Interview with Chelsey Mark

Chelsey Mark (Mai Xiaolong), is a young performer, singer, and TV host who is absolutely passionate and committed to what he does. I'm always blown away by his Duracell-battery energy and goodwill. For those who don't know Chelsey, you can visit his website:

What follows is a part of a longer interview I did with Chelsey late last year.

You are a Canadian-Chinese living in Beijing. Can you briefly talk about your family tree?

: My great grandfather Mark Yin Pow came from Taishan, Guangdong in the late nineteenth century making several trips back and forth from Canada bringing his entire family one trip at a time. To support the family Great Grandpa was forced to work on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. You might call this the official beginning of the Mark China/Canada relations. In 1922, after working on the railroad, he opened up a laundry mat and settled down in Russell, Manitoba. My grandpa opened a restaurant in Gilbert Plains Manitoba called Lee's Restaurant. My father Inky grew up in Gilbert Plains where he later met my mother Lynda Burelle in the nearby town of Roblin. My dad has been a member of parliament in Canada for more than ten years and a tireless advocate and spokesperson for Canadian Chinese citizens. Every year Inky receives awards from several community groups for his efforts. My dad also works for a number of other ethnic groups.

When did you come to China?

Chelsey:I came to China in 2000. The usual way to get to China for most foreigners is teaching English. And this is exactly what I did. I taught one year at an elite secondary school in Zhangjiagang, Jiangsu Province. I was basically teaching at a ghetto school for rich kids. I should add that I had just finished university with a degree in sociology, and a minor in psychology and drama. When I arrived at the school, I was assigned thirty hours of conversational English a week. There was no textbook or set curriculum. For a whole year I taught material I made from scratch. There were days when I had to be really creative to keep the kids interested using all kinds of material including movies and music.

Were you a taskmaster in class?

Chelsey: The situation at the school was really sensitive between students and the teachers. The school was new and elite. The teachers were scared to discipline the students. I would walk by other classrooms and watch kids playing video games, sleeping and talking while the teacher was at the chalkboard talking to himself. When the students signed up for my class they took it as a recreation period. That's what they thought it was until they met me. The first months were days filled with yelling and threatening to send them to the Principal's office. There were tears, resistance, but in the end they came round.

Were you able to speak Chinese when you first arrive?

Chelsey: I arrived with zero training in Chinese and was the only foreigner in town. While teaching, I taught myself how to read, write and speak standard Chinese from a do-it-yourself Chinese language book. I got language coaching from my best friend at the time, Lester Yang, and an English teacher. I remember having to build up so much courage just to go to the local store and buy a drink or a snack. But when I got the basics down and began understanding Chinese and could converse in the language it was the greatest feeling.

How did you go about fitting in?

: Four months into the school year I wasn't fitting in at all. I had no friends, no fun and was still at the bottom of the learning curve in speaking Chinese. Sometimes while watching Hollywood films in my room, I found myself bursting into tears for no apparent reason. I would sit back and say to myself, 'Why am I crying? What's wrong with me?' Something I was watching reminded me of home or my friends and family. In my desperation to fit in and find some degree of normality, Shanghai came to the rescue. During Spring Festival, I traveled around China and made a brief stop in that city. I met some people in a hostel and we became good friends. Every second weekend I was off to Shanghai to escape.

When did you start to study Chinese full-time?

Chelsey: In the autumn of 2000, I received a scholarship to study Chinese at the Beijing Language and Culture University. Full-time Chinese, 30 hours a week was no easy chore. One of the highlights of my university life was my roommate and next-door neighbor. My roommate was a guy called Jeff, an American whose parents where both deaf which meant that Jeff could communicate using sign language. He became my best friend. My next door neighbor was John, an English guy who lived and breathed for the Liverpool Football team. Being Canadian I didn't watch soccer, but after his daily updates for a year I became a Liverpool soccer fan. I even have an official Emile Heskey jersey!

So when did you begin your road to celebrity?

Chelsey: I was browsing through the school job ads and I stumbled across an ad for a singer-guitarist in a cover band. I had sung and played guitar back in Canada so I called a number listed in the ad. Several hours later a rather pudgy and ugly Chinese dude by the name of Fisher showed up at my dorm. The group started me on lead vocals and guitar with Fisher on keyboards and supporting vocals. Our first gig was at a bar across from the Business University. We played three sets and each received 80 yuan for the night. Back then I could not sing any Chinese songs.

Were you watching lots of Chinese TV?

Chelsey: Yes, and talk shows. I soon found myself on a TV talk show as one of the audience. One of the guests on the show was Mark Rowswell, better known in China as Da Shan. I got a chance to speak to him and was amazed like everyone else on how good is Chinese was. That was the turning point for me. I decided I didn't want to be among the crowd. I wanted to be in the spotlight.

I can imagine you've had all kinds of challenges to overcome along the way.

Chelsey:It was a hard, uphill battle. From late September 2002, I was learning Chinese full-time, practicing singing and playing guitar every day, learning new English and Chinese songs, adjusting to life in Beijing, and being sick almost every three months. Our band was also looking for a female singer. In one year we went through about four or five singers. In the end, we found a German girl called Haike who could play the erhu [a two-string Chinese spiked fiddle]. I was lucky to get an extension on my scholarship for 2002-2003. I was a full-time student and playing every night in bars for a year. Needless to say, my grades suffered.

It was around April 2003, that things started to get better. I had steady work, my Chinese was at a good level and our band performances were great. Then SARS came along. Within a month almost half of the population left Beijing, all my friends left town, foreign students were forced to leave and we had no work because the government closed all the entertainment venues. I decided to go home. I packed my bags and went home for four months.

What was it like returning home?

: The four months back home was agony. I was happy on making some money and maybe even staying for good. I didn't accomplish either during those four months. I moved to Ottawa to live with my parents and began looking for work. I work for a student painting company during the summer. I felt out of place and was set on returning to China. I remember one time calling my mom and crying to her on the phone and begging her to let me go back to China cause I just didn't fit in anymore. I was wasting my time and wanted to get back to Beijing as soon as I could. I returned to Beijing in the fall of 2003 doing lots of live performances with the band. We found another female vocalist, an African called Marion. We started doing gigs around Beijing and in 2004 we landed a six-month contract with the Renaissance Hotel.

So you were now back 'home?'

Chelsey: I gained more clarity about where my life was heading in 2004. Being the star of a small cover band didn't really interest me. I had worked long enough working day in day out, learning new songs and my partners basically 'rode' me for cash. It was time to break away. That summer a friend called Corne and I landed a contract to record a hundred episodes for an English textbook. It was a huge job. We did the recording in my apartment, hired actors, produced, directed and edited all the episodes. It took three month and was the beginning of my producing career. Before starting this job I really had no idea how to record, direct, edit or produce anything. It was a great learning curve and opportunity. In the process, I founded my own production studio which I called Interrogation Room Studios.

How did you come up with the name?

Chelsey: The English textbook and my album were both recorded in a room where the walls were covered in green army blankets to mute the sound. There was one small light bulb to light the entire room. The recording studio resembled an old time war interrogation center or room. So that's how my studio got its name. The green blankets no longer cover the walls, but I have kept the name.

What other stuff were you producing?

Chelsey: I was doing the odd gig, but spent more time learning how to write and produce songs. To pay the bills I had to go back and teach English.

What other changes took place in 2004?

Chelsey: The biggest change in 2004 was my metamorphosis from singer-guitarist to singer-dancer. I took up dance class at a studio and started to learn hip-hop. My teacher was Lake who had learned her stuff from a Korean dance teacher. I studied dance three hours a day for six months. After that I started to have some kind of groove. I was fortunate at the time to land a number of gigs with Casio watches which took me around the country on weekends singing and dancing. After a year of slugging it out in my own personal studio, I released an album on my own called 'Cell.' It was a blend of pop, rock and hip hop music. I wrote 25 songs, but only 17 tracks appeared on the album.

So things started coming together?

Chelsey: A lot of things came together. 2006 started out with a bang with two guest appearances on TV. I also helped put together the Beijing Asian Hockey School for teenage kids. I also started teaching hip-hop classes part-time at a miracle fitness gym. Perhaps the real beginning of my road to stardom started when I appeared on CCTV's 'The Star Road.' I didn't win anything, but i was asked to attend the monthly competition. At one of them I brought along my dancers and we rocked the stage. I didn't take home any prize, but many said I was best. That spurred me on to do even better. Then NBA came knocking on my door.

To do what?

Chelsey: One day I was talking to my good friend Inna on the phone. She worked for a company which produced the NBA show. They were looking for a host. Everything fell into place. That was the beginning of Chelsey as the host of NBA English. A small 3-4 minute segment all spoken in Chinese with the exception of the English words. Later NBA English took to the streets. This was a new entertainment/basketball segment where I was on the street challenging people and dishing out prizes. The segment is still running strong. And then my life as a host really started to soar. Two of the biggest shows on CCTV are 'The Star Road', and 6+1. I was luckily enough to get on both shows due to my none stop mailing of my portfolio to the 6+1 office. I finally got a call to be on the show.The great thing about being on 6+1 is there is a two-week training session. I used the show's resources to choreograph a dance for the famous song 'Descendants of the Dragon' sung by Wang Lihong. The host of 6+1 Li Yong is one of the best hosts on Chinese television. He's a funny guy and he became one of my compere role models.

So you got more and more gigs?

Chelsey: 2007 was the best year of my life. I was finally getting recognition as a great performer/host. Performances and opportunities started coming to me rather than me chasing them, and my spoken Chinese had reached a professional level.

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