Reaching For Fame: Where Talent Takes Us

1014_Cover storyIn the past few years you may have noticed a change in the nightclubs of Dongguan. These days, dancers who look like they have just walked off a Calvin Klein set dance to tracks played  by international DJs, while singers who look like the pop stars from MTV strut around the stage. Who are these people? Where did they come from? HERE! sat down with three of them to find out the answer to these questions and more.

The Singer

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During her first six months, Olga performed shows all over China. Here, she performs a show in Liuzhou, Guangxi.

Olga Filippova floats through the air, high above the audience at MG Club. The club is filled with kaleidoscopic lights and a thumping electronica. Olga’s voice rises above them as she sings songs from the opera.

The Russian begins to fall and as she does her long red hair comes over her face. Some of the audience gasps, but Olga spins from them as the wires attached to her turn her away.

The show represents the two contrasting elements of Olga’s music—opera and pop. The contrast is starker when Olga is asked to name her inspirations. “My idols are Anna Netrebko, she is the queen of opera music, and Beyoncé, she is just so amazing to me.”

The opera in Olga’s life came from growing up in Ufa, a city in a part of Russia where Europe meets Asia. She came from a family of musicians. “My mother is a music teacher and my aunt is a singer. My whole family is musical,” explains Olga.

At age 8, she was sent to a music academy, but Olga found it difficult there. “The standard expected was high and the teachers were strict. I ran away three times before my mother agreed to let me return home.” As Olga got older she embraced music. She spent nine years at college and university learning the bel canto opera style.

The pop in Olga’s life came when she decided to move to China two and a half years ago. In her first six months here, she travelled every three days to a club in a new city. She laughs, “I think I saw all of China in those first six months!”

“I learned to sing so many popular songs and I had to remember a lot of dance routines,” explains Olga.

As well as performing in nightclubs, Olga sung at a lot of corporate events. There is little doubt over which Olga prefers. “If you sing at a club then you work for a whole month with only one day off. Also, it is not always safe to work in the clubs,” she warns before adding, “If you sing at an event then it is only one day of work and you sing as little as two songs. The events are less risky.”

After the first six months, Olga had a bad experience with her company. She had to travel back to Ufa to see her family. While she was there she spoke to a friend, who suggested she come to Dongguan, but this time without a company.

“The agents organize a lot—apartments, visas and flights. Working by myself, however, I was able to control my life, which jobs I took and when I worked,” Olga explains.

Working for herself has proven to be the right decision. After a successful spell singing at MG Club she now focuses on performing at events. She is settled in Dongguan. She concedes, however, that her life is not typical for singers in China.

“For many of us it is impossible to stay in one city for more than a few weeks. This makes it hard to make a community. Sometimes we are reunited in other cities, but it is not the same,” she admits.

Olga grew up studying the classical opera style of bel canto, but these days she sings the pop music of the likes of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.

Olga grew up studying the classical opera style of bel canto, but these days she sings the pop music of the likes of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.

When Olga first arrived in China she remembered how she was treated. “There were posters with our faces everywhere and there were so many people,” she recalls.

“Later I knew that we were stars, but not really stars. Sometimes I would see others performing who looked like they believed they were, but I could smile because I knew that feeling,” she laughs.

“Now there are many of us in China and the Chinese are used to seeing us. Before if we were stars, now we are not,” she says candidly.

Before moving to China, Olga recorded a trance album on a project called KanFeel. The experience left her with the desire to record more and Olga believes that she can do so in China. “They have the facilities and the equipment, while the price is good,” she said.

Olga, however, has been less successful in finding other artists to work with. “Back in Russia, artists help each other. In China, sometimes money is more important.”

Whether Olga stays in China or if she goes back to Russia, she will never forget the first show she played here. Her eyes beam as she tells the story, “The first time I sung in China was the best. It was an all new feeling to feel like a star.”

She pauses for a second before adding, “In that moment, I loved China.”

The Dancer

1014_Cover story_2In a bike shop in Guancheng, Riders in the Storm by The Doors is playing while a group of dancers play video games. Jackson, however, is not interested in playing. His boyish looks are belied by his stare.

He stands up and goes across the room to change the music. The song starts and it sounds like it could be Marvin Gaye. Jackson walks into the middle of the room starts to hop back and forth to the music.

On the song, as the singer starts to sing in Ukrainian, Jackson begins to break dance. “I am a B Boy,” says Jackson, when he begins his interview earlier that day, “It’s who I am.”

Jackson, real name Yevhen Plakhoynyuk, grew up in Lviv, the most western city in Ukraine, both geographically and culturally. Some of the country’s best break dancers learned their moves on its streets.

Jackson is only twenty four, but he has been a B Boy for more than ten years. Before break dancing, Jackson had practised kung fu, but as he reached his early teens, he had a decision to make. “I loved kung fu, but if I wanted to continue then I had to be prepared to be beaten up, a lot,” he says bluntly.

It was at this time that Jackson began to see B Boys on the street. “When I saw them break dancing I just thought, ‘Wow, this is something special,’” he remembers.

“I saw a connection between kung fu and break dancing. The way you moved was the same. The way you competed with others was the same,” he explains.

Jackson became one of the best break dancers in Ukraine and he set up his own team, competed in tournaments across Europe and opened his own dance studio.

When he was twenty one, however, he broke his arm attempting a flip while break dancing. Jackson grimaces as he recalls the injury, “It was a whole year before I could break dance again.”

Jackson's main ambition is to win competitions. In this photo he competed in the international Burn Battle School qualifier, where he won first place.

Jackson’s main ambition is to win competitions. In this photo he competed in the international Burn Battle School qualifier, where he won first place.

It was during his rehabilitation that Jackson was approached to do some modelling. It was not something he had done before, but without break dancing he had a lot of time and not a lot of money.

Jackson thinks that breaking his arm was a blessing in disguise, “If I had not broken my arm, then I would have never started to model. If I had not started to model, then maybe I would not come to China.”

It was a friend working in Shenzhen that suggested Jackson try China. For Jackson, it was an easy decision to make, “It sounded like fun. It was like a trip for me.”

Jackson travelled with his girlfriend Jana, who worked as a model, to meet his friend in Shenzhen. When they arrived they worked for Jackson’s friend in clubs in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

After six months, Jackson was tired of working for others. He decided to go independent and move to Dongguan. Here he has performed at all the top clubs at some point.

For the audience these performances at the clubs may only last one night, but for Jackson and his team there is a month of preparation before the show can even begin. “We spend one month before the show working on the costumes and production. Every day we practice our choreography,” he explains.

Once the shows begins, they can become testing in a very different ways. Jackson recalls, “With some shows you have to stay in the clubs until late. The clubs like to have you there for the other customers.”

This can lead to some drunken nights, but Jackson doesn’t mind, “For other guys, when they have finished they want to leave. For me, I enjoy having fun.”

1014_Cover story_3Just how much Jackson enjoys being in the club depends a lot on which club. Some of the clubs in Dongcheng may not have expensive shows, but he enjoys the people, both staff and audience. On the other hand, some of the clubs in Wanjiang, may have a lot of money behind them, but it doesn’t necessarily buy a good atmosphere. Sometimes he has even felt uncomfortable by what he describes as “mafia guys.”

Jackson lives close to the bike shop. In his apartment he shows off the costumes that his team has made; proudly demonstrating how to add metal studs to leather gloves. There is a white sheet draped across the apartment and a camera set up; on his phone he shows all the photos the team has taken using this makeshift studio.

Jackson has learned what he has to do so that he can work independently in China. He may be able to see a future in Dongguan, but it is not the only ambition he has.

The most important part of his career is winning competitions. He has won competitions around Europe and in China; the high point of it coming in 2013 when he represented his country in Outbreak Europe, which Jackson describes as “an Olympics for break dancing.”

He also still has his dance studio in Lviv, which he would wish to return to and most importantly of all, he intends to go back home with Jana to get married.

A lot has changed from the boy in Lviv to the man in Dongguan, but some things never change. When asked what his ambition was when he first started break dancing he recalls, “I wanted to be the best in the world.” When asked what it is now, he smiles to himself and then nods assuredly, “I still want to be the best in the world.”

The DJ

1014_Cover story_8On the terrace of a bar in Dongcheng, Zak Broman scratches his head, “So where should I start?”

For someone who became notorious in the Boston Globe for the raves he threw and who was a DJ at one of the biggest clubs in Guangzhou, it is not an easy question.

Now 26, Zak has already been a DJ for seven years. He sighs and laughs, “I guess at the beginning.”

Born and raised in Boston, Zak grew up listening to Paris underground labels and started to DJ in 2007. “Like all DJs I started out as a bedroom DJ,” he remembers.

Zak put his music online and he soon started to play house parties. It was at one such party that he was approached by, as Zak describes, “some shady guys,” who needed someone to DJ some raves.

Zak explains how the parties worked, “They took place at art galleries and abandoned warehouses. We only told a few people that we trusted the time and location. Those people in turn told people that they trusted. If someone had to ask me where the party was then they already had their answer.”

The trust parties were a hit and it was not until the final party that the police busted them, with the news making the headlines in The Boston Globe. No publicity is bad publicity, and Zak found himself bouncing between Boston and New York to DJ all sort of parties. Despite this, not all was well.

“It was the peak of my career in the U.S., but at the same time all the partying had finally caught up with me. I needed a sabbatical,” he admits.

In 2009, Zak found a job teaching English in Dongguan and for a while he returned to a normal routine. It was not long before he started to DJ again; beginning with Fridays at Vita Bar, a former spot in Dongcheng, and later a summer long residency at the Q Hotel in Houjie.

Zak, pictured here playing a sold out show at Middle East Downstairs Club in Boston, came to China for a sabbatical from the music scene, but instead went on to a have a successful DJ career.

Zak, pictured here playing a sold out show at Middle East Downstairs Club in Boston, came to China for a sabbatical from the music scene, but instead went on to a have a successful DJ career.

It was during this time that he met a lot of people from the Guangzhou club scene.

Afterwards he moved to the city. In Guangzhou, Zak found he had to make his way like he had in Boston. “I posted some of my stuff online like before. I was invited to play some bars. It was during this time that my sound was really shaped by the art scene that was going on,” he said.

At the bars, he was noticed by Suns nightclub. Described by Zak as “why Party Pier [in Guangzhou] is what it is today.”

Zak got the chance to play alongside some top DJs from around the world. Zak is grateful for his time at Suns, “The pressure of these gigs was always on the headliner. Being an opening act meant I did not have to worry. I learned a lot from the bigger acts and it really helped me balance the underground sound I had developed with something more accessible.”

Zak considers the summer of 2011 at Suns as the high point of his entire career. “For that summer, Suns was the place to be in Guangzhou. Everything just seemed to coalesce,” he recalls.

At Suns, Zak played mostly to a Western crowd. After leaving, Zak toured around China, where he had to adapt to a much more Chinese style.

Zak, pictured here playing a sold out show at Middle East Downstairs Club in Boston, came to China for a sabbatical from the music scene, but instead went on to a have a successful DJ career.

Zak, pictured here playing a sold out show at Middle East Downstairs Club in Boston, came to China for a sabbatical from the music scene, but instead went on to a have a successful DJ career.

One night after finishing a set in Qingyuan, Zak was approached by a woman to play an after party at a KTV. Zak was exhausted and wanted to say no, but she offered so much money that he could not say no.

“The KTV looked so shady and we were taken to this giant room at the back. I was given a USB of Chinese songs to play by one of the guests. It was pretty difficult to mix songs whose titles you cannot read and that you have never heard before.”

Zak also often had trouble understanding what the audience was saying to him. Often he heard Chinese people shout “more high” at him. For a long time Zak thought this meant turn up the volume, but later he found out they were saying “more hai,” as in “more feeling.”

Like anywhere, the nightclubs in China are full of drunks capable of turning the DJ’s night into a living hell. Once, when Zak did not have a song that a woman wanted to hear, she slammed his laptop lid down, shutting off the music for the entire nightclub. Zak still clenches his fists in frustration when he tells the story.

These days, Zak is settled in Dongguan. He has spent the last two years working in the shoe industry and is a proud father and husband.

1014_Cover story_9For Zak, being a DJ has gone from being a career to being a hobby and when asked what his ambitions are, he smiles and says simply, “I’ve achieved my ambitions.”

When asked what he thinks of the future of the local scene, he looks out from the terrace and nods approvingly, “You know what, man? I’m hopeful.”

Zak highlights Brown Sugar Jar as a venue for any artists, while he recommends Nemo Bar as an option for organisers looking to start a night. “The underground scene in China is a lot more connected than before,” he explains.When asked if he could be involved in that future, he smiles coyly, “If the opportunity is there, why not?”