Nathan Hartono is taking on China once again after his second-place finishing in Sing! China last year. This time, the local singer-actor, 25, is scaling the Great Wall... in an upcoming musical. The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey is a tearjerker about the legend of Meng Jiangnu, a devoted wife in search of her scholar husband after he’s conscripted to build the Great Wall of China.
“I’m playing the scholar Fan Qiliang. Spoiler alert: I die! It’s an emotional role. It’s been a while since I’ve done theatre, and I’m excited to go back to it. [Acting] is not like riding a bicycle. My muscles need to be exercised!” says Nathan. This is his second musical after starring alongside Adrian Pang in Spring Awakening in 2012.
8 DAYS: Are you more active in China these days after Sing! China?
NATHAN HARTONO: I’m setting up another base in Beijing, but I’m not moving there. My plan is to release music there and in Singapore. It’s been taking a while mostly ’cos of boring things like contracts. The music industry in China is several thousand times more intense than in Singapore. I didn’t want to get into a contract that could potentially destroy me, so I took some time [to consider]. But it’s been settled, and I’m planning to release an EP first and probably an album next year. I’m also filming a movie called Warrior of Love, and I’ll probably work until next February. After that, I’m planning a nice long vacation (laughs).
How do you navigate the Great Firewall of China?
VPN [virtual private network]! But it's hard to use if you have a slow wi-fi connection. The biggest inconvenience is not having Google Maps. I rely so much on [maps] when I’m travelling, so bopian (no choice in Hokkien) lah, I had to use Apple Maps in China. It’s s***, but at least it leads me in the right-ish direction. Half of my phone is filled with Chinese apps now (laughs). I should really get a phone just for use in China.
How often do you hit a wall, metaphorically?
Every couple of months. As a creative person, I’m constantly evaluating myself and what I want to do. It’s a very surreal time in my life right now ’cos so much attention is on me and a lot of opportunities are opening up. I’ve been hitting walls, asking myself if I want to keep doing this ’cos I don’t know if I’m enjoying it. With attention comes more attention, and you can't really leave the house or have a life. I wish I was the kind of person who enjoyed [being a] celebrity a bit more. It boggles my mind when I see people lap up attention. But the exciting part of this journey is adapting [to my new life]. I do enjoy it when people tell me they’ve connected with my songs, as narcissistic as it sounds!
What can we find on your bedroom walls?
At the moment there’s nothing on the walls ’cos my room is being renovated. But usually I have lots of photos from school up there and shelves filled with gifts, ’cos I don’t throw anything away but I don’t know where to put them either. In my first year of JC, I had a big photo of myself on a wall. My father decided to blow up a high-resolution photo of me to the size of my wall and put it there. When I saw it, I had so many conflicting thoughts. It was really sweet of my dad. But why did he do that?! He thought I’d like it (laughs). [Because of that] I let very few people into my room for the next four years. Eventually I took the photo down myself ’cos it’d been hanging there long enough. I appreciate my dad’s gesture, but it was weird!
What’s one thing you’ve learnt in your career that they didn’t teach you in school?
I started my career when I was in school, so the line’s kind of blurred. I learnt that attention comes and goes in this industry. When I started out at 14, people were saying, “Oh, this guy’s like a young Michael Bublé.” But after I did my ‘A’levels and army and didn’t appear in public much, it was a struggle getting people to show up at events or to even care about my singing. In the beginning, I was affected. I wondered if I sucked, and I thought, “People are s***. It’s their loss if they don’t pay attention to me.” But it took me a while to realise that I needed to prove my worth, especially in Singapore where the audience is very critical. I’m not a special snowflake! I can’t say I’m now at the point where people can't deny me, but I work towards that [recognition] every day.
CHINESE TEST TIME
How well did Nathan fare in our quiz on Chinese culture and history?
1. Which film role got Brad Pitt banned from China?
“Okay, it has something to do with Tibet. I know Coldplay is banned from China ’cos of their views on Tibet. But I’ve no idea which movie! I’m going to feel like an idiot when you tell me what it is. [It’s Seven Years in Tibet]. Oh! I haven’t seen that one. I’m not a Brad Pitt enthusiast though.” (HALF CORRECT)
2. True or false: the Chinese invented ice cream.
“Hmm… False? I haven’t had decent ice cream in China yet! If they did invent ice cream, they weren’t very good at it (laughs).” (WRONG)
3. Who’s the current president of China?
“Xi Jinping”. (CORRECT)
4. True or false: the whole of China has only one timezone.
“False. Xinjiang has a different timezone.” [Officially, China has one timezone — the Beijing Standard Time. Unofficially, though, Xinjiang operates on a different timezone.] (HALF CORRECT)
5. What are the four great classical novels of Chinese literature?
“Romance of the Three Kingdoms must be one. What else could there be? Hao Gong Ming [Civic Studies]? No wait, that’s our great Singapore tome. My knowledge of Chinese history is almost completely political ’cos I took China Studies back in JC and learnt about [people like] Deng Xiaoping. I was in the pioneer batch for that subject, and thought it’d be fun to try. The teachers were probably more lenient with the grading ’cos they were still figuring things out!” [The other three novels are Water Margin, Dream of the Red Chamber and Journey to the West.] (HALF CORRECT)
FINAL SCORE: 2.5/5
The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey is on Jul 14 to 30 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tix from Sistic.
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