Mok factor

HONG KONG - Newlywed Karen Mok says she just couldn't leave the stage

When female singers or actresses marry, the public expects them to either reduce their workload or retire from the limelight altogether. Not so for Karen Mok. The 43-year-old singer-actress is back on the scene, a year after she married her first love Johannes at a church near Florence, Italy.

"I feel much more energetic after getting married," she says. "Maybe getting married means the emotions I express during my performances won't be the same. That's very interesting, actually."

Arriving in Beijing for the photo shoot, in a red tailor-made jacket, skintight denim and glittering gold high heels, Mok looks as if she just walked out of a scene from a movie or a concert.

She strikes a pose as the cameras flash. Her aura is infectious.

"I had one or two months holiday after the wedding, but I just couldn't leave the stage," says Mok with her trademark big smile. "When I got back to my shows, I couldn't help screaming: 'This is what I live for!'"

She landed in Beijing recently to promote her first English-language jazz album, "Somewhere I Belong", which fulfilled a longtime dream and took her back to her starting point, she says.

When she was studying in Italy in 1987, she shopped in a store that was having a big going-out-of-business sale. She bought some CDs of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, which sparked her interest in jazz.

"I was fascinated by the music immediately and started searching for any possible way to listen to jazz," she recalls.

Since then her credits include 15 Cantonese and Mandarin albums, three Golden Melody Awards, a Hong Kong Film Award for her role in 1996's Fallen Angel, and the lead role of Mimi in the 10th Anniversary Asian tour of the Broadway smash Rent.

"This album is so me," Mok says. "With my life experience and reflections, I believe this is the perfect time to have such a jazz album," she says.

She locked herself in a room and started to imagine what songs she would really want to sing. "It's a bit like when I do the set list for my own concerts, you want a nice mix and something that is exclusive to Karen Mok," she says. "I want to make each song my own."

With a selection of interpretations, such as Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" and Sting's "Moon Over Bourbon Street" and Cole Porter's "Love For Sale", Mok also put a touch of Chinese style into the jazz album.

She showed off her guzheng (a traditional Chinese zither-like instrument) talent by reinventing Eric Clapton's famous guitar solo in the Beatles' classic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".

She also sang English band Portishead's trip-hop favourite "Sour Times" in a jazzy way.

"There is no point trying to copy something that's already great. I had a ton of fun making something new," she says.

The fashion muse also has played around with her image by wearing qipao, or cheongsam, which is her favourite attire.

Mok recorded the album in an old wooden studio of Shanghai. The global press conference was held in a jazz bar of Shanghai's Peace Hotel, which was built on the Bund in 1929.

"Shanghai Nights", or Ye Shanghai, first performed by late singer Zhou Xuan in 1949, is also on her song list.

"Back in the 1930s, Shanghai was full of life. It was the Paris of the Orient," she says. "They did their type of jazz with very typical Chinese melodies and we had some really big divas from those days."

Born of Chinese, Welsh, German and Persian descent in Hong Kong, Mok says she has been asking herself questions about her identity, which is why she titled the album "Somewhere I Belong".

"It was really hard for me to be able to find my identity not only because of my family background but also because I have a variety of different personas onstage," she says. "After all these years, I realised that I belong to the stage."

She discovered her passion to be a performer at 3 years old while watching TV at home in Hong Kong.

Since bursting on to Hong Kong's entertainment scene in 1993, she's never really fit the typical Cantopop mould. Under the arrangement of her contract company, Mok had to wear some "really princess" outfits, which was kind of the way everyone did it then.

The rebellious girl shaved her head and sang songs that didn't cater to the market at that time. Since then, she has been creating her "Mok factor".

She says she's lucky to have her biggest hobby as a lifelong career and she always follows her intuition when performing.

Getting old is never in her dictionary and she always feels confident.

"Some women go through the aging crisis. But I don't. Because when you are 40, you have the charm that an 18-year-old girl cannot have," she says. "Keep yourself fresh, and you won't hit the expiration date."

Celebrating 20 years in show business in 2013, she will have a lot on her plate.

After the jazz album, she will start her concert tour and perform in jazz festivals all over the world, including the 2013 Shanghai Jazz Festival in October. Her new action film, Man of Tai Chi, the directorial debut of Hollywood star Keanu Reeves, is scheduled for release in the summer.

She's gotten used to the life of a touring performer, but Mok jokes that sometimes she has to think of where she is when she wakes up in the morning.

"I feel contented easily, maybe going for a good meal, cuddling my cats or taking a bath," she giggles. "I love being Karen Mok onstage. The only thing I worry about is that I have so many things to do - but don't have enough time."

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