Bibi Sings the Blues
A fan’s notes on a Chinese pop phenom.
Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
Zhou Bichang in Beijing
Reuben F. Johnson
"Hollywood—that’s too far perhaps,” said the petite, soft-spoken beauty sitting at the table with me. We had been talking about her making more feature films in China, and I had asked about going beyond moviemaking in China and on to America. The thought of what the world’s movie capital must be like seemed to turn over, and she stopped for a second before answering: “I would also have to practice harder on my English.”
This understated, unassuming nature, and a very natural and unmanufactured beauty, is one of the many captivating traits of one of China’s top popular recording artists, Zhou Bichang, known as “Bibi Chou” (or “Bibi”) to her fans and the Asian entertainment community. We were in a private room at one of Beijing’s more upscale eating establishments; but Bibi was dressed in her everyday style with an artsy T-shirt, plain sports pants, tennis shoes, and a pair of her signature heavy-rimmed glasses. The new iPhone 4 she was playing with that day was as close as she gets to ostentation. During our entire conversation she was the picture of modesty about her talent and ambitions; you would never know that this is a performing artist who has millions of screaming fans who follow her every movement, post endless numbers of messages about her to dozens of blog pages, and have seen every one of her CDs top the unstoppable sales numbers of her previous one.
You would also never know that this sweet, innocent-looking little girl has a singing voice so powerful that it could break glass. She seems able to summon forth such a full-throated, multilayered wall of sound that I suspect some sort of fighter aircraft jet engine compressor must be inside her. Yet she is equally capable of dropping to a whisper in a way that you can tell she is singing under her breath, but with no diminishment in sound quality. It is a voice that is sultry and seductive, with unlimited power behind it. It was once said that Frank Sinatra was the only singer who could sing a semicolon. Bibi is the only vocalist I have heard who can sing the entire library of punctuation marks—parentheses, brackets, dashes, underscores—and her seemingly endless tonal range is matched by an ability to show a full spectrum of inflections and accentuations, and in three different languages: Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese and English.
In 2005, Bibi was in a four-year undergraduate program at the Xinghai Conservatory of Music in Guangzhou. She had released some songs on the web and had tried to broaden her popularity, but had very nearly despaired of entering talent contests because both the style of her voice and her personal, tomboyish fashion taste had fallen flat in the assembly-line, lookalike world that is China’s popular music scene. Unbeknownst to her, one of her friends had entered her in a Chinese version of American Idol called Super Girls. Only 19 at the time, she dragged herself out of bed one morning for the first round of auditions without washing her face, brushing her hair, or applying makeup. Bibi blazed through all the preliminary rounds until the finals in July 2005 in Changsha, capital of Hunan province. The August finale pulled in some 400 million viewers, where she barely missed winning and ended up a close second place. One of her performances earned her a standing ovation from the five judges, moving one to tears.
It was during the Super Girls competition that Bibi acquired the massive following that remains zealously devoted to her. Attend any of her performances today and you find yourself surrounded by a sea of (mostly young) girls wearing green shirts (the color of her fan club) and an assortment of green headgear. All know every word of every one of her songs and sing with her in unison. The Super Girls competition was also where her unique singing voice, and the personal stamp she puts on nearly all the material she performs, acquired its own name in China—the ٥'&!٠[٥ؤ (“Bi Style Vocal”)—a sound not heard anyplace else in the world, as unique in its own way as the bossa nova in Brazil.
In May 2010 she went to Taiwan for a month of what was to be a light-speed makeover of her image, and the creation of an elaborate stage show. This retooling became her “Sing Along” concert series, which picks up again this week in Shanghai. The show features a multiple-level stage that has Bibi descending below one of the moveable platforms—only to rise from another place on the stage moments later.
During her short time below stage she makes instant costume changes; in the course of a three-hour performance there are 11 costume changes, complete with wigs and hair extensions, and she moves with a troupe of dancers in a series of synchronized routines.
“Organizing the costumes, choreography, and arrangements to adapt studio versions of your songs to live performances is an incredible amount of work to complete in just 30 days. Did you sleep much?” I asked.
“Well, not very much.”
“Having produced five CDs in as many years, and being one of the first mainland Chinese artists in many years to also be popular in Taiwan—what’s next for you?”
“I want to make films. We are in negotiation with several studios right now to make feature films here in China.” Now 25, she has already appeared in some feature films in China, although not always as the main character. On a Chinese chat show, she performed imitations of every popular singing artist the audience and host could name. Which emphasizes an obvious truth: Zhou Bichang is a musician’s musician, a creative personality in her own right. She writes much of her own material and described for me how she suddenly gets an idea for a song and finds herself jotting down lyrics or notes and chord patterns on a napkin: “Sometimes, if I can, I will sing the idea I have for a song and record it on my mobile phone.”
What is the life of a Chinese pop phenomenon? “I just live like the other people—regular people—do. I read books, watch TV, go to cinema, spend time on the Internet.”
“Is it hard for you to be in public when you are this famous?”
“No, no I often go out in public.”
“Do you wear dark glasses, or something else, to disguise yourself?”
Bibi laughs: “No! I just take off my glasses.”
Reuben F. Johnson is an aerospace reporter based in Kiev.