they say there isn't very much right now. I think it's a cultural thing, where people from the north are not very into sweet stuff. But I think it will change somehow in the next few years."
What started as a hobby to combat the ennui of writers' block - "I would start baking instead of writing songs. . . I'm obsessed with pastry dough and how to get the perfect pie crust," she reveals - has become something of a serious pursuit for Chua. Next year, she takes off to Paris for a three-month baking course.
Ask her if we might soon see a chain of "Tanya bakeries" around the world, and she says: "I hope so. I've been talking about this with my friends."
"But maybe the timing is not right," she adds. "With everything I do, I have to be super ready for it."
Right now, she is concentrating on what she does best: making and promoting her music. As the winner of the Business China Young Achiever award, for contributing to Sino-Singapore relations with her high profile in the Chinese pop music scene, she has been promoting her latest Mandarin album Aphasia in China.
"It's a huge revolution trying to find a new sound, and trying something that's outside of my comfort zone," she says. Infused with an electronica vibe, the album comprises 10 tracks written by Chua, with lyrics by Singapore's Xiaohan.
Chua, who is based in Taipei, also collaborated with musicians and crew from the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Japan.
"When I hit 40, I asked myself: what is important to you, what makes you happy? What is your body trying to say to you, what does your mind think? It's so much more than what the outside world is trying to say to you," she says.
"You're trying to find your own integrity, your own stand in the world. It's accepting yourself, your flaws, your energy."
"At this point in time, I must stimulate my creativity. If I don't, as a musician, I will just die. I will let the music industry take over me and dictate who I am," she adds.
Interestingly enough, her new album is named after a speech and language disorder caused by brain damage. In Chinese, this translates as "shi yu zhe" - literally, "a person who has lost language".
The way Chua speaks about trying to fit into China as a Singaporean echoes that condition, albeit temporarily. "I didn't fit in, it was scary," she says, of initially venturing there. "You have to know this language and know what it's about - but it was not part of me when I first started. They spoke really fast, and with an accent - and you feel like you have to respond very fast."
"The first few years, I was just very scared. I lived in fear of expressing myself," adds Chua, an alumnus of St Nicholas Girls' School. "At the same time, because you're there, it gets into your system. You start understanding what they're saying."
The turning point came when she became a judge on a TV singer-songwriter contest, Sing My Song, on China's national broadcaster CCTV last year. Having to give feedback to the contestants on the spot was challenging, she recalls. "Right there, right then, you had to respond and tell them what this song means to you," she says.
"It took many, many episodes of recording before I got comfortable with just letting things happen and not be taken back by all these people who are speaking so eloquently, and not be intimidated by them and stay focused on what I am able to say. It really helped in being confident. All these words start to flow into you because you just stopped fearing."
Can she do a Beijing accent? "Na jiu bu shi juan she'er ma?" she replies smoothly, demonstrating the way Beijing natives curl their tongues around their words in Mandarin.
Such is her appeal that she has already made inroads into mainland China. Recently, she drove up a mountain called Xian Nu Shan (literally "fairy mountain") and found fans there. "There was this huge community of people there and they knew my songs," she says, with a laugh.
Ask how she will continue to help to strengthen ties between Singapore and China, the star replies that she does not see herself as a diplomat: "As a human being, wherever we go, we try to strengthen bonds with the world. The government is doing a great job of strengthening ties with China.
"I try to strengthen the ties with my music."