She sings, she acts – and she's a major star in the East. But multi-award-winning MO Fan Karen Mok still has ambitions aplenty. Here, she tells MO about her plans for world domination
Karen Mok is riding the crest of a personal and professional wave right now, with marriage to her childhood sweetheart and a film role with Hollywood heart-throb Keanu Reeves under her belt. The first part of the Reeves-directed Man of Tai Chi was filmed in the Chinese capital, Beijing, before the production moved to Mok’s home town of Hong Kong. The singer and actress, who has appeared in more than 40 films, including the smash-hit Shaolin Soccer and Fallen Angels by indie-favourite director Wong Kar-wai, also recently picked up her second Golden Melody Award (a prestigious accolade in Chinese-speaking countries) for Best Female Mandarin Artist, and last year saw her complete a major concert tour. Next, she plans to record an English-language album to introduce her music to a global audience.
You have had a hectic spell – concerts, awards and making the movie Man of Tai Chi with Keanu Reeves.
Who wouldn’t want to be in a movie with Keanu Reeves?! He is a super-nice guy. I recall the first meeting, when he was looking for actors – it was good fun. We chatted about all sorts of things, mainly film, which he is passionate about. The movie is bilingual and takes place in China and Hong Kong. It is very authentic, unlike a lot of Hollywood movies set here. Most of my dialogue is in Cantonese – I play a Hong Kong cop. I think my language flexibility helped: I could have done the role in English, Cantonese or Mandarin. Keanu is also in the movie as the bad guy against my good cop. But I don’t do any tai chi or kung fu – I just had to look tough!
You also sing in Mandarin and Cantonese, and are fluent in English. Which is your mother tongue?
My mother tongue is Cantonese, but I was educated in English and Mandarin came later. My family tree is like the United Nations! My paternal grandfather was Welsh and married my Chinese grandmother, so my father was Eurasian. My mum is a bit more complicated: her mother was Chinese and her dad was of Persian and German descent. And, although I have no real connection with the German side, I am now married to a German.
Many people were surprised when you announced your marriage to
your childhood sweetheart…
It sounds corny but he was my first love. I met him when I won a scholarship at 17 to study in Italy. We then moved back to our respective countries. We did meet up after 10 years, at a reunion, but I had my career and he was married at the time. I think there is something about your first love; it is just special. And many years later, fate intervened and we decided that we belonged to each other. Marriage is great –
I recommend it to all my friends! It’s a wonderful institution that has worked for thousands of years.
Karen Mok's MO fan campaign picture, Milan
How did you get into show business?
When I was a student in London I went to an open audition for
Miss Saigon in the West End and they took me into the training group. At that time, I met some Hong Kong people who were writing songs and they needed someone who could sing in Cantonese. I did it, and the tapes found their way back here to Hong Kong. The record company bought the songs, noticed my voice, checked me out and signed me up.
So you missed out on a possible musical-theatre career?
Well, it was a dilemma for me. I was hoping to play Miss Saigon one day, but at the same time I was offered the recording deal in Hong Kong. As it turned out, many years later, I got the chance to play the lead in Rent. I was the first Asian to do that role. It was fun – and gruelling. It was the Broadway cast – they were doing their 10th anniversary tour – and they wanted an Asian star
to be in the production. It was the ultimate: acting, dancing and singing, and doing it live every night, sometimes twice a day. I learned a lot from
that. For me, there is something magical about being on stage, I love every moment of it.
Do you prefer singing over acting?
Singing on stage is my favourite. When I do my own show I like to create the drama that the audience wants: you should be able to lose yourself for two hours. I have to think about all aspects of the concert. I start with the songs, and the ideas just come into my head.
I might think of a specific dance to do and the costume has to complement it. Then I might have certain props, or not, and the lighting should be in a certain way. It is all linked together. I think out the whole show – whether I should be wearing a qipao [or cheongsam] or dancing on a piano or sitting on a swing. I have worked with my team for a long time and they understand where I am coming from. And my mum comes to all my concerts. She flies all over the place – she’s my super-fan!
There is something magical about being on stage, I love every moment
What kind of venues do you play?
The theatres can hold up to 8,000 or 10,000 people. The tour of China took us all over – to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Changsha, Kunming, and to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Next year will be my 20th anniversary in the business, so I will start a new tour, maybe do an exhibition and tie up with a charity as well.
Hong Kong is your home city. What is special about it?
What I most love about Hong Kong is the energy – you can’t find it anywhere else, not even in New York. People are always on the go. There is a famous saying that in Hong Kong people don’t walk, they run, and it’s true! I love the vibe. When I am back I am so efficient. I do so many things and multitask all the time. It’s a good feeling, although some people might find it overwhelming.
What do you enjoy the most when you are there?
The Star Ferry. For those five minutes crossing the harbour you can really chill out. I get recognised, but it’s not a problem. People are always nice to me. Sometimes I find I become part of the scenery when tourists from China want to take photos. They turn away from taking a picture of the Peak Tram and take a picture of me instead. I am like a tourist spot! It doesn’t bother me at all, though. I’ll worry when I’m not recognised!
The city is known for its fabulous food…
The dim sum, of course, is very good. One of my favourite treats is high tea at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. I like my scones with raisins and clotted cream. Places do it differently and some cheat by giving you whipped cream instead of clotted cream. At Mandarin Oriental, they do it properly and the rose-petal jam is also delicious.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to reach a wider audience with my music; I don’t want to confine myself to singing in Chinese just because I am from Hong Kong. My next album will be in English and released globally. I want to reach out to different people. The songs will have my own compositions and possibly cover versions, and there will be a major tour. I want to conquer the world!
Do you have any favourite Mandarin Oriental hotels?
Mandarin Oriental, Paris is a new favourite, because we went there on our honeymoon recently. We spent some of it in Italy and Bordeaux, and then we went to Paris – staying there was superb. In Paris, I love the macaroons and chocolates; it is all about the food and the wine. I don’t have to shop till I drop – I prefer going to the Louvre or walking in the park.
I also like The Spa at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London and the restaurant, where you can get a table right by the window and look out over the park – it’s a great way to have breakfast. I love London because you can do anything: stroll into a museum or go to the theatre or the park. If I do go shopping, I like to check out the flea markets such as on the Portobello Road in Notting Hill. It’s interesting to find special pieces that are unique.
The Mandarin Oriental Fan Campaign picture, shot outdoors in Milan, is very Hepburn-esque…
I loved the whole idea, but the shooting was a nightmare: it was cold and wet, but we managed to get the shot and
it is beautiful. The photographer, Mary McCartney, is incredible – she brought her baby with her to Milan.
Why did you become a Fan of Mandarin Oriental?
I only go for the best! And it meant I could pick a charity that the Hotel Group would donate money to. I chose Animals Asia, which campaigns to stop the practice of caging bears to take their bile. It’s very cruel and should not exist in the modern world. When I first read about it, I was horrified. That was 10 years ago and I later became patron of the charity. I am also involved in a charity called Care for Children, which finds homes for orphans. We believe that if a child grows up in an environment filled with love, it will make a big difference. I also go on field trips with Unicef.
I have been doing charity work since I was a kid – it is in our family. My parents taught me to do what I could to help those less fortunate than myself. Being in this profession makes my voice heard and I feel that
I have a responsibility to do good things.