Published in the Post Magazine, 13 February 2011
As a music producer in Paris, Michelle Chuang Mei-lien has reason to be excited these days: she’s about to produce a Chinese pop-rock album, perhaps the first of its kind to be made in the French capital.
“In Paris, Chinese music usually comes in the form of lion dances, oldies or traditional music. People do listen to Canto- and Mandarin-pop, but no one creates this kind of music. I’m looking forward to be the first,” says Chuang, originally from Taiwan.
The 45-year-old has been preparing for the album for two years, dipping into her own pocket to enlist musicians to compose a series of pop-rock songs, some of include Chinese instruments such as the erhu. Recently, she has scouted a lead vocalist, formally setting the project in motion.
No date has been fixed for the album’s release, but Chuang can’t wait, not only because of her unbridled passion for music, but also because she has wasted too much time over the past decade.
Until three years ago, Chuang had been a depressed housewife, a stark contrast to the enthusiastic and energetic woman she is today. She rarely left her home in the outskirt of Paris, and she constantly complained of boredom. Apart from her French husband and their young children, she knew almost no one in France.
“I came to Paris in my 30s, knowing little about the French culture. My French was poor. I had to learn everything from scratch like a child. It was terribly hard to start anew,” she says.
Chuang’s predicament was not only about adapting to a foreign culture: she also had to cope with the anticlimax of leaving behind a glamorous singing career in Taiwan, for a relatively uneventful life in France.
Chuang started singing in bars and lounges as a university student in Kaohsiung. Then, the city’s live music scene was thriving. She was a fixture at popular night-time establishments, singing everything from Whitney Houston to Guns N’ Roses for up to five hours a night. She soon attracted a fan base, including a Frenchman who would became her husband.
In the 1990s, Chuang moved to Paris with her husband. After a brief spell of excitement, she lapsed into boredom.
“I felt completely useless because I could only speak English, but I wasn’t motivated to learn French or understand the French culture,” she says. “On any online Chinese expat forum in France, you’d easily find bored Chinese wives like me.”
At home, Chuang vacillated between despair and bad temper. She would occasionally beat up her children and insist they knocked on the door before entering her room. Her husband started visiting a psychologist to help him deal with the stress caused by her temper, while Chuang maintained she was fine. Yet this self-denial was unsustainable. As the monotony of life built up, Chuang gradually decided she could not go on living like a recluse. More importantly, she was itching to get back to singing.
Encouraged by her husband, she got a gig in a Chinese bar in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. There, she rediscovered happiness.
“Singing again reminded me of the power of music. It enlivened me and reconnected me with the world. Now I shudder to think how many years I’ve wasted being depressed.”
Three years ago, Chuang established a music society to promote modern Chinese music by through small concerts at lounges mostly run by Chinese people. Inspired by the originality in French live music – as opposed to Taiwanese tendency to perform covers – she embraced novelty.
“I was fed up with doing covers. Making an original album is something I’ve been wanting to do. But I’m not doing it for money. It’s all about passion,” she says.
Chuang’s newfound enthusiasm has led to other positive changes. Today she is a cheerful mother and wife who regularly tells her children she loves them – something she never did before. And she plans to support other lonely Chinese wives in Paris through her music society.
“After completing the album, I’d like to organize forums and social events for women who need a social support network,” she says.
“Moving to a new place and new culture may be tough, but regardless of where you are, it’s important to open your heart and mind to new things and people. Then you can make friends, and you’ll be happy.”