The new onscreen queen

The new onscreen queen

Singer G.E.M. tells Leon Lee how YouTube improved her relationship with fans, and broadened her outlook

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G.E.M. (left) and Arica Ng say YouTube allows for more originality.
G.E.M. (left) and Arica Ng say YouTube allows for more originality.
Photo: Warton Li/SCMP
When they need a break from studying, many people watch a couple of skits, how-tos or music videos on YouTube. With four billion hours of videos watched a month and 72 hours' worth uploaded each minute, it's one of the most visited websites in the world. One of Hong Kong's most popular channels, with more than 60 million views, belongs to Canto-pop singer G.E.M. But her videos aren't just about the music.

G.E.M. (real name Tang Zhi-kei) first posted on her channel in 2008. It was a simple video of her making a goldfish face - puffing out her cheeks - and talking, which she often did with friends. She wanted her fans to get involved, so she asked for video responses.

"I was originally only going to post one but I got a lot of responses, some asking me how to make the face. So I posted an instructional video, and then another and then another, and before you know it, I'm posting videos of my opinions, or fun things I come across," she says.

G.E.M. and her team were quick to see the potential of YouTube and embrace it. In the not-so-distant past, music lovers depended on TV and radio to learn about new music. But with the internet, there are many more ways to discover new artists, meaning competition is fierce. But the pop princess is still riding high because she knows how to interact with fans.

"Quality and content is king now. G.E.M. is not signed to a major label but she's still able to get over 60 million views today because of her content," Tan Chang, the founder of her label Hummingbird Music, says.

Arica Ng Pei-chuen, head of music partnerships, YouTube Hong Kong, agrees. She lists volume, originality and fresh content as keys to success. "I think sometimes a lot of success on YouTube doesn't happen by chance. Since G.E.M. started her channel in 2008, she has uploaded 150 videos, so if you work it out, that's one every nine days on average. I think she's put in a lot of effort, and that's why she's a very successful artist right now," Ng says.

As G.E.M. matures as an artist, so does the subject matter of her videos. She still makes time for the fun ones, but she's also created some that reflect the world around her. This year, she started a video series called Freelance Tour; it highlights a different job she tries each month. So far, she's worked at a juice stand and a 7-11, and done a stint as an entertainment journalist.

"Being a singer is the first and only job I've ever had. I made the jump directly from school into the music industry when I was 16," she explains.

"Usually people move slowly into the adult world, with the help of university where they learn independence. The Freelance Tour lets me learn more about other people and their lives, their stories.

"My fans are mostly around my age; I want them to see the real side of society as I find out for myself, away from the safety net of school and teachers."

Perhaps at the heart of the 21-year-old's love affair with YouTube, though, is her desire to connect with fans. She premiered her most recent music video, Bubbles, live on her YouTube channel. It was watched by as many as 25,000 viewers, who commented on it and received real-time answers from the star, which made them feel as if they were actually with her.

With plans to include social media elements in future gigs, G.E.M. is proving each day that YouTube is about far more than moody cats and K-pop parodies.

To watch G.E.M.'s channel go to www.youtube.com/GEMblog

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