Iain Inglis stands in his room dedicated to Communist memorabilia. Photo: Courtesy of Iain Inglis
Between his British accent and fluent Chinese, Iain Inglis, the nearly 35-year-old freelancer in tropical Sanya, Hainan Province, told the story of how he experienced the ups and downs along with China’s political changes after becoming known as a "Red Song Talent" on popular television shows.
Dressed in a Chinese Red Army uniform and holding a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, Inglis first glimpsed fame during a local television competition between expats in November 2004 in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, while working as an English teacher.
His Chinese was already quite good, which helped him to pronounce the lyrics clearly as he mimicked marching gestures with one arm in front of his chest and the other swinging backwards.
His status as a red song performer reached a new level after he joined China’s Red Song Competition, a contest held by a Jiangxi provincial television station in 2010. After the broadcast, Inglis began to receive invitations to perform from local authorities within the province, one of the cradles of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
His fame soared to new heights when he was dubbed a "Red Song Talent" on China’s Got Talent in 2012 in Shanghai. That October, he was invited onto a China Central Television program devoted to finding the country’s next rising stars for the Spring Festival Gala, the biggest family television event in China.
However, these sparkling moments on China’s top entertainment shows were probably the peak of his red song career. His bright future was already beginning to fade after Chongqing leader Bo Xilai was sacked in a political scandal in early 2012. The nation’s red song campaign, which was red hot in Chongqing because of Bo, cooled down abruptly. Shows were canceled, and the number of invitations Inglis received dwindled.
After quitting his job at a hotel in Yalong Bay, Sanya, he currently works as a freelancer making tourism promotion videos. He plans to establish an English language training school one day, but for now, he holds on to the memories of his red song performances and keeps a room for his collection of Socialist memorabilia.
Red songs chose me
The first Chinese red song Inglis learned was "Socialism Is Good," from a VCD he purchased during a vacation in Wuhan, Hubei Province, in the summer of 2003 before he moved to China.
"At that time, I didn’t know the term ‘red song,’ but I tried my best with Chinese to explain to the CD shop owner that I wanted songs on Socialism. She somehow understood and pointed out three CDs to me. I randomly picked one, and ‘Socialism is Good’ was carved in my mind because the rhythm is simple and repetitive," Inglis told the Global Times.
But this is not the first red song he came to know. He first learned a red song from the Soviet Union with his Russian teacher in his hometown of Cardiff when he was 15 years old.
"Red songs chose me. I can not only learn language through them, but history. I’m not a professional singer. To be honest, I’m a bad one, but I perform red songs because of my interest in Communism," Inglis said. "Historically, they have made quite significant achievements."
Over time, he admits, singing red songs became more than just a hobby as the performances brought him money, though not a huge fortune.
"Once I got 50,000 yuan ($8,120), but only once. I didn’t make a fortune doing this," he explained.
Singing monkey?
In the video footage of Inglis’ past performances, audiences can be seen clapping and laughing, some even dancing along to the rhythm of the music. But the man in the spotlight was also the target of criticism, which upset his Chinese wife.
Inglis rejected some people’s labeling of him as a performing monkey.
"The number of foreigners in China is still relatively low, and what we do on a stage can be a selling point for a TV show," Inglis said, adding that his family and friends fully support his career decisions.
His mother-in-law actually collects articles related to his work, so he always tracks down a copy of published stories to make her happy.
"Most people in the audience find my performance funny, but not in a negative way. They just find a foreigner singing their old-generation songs interesting," he said. "And the organizers may think it looks good to put me on stage to show that even a foreigner is interested in the red culture."
The organizers of China’s Red Song Competition in Jiangxi echoed his words.
"Every year we have foreigners register to participate in the competition," a staff member working on this year’s competition told the Global Times. "Last year we had one foreign candidate enter the top 100. The audience responded very positively to their performances. They liked them and find foreigners singing Chinese red songs quite amusing."
The staff member said in a phone interview that the show is also popular among expats.
Plan B
Despite his success, fame does not always last forever. Singers of red songs tend to gradually lose their market, and foreigners, especially those who, like Inglis, are not professional singers, have to have a back-up plan.
After living in China for almost a decade, he is more practical than idealistic about his favorite songs.
"Singing red songs is becoming less fun over time, especially when I do a big performance. For what they consider better effect, they tell me that I should sing this and not that, the same thing with my costumes," Inglis said.
Directly after Chongqing’s red song campaign ended, Inglis didn’t experience a huge decrease in clients, as most of his work came out of Jiangxi, which still holds a strong tradition of singing red songs.
However, after the scandal involving Bo hit the news last year, local authorities became cautious about being associated with red songs.
"I was asked to join a campaign in one district of Shanghai using my title as Red Song Talent in March 2012 shortly after appearing on China’s Got Talent," Inglis said. "There was an ad campaign saying that the Red Song Talent will tell you to do this and that."
But later, the event was canceled because local officials were worried about using red songs in their campaign.
Right now, he is preparing to apply for a permanent resident permit in China and is waiting for his wife to come back from Macao after finishing her doctoral degree.
"I will continue to sing red songs, but probably not in public performances," Inglis said.
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