Feature

From pastor-singer to geisha
girl

From the start of her singing career, Ho Yeow Sun, or Sun Ho, stood out from the crowd because she was marketed as a pastor's wife.

But by the time Ho was dirty dancing in the 2007 video for "China Wine", the pastor's wife label had long been set aside.

Her husband, Kong Hee, 47, is the founder of City Harvest Church. The couple have a seven-year-old son. Along with four others, Kong has been charged with conspiring to cheat the church in order to finance his wife's music career.

Ho, 42, made her Mandopop debut with the album "Sun With Love" in 2002. In keeping with her then wholesome image, the album cover is a close-up of her barely made-up face, complete with freckles. Radio 100.3's vice-president Anna Lim said of the religious connection: "That was her selling point - something for people to remember and talk about."

Even then, the album was not overtly religious.

Lyricist Xiaohan, 38, who wrote the lyric for the song "Andersen" on that record, recalls: "The direction given to the songwriters was that it was to be an album about love of all kinds, and that you could perceive it as love of God or love for your other half. But we knew she was a pastor's wife."

Xiaohan said the songwriters were told that the songs ought not to hard-sell Christianity, but should sound like "regular commercial songs". Ho's popularity rocketed with the subsequent release of "Sun*day" in 2002 and "Lonely Travel" the year after.

Both albums sold more than 30,000 copies each in Singapore, estimated Warner Music marketing director James Kang. A top-selling artist would sell at least this number of copies.

"Sun*day" won the Best Selling Album of the Year accolade at the Singapore Hit Awards in 2003, piping popular acts such as Taiwan's boy band 5566 and home grown singer Stefanie Sun.

The group 5566 caused a stir by threatening to boycott the awards that year, alleging "unfair practice". Their "First Album", released in 2002, had sold close to 50,000 copies and the group had expected to pick up the trophy for best-selling album.

Music industry insiders said Ho's popularity was in part driven by extensive marketing. Lim said: "When she released her first album, she bought programs to appear on the station to promote herself. It's quite rare for singers to buy programs; usually the record companies do it."

Ho's fourth and fifth Mandarin albums, distributed by Warner, fared less well here. Kang estimated that "Gain" (2006) and "Embrace" (2007) sold between 5,000 and 10,000 copies each here.

Kang said that for the earlier albums, Ho was concentrating her efforts here "to achieve the highest sales and greatest exposure she could get".

But from her second album "Sun*day" on, she shifted her attention to Taiwan. Taiwanese radio deejay Tso Kuang-ping, 30, recalled Ho doing really well in Taiwan about seven years ago. Her songs were being sung in karaoke sessions and her albums topped the sales charts. "Lonely Travel", released in 2003, as well as "Gain" and "Embrace" all went to No.1 in Taiwan on the authoritative G-Music Mandarin album chart.

Tso said: "In Taiwan, people did not see her as having a strong Christian image. They saw her as a pop singer with songs that felt fashionable."

In 2003, Ho ventured into the American music market with the single "Where Did Love Go?" It hit No.1 on Billboard's dance breakout chart. Subsequent singles such as "One With You" and "Without Love", both in 2004, and "Gone" in 2006, made it to No.1 on the Billboard Dance Chart. Tso said: "I thought the US dance singles were very forward-looking and had a lot of ideas in them."

Ho's decision to head West raised eyebrows in the industry here. Kang said: "The US was quite an eye-opening choice for people in the industry because no Asian artists had been able to break into the market."

He estimated that it would take "a few million" dollars just to do a decent job of marketing an artist, and that it could have cost "close to a million" to make the "China Wine" video.

That "China Wine" music video - a collaboration with Wyclef Jean from hip-hop group the Fugees, which came along in 2007 - had her adopting a persona she called Geisha and prancing about in a midriff-baring top and hot pants.

Teacher Jasmine Ho, 31, a church member since 2002, said: "When you're in a different country, you have to follow the trend and appeal to the market. For an Asian to make it to music award ceremonies, she did Singapore proud." She was referring to Ho walking the red carpet at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards in 2004.

There were also other music videos. At the start of the reggae-flavored "Mr Bill" (2009), she berates a cheating lover in Mandarin, while "Fancy Free" (2009) has her in dramatic get-ups which invite comparisons to Lady Gaga.

But it was the "China Wine" video that set tongues wagging. Home-grown music company Ocean Butterflies' director Colin Goh said: "To use pop music to promote Christianity, I think, is fine. But there are many types of images you can adopt and that was so inappropriate to Christianity."

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