Inside China's Star-Making Machine
On the day of her American debut as a pop singer, Ruhan Jia, 29, lithe, long-haired, and well-mannered, turned off the air conditioning in her modest Manhattan hotel room to protect her voice and tried to relax. She ordered some sushi. She did some stretching. Other than that, she was quiet.
Jia, a soprano trained in the Chinese and Western operatic traditions, recorded her first album, Time to Grow, last year. It’s a crossover, multinational effort that combines pop and classical as well as Chinese and Western sensibilities, and is sung mostly in Mandarin. Many listeners might hear in it something like a Chinese version of Sarah Brightman, the soprano who starred in The Phantom of the Opera and went on to an eclectic recording career. Time to Grow was produced in Sweden and mixed by Bernard Löhr, who has worked with Céline Dion and Il Divo. A British record company is distributing it. Jia’s manager is a woman from Taiwan who has lived in the U.S. and Europe for years. Jia’s recording contract is with the biggest music company in China. And her entire career has the backing of the Chinese government, which desperately wants an officially approved artist to gain the kind of worldwide attention its dissidents usually get. Time to Grow is the first release from China’s optimistically named Earth’s Music project, which is part of the government’s five-year national economic development plan.
The Ran Tea House in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, land of skinny jeans and chunky glasses, is a popular place for musicians from China to perform. Most, though, don’t arrive on a state-sponsored tour. Inside is a poster of Jia’s album cover, which features her bathed in sunlight, head tilted toward the heavens. She’s the very picture of innocence. She could also be advertising hair conditioner. Next to her poster is one for the documentary Never Sorry about Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. The stage is small, the chairs wicker, the ficus trees slightly dusty. The sole member of Jia’s road crew warns her not to step down from the stage with the microphone in her hand.
During the hour-long sound check, Jia wears a long gray cotton dress, a ripped white T-shirt, and pink high-tops. At 6:30 she goes into the storage room to change and emerges in a floor-length red strapless gown with sequins, her face fully made up, her hair neatly pulled back in a bun. It’s raining, and only about two dozen people greet Jia when she takes the stage.
The project to make Ruhan Jia famous is one of the more interesting displays of China’s ambitions and resentments, and it’s every bit as quixotic as it seems. The effort is part of a broader campaign to improve the image of China so its rise seems less threatening and its cultural exports more appealing. Jia has a soaring, powerful voice, and she’s received some critical acclaim for her bel canto performances. She’s poised, eager to please, hardworking, a real professional. But success will likely come only if Jia gets extremely lucky.
“I grew up in something like a work camp. My parents pushed me very hard,” Jia says a few days before her performance. “All I did was go to school and study music. I didn’t listen to pop music or anything else besides classical Chinese and Western music. My parents wouldn’t let me.”
Jia, who also studied ballet, sits with her hands in her lap, straight-backed and demure. She’s in an SUV that’s headed to Norwalk, Conn., where her manager, Jean Hsiao Wernheim, and the head of her label, Bill Zang, will listen to an American band that wants to tour China with their backing. In the 1980s, before she got involved in the music business, Wernheim marketed products from Wisconsin, where she lived, to Asia. She’s casually dressed and quick to laugh. She sometimes has to hold herself back from speaking for Jia, while she translates for Zang, whom she’s known for more than a decade. Zang, too, is energetic and loose and often seems about to break into song.
When she was 14, Jia left her parents’ home in Shijiazhuang, in Hebei province, to attend the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the preeminent music school in the country. She wasn’t exactly encouraged to explore other musical traditions. Nor did she date or stay out late or misbehave or do anything that would distract her from her studies. After she graduated in 2006 with a degree in operatic singing, her parents wanted her to become a music professor, not a performer. They thought that was safer. “But the stage is my real life,” says Jia.
Jia’s first break came quickly. She won a part in Monkey: Journey to the West, an opera based on a popular allegory from the Tang dynasty. The director and cast, mostly acrobats, were Chinese; the music was composed by Damon Albarn, the front man for the British group Blur. Monkey, sung in Mandarin, premiered in Manchester in June 2007 and went on to Paris and London that fall. Much of the time Jia was on stage, she was actually suspended above it, singing in a harness. “Damon was so relaxed, and I was so serious,” she says. The Guardian called the production “a high-octane, 90-minute rock ’n’ roll circus.” The next year, Jia recorded the BBC theme song for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, which Albarn composed.
In 2009 a young American composer, Christopher Tin, was close to completing an album, Calling All Dawns, drawn from sacred and secular texts around the world. He watched some YouTube clips of Monkey and decided Jia was the Chinese woman he wanted to sing Dao Zai Fan Ye (or The Path Is in Returning). “I got the sense that she was talented and dedicated and willing to try out new things,” he says. “I needed someone open-minded.”
The album went on to win Grammy Awards for best classical crossover album (classical musicians performing more popular works) and best instrumental arrangement accompanying vocalists. Tin took Jia, dressed in a form-fitting blue gown designed by Nicole Miller, to the award ceremony in Los Angeles.
It was this album that brought Jia to Zang’s attention. As vice president of Shanghai Synergy Culture & Entertainment Group, a subsidiary of state-owned Shanghai Media & Entertainment Group, one of his tasks is to makea global star. “The government definitely wants to be No. 1 in everything,” says Zang from the front seat of the SUV on the drive to Norwalk. “But to find artists who fit in, who speak English, know how to socialize, there’s not too many to choose from. Then we heard Ruhan’s song on Christopher Tin’s album, and it was very spiritual, very beautiful. It was Western and Chinese. We hadn’t heard this kind of singing before.”
Zang is a commanding figure in China’s music industry. He set up a joint venture with Sony in the 1990s and then served for seven years as the China president of Rock Records, Taiwan’s leading pop music label. He joined Shanghai Synergy in 2007 and brought on Wernheim as international chief executive. He also hired her business partner, Ed Yen, the former head of the music bureau for Taiwan’s Government Information Office. Together they started searching for a Chinese musician who could reach an international audience.
That same year, Chinese President Hu Jintao made a major speech about the importance of promoting Chinese culture at home and abroad. “Culture has become a more and more important source of national cohesion and creativity and a factor of growing significance in the competition in overall national strength,” Hu said at the Communist Party Congress in 2007.
The concept of soft power was popularized in the late 1980s by Harvard professor Joseph Nye. Today, as China confronts Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea and squabbles with other countries over uninhabited islands in the South China Sea, Nye says Beijing is especially aware of the need to win friends. “How do you prevent your neighbors from forming coalitions against you?” he says. “By appearing to be a popular culture and an attractive place.” In February, shortly before Communist Party official Bo Xilai was ousted from power amid accusations his wife murdered a British businessman, the Ministry of Culture made an announcement. It would double the size of China’s culture industry by 2015, to about $140 billion, with an annual growth rate of 20 percent.
Foreign companies see opportunities in China’s cultural campaign. Walt Disney, DreamWorks Animation SKG, James Cameron, and others are investing in the Chinese film industry. New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts last year signed a deal with the city of Tianjin to advise it on cultural projects. The Nederlanders, owners of the second-largest chain of Broadway theaters, hope to help Chinese performers come to the U.S. “We believe there is a commercial market here on Broadway for great Chinese entertainment,” says Robert Nederlander Jr., president of Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment. “Every Chinese producer I talk to wants to come to Broadway.”
A successful pop singer, though, could be a more productive cultural export than a Broadway show. Nye points to the way American and British pop music helped increase the appeal of the West during the Cold War. But there’s only so much even the best hook writers and producers can do to make Jia’s government seem attractive. The results of China’s efforts to charm the West are “pretty dismal at this point in time,” says Johan Lagerkvist, senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Headlines about the persecution of Ai Weiwei and imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo easily overshadow the good works of Jia and other Chinese cultural ambassadors—or for that matter the reporting of China’s own news agency, Xinhua, which is expanding around the world, too. Lagerkvist often speaks with Chinese academics about the progress—or lack thereof—of Hu’s soft-power offensive. “They ask me, how can we do better? What are we doing wrong?” he says. “I tell them, you have a major drawback: Your country is not democratic. That’s really a problem when you try to launch a soft-power campaign because so many people doubt China and are very suspicious of Chinese motives.”
That’s one reason China lags behind much smaller countries such as South Korea as a cultural force, says Ting Wai, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who studies Chinese soft power. “Why? Because of freedom. China is at a disadvantage, and everyone understands why. Because of lack of liberty. Creative people, even if they think of many fresh new ideas, need to self-censor. And if you have to self-censor, then the product you produce will not be the best.”
Even those working the hardest to promote Jia concede the odds are against her. “She has a lot of pressure,” says Yen, Wernheim’s partner. “She is definitely not the best [singer], but she is the first one to have the priority, because this is the policy of the country.” While government-backed companies “will use their power and resources to push the artists,” he says, ultimately it’s the audiences that have the power. “She has got some chance, but this is a culture thing,” he says. “It needs time.” Yen and Wernheim are also encouraging Jia to become more assertive and confident, to act as if she’s already a star. “We ask her to be like Barbra Streisand,” Yen says.
Jia first heard from Zang in the fall of 2010, when she was studying for a master’s degree in music at Stony Brook University in New York. Zang asked her to meet him in Shanghai; they went to a concert by Dadawa, the last Chinese singer to try, without much success, to penetrate the Western market. “I thought Ruhan had everything: talent and looks and the personality we can work with. I thought this one is right,” says Zang. “We were all speaking the same language about how a Chinese artist should be on the world stage. We wanted East meets West in a creative way.”
When Calling All Dawns was nominated for two Grammys a few months later, Zang decided to speed up the contract negotiations with Jia. That December, Shanghai Synergy’s music park opened. It’s a small group of low-rise red brick buildings in a quiet section of the city, designed as a hub for China’s recording industry. (A bigger part of the project is Dream Center, an entertainment district to be developed by Shanghai Media and DreamWorks Animation.) Zang invited Jia to perform at the music park before officials from the city and the national agency in charge of the music industry. “They approved of our plan for her,” he says. Then Jia returned to the U.S., and Calling All Dawns won its Grammys in February. Just days later, Zang and Jia signed a recording contract. Jia dropped out of Stony Brook and returned to Shanghai, where she now lives.
Zang arranged for Jia to have her own studio in the music park. “It’s my quiet place,” says Jia. In it are boxes of CDs Zang and Wernheim provided for her to study. Queen, Kiss, Eminem, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson: all the music Jia could never listen to growing up. “This is my homework—catching up,” she says. “We want her to absorb all this different music and come up with something of her own,” Zang says. “We are trying to create something new, to mold a different thing.”
Zang and Wernheim wanted Jia to first record a crossover classical album of her own; the melodies would be Western, the interpretation Chinese. Wernheim, who lives in Stockholm, brought in the songwriters and producers and asked them to “find some great melodies that would fit Ruhan.”
Jia began to rehearse in Shanghai and found the lightest of the pop songs on the album, Dancing on a Rainbow, particularly difficult to master. Classical singing requires articulation and projection. It has taken practice to sound more like someone you could dance to. “It’s the opposite of how she was trained. All the muscles are different. She has to smile when she sings,” says Wernheim. “She had to learn to sing with a microphone, too.”
Wernheim sent the finished recording to an acquaintance in London, Keith Ferreira, who runs Silva Screen Records, a label that specializes in film scores. “I was smitten by her voice,” he says. Ferreira made a deal with Wernheim and Zang to distribute the album in Europe and the U.S. before he ever met Jia. “Luckily she’s attractive and sweet, too,” he says. “And I know she has an iron will.” Still, Ferreira says, “She needs her own identity. She needs one person to guide her. I’d love to have some say in that. I don’t want too many surprises.” He’s peripherally aware that his interests coincide with those of an authoritarian regime. “They want to influence us as much as we want to influence them,” he says. “That seems fair.”
Ferreira advertised the album on the Nasdaq billboard in Times Square in November 2011. “It was the first time a Chinese artist was really promoted to the mainstream market,” says Zang. Ferreira hasn’t been able to get Time to Grow much radio time, though. Stations that specialize in Jia’s kind of music are less common than they were back when Céline Dion was at her peak. Radio play may not be as important when a site such as Pandora has 55 million active users, but “to be the star she deserves to be, she has to be on the radio,” says Ferreira.
In early 2012, a few months after her album was released, Jia sang in Cannes at Midem, the music industry’s annual trade show and conference. That appearance led to an invitation to sing at a United Nations environmental conference in Bangkok in the spring. Then Interpol (the international police agency, not the band) brought her to South Africa to perform at a conference about drug counterfeiting. She became one of the group’s goodwill ambassadors, too. “That got the attention of top officials in Shanghai,” says Zang. “They had a press conference for her and said, ‘Go out but adapt.’ They want us to blend in but still be very Chinese.”
The trip to South Africa, in particular, was a revelation for Jia. “Everyone was just singing, they were so relaxed, and no one had any training, no one could read music,” she says. “For me, this is my job, and I’m very serious about it. I don’t sing without warming up properly.” Jia didn’t join Zang when he gave an impromptu rendition of a Mongolian folk song. She didn’t go onstage during the Norwalk band’s performance. She doesn’t do karaoke, either.
Jia begins her performance at the Ran Tea House accompanied by the faint barking of the owner’s dog in the background. “This album is about my life, this is my true story,” she says. “It’s time to grow up.” She sings the title song, as well as Dancing on a Rainbow, a traditional Tibetan piece, and a few others to great applause. Wernheim is filming the show for YouTube; someone else is taking pictures for Jia’s Facebook page, which she cannot check when she is in China because of state controls. (Twitter isn’t permitted in China either, but on Weibo, a similar service, Jia has 450,000 followers.) A Chinese-language TV channel has come to the teahouse, too. Jia looks relaxed for the first time in days.
Afterward she signs a few autographs, happily poses for photos, and talks with some of the young Chinese women in the audience. “It’s good to hear Chinese music in Williamsburg,” says Patricia Po Hu, a student from China studying at Fordham University. When Jia returns to the storage room to change, Hu adds: “But it’s tough to make it here. Maybe only people who are interested in Chinese music would like this.”
As the teahouse quiets down, Jia sits with Zang and Wernheim to review her performance. “After each show, I ask Bill and Jean how I did,” she says. “Bill doesn’t tell me what to do differently. That’s my job.” Zang is encouraging. It was better than her last show, he says, which was at a festival in Moscow. “Being in New York has been good for her, it gives her more confidence.” Jia thinks so, too. “Singing in English I feel more open and powerful. Chinese is so soft,” she says. Her hopes for her next performance and the ones after that are simple: “I hope for a big stage, for good lights, lots of people. I want a bigger stage.”
This summer, Jia began recording a second album, this time in Paris. Meanwhile, Time to Grow has sold a little more than a thousand copies.