Here’s a story that Karen Mok likes to tell: about when she first realised showbiz was for her. It relates to her early childhood in Hong Kong. Mok is sitting on the couch with her family when a variety show comes on television.
“I knew, somehow, right then and there that this is what I wanted to do with my life,” says the much-loved, multi-talented diva. “I can still remember it. A chorus line came on and there was dancing and singing. I was only three, but I never had any doubt from then on in. I was captivated at that moment and I guess I’ve been a performer ever since, strutting around and doing my thing.”
When we meet, Mok has just completed a photo shoot for Macau Tatler in a tucked-away photographer’s studio in foggy Chai Wan. Though the shoot has taken most of the afternoon, she is in good spirits and looks fabulous. Mok, in fact, has always come into her own in front of the camera, ever since she burst onto the scene as a singer and actor in 1993.
“It’s something I have always enjoyed—the attention,” the performer says. “As I said, ever since I was little I have wanted to perform, so that’s why—at this stage of my career—I feel blessed to still be able to get up there on stage and perform for my fans.”
It’s one thing to dream of stardom, of course, but quite another to see the fantasy through. Some 43 years after the youngster made her ambitious decision, Mok’s career has so far stretched to 16 studio albums and a string of acclaimed turns as an actor. “I guess I’ve always been in control, or at least I’ve always thought I was in control,” she says, laughing.
Dedication and single-mindedness have proven key to Mok’s success. Her 2016 Macau concert at Studio City, part of the Regardez World Tour, represented the first time she officially assumed the role of concert director, though she says that in reality it’s anything but. “Oh, it seems like I’ve always produced my own shows,” Mok says. “I’ve just never really spoken about it or let it be known, I guess. I always enjoyed putting things together, all through my career. It’s a real thrill to create something on stage, from start to finish, and then to share all the excitement with the audience.
“I just love getting all these ideas together and then just making it happen. Starting with the blank piece of paper, making that plan, looking at it for hours and then making it all come to life. It’s just the best feeling.”
Three tours in the past six years have kept Mok on the move, and during that time she has also released albums Somewhere/Belong (2013) and Departures (2014), and enjoyed a fairy-tale wedding in a church close to the Italian renaissance city of Florence, almost three decades after she and German-born Johannes Natterer first met as students in the romantic Mediterranean nation.
The couple have kept homes in London, where Natterer works in finance, and Hong Kong, which remains the centre of Mok’s professional universe; but, the singer explains, inspiration for the Regardez tour came about when the lovebirds got away from it all.
“The whole concept really sprang from when I took three months off and I took a trip with my husband,” Mok says. “We just wanted to see the world. The first requirement was that it had to be places neither of us had been, and that turned out basically to be the southern hemisphere.”
After touring South America, they went island hopping across the Pacific to Australasia. “It was just great to be miles away from places with which we are familiar and to be just the two of us,” says Mok. “When we got back, I launched Departures, so the image of a journey was in my mind, and that’s where the idea for Regardez came from. I guess it’s a journey for the audience through my musical history, but it’s also about the journeys we all take as people through life, to find out who we really are.”
Mok says that among the challenges was a need to make familiar hits sound new without changing them too drastically. “It’s really difficult,” she explains. “As an artist, you want to push yourself to try new things, but there are expectations from the audience. Of course, they want to hear the classics, the songs they love, but if you sing them the same way they appear on the CD, the audience might get tired. You can’t deviate too much from the original, but you want to have some fun and inject some new life into it. It’s a fine line.”
And while performing remains at the heart of what she does, Mok has been taking a more hands-on role in the business side of her career. “It’s still thrilling to me—the performing, the preparing,” she says. “And while that will always be a challenge, there is also the challenge of what goes on behind the scenes. Basically, I am my own CEO and getting the right team together and being both performer and boss is a real challenge. I don’t think I ever planned to do both jobs but I guess it’s a natural progression. If I set my mind on something, I do it.”
Music has been the focus of Mok’s creativity since she stepped away from movies after the 2014 release of thriller The Great Hypnotist. Though she recently lent her talents to long-time friend Stephen Chow, providing a track for the film director’s box-office smash The Mermaid, released in 2016, Mok says a dearth of roles for women—and especially for Hong Kong women—has limited her acting opportunities significantly. “It’s become more and more difficult,” she says. “Though I’m not offering any excuses, there aren’t many projects around these days for Hong Kong actresses—but I have plenty to keep me busy.”
“When I started my career—after dreaming about it for so long—I was a little bit overwhelmed. I am more confident now, more in control, but there are still challenges ahead, and one day I want to write my own musical. I have been here for a while now, but I still have my dreams.”
A version of this article appears in the Apr-May 2016 issue of Macau Tatler.
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