Cat king lives!

BEIJING, Jan. 22 -- Ask someone in China, "what's your favorite Elvis song?" and you're often met with a blank stare and a puzzled attempt at repeating his name. Its only after using his more familiar moniker "Mao Wang" (Cat King) will you get a polite yet still uncertain nod of recognition.

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Elvis impersonator Jiang Zhenwei

This vague familiarity typifies the relationship between the King and the Middle Kingdom. And as fans throughout the world paid tribute to Elvis on what would have been his 75th birthday on January 8, here there was less than royal fanfare for the King of Rock and Roll, yet another indicator of how China and the West were worlds apart during the 1950s and 60's, the period of Elvis' golden reign.

But that doesn't mean there aren't those doing the good work in keeping the King alive in China and what better ambassador of such a Western cultural icon than an Elvis with Chinese characteristics.

"Chinese Elvis is the best of the West with an Eastern twist. He is charming, peace-loving, egalitarian and above all sexy, which is unusual," said Paul Hyu, a UK-based British- Chinese tribute artist who bills himself as the "Chinese Elvis."

"Most other ethnically diverse Elvi are jealous of Chinese Elvis. I can't prove this, of course, but its a hunch I get when I meet them. So far my only proof is that I won the Elvis-special edition of The Weakest Link (BBC TV) against Elvi from Canada, Norway, Germany and Malta," he added.

Hyu is a professional stage actor who has performed as his kingly persona all over the world, bridging gaps in culture with rock and roll diplomacy.

"I believe all Sino-Western relations could be improved by having Chinese Elvis present, endorsing the good stuff with a sexy shake of his pelvis and making both sides realize what we have in common is far greater than what makes us different."

Hyu is not the only Elvis gyrating for Sino-Western relations. China has her own King of Rock and Roll and he's making up for lost time.

"Historically, China just missed Elvis, it was a matter of timing," said Jiang Zhenwei, the most famous (and only) Elvis impersonator in China. Over the past six years, the 27-year-old Shanghai resident and graphic artist has performed on various nationally broadcast programs on almost every CCTV station, even catching the attention of some foreign media. However despite his e. orts, most in China are still clueless about the King.

"Some might have heard the name, but most people have no idea who he is or what he's about. I'll say "Cat King" and many think I'm talking about my pet."

The origin of this Chinese translation for Elvis draws from two sources; "Cat" referring to "Hillbilly Cat," a name Elvis was billed under early in his career and the more obvious "King of Rock and Roll." However other Chinese, especially those from Hong Kong, also cite Elvis' pelvic twists resembling the strut of a cat as inspiration for his feline nickname.

Admittedly, Jiang was unaware of the origins of Elvis' name or even his music until he was in college. While studying art at Nanjing Conservatory, a couple of his schoolmates called to his attention that "he looked just like Elvis."

"It wasn't until then I started buying his CDs and when I listened, even though I knew nothing about his music, I felt I'd heard it all before, like it was destiny."

Despite his success, Jiang is not as optimistic as his British Cat King-in-arms about Elvis finding a home in China, especially in a country steeped in Mandopop.

"Originally I wanted to bring the spirit of Elvis, something that had changed my life, to as many people as possible. But I found that in facing what passes as popular Chinese music, there doesn't seem to be any room for him."

Despite the cultural odds, Elvis' music managed to find its way into the hearts of Chinese musicians, at least those curious enough to look back to the roots of a genre that had already morphed and splintered into a full spectrum of varieties by the time Cui Jian, considered by many to be China's godfather of rock, had introduced the style the late 1980s with his politically charged album, Nothing to My Name.

"Most listening to rock and roll today got into it post-1990, with many their first tastes being heavy metal. After that, China started to fall in line with current music and not many were bothering to listen to the music of the 1950s," explained Wang Hui, lead singer of the Beijing rockabilly outfit DH & Chinese Hellcats.

Even if his was not a direct influence, Elvis is such a part of Western culture that his presence is hard to ignore.

"Because Elvis' contribution to rock and roll was so great, he indirectly influenced music and culture in China whether people know it or not," Wang added.

Elvis was not only a cultural force, but also a culmination of his era, a time when America was experiencing tremendous growth and change, the same change that is reflected in the simmering rock of China.

"Rock here is in a pre-Elvis stage. There are a lot of people doing it, but relatively not many people know about it," said Desmond McGarry, lead singer of the Beijing rock fixture Black Cat Bone, a five-piece rhythm and blues band that has performed across the country.

"One of the great contributions Elvis made to music was that he kicked that door down to let everyone know what was happening and China is still waiting for that agent," he added.

(Global Times)