When a 13-year-old Fiona Hui wanted to pave her way into the music industry, she signed up for each and every singing contest that she had watched on television. ‘I had a passion for singing from a very young age, and thought the only way to get myself into the business was to become a Canto-pop singer.’
If she had won the competitions and shot to local stardom, she might have never plunged into the world of American musicals and garnered international acclaim as the first Chinese who starred in the lead role of Kim in Miss Saigon.
Fourteen years ago when Fiona was studying voice in the Department of Music of CUHK, Miss Saigon came to Hong Kong. The music student was among the audience and mesmerized by the epic story of love and sacrifice set towards the end of the Vietnam War. ‘I said to myself that I wish I could play the show’s heroine. At that point I found my new calling.’
One year later, the fresh graduate got on a plane and moved halfway around the world to chase her dream in New York University. But the reality of the situation began to hit her the first day of school.
The newcomer told the voice faculty that she intended to shift to musicals, but her strong accent raised a few eyebrows. The Hong Kong native was deemed incapable of handling English musicals, and was advised to stay with classical voice.
For a less fanatical dreamer, that would probably be the end of it. But instead of giving up, Fiona resolved to eliminate the undesirable accent so as to speak and sing like native English speakers.
‘I sang with a wine bottle cork between my teeth, and read aloud from newspapers to exercise my facial muscles. I practised hard and one day when I removed the cork, I found my articulation improved and English pronunciation much clearer.’
She kept going to audition for musicals on and off campus. ‘I don’t mind being part of the ensemble and singing in the chorus. I took offers regardless of the wage.’
That attitude served her right through the postgraduate years when she ‘never had more than 100 dollars in my bank account’. In 2005 when Fiona secured her master’s degree, Miss Saigon was on national US tour. She jumped at the chance, went to audition, and secured an ensemble role in her dream play.
2006 was an eventful year to the persistent dreamer. The Ridge Chorale in New York was casting new faces for a new production of Miss Saigon. Fiona tried out for the title role, and won it. ‘The interview works out well for me. Since I had been one of the ensembles in a Massachusetts production for a few months, I was familiar with all the staging, songs, and lines. The director also thought my look and voice were suitable for playing Kim the Vietnamese girl.
‘I was over the moon to see my dream finally come true, but also felt a lot of pressure. I can sing all right, but have to spend many more hours than my fellow actors and actresses to practise my lines and drop the accent.’
In the same year, Disneyland Hong Kong went to New York to look for performers and vocalists for the musical productions at the new theme park. The panel were pleasantly amazed when Fiona showed up as a seasoned musical singer who spoke Cantonese only too well.
She accepted the munificent compensation package, and returned to Hong Kong to assume the roles of principal vocalist and MC in the show Golden Mickeys produced by Hong Kong Disney Theatre.
After sharing the Disney stage with artists from around the globe for one and a half years, Fiona boarded the flight back to the US. This time, she was cast to portray Kim again in Minnesota.
Paul Hustoles, director of the Minnesotan revival of Miss Saigon, commented on the Asian gem in an interview in 2008: ‘We had been rehearsing a couple of weeks. Fiona came in and within two nights, she was up and running and performing beautiful work for us. She is an inspiration not only because of her voice but because of her acting.’
Afterwards, she began to put down her roots back in the Big Apple. Today, she runs her own music studio in New York to coach the new generations of dream chasers.
Fiona, who returned to town to perform for a gala concert by Lee Woo Sing College last month, insists there’s no way she would be pursuing her dream without the love and support from her alma mater. She credits the Department of Music with giving her the most solid foundation which is ‘up to any international standard’, and the Alumni Association of Greater New York with walking her through the most trying years in a foreign country.
She understands the challenges of treading a musical path, but she has encouraging words for the young: ‘Success is never coincidental. Behind every accomplished artist are decades of hard work and perseverance. As long as you keep working and working at it, you can make your dream come true, at least certain parts of it.’
By Christine N., ISO
Photos by Keith Hiro
This article was originally published on CUHK Homepage in Oct 2015.