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Meet the Real G.E.M. — “I Share the Same Frustrations as Anyone Else.”

By Caroline Suganda

Gloria Tang, better known as G.E.M., in Ralph Lauren jacket and top.
 
Liu Xiang Yu
Gloria Tang, better known as G.E.M., in Ralph Lauren jacket and top.

Most people would have heard Gloria Tang, or G.E.M.’s (acronym for Get Everybody Moving), powerful vocals even before they are acquainted with her, and for most of us, that would have been in 2014. At the second season finale of the Chinese singing competition-reality show “I Am a Singer”, the Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-based Tang sang a career-defining cover of “Like You”, or “Hei Foon Nei” (in Cantonese) by now-defunct Hong Kong rock band Beyond. Although she finished the competition as its first runner-up, her popularity far surpassed the show’s winner, Han Lei. Tang’s season finale video had garnered nearly 10 million views on YouTube, and her MV of the same song, 71 million views. 

That was the catalyst that propelled her to fame. The night she won the competition was her stepping stone to greater things — stepping out of Hong Kong to China and the rest of Asia, and even the world. For the 27-year-old, this was just the start of a life that she didn’t even know she had been looking for. But like Rome, Tang’s career wasn’t built in a day. 

“I started writing songs when I was five. At 13, I wrote my first complete song,” says Tang during her interview and cover shoot with T Singapore in Hong Kong. She’s young and bubbly; the presence she carries is as sparkly as the Ralph Lauren gown she’s in. It’s clear she knows how to command the room. 

“I still remember the lyrics to that very first song I wrote,” says Tang, before she proceeds to sing the first few lines of the song she had written based on a TVB (Hong Kong-based television broadcasting company) drama she had watched. “It was only when I was older that I looked back and realised these little verses that I [had written] were actually songs,” says Tang. 

Liu Xiang YuFrom left: Ralph Lauren dress, jacket and heels; Ralph Lauren top. G.E.M.’s own earring.
From left: Ralph Lauren dress, jacket and heels; Ralph Lauren top. G.E.M.’s own earring.

Although Tang grew up in a family of musicians — her grandmother taught Bel Canto, a classical opera technique, and her mother graduated from the opera faculty of Shanghai Conservatory of Music — no one in her family wrote songs. 

Growing up, Tang would listen to her mother and grandmother sing. Her grandmother would teach and she’d be listening by her side; her mom would play the piano. “I think I learnt more from my grandmother, because I think I’m better at singing than my mother,” says Tang with a laugh. 

Tang started taking piano lessons when she was four. When all the kids would go out to play after school, Tang spent her time practicing or singing at karaoke joints (more commonly referred to as KTVs) where she spent most of her weekends. “These [sessions] were all play to me back then. We’ll turn the background music down so we could hear our mistakes and flaws clearly,” says Tang. Today, her songs like “Bubbles”, or her cover of Taiwanese band Mayday’s “You Are Not Truly Happy” have become the definitive Mandopop songs at KTVs. Akin to Adele’s songs, Tang’s lyrics brim with emotion and vulnerability — a sentiment that Mandopop karaoke-goers are accustomed to. 

At 15, Tang entered and won first place in a singing competition “Spice it Up” and was scouted as a singer. “It was then that I realised, ‘Wow, so becoming a singer is… not a dream’,” says Tang with a laugh. “When I was young, I always thought the people I saw on television were fake, like they weren’t fake people… and then I became one of those people that I thought were fake,” Tang continues. Her laughter is pretty contagious as she shares that she had thought these people on television “did not actually exist in this world”. 

But when she got to be “one of them”, she realised life is still the same. “We are still living life as it is,” says Tang. “There are still those things in life that frustrate you. You still look into the mirror and occasionally think to yourself, ‘Wow, why are my dark eye bags so big? How did I gain so much weight?’ I share the same frustrations as anyone else.” 

Liu Xiang YuG.E.M. in Ralph Lauren dress and bag.
G.E.M. in Ralph Lauren dress and bag.

But as one lives in the spotlight, such trivial matters become magnified and Tang’s way of getting out of it stems from a strong and positive mindset — this includes dealing with heartbreaks, which she says is the same for every girl out there. But Tang has an additional avenue for releasing her pain, one that turns out, is her greatest source of inspiration and creation: her emotional turmoil churns out hits like “Bubbles”. 

However, heartbreak is not the only “inspiration” for songwriting, of course. “When inspiration strikes, anywhere is a place of inspiration,” says Tang who was seen writing a song while getting her makeup done before the shoot. “I’ll be filming ‘The Rap of China’ (a rap competition show) in a few days and I was just writing for their cypher,” says Tang. Songwriting is also an outlet for her to immortalise specific, vivid moments and emotions for when she’s old, and she likens it to cooking. “You don’t necessarily have to follow that recipe. You can rely on your own sense of taste. When you eat, you think, ‘Why is it so salty?’ The next time, you will go easy on the salt. It’s all down to your own judgement.” 

To Tang, there’s no clear distinction between work and play, and she enjoys the flexibility of her schedule. She gets to choose what she wants to do, or rest when she’s tired, but to manage such freedom, she exercises discipline and self-control. After all, it’s a task she can easily master especially when music comes as natural as breathing for her. 

Her passion for music is an immediate, if not the most profound, takeaway when you meet her. It’s her way of “sharing love”, she explains and offers an interesting analogy. “Someone needs a piece of tissue, and so you give him one and he wipes his mucus off. He would be thankful for it and all of a sudden, you feel happier because of your little action — you helped with something really small, and only you could help out with that, at that moment. It’s really as simple as that,” says Tang. 

Liu Xiang YuG.E.M. in Ralph Lauren top and jacket.
G.E.M. in Ralph Lauren top and jacket.

In return, music has brought her to places and given her many things. In 2016, Tang released a Chinese theme song for “Passengers”, a science-fiction film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. The music video has over 184 million views on YouTube and reportedly played over 1 billion times on Chinese music streaming service, KuGou. That same year, she was the only Asian musician to appear on the list of Forbes 30 Under 30, and she also got the chance to voice a leading role in the animated film “Charming” alongside other singers Demi Lovato and Avril Lavigne. In 2017, she released her first documentary “G-Force” that tells her life story.

Just last year, Tang performed at the NASA Breakthrough Prize Awards — making history as the first Chinese singer to perform at the ceremony. She was also selected as BBC 100 Women, and again she was the only Chinese on the list. Tang also inspired the late Marvel creator, Stan Lee, with a new superhero, Jewel: A world-touring pop star by day and a superhero in disguise by night. “It’s a huge honour,” says Tang, who admitted that she brought along an Iron Man speaker for Lee to sign when they met. “It’s still a concept but I don’t know how the character will develop from here.” Likewise, Lee inspired Tang through his movies, through characters like Spiderman, who made her feel like a superhero, because the “I was born to do this” moments in the movies resonated with her. 

Tang is just 27, but at this point in life, she has a list of achievements that few of her peers can compare to. She has even been dubbed Asia’s Taylor Swift. However, Tang is most fond of Beyoncé for her way of singing and dancing, but growing up, she listened to veteran Taiwanese singer Jay Chou. 

She is not one to rest on her laurels. “Everyone will see me as I begin to build my very own music brand,” says Tang. “There are many things that I want to do but these things actually circle back to the same intent — which is the reason why I enjoyed creating music in the first place. It is to ‘Get Everybody Moving’.” To Tang, her stage name, G.E.M., is not just to encourage people to move and dance along to her music, but also to move in life — she looks at it as a form of encouragement. Currently, Tang is focused on building her own investment company, which she started in 2015; its latest project involves a DNA testing company. 

While Tang shows no sign of slowing down, she does take the time to look at what drives her. To Tang, topping the music charts, holding concerts and continually pushing new projects does not necessarily equate to success. And she also takes her mother’s words of wisdom — “All that incoming attention shouldn’t even be your drive in life” — to heart.

Liu Xiang YuFrom left: G.E.M. in Ralph Lauren jumpsuit, cuff and heels; Ralph Lauren bag; in Ralph Lauren jumpsuit, cuff and heels.
From left: G.E.M. in Ralph Lauren jumpsuit, cuff and heels; Ralph Lauren bag; in Ralph Lauren jumpsuit, cuff and heels.

Tang’s fame, especially in the past five years, has seen phenomenal growth. “If you are always in pursuit of the world’s definitions of success, you will, in fact, very quickly be bored of it. You will, quickly, lose that motivation. It’s as if you’ve found your halo too early. And that halo will never follow you for a long time. You need to recalibrate the way you look at life: What is considered success? At this juncture, I feel that success is knowing yourself, and then you manifest the best of yourself.” 

So, what is her best self? “If you could use every minute and every second in your life to bring some happiness to others, or some love, or anything, you will feel that motivation. And that will be the best kind of life,” says Tang.

Related stories: Watch our interview video and behind-the-scenes of the cover shoot with G.E.M. in Hong Kong.
Photographs by Liu Xiang Yu
Styling by Tok Wei Lun
Art Direction by Alex Slavycz
Makeup by Dora Chan (Spotlight Image)
Hair by Ryu Miyazaki (BrainstormTokyo)
Photography assistance by Xie Miao Wei
Interview and styling assistance Guan Tan
Production by The ASCC
Wardrobe by Ralph Lauren