A wok'n'roll hero is something to be
Who needs Liverpool when you can have Hong Kong? Meet Barry Cox, gearing up for Canto-pop stardom.
Saturday 09 January 1999
Chinese Elvis impersonators may be commonplace but the cultural compliment has never really been returned. While Western bands have flirted with Oriental styles, taking it on wholesale, sans irony, is something new. Weird, some may say. Such is the self-importance of American and British pop culture, we assume it's perfectly natural that other nations will revere ours and that we take absolutely no interest in theirs.
Twenty-one-year-old Barry, though, in his own modest way, hopes to forge a more enlightened path. "I just feel I'm the bridge between Chinese and English culture. No one ever bothers to find out about each other. I want to close the gap."
While most 21-year-old boys with any musical aspirations are busy checking their mike techniques in the mirror and perfecting Jarvis Cocker hand movements, Barry is scouring the music shops of Chinatown for the latest CDs from Hong Kong. Forget The Beatles, The Cavern and Liverpool's rich musical heritage. Barry certainly has - his mecca is Hong Kong, where he hopes to take the "Canto-pop" scene by storm. "Ideally, I'd love to be a singer there," he says in a Liverpudlian slur. "I'd also love to be in a John Woo movie."
His first foray into pop stardom, Canto style, came with an impromptu performance during a language class. "Our teacher wanted everyone to do something for New Year and I got up and sang an old Chinese song. After that, I thought I'd love to try pop."
It took him nearly four months to learn one song. "There are nine different ways to say one word. You have to keep practising your high tongue and low tongue." Now he refuses to sing in English. "I can't - I'm always out of tune."
Barry's interest in Chinese culture kick started with a chance visit to a local chip shop, where he struck up a friendship with a Chinese boy working there. The two taught each other phrases and greetings from one another's language, starting off with "Two spring rolls and a bag of chips to take away, please".
Barry picked it up quickly and was so inspired he began a language course at Liverpool's Pagoda Centre. Now he's studying in a Chinese school, alongside 15-year-old pupils, for his GCSE. "Some of them have got used to me. Others think I'm strange. They laugh at me when I speak up in class." Generally, though, he appears to have earned the community's respect and enjoys being part of an exclusive club, one that most white people could never hope to join.
"I think they're very happy that someone has taken the trouble to learn about their culture," says Barry. "At first, it's hard to be accepted. If you ask them something, they'll cut you off or ignore you. But it's like a mystery for me. I want to get inside their culture, break in and really find out what they're all about."
In his quest to expose the inscrutable, he's immersed himself in an almost obsessive way in every aspect of Chinese history and culture. His favourite food is Chinese - special chow mein with squid. His favourite film star is Jackie Chan. He admits he has fewer English friends and more Chinese ones these days. When he's not swotting up on Chinese verbs, he's perfecting his martial arts and Chinese calligraphy.
Barry's bedroom reflects all this: Chinese scrolls, a big Buddha, painted screens, drawings and charms cover the surfaces. He's also left his job, at an electrical store, to help out in a Chinatown supermarket. "It's not what I really want to do. I'm only there to learn more about them."
It's hardly necessary to say which nationality his girlfriend Niki is. They met at a karaoke evening. Niki barely speaks Chinese and loves Natalie Umbruglia and, Barry adds a little dismissively, Celine Dion.
Does Barry ever feel the whole Chinese thing has got a little out of hand? Singing classic Cantonese pop songs such as "I Love You, OK" is one thing, but changing a perfectly good name like Barry to Gok Pak-Wing (it means long life) is surely pushing his preoccupation from admirable to, umm, sad? "No," says Barry with great conviction. "If I didn't have an interest in everything Chinese, I'd be just a normal person. Nothing special about me would stand out. I just want to be different to everyone else. I want to be... an interesting person."
But Barry's no fool - there is a point to all his hard graft and desperation for an identity change. He's convinced the new persona is going to make him famous and rich, and he may be right. In spring he's off to Hong Kong to visit film and record companies. Barry has tasted fame, in modest measures, and he wants more. "When I go to Chinatown, they applaud me. They all know me. I'm a celebrity there."
The Wall Street Journal has already picked up on his antics, and one American professor at Berkeley, an expert in Chinese studies, sounds optimistic: "I'd be very surprised if this guy doesn't become a phenomenon in Chinese- speaking places all over the world." Now there's a BBC documentary in the making.
Far from feeling like a Chinese man trapped in a Westerner's body, Barry is aware that it's being neither one but not quite the other that may give him the edge. He sounds quite horrified when I ask him if he'd prefer to actually be Chinese.
"No, definitely not. I like being English. I want to make my own style. It's completely new to combine the two. That's what makes me feel so special."
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