Sitting in a dimly lit hotel room for our interview, Karen Mok Man-wai's warm smile positively beams. Mention Young Post to her, and that radiant smile grows even larger as she happily recalls appearing in it several times during her school days. Back then she was known for winning speech contests; these days she's an international superstar.
The mixed-race Hongkonger made a name for herself in the early '90s in both film and music, taking home laurels such as the Hong Kong Film Award, Golden Bauhinia Award and several Golden Melody Awards. But it's been three years since she released any new music. Her latest album, Somewhere I Belong, sees Mok moving away from her Canto-pop and Mando-pop roots to record an English jazz album for the first time in her career.
Mok first heard jazz during her university days in London when she picked up a cheap recording of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duets. As soon as she pressed play, she was hooked. "I just loved the way they sing," she says. "It's just something about how ... they express their emotions, and to me, that's what singing is all about.
"It's not just singing the right notes and having technique. I mean, of course, that's part of it but it's also about expressing yourself," she explains.
Mok has wanted to sing jazz ever since - and has finally achieved her dream, thanks to likeminded people who saw the potential jazz has to cross borders and cultures. That said, Somewhere I Belong is not a straightforward jazz album. Although she covers standards like Cole Porter's Love for Sale and George Gershwin's The Man I Love, she's added Chinese instruments to her versions.
"We wanted a different sound and it made sense because I play the guzheng. But we're not trying to do world music; it's still predominantly jazz but with [some] Asian flavour," she notes.
Mok took up the guzheng in her teens. While people were learning Western instruments, she chose the traditional Chinese instrument because she thought it was different. "Learning the violin would be kind of ... boring," she says. She became proficient and played it overseas as a member of the Hong Kong Youth Chinese Orchestra.
Her guzheng playing now serves her well on her cover of the Beatles' track While My Guitar Gently Weeps. She chose this song because "it's not too in-your-face". She was also inspired by Eric Clapton's famous guitar solo on his rendition; she figured she could substitute her guzheng for the guitar. Sure enough, the guzheng's nostalgic sound gives the old track a whole new feel. This east-meets-west vibe is equally successful on tracks such as Portishead's Sour Times and her own work, The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships.
"I think [jazz and Asian instruments] worked very well on this album. The thing is not to overdo [anything], so if you strike the right balance, I think anything could work," Mok says.
The album title would suggest the jet-setter is searching for a place to settle. With her home and husband in England, office in Hong Kong, and career in China, she's never in one place for long. But home is in the heart, she says.
"It's not an actual place. I don't have to belong to any one city or place. It's more about where I'm feeling most comfortable being myself and expressing myself, like through my music."