To her millions of fans across Asia, she is Karen Mok, action movie heroine, celebrity lingerie designer and a stadium-filling pop singer. But the outspoken star, who now hopes to spearhead an Asian musical invasion of the West, has as much claim to Swansea as Shanghai.
Born Karen Joy Morris, to a half-Chinese, half-Welsh father, with a dash of Iranian and Germanic blood on her mother’s side, the multilingual performer is proud of her diverse ancestry. “My background is very complicated,” she says. “I might have had some kind of identity crisis.”
There is no confusion over the Hong Kong-born Mok’s ambition. With 36 million followers on Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo tracking her every move, the first Asian celebrity to launch her own lingerie and perfume brands is now ready to export her “Mok Factor” to the UK.
After 15 hit Cantonese and Mandarin albums, she has recorded her first English-language album, Somewhere I Belong, a collection of jazz standards given a Chinese twist. The star of 40 movies will also make her Hollywood breakthrough in Man of Tai Chi, a martial arts thriller which marks Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut.
Just don’t tell Mok, 42, known for her individuality in a highly regimented industry, and who once shaved her head as an act of rebellion, what she ought to do. “If you’re doing something artistically, it should come from your heart,” she said. “There are no rules. There’s no one pointing a gun at your head saying you’ve got to sing this way or that way.”
Mok, who recorded her first demo tapes when she studied Italian literature at University College, London, despairs of the sexualisation of young Asian pop starlets. “It’s about showing a lot of skin these days,” she said. “It’s pointless if it doesn’t reflect what you’re singing. You might get your picture on the front page, but if that’s all you’ve got to say, then that’s it, you’re not going to last very long.”
An award-winning actress, given her big break by the renowned director Wong Kar-wai, Mok still has to reject “stereotyped” kung fu film scripts. “I really hope to see the day when any commercial, romantic comedy would cast an Asian actor to play a role which might be played by a black or white actor,” she said.
Social activism plays an increasingly important role in her career. Mok has campaigned against human trafficking and is a vocal opponent of the trade in bear bile, a product used in traditional Chinese medicine, which is extracted in horrific conditions from endangered animals held in “bear farms”.
“If I have a voice to speak out for those who are less fortunate, then I should. It’s my obligation,” said Mok, who was chosen to carry the Olympic torch at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Debate about social issues is widespread in a “developing” Chinese society, says Mok. Asia is ready to flex its cultural power, along with its economic might, by exporting its music to a willing West.
“Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ proved that language is no longer a barrier,” Mok said. “You might not understand every word but the feeling comes across.”
Somewhere I Belong, featuring Mok’s Billie Holiday-inflected interpretations of songs ranging from Cole Porter to Portishead, reflects her position as an Asian superstar who straddles East and West. “I play Eric Clapton’s famous guitar solo on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ on the guzheng [Chinese string instrument]. It was audacious but I wanted to incorporate Chinese sounds into jazz.”
This week she performed a showcase concert at Ronnie Scott’s, a club she once snuck into as a jazz-loving student who couldn’t afford a drink.
Next, Mok will celebrate her 20th year in showbusiness by staging an exhibition of herself in Hong Kong: “It’s normal for a fashion designer or a brand to have their own exhibition. David Bowie has one… but then he’s David Bowie.”