24 October 2016
Hongkongers are impressed by Corinna Chamberlain's acting and her perfect Cantonese. Photo: HKEJ
Hongkongers are impressed by Corinna Chamberlain's acting and her perfect Cantonese. Photo: HKEJ

Why Cantonese-speaking singer-actress gets only gwei mui roles

Before she shot to fame, when Corinna Chamberlain walked into a cha chaan teng or small local retail store, the employees would panic and yell for an “English-language expert” to come and help serve her.

Chamberlain, who understood every word they were saying, couldn’t help laughing. She would quickly reassure the staff by saying in perfect Cantonese that she was a Hongkonger.

Since the popular Television Broadcasts Ltd. sitcom, Inbound Troubles (老表,你好嘢!), aired in 2013, Chamberlain said, many people recognize her from her role as a Cantonese-speaking gwei mui (young foreign woman, usually Caucasian) and have been addressing her by her Chinese name, Chan Ming-yan (陳明恩).

Having a Caucasian appearance does subject actors and actresses to typecasting in Hong Kong productions.

Gregory Charles Rivers and Gill Mohindepaul Singh, for instance, are Hong Kong-based actors in TVB dramas who usually end up in roles as Cantonese-speaking police officers.

Chamberlain said she has figured out the reason.

“If people love a star very much, naturally they would like to imagine themselves as him or her, so it is hard for me to get this same kind of affiliation with the [predominantly Chinese] audience,” she said.

“A tailor-made script is usually needed to justify my appearance.”

Chamberlain said with a twinkle in her eye: “I might have to bring in my own parents for a story that touches upon a Caucasian family.” 

Born to an Australian mother and a New Zealander father, both Cantonese-speaking missionaries, Chamberlain and her elder brother were raised in Hong Kong.

She has always been fond of singing, dancing and acting and majored in musical theatre dance at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.

Like many local performers, she looked for a chance to break into the entertainment industry as a singer — her prime aspiration.

But her first attempt ran into an obstacle.

“It took me four years to put together a Cantopop CD,” Chamberlain said.

“But just when the album was about to be published, the production company closed down.”

She had joined TVB in 2007 while working on her album.

It was not until six years later, in 2013, when her efforts in acting and singing bore fruit.

Inbound Troubles became a hit and made Chan Ming-yan a household name.

That was also the year she joined The Voice of the Stars, a singing contest.

“I hesitated at first, as I was about to put out my album,” Chamberlain said.

“What if I lost the contest? Should I go ahead and release the CD?

“On the other hand, taking the challenge of the singing contest would push me harder to become a better singer, given the valuable opportunities to work and compete with talented artists.” 

The gamble paid off. She came in second runner-up in the contest and released her first album, with a different producer, by the end of the year.

Chamberlain says she would like to continue to make good use of her roles as singer and actress to influence lives by sharing her stories and spreading a message of positive thinking.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 24.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

 (Cantonese only)

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In 2013, Chamberlain joined The Voice of the Stars, a singing contest, in which she emerged second runner-up. Photo: HKEJ

Chamberlain (center) sang and danced in Christian Action’s Open Air Music Festival in 2013. Photo: HKEJ

Chamberlain with her parents and brother. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong Economic Journal writer

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