Foreign accent comes to Chinese reality shows

Xu Wei
More foreigners are becoming involved in Chinese reality TV shows. They have either displayed their talent on stage or shared their expertise and experience with local producers.
Xu Wei
Foreign accent comes to Chinese reality shows
Ti Gong

Arash Estilaf hopes to become one of the most well-known Iranian people in China and to promote friendly relations between China and Iran.

More and more foreigners are becoming involved in Chinese reality TV shows. They have either displayed their talent and versatility on stage or shared their expertise and experience with local TV producers behind the scenes.

Compared with many Chinese contestants who seek quick fame and a shortcut to success, expats are considered less utilitarian.

"We feel that most foreign people participated in the challenges mostly for fun," says Alex Huang, an IT worker and reality TV show fan. "Even though they lose, they don't seem to care much about it. They totally enjoy the process and want to show their confidence and happiness on stage."

Lu Wei, a spokesman for Star China, says foreign contestants could be found as early as 2006, when the star-making show "My Hero" was aired in Shanghai.

When Star China presented the first season of "China's Got Talent" in 2010, foreign veterans were widely involved, bringing new concepts in TV production to China.

Over the years, Lu has witnessed a growing number of foreigners participating in Chinese reality competition series.

"Most of the foreign contestants have an emotional bond with China," he says. "Some married a Chinese and some have lived in China for quite a long time. The stunts they performed on stage were familiar to Chinese people and had a universal appeal."

Chinese contestants, in Lu's opinion, may have very solid basic skills but their acts were not as creative as those of foreigners, especially in dance choreography, music and stage effect.

He cites a small example during a shooting of "China's Got Talent" in which the foreign colleagues suggested that camera tripods be covered with black cloth to avoid the metallic surface reflections.

"We were very impressed by their professionalism and attention to detail," Lu adds. "It later became a rule strictly followed by the cameraman."

Residents from Canada, Iran and the United States are now involved in three currently popular Chinese reality shows "Super Diva," "Comedy Star" and the second season of the Chinese version of "So You Think You Can Dance," also known as "Dance of China."

They share with Shanghai Daily what they think of the reality TV industry in China, their experience on or behind the stage and their affinity with China, as well.

Foreign accent comes to Chinese reality shows
Ti Gong

Canadian Ember Swift performs at "Super Diva."

Ember Swift

The 39-year-old Canadian has spent the past few years making her home base in Beijing. She has released 11 albums since 1996 and continues to have a loyal fan base around the world.

Swift has a beautiful Chinese name, Guo Ziyu, given by her Chinese husband, and implies her fondness for jade ("yu" in Chinese) and the depth and richness of Chinese culture.

A mother of two children, Swift has impressed audiences with her fluent guitar playing and funny original song in "Super Diva," which airs every Saturday on Dragon TV and displays mothers' performance skills and optimistic attitude toward life.

The rock song Swift performed on the show is called "I Am Not Just A Foreigner." She sang in Chinese that "I am not just a foreigner. I am not that strange. I am just a person. I am not an animal in the zoo. You can't just take my picture unless you pay me first. Each shot 100 yuan."

She has also creatively blended Chinese instruments like "erhu" into Western music.

"Many Chinese people misunderstand foreigners, as well, thinking that foreigners are all the same, when that is truly not the case," Swift says.

"There's almost misunderstanding on the part of foreigners who are sometimes offended by curious Chinese people who take their pictures or point out 'laowai' loudly on the street," she adds. "I understand that this is just exuberance, but I wrote that song so that both parties could better understand each other. The lyrics are the perspective of the foreigners and the rap is that of Chinese people."

This spring Swift decided to take part in the show shortly after the birth of her second child. She thought it might be fun to try something new, and she had never participated in this kind of show.

"I hoped that by being part of the show, I could inspire more mutual understanding between foreigners and Chinese nationals, as well as inspire other foreigners to build family ties here," she says. "I must admit that I was also quite happy to be able to perform my own song on the show, as this is helpful for promoting my music career in China."

Swift admits her greatest weakness is her language skills. She still needs to work on Chinese. Her strengths lie in her musical ability and years of being a professional musician and singer.

She says she would love to showcase more of her jazz vocal background because she is not just a rock artist.

When it comes to the differences between foreign and Chinese reality shows, she notes that the competitive feature is very obvious in overseas shows whereas this "Super Diva" show seems more about showcasing stories than having contestants compete against each other.

"I prefer that!" she is quick to add. "I don't enjoy competitions because I think that art is subjective and very difficult to compare in any genre. I think a nice balance between talent and personal story is important."

Swift also shares her tips on being a mother: "Be yourself, be patient, give lots of hugs, but also remember to take time out for yourself because our kids will admire us more for being strong and ambitious than if we sacrifice everything we are for them."

Swift has lived in China since 2008 and says the country is fascinating and has changed her in many ways.

"It has made me a more open-minded person, learning more from the differences in culture here as compared to my home culture," she says. "China has helped teach me to slow down and have a healthier pace of life. I have learned to put family and health first because career and earning money are never more important."

Foreign accent comes to Chinese reality shows
Ti Gong

Arash Estilaf portrays an Indian woman in "Comedy Star."

Arash Estilaf

The 26-year-old Iranian, whose Chinese name is Hua Bo, is the only foreigner who advanced into the semifinal of "Comedy Star," a reality competition series to select talented amateur comedians.

The show is presented on Sundays on Dragon TV. A big challenge for all the contestants is that each time they advance to another round, they will have to present a new original act.

Arash Estilaf is currently a host of "The Funniest Home Video" on International Channel Shanghai and a PhD candidate at the Shanghai Theater Academy, specializing in TV and film programming and directing.

He is fluent in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian, as well as some regional dialects of China. He has hosted light-hearted programs to teach local people English with Shanghai dialect and cooperated with mainland actress Sun Li in the TV drama "Hot Mom!"

The audience burst out laughing when Estilaf presented his hilarious talk show acts on the stage of "Comedy Star." One was about parents from different countries teaching their kids. Another was about Estilaf's "last supper" with his ex-girlfriends from India, South Korea, Shanghai and Taiwan. Again, his strong point is language.

He showed his versatility as he also performed Indian dance and imitated the sweet Taiwan tone of voice to depict the women of varied cultural backgrounds. Videos of his performances have attracted hundreds of thousands of hits on video-sharing websites.

"I am not a native Chinese speaker. I am proud and happy to make so many Chinese people laugh. It gave me a sense of fulfillment," he says.

Estilaf says inspiration comes from life – his own romantic experiences and interesting stories of his friends. He exaggerates the stories to come up with his act. He likes Shanghai stand-up comedian Zhou Libo and has watched almost all the videos of his performances.

Compared with Chinese contestants, Estilaf thinks his strength lies in his rich life experience and strong improvisational skills.

"When I was a child, I found my pen was made in China; When I was a high school student, I found the TV set at my home was made in China," he says. "I didn't expect that one day I would come to China, make friends with Chinese people and make them happy. I really enjoyed my time on stage."

Before "Comedy Star," Estilaf participated in a local competition of TV hosts. He says China has no lack of good entertainers, TV hosts and media platforms, but it still requires creative and outstanding TV producers.

"Star-making reality competition shows should be presented with more honesty," he adds. "I think the voting mechanism should also include more people to make the results more convincing."

Estilaf has lived in Shanghai for nine years. He hopes to become one of the most well-known Iranian people in China and to promote friendly relations between China and Iran.

"I was an introvert during my childhood, and China has changed me," he says. "China is an amazing country, as you will always get new discoveries of its charm from different perspectives."

Foreign accent comes to Chinese reality shows
Ti Gong

Elisa Montalvo (front) instructs participants for "So You Think You Can Dance."

Elisa Montalvo

The 25-year-old Chicago native has served as choreographer for China's first two seasons of "So You Think You Can Dance."

She has showcased her expertise in training and choreography for varied contemporary styles of dance such as ballet, jazz, tap and hip-hop.

Her work for the current second season of the dancing reality show involves creating choreography for the contestants at all stages in the competition. She is also expected to dance alongside the finalists in the show.

Montalvo says she enjoys being able to share some styles of dance that are not currently well known in China, such as Broadway jazz.

"Choreographing the Broadway jazz opening number for Jin Xing's team was great fun as the first steps I taught them included a loud 'Hey' and a 'psheeew' (laser beam sound effect)," she says.

"It was wonderful because all the dancers would finish the choreography laughing and smiling, as it is quite a funny experience to be a part of 23 adults making laser beam sounds in unison. Laughter broke down a nervous barrier. Once smiling, the dancers were quite receptive to the foreign style and excited to learn more," she recalls.

Montalvo has also shared with contestants her expertise and rich experience on stage. The talented dancer used to perform with Beyonce for Oprah's Farewell Spectacular, Jennifer Hudson – "American Idol" winner, and Aubrey O' Day from the popular American girl group Danity Kane.

In 2009, she also performed alongside the Black Eyed Peas at Oprah's 24th Season Kickoff Party, where she was an assistant choreographer whose job was to teach over 21,000 people of all ages to dance together for the largest flash mob in history.

Before the Chinese version of "So You Think You Can Dance," Montalvo had also choreographed pieces for "Dancing with the Stars," and performed in the finale of "China's Got Talent" Season 5.

Based on her own involvement in many reality shows, Montalvo finds that talent and stories of contestants are important both in China and in the United States, and how that occurs simply depends on the program.

"Talent is necessary and what the show is structured around, but a story helps viewers be able to relate to contestants," she adds. "Both are important."

Montalvo has lived in Shanghai for more than a year and a half. She says that living and working in China has taught her to appreciate the history and tradition of the country.

"I have had the chance to learn a little bit of Chinese classical dance as well as some movement from Inner Mongolia," she says.

"I am incredibly inspired by the elegance and power of these dance styles, which is unlike anything I had previously learned. Regardless of where I am next in the world, my choreography will be influenced by these Chinese art forms."

She is currently training and choreographing for contemporary company Jin Xing Dance Theater as well as choreographing an original pop-rock musical, "Lady and the Tiger," which will open in Shanghai this July.

• "Super Diva"

Every Saturday, 9:10pm, Dragon TV

• "Comedy Star"

Every Sunday, 9:15pm, Dragon TV

• "So You Think You Can Dance"

Every Saturday, 9:10pm, Zhejiang Satellite TV

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