Updated: 2012-01-13 07:51
By Mike Peters (China Daily)
Romanian pop singer strikes chord with Chinese audiences
Mugur Ciugancan (you can call him Wei Hua) stands out in the Four Seasons, a quiet Japanese restaurant near Beijing's Solana mall. The young Romanian pop singer has just settled into a cozy booth after a week of rehearsal and recording for CCTV-15's upcoming Spring Festival show Songs and Smiles.
A bit weary and eager to relax, he still seems to contain a disproportionate amount of the energy in the room. His body is constantly in motion. He talks with his hands, points to the choicest items on a menu he knows well, and waves at passing members of the restaurant staff.
Ciugancan was among an early wave of foreigners who made a place for themselves in China by taking the stage and singing in both Mandarin and their mother tongue. The fedora-topped singer had plenty of confidence back then - the 18-year-old had already recorded two albums in Romania and had been singing on Romanian TV for a year.
"I was going to art school in Bucharest, where I had some good Chinese friends," he says. "They liked my songs, and I liked their Chinese songs."
He picked up a few, memorizing the words since he did not speak the language. "For the Chinese New Year, we would cook dumplings with wild onions and sing some Chinese songs," he says, "I am sure my pronunciation was not good."
Thanks to his Chinese friends, he had the chance to visit the country in 2000, and performed in a couple of small shows. At one show was Bo Xilai, who was then the mayor of Dalian (now Party secretary of Chongqing). He was impressed by the eager young Romanian.
"I gave him one of my CDs," Ciugancan says, reaching to spear a piece of fish that has just arrived at the table. He says Bo invited him to stay in China a little longer and perform in an upcoming traditional costume festival in Dalian.
That did not work out. The singer's CD was brand-new and he had TV appearances scheduled to promote it back home. But Bo invited him again later in the year, and soon Ciugancan was having a good time on stage for two shows in Jingmen, Hubei province. "At that time, there were not so many foreigners out there doing this."
He was fascinated by karaoke when he first came to China in 2000. "At that time karaoke was always done in big halls, with many tables and lots of dance space in the middle. They were karaoke ballrooms. I like that format better than what we have today, with little private studios."
At another table one night, Ciugancan recalls, was a director of BTV, Liu Xiaonan. "He said, 'You are a good Chinese singer, so good. We have this competition coming up, Songs of Our Land "
His new friends in China pushed him to compete in that upcoming show. The emcees would include Da Shan, a famous Canadian entertainer who has wowed Chinese audiences with his command of Mandarin. Many foreign singers who were known in China were making plans to compete.
"More than 2,000 had already registered, including many very good singers," the bright-eyed Romanian says. "There was going to be a big TV audience, and I was afraid of losing face."
But he was smitten with China at that point, and saw a chance to make a future here just by putting in a good performance on national TV. "In my heart I was not optimistic about winning," he says.
Many of the competitors had been in Beijing three weeks ahead to prepare, but his other commitments had kept him from coming until the week of the event.
He had to present a music video from Romania, (he chose a classic titled Autumn,) while the show's organizers gave him a Chinese song to practice and perform. When the show tried to give competitors a song they matched to the singer's range and vocal skills, Ciugancan found himself struggling with the song he was given.
"It was a big, powerful song - the theme of a famous TV drama about life in the countryside. The title was I Can't Live This Way."
Laughing now, Ciugancan says, "I told them, 'That's true. I want to die.'"
The song was difficult for him, written in a high key. Although it was known as a folk song, it is "not the sort of song everyday people sing regularly, and it was really hard for an outsider to sing."
Ciugancan found his constant practicing of the song was getting on the nerves of his fellow contestants, so he would go out into the January night in his big winter coat and rehearse the song in a nearby park.
On the night of his performance, the young Romanian says he was totally focused on his own performance, not watching the other contestants or their scores. He won the gold medal and did not realize it until his fellow competitors ran up and asked why he was still backstage when the prizes were about to be given out.
"Back then, I had to just memorize songs," he says. "Now my Chinese is better than my English, and China is like a second motherland."
He has been here ever since, though he makes frequent trips back home. "Every year I go back to Romania to sing for the Chinese community there," he says. The community - both Chinese Romanians and Romanians married to Chinese - is quite strong, he says, because Romania was the second country (after the former Soviet Union) to recognize the People's Republic of China more than 60 years ago.
"We had about 10,000 for the concert last year. That was my mother's first time to hear me sing in Chinese," he says with a big grin. "My mother used to call me all the time and ask, 'Why do you always talk China, China, China all the time?'" Now, he says, she understands a little better.
Over the past decade Ciugancan has been invited to sing for Chinese President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and visiting dignitaries from his own country when the Romanian embassy hosted special events in Beijing. That sharpens his focus on Chinese even though he has dedicated himself to learning it well.
"It's quite sensitive. When you pronounce a word wrong, you are saying something else.
"I love being a cultural ambassador for my country. And I would really like to take some of my Chinese friends to my home area, Baiasprie in the region of Maramures, to see the castles and the history."
In the meantime, he is enjoying his new friends, China and, frequently, the flavors of his favorite Japanese food. The restaurant manager, who has recognized Ciugancan and stopped by to say hello earlier, has put one of the Romanian's CDs into the sound system, and now as he talks his head bobs in a rhythmic figure-8.
"My performing and recording schedule often prevents me from having meals at normal times," he says. "So I like Japanese food because it is so good for eating late in the day: Easy to digest, not fattening."
On his schedule the day after Christmas: A visit to a charity hospital for HIV-infected children in Linfen, Shanxi province. A friend took him there once to visit, and he was captivated by the youngsters, who get medicines through Bill Clinton's foundation, he says.
"There are 16 kids now... They have my QQ (Internet messaging system) address so they can watch my videos and send me messages there," he says, his eyes lighting up. "Almost every day there is a message like 'Gege (big brother), where are you?' I wish I could go there all the time."