Cover story: Karen Mok on her guiding stars
By: Zaneta Cheng
February 11, 2021
After her year-long Ultimate tour in 2018, the Mandopop sensation conquered the Cantopop charts in 2020 with hit theme song Breathing is Hazardous. As she transitions to a new role as an animal-saving superhero, the newly 50 singer speaks to Zaneta Cheng about how chance, grit and daring have been her guiding stars throughout an illustrious career.
Karen Mok has covered a lot of ground in the entertainment industry over her 28-year career as a singer and actress. She’s won awards across Asia for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress for her work on the silver screen and, among her multitude of music awards, she was the first singer from Hong Kong to win Best Female Mandarin artist in 2002 with her album, I, at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Melody Awards. She’s also the first Chinese performer to play Mimi in an Asian tour of Broadway musical Rent, launched her own music label Mok-A-Bye Baby Records with Sony Music and at the age of 50 swept the charts in Hong Kong with her first-ever TV show theme song Breathing is Hazardous.
“We didn’t mean for the title to fit in [with the pandemic],” Mok says, laughing, sitting in the plush, light grey surrounds of the make-up room at La Prairie house in H Queen’s dressed casually in a white jumper and floral scarf after an afternoon of shooting. “We recorded the song two years ago, back in 2019. It was supposed to come out then, but it got pushed back. It wasn’t strategically planned. Those were the original lyrics, but it ended up working better with the timing because it came out last year when everyone was wondering what was happening with the world and the virus. So, it really resonated with the audience.”
Of her extensive musical repertoire, this runaway hit is a rare Cantonese number for the performer who has sung songs mainly in Mandarin over the course of her career. “I only ever released three Cantonese albums out of my 28-year career. Everything was more Mandopop. The vowels are a bit easier to pronounce in Mandarin when singing so this opportunity was nice and refreshing and a great time. I love the melody and lyrics. It came out of the blue and is the first time I’ve done a song for a television drama series so everything was like, wow, yeah!”
Last year was great for Mok, who spent 10 months in lockdown with her husband in London. While Breathing is Hazardous was taking Hong Kong by storm, Mok spent the longest period of her life “just doing nothing” – “and I really loved that,” she says with a joyous grin. “I was discovering another me, basically,” she says. “I didn’t know that other person inside me even existed because I’ve always been in work mode all these years and I guess I never bothered to really live life. Of course, I loved everything I did! I loved being on the road and on stage but that’s only part of life, that’s not everything. Last year was a great exploration and I didn’t think that this person who just stays at home existed inside me.”
R&R looks good on the consummate performer after spending much of her life on the road or on the stage. Throughout the morning and lunch when Mok is cloistered within the facial rooms at the back of La Prairie House, spaces otherwise reserved for the Swiss skincare brand’s most exclusive clients but on this day converted for our cover star into a hair and make-up space, members of the crew setting up lights and preparing angles could hear gregarious laughter emitting from the chambers within.
Even decisions are made with more leniency. Known throughout her career for tumbling tousled locks or hair swept back in a high bun or ponytail – looks that are part of the high-octane glamour that befits a performer of her stature – Mok makes an exception for a sleek low ponytail for the shoot. We count our lucky stars.
As the shoot gets underway, Mok is a picture of professionalism, periodically chatting with good friends at our magazine and serving up shot after shot that elicits oohs and aahs from those on set. Representatives from La Prairie are amazed by the flawlessness of her complexion. It’s obvious that Mok is an old hand at the game of fame, which sits well on her perennially petite frame, something even her manager is astounded by.
We ask him between shots how she maintains her figure. He says, “I honestly have no idea. She was born this way. She eats regular portions like the rest of us.” At one point, someone else says, “These images are beautiful.”
“The subject’s beautiful, that’s why the image is beautiful,” Mok says wryly from behind. We laugh.
It’s probably this drive and self-belief that has propelled Mok to superstardom. Unafraid and daring, Mok knew that entertainment was to be a lifelong passion. “I knew I was in for the long haul because there was nothing else I wanted to do, there was no plan B,” she says. “I knew since I was three [years old] that I had to do something connected with the performing arts, so all my life I have worked towards this one goal.”
And so she has thrown herself into her work from day one. As a student, Mok did Chinese dancing when her peers did their pliés at the barre. Young Karen Mok also perfected her skills on the guzheng alongside the piano. She’s since incorporated the Chinese zither into her performances, most notably strumming the instrument throughout Somewhere I Belong, her jazz album and only English-language record.
“I think I did it in the first place because it was something unusual, something different that would make me stand out. I’ve never wanted to be just like everyone else so I would always try to find my niche and it suited me because I love Chinese dance and guzheng,” she says. “The trick is to take these things and make them your own, and I love mixing different elements to create something new.”
This has been Mok’s guiding light ever since she set foot in entertainment in 1993. “When I started out in the ’90s, I did a lot of films and a lot of the roles that I played definitely weren’t run of the mill so they were quite memorable,” she says.
On whether she chose it to be that way or if it all just chanced upon her, she responds, “I think a bit of both. I’m quite adventurous and daring, so I get cast in those roles because I’m totally up for things that are not run of the mill so it’s both ways. The music I did was pretty avant-garde as well, including the cover artwork and the whole thing really.”
In 1996, Mok’s second album Karen Mok in Totality shows her seemingly naked, exposed to just below her collarbone. On the cover artwork of Mok’s 2001 album Golden Flower, she’s wrapped in clingfilm and sprinkled in gold dust.
It’s all paid off. If nothing else, take a look at the sweep of awards she’s won just for Breathing is Hazardous – Hong Kong’s iconic Jade Solid Gold, RTHK Top 10 Gold Songs, Ultimate Song Charts Song of the Year, two Joox Top Music Awards and more.
But Mok doesn’t credit strategy for any of her awards or success. In interviews outside of this one, she’s adamant that awards and success find people when they’re not out there expressly looking for them. “I mean, I didn’t really plan any of this. Everything just kind of happened. Luck definitely plays a big part and I am one to urge myself to break out of my comfort zone,” she says. “I get bored or fatigued when I’m stuck doing the same thing over and over again. So whenever an opportunity comes up to go somewhere, do something new, meet new people or try something I’ve never done before, I take it.”
This approach has taken her from Hong Kong, to Taiwan where she’s as revered as homegrown divas, to Broadway, Hollywood and even the gargantuan Chinese market where she starred in two reality TV productions Up Idol and seasons one and two of The Next over 2016 and 2017. “It was pretty hardcore,” Mok exclaims as she recounts the experience. “It was a nightmare, but I love challenges. It initially sounded like a fun thing, which it did turn out to be in the end, but it was very intense. For those three months, we recorded the programmes every week and everything was back to back.
“For my show, we were given a song and they were usually random, quirky, never heard of before and we were just supposed to find a way to rearrange and repackage it to make it ‘wow’. I do something similar in my music productions anyway, either for a concert or an album covering old songs so I was familiar with it but when you have to do it non-stop for three months, coming up with something new that surprises the audience is not easy.”
How did she do it? “I don’t know, I just closed my eyes and did it,” Mok says laughing. Crediting her #legend, “My mum taught me early on ‘fight or flight’ and it has stuck with me. I’m a fighter so it was like, I just got myself into this, now what? It was a good training session for me though, to prepare for my tour that came after.”
The tour in question is Mok’s Ultimate show. It started on June 23, 2018 and amounted to 45 concerts in 39 cities in Asia, Europe and Australia. Based on the idea of a half-time football show and to mark Mok’s 25 years in the industry, it was, in a way, Mok’s farewell to her former self.
“It was called ‘Ultimate’ because it should be the epitome of everything and it was my last big-scale tour, which is what I had set out to do. At some point, you have to quit and I thought that when I do quit, I should do so at my peak,” she muses.
“I’ve had a great run, I’ve enjoyed every second of it and I think it’s about time to go out with a bang, hence the huge tour. I’m not retiring as such, but there should be a shift in my career. We showed some iconic images such as the white shirt, long legs and the piano. I had to show everything that makes Karen Mok who she is.”
And Mok is moving on (save for the last concert of the tour in Hong Kong, possibly in June, pandemic allowing), to Mok-a-Bye Kitty, a new superhero concept. And while that’s already underfoot, I ask Mok to linger just a little longer on the Karen Mok of yore. What were the highs and what were the lows?
Of her awards, “The first acting award I won for Fallen Angels, the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Supporting Actress, was a major award and it was quite early in my career since it was only the second film I did so that was a big moment,” she reminisces. “The first Golden Melody in Taiwan, because there have been singers who have sung for years and never won, or been nominated even, so that I was lucky enough, being a Hong Kong singer, to get that recognition in the Mandopop world, meant a lot. To me, it felt like I was achieving something for Hong Kong, not just myself. And now, after being absent from the Hong Kong Cantopop scene for so many years, the homecoming and doing a grand slam with this one song, really means so much.”
And challenges, of which Mok thinks of just one key moment. “In 2007, I was working on my last album in Sony and the industry was getting really bad, with singers dropping like the stock market crash. It was a bad time for everybody and it was my last album so you can imagine that all the resources were gone,” she recounts.
“Contractually, I had to finish that last album though and as an in-house artist, I could’ve just sat there and waited for them to call me and plan everything out but that didn’t happen. I understood though that everyone was going through a hard time, so I was given the responsibility to come up with an album by such and such deadline. The budget was peanuts and I don’t know why I didn’t complain. Maybe there was no use to do so because that was just the reality. So I swallowed it and did it. Me, my producer Terry Chan and my long-time lyricist collaborator did it without help from anyone else. The result was L!VE is… KAREN MOK. It’s all in Mandarin. We wrote all the songs and produced them and although there was virtually no promotion in the end, we loved the album because we did something amazing given all the difficulties. One year later, we won Best Album at the Golden Melody Awards. That’s when I felt like everything was worth it.”
These days, Mok is finding a way to pair a superhero figure (Mok-a-Bye Kitty) with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and her passion for animal rights. “That’s going to be the new me!” she exclaims happily. “Karen Mok can just retire and move into the background while Mok-a-Bye Kitty can save the world. The whole point behind Mok-a-Bye Kitty is for a superhero to help and save the wildlife and the environment, which is an issue close to my heart. I’ve always felt that as a public figure, I should use my voice to say things out loud and to make an impact. However, I don’t want to preach. It’s a boring way to get the message across so why not do it in a fun way with a superhero figure?”
With the first comic series released, Mok is working on a soundtrack – which she started doing during lockdown when she spent time practising the third movement of Moonlight Sonata. “I do vegetate sometimes but when I do, I’m mostly daydreaming and then sometimes ideas pop into my head so it’s never really wasted,” she says. “The moon from Moonlight Sonata is an important motif in the project, which I hope I can bring to
fruition because there’s a big story around it so it wouldn’t just be a series of comics. Since music is my heart and soul, there has to be a musical element. Eventually, maybe we can turn the Mok-a-Bye Kitty series into a movie.”
Mok says this with laughter and levity but if her past is anything to go by, Mok’s future will be just as actionpacked – only, instead of a shirt and bare legs, she’ll be clad in black latex.
Photography / Ricky Lo
Videographer / Ken Leung
Creative Direction / Zaneta Cheng and Ricky Lo
Styling / Daniel Cheung
Editorial Assistant / Alex Loong
Make-Up / Ling Chan at Ling Chan
Hair / Derrick Ng
Location / La Prairie House