Quotes of the Day

Monday, Oct. 28, 2002

Open quoteAscendant pop star Tricia Chen is questioning her choice of a career as she stands in five centimeters of water surrounded by eight professional dancers and a Stonehenge-like grouping of Styrofoam pillars. It is 10 p.m., and she, along with 35 crew members, cameramen, dancers and friends, is in a cavernous Hong Kong studio shooting her second music video of the day. The session soured three hours earlier when her manager introduced her to a local journalist by calling her "fat. I keep telling her to lose weight." Now, with her self-esteem riding lower than her leather pants, everything Chen has been dreading for the past five days is coming true. She cannot remember all the moves to the dance that accompanies her fast R. and B. track Future Tense. While the chorus "I wanna be new/ I wanna be new/ I wanna be so brand new" plays in the background as if her subconscious were speaking out loud, she tries concentrating on her choreographer's last-minute instructions. She is tired, self-conscious and more than a little freaked out.

But this, after all, is the life she bargained for. Two and a half years ago, Chen was a newly minted college grad just entering the working-stiff world as a credit analyst in the Hong Kong branch of a foreign bank. That was before she decided that her brother, teen idol Edison Chen, was having way more fun than she was. Meetings were held, a contract was signed?and Chen popped out of the Hong Kong star-making microwave like a sugar-coated pineapple bun. Her first single, Future Tense, was released to local radio stations last month, and her debut album, a self-titled Canto-pop affair overlaid with R. and B. beats, will come out in early November. She has signed a deal to be in a movie directed by award-winner Chen Kaige (Together, Farewell My Concubine). She has made a handful of TV appearances, been invited to attend numerous public events, and given two live performances. Two websites are devoted exclusively to her.

North Korea: The Dying State
 Northern Exposure
November 4, 2002 Issue

 Pakistan: The Long Way Home
 Japan: Last Stand
 Bali: Rubble Trouble
 Viewpoint: The U.S. and China

 Entertainment: Tricia Chen
 Vietnam: Under the Wheels

 Philippines: The Wrong Guys?
 Japan: Character Asassination
 Person of the Week

 Trincomalee: Where Tourists Feared to Tread

CNN.com: Top Headlines
But the purchase of instant fame requires a down payment. At 25, Chen is being baptized in the ritual of self-abnegation characteristic of Hong Kong's popular-entertainment industry, in which stars are not so much born as synthesized. "In Hong Kong, you're lucky to find one (artist) who can really compose and play," says Conrad Wong, an award-winning music producer who worked on five of Chen's songs. "They're usually made up. Talent scouts just pick kids up from modeling agencies or have talent searches at local karaoke bars, then companies select what they want, male or female." So it is with Chen. Even as she struggles to learn how to sing, dance, act and sell hair conditioner, her handlers are pounding her image into a shape matching the smooth, round hole of commerce. "I look at the market," Chen says, "and I ask, 'how can I differentiate myself to stand out?'"

Sorry, Tricia, that isn't necessarily your call. Fans along the Pearl River Delta are notoriously rigid?they want idols they can simultaneously worship and relate to. This limits individuality and restricts creative latitude. Besides, Chen is already dragging baggage. Some fans accuse her of riding her brother's coattails. Others snipe that, at 167 centimeters and 48 kilograms, she is overweight for a Canto artist. She combats the negative buzz by watching what she eats?"Apples are good," she says?and by trying to stop her brother from hyping her songs when he is making public appearances. More than anything, she remembers the deal she made when she decided to become adored by the public. "I think of myself as a product," she says.

Unlike the I'd-kill-to-be-famous contestants on reality-TV shows such as American Idol or Popstars, Chen didn't aspire to be a product when she was growing up. Up until June 26, when she formally announced that she was going into show business, her only stage experience had been in an elementary-school musical. But she had been exposed to glamour in other ways. Although she grew up in Vancouver, her father, business tycoon Edward Chen, took her to star-studded parties and exclusive backstage events whenever she visited Hong Kong. Later, Chen watched Edison launch his career armed with little more than some hip-hop Canto-pop tunes and a lust-inducing smile. Although she had blossomed attractively herself, Chen remained a bystander, attending university in Canada, earning a bachelor's degree in commerce and business administration. She accepted a job as a credit analyst at BNP Paribas in Hong Kong after graduation.

But the siren call became too tempting, especially after an offhand-yet-impeccably-timed remark made last spring. She and Edison were lounging around the spacious apartment they share in Hong Kong's Mid-Levels when Chen observed that her brother's life looked "kinda fun." During a radio interview the next day, Edison was asked if either of his two sisters (eldest sister Olivia is a marketing manager in Hong Kong) wanted to be artists. He responded that Tricia did, and the media spread the news. Paparazzi started chasing her. Not long after, Albert Yeung, chairman of Emperor Entertainment Group (EEG) and arguably the most powerful man in Hong Kong's entertainment scene, offered Chen a recording and management contract while the two chatted backstage at one of Edison's concerts. Yeung is a longtime friend of Chen's dad and owns Music Plus, Edison's record label.

Ignoring warnings from her brother about the demands placed on pop stars, Chen says she started taking singing and dancing classes to "see what it would be like." In February, she quit her job after going into contract negotiations with EEG. "I was already doing photo shoots for magazines, so I thought, 'Why not?' I didn't want to look back at 65 and wonder 'what if?'" Ultimately, Chen opted to sign not with EEG but with Century Elements, the new artist-management and recording subsidiary of China International Trust & Investment Corp. (CITIC). The deal was championed by Li Bolun, chairman of the company and another of Chen's father's friends.

Century Elements tapped Chen, who grew up speaking English and is one-eighth Portuguese, because she cuts an international figure, says company vice president Vienna Wood. Corporate sponsors prefer their hired mouthpieces to be as cosmopolitan as they are recognizable. Besides, the Hong Kong market is small and getting smaller; CD sales have plunged by nearly 60% since 1996 to $96.6 million last year. Inevitably, mainland China is seen by entertainment companies as increasingly important, so record companies want artists with cross-cultural appeal. It's no accident that Chen's contract-signing was announced?with great fanfare and at great expense?not in Hong Kong but in Beijing at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, the exclusive government compound that houses visiting dignitaries and where China's leaders issue directives from red, doily-covered armchairs. Katy Tsim, a marketing manager at Century Elements, says signing international brands, including Hugo Boss and a Korean cosmetic company, to back Chen's debut album has been a snap: "People know CITIC, and they also know Tricia because of Edison and her father. Sponsors think that CITIC will put a lot of effort and money into promoting their new artist. So the noise will be bigger if they do a joint promotion with us."

Whether Chen's star continues to rise remains to be seen. Gary Chan, president of EMI Group Hong Kong, warns that the sibling connection, although it initially helped her win backers, may not be beneficial in the long run. Pointing to one of his own stars?Victor Chen, the younger brother of Canto queen Kelly Chen?Chan notes that "people always say Victor is 'the brother of Kelly.' He doesn't have his own character aside from that, and that's very limiting." But others think Chen has enough presence to disengage her image from her brother. "Tricia always captured attention," explains a friend, Martin Lee, a Hong Kong banker. "We'd go to clubs and just be sitting at a table and someone would pass her a napkin that said 'would you marry me?' on it."

Chen, however, frets that her image doesn't yet reach the high standard set for public figures. She hesitates to join hip-hop classes at the gym now, admitting that "it'd be embarrassing to go in and be the worst person in the class, especially when people expect me to be good." Success hasn't gone to her head. Hanging out with Chen is like spending time with an unprepossessing college girl, one with the usual enthusiasm for gossip, shopping, boys and boogie. "Even though I studied hard and took on summer internships, people always thought I was a party girl," Chen says. Partying is no longer an avocation. What little spare time she has is spent playing with her miniature schnauzer, Tenshi, and talking with her brother, the family member she says she is closest to.

Sipping a virgin piNa colada while sitting in the off-white pleather booths of a small Hong Kong wine bar with a few friends, Chen converses on topics ranging from designer Paul Frank's latest clothing line to rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg. She isn't apologetic about her absence of developed talent or the free pass she has received. "Connections. Timing. Luck. That's all this industry is," she says. At this stage of her career she approaches her job as she would a business venture. She attends weekly strategy sessions at Century Elements and continually suggests ways to increase her exposure. She studies the performances of competitors, such as newcomers Yumiko Cheng and Jade Kwan, to see where she needs to improve. Chen's image has gone through multiple incarnations since June and now features outrageous clothes and exotic hairstyles: "I couldn't go into the industry just being me."

Ultimately, she says, she'd like to become an accomplished musician and dancer. She has strong opinions on the direction she wants her act to go. Chen thinks there is room on the music charts for a Chinese girl who dances and sings R. and B.?a Canto version of Jennifer Lopez. Making the move, however, risks swerving into "too foreign" territory. Her choreographer Sunny Chan says he has to adjust her onstage moves according to local tastes. "Tricia has to have a little Hong Kong style," he says, "or else she won't be accepted." Her managers are equally conservative. "We will still consider the Hong Kong market and how the industry works here," says vice president Wood.

At her latest live performance, for local radio station Metro Broadcasting's birthday-celebration concert, Chen had to follow several other new stars. Hers was a slick presentation: eight dancers and a newly red-haired Chen wearing an elaborate black dress over jeans. Her song stood out for its syncopated beat, as opposed to other Canto-pop tunes, which rely on a simple 4/4 rhythm. She nailed her moves and lip-synched in time. But she did not look happy. Sitting on a folding chair backstage in the changing room, Chen pulls out her digital video camera, rewinds to her first performance two weeks earlier and tilts the view finder so an observer can see. "I look more free here," she says as her image wiggles across the tiny screen. "I told myself before I went on that I could do this, and went out to have a good time." She fast-forwards to tonight's gig and frowns. "My performance tonight needed more power."

But if Chen feels frustrated, she can't say she wasn't warned. Edison says he tried to talk her out of entering the business. "I'm happy that she can do what she wants to do," he explains, "and that her dream will hopefully come true. But the unhappy part is that I go through 20-hour-a-day work periods, and I do not wish to see my sister do that. Who wants to see their loved ones going through so much pain?" Two days later Chen says over the phone that she thinks she performs better when she is just being herself. "I need to be comfortable onstage. I don't want to be shifting around in something I don't like," she says. Chen will have to get used to it. Being herself is not in her contract.Close quote

  • Kate Drake/Hong Kong
  • Tricia Chen is going to be a Canto-pop idol?which means she won't be herself anymore
| Source: Tricia Chen thought fame might be fun. She's finding it's all Business