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Publication Date : 03-09-2013
China has a karaoke culture, so singing is a way of connecting with locals, an Irish vocalist learns
Music and satire are global languages, and that understanding has inspired the act of Kevin McGeary, a Northern Irish guitarist-vocalist whose satirical Mandarin songs have captivated his host country's attention.
The 29-year-old says karaoke also pushed him toward this unique pastime.
"When people come to China and learn the language, they look for a way of connecting with locals," he says.
"China has a karaoke culture, so singing is one of the most obvious ways in which to do this."
McGeary taught himself Chinese after arriving in the country in 2007. A year later, he found karaoke was a door to the language and culture, when local friends invited him to join them for nights of crooning hits in Hunan province.
The English literature graduate found not only the teaching and journalism jobs that brought him to "the land of opportunity" but also the chance to develop a niche performance series.
Inspired by the Canadian musical comedy trio The Arrogant Worms, McGeary has written more than 20 satirical Chinese songs since 2011.
The guitar chords are simple and the vocals are ordinary. But the lyrics - snarky quips about such social issues as leftover women, migrant workers and nude photo scandals - are eyebrow raising.
In Shekou Romance, businessmen coming to Shenzhen from Taiwan keep sexy mistresses in Shekou while these young women love the men's money and passports. In another song, a migrant worker, who often eats food cooked with gutter oil and is looked down upon by material girls, dreams of becoming a boss and a playboy with a harem of mistresses.
"The extreme things in the songs are said for comic effect," McGeary says.
He actually has a moderate outlook, which is reflected in the opinion pieces he writes for the Shenzhen Daily newspaper and the Pearl River Delta community website thenanfang.com.
"People nowadays have some ridiculous stereotypes, and I go straightforward with these silly ideas to make my songs funny," he says.
Jennie Li, a 29-year-old PhD candidate in Hong Kong who McGeary says is his first self-proclaimed fan, applauds his humour and clever parodies of social phenomena and cultural mentalities.
Some find his songs offensive and post "mindless spite" online, calling him a "talentless hack" and "shameless self-promoter".
"Some dislike McGeary's songs because he sings their hidden thoughts out loud," Li says.
"Some are not used to such straightforward expressions. After all, critical songs about reality are rare in China.
"McGeary stands out among the growing group of foreigners singing Chinese songs. Many just play covers, while he sings original pieces with thought-provoking insights about Chinese society."
McGeary is one of a growing contingent of foreign musicians taking their acts to talent shows and online.
He's not as well known as people like Liberian Uwechue Emmanuel, better known as Hao Ge, who gave up his engineering job in 1996 to become a singer. Hao Ge finally realised the dream in 2006 when he won second place at China Central TV's singing competition Avenue of Stars. American Martin Papp ranked in the top 30 on Hunan Satellite TV's popular talent show Super Boy in 2010.
American Aventurina King, better known as Jin Xiaoyu, is a singer and TV anchor whose performances on Jiangsu Satellite TV's popular Stars in Danger this year won her 120,000 fans on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like micro blog service.
McGeary's most popular video on Youku.com, one of China's biggest video websites, has gotten about 700 clicks in the past three months.
Raising his voice
He performs on Shenzhen's streets and in bars, and doesn't plan to enter talent shows.
"I don't intend to take part in a TV talent competition because it is just a hobby to write and sing songs," he says.
"Hobbies are supposed to be fun. I don't expect to make money from it. My Chinese dream is boring: I want to buy a house and start a family, like any other ordinary man dreams of. I can definitely relate to the pressure of being a slave of houses and cars on Chinese people's shoulders."
McGeary's friends and reporting job provide his inspiration.
"I've seen a lot of potential for writing silly funny songs from the quirky news stories in the media's spotlight," he says.
"Take the kid who poops on the subway as an example. It's one of the world's most advanced transport technologies coupled with the most base behaviour."
Although his fans describe his songs as thought-provoking social commentary, McGeary says he doesn't have any romantic notions his songs will make the world better.
"I do comical music just to make people laugh," he says.
"I didn't expect people to regard my songs as social commentary works. Whether laughter or thoughts, I'm happy that my songs can arouse listeners without being as dull as the background music in shopping malls.
"I suppose the fact that people like me, who are foreigners who speak Chinese and can express an opinion about China, can exist shows that freedom and prosperity are increasing in China and the same cannot be said of a lot of Western countries."