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Grown-up 'Youth with no regrets'

AN angry judge on "China's Got Talent" recently made headlines by yelling that Shanghai men are "wimps" and creating an uproar. Judge Gao Xiaosong, best- known for writing sentimental campus ballads, talks to Xu Wei.

From "My Deskmate Girl" to "Youth With No Regrets," songwriter Gao Xiaosong moved a generation of young people with his sentimental campus ballads and became known as the godfather of China's Campus Folk music.

The music, song after song, was hugely popular in the 1990s and people are still nostalgic about what they see as purer, more natural and less materialist times in China.

But there are no more sentimental campus ballads today - campus life appears to be all about the drive for money and degrees to ensure high-paying jobs.

And Gao doesn't write ballads anymore. Instead, the college-dropout son of distinguished intellectuals has plunged into show business and is best-known as a judge on glitzy TV talent shows, "Super Girl" in 2009 and today on "China's Got Talent," the hottest show in China and the latest in the "Got Talent" franchise.

He's one of three judges, including Shanghai comedian Zhou Libo and Taiwanese singer and actress Annie Yi.

These days he has been in Shanghai where the finals will be aired on October 10. The nation has been riveted to the grassroots talent show - some acts are good, some are freakish. There's China's famous fat boy, Zhu Xiaoming from Shanghai, who sings. Zhu Jie from Inner Mongolia, a woman with dwarfism who also sings. And Chen Jing, a Shanghai woman who sings while supporting three adult males on her back.

But it was Gao who made the news on September 12 when all the three judges (and 60 other experts) nixed the woman holding up the guys.

An uproar ensued when the woman refused to leave, rushing to the center of the stage and repeatedly shouting, "It's all fixed."

Her husband also ran shouting to the stage. More than 10 staff and security people ran around or stood around, unable to remove the screaming woman and her husband.

"Why can't you 10 male workers get them off the stage?" Gao shouted, adding the infamous line about all Shanghai men being wimps.

A video of the fracas was posted online and became a sensation - also stirring anger among maligned Shanghai men - before it was removed.

In an recent interview with Shanghai Daily, 41-year-old Gao was considerably more composed and said all the right, heart-warming things about life and talent shows.

Today he lives in Los Angeles with his second wife and three-year-old daughter.

He's a music producer and director, he's written a novel and made a couple of expressionist films, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and "Rainbow." Now he's working on his first commercial effort, a Hollywood martial arts film about Peking Opera artists, collaborating with the Ruddy Morgan Organization.

Looking back on the campus ballad days of "Youth With No Regrets," he said that his forties is the most beautiful stage of life for him.

"My life is in full bloom," Gao said. "As the Chinese saying goes, 'Become wise at 40, understand one's fate at 50.' Now I am free from perplexities. I have the confidence to take responsibility and do the right thing. No more hesitation and confusion."

Those golden days also brought sadness and Gao is famous for failing at campus love. In 1999, after he was a successful songwriter, he met "the" young woman he had been fantasizing about, standing at the entrance to a university. It was love at first sight and he proposed three days after they met. She accepted but the marriage collapsed in a few months. His second wife is a former overseas Chinese student he met in the United States.

In "China's Got Talent," the emphasis is on grassroots talent, not just quaint and quirky acts and sentimentality. Gao obviously favors contestants with genuine talent and a strong power inside to pursue their dreams.

He said one of the most impressive performances for him was delivered by Zhu Jie, a young woman singer with dwarfism, who failed to enter the final competition.

"When she told us with a brilliant smile and lots of confidence that she lives a happy and fortunate life, I was moved to tears," Gao said. "One can't imagine how hard life was for her. But what we read from her eyes are not complaints or depression, but an unyielding spirit."

Gao plans to attend Zhu's wedding.

The street singer Chuan Zi from Beijing also got Gao's vote. Chuan is writing a theme song for "China's got Talent," expressing his understanding of "talent."

"Chuan entered the contest not to achieve quick success or fame," Gao said. "He clearly knows the difference between dreams and desires. A Chinese proverb sums it up: cherish one's nobility as a nobody and try to improve society as a somebody."

He said judging "China's Got Talent" is rewarding and has helped him realize that art can be accessible to everyone, rich or poor, young or old, making ordinary life extraordinary.

Gao has come a long way from his upbringing in an intellectual family in Beijing. His traditional Chinese education covered music, chess, calligraphy and painting. Both of his grandfather and maternal grandfather were members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and founding members of prestigious Chinese universities: Tstinghua and Shenzhen universities.

However, Gao showed his interest in art and literature at a young age. He was president of his high school's Poets' Society, so everyone was surprised when he was admitted to prestigious Tsinghua University to study electronic engineering.

"I decided to study science at college because I want to explore and know this world from a different angle, in a more rational way," Gao explained.

He dropped out three years later to study film directing at the Beijing Film Academy but said that the university science study played an important role in shaping his "life philosophy."

His success with campus ballads he regards as a happy accident. "My Deskmate Girl" about love with his deskmate, was among the top mainland pop songs of 1994.

"I took up music as my first career job after graduating in film because I was not as well disciplined as many of my peers," he said grinning.

"But compared with today's young music enthusiasts, what makes us so fortunate is that we were 'bad or rebellious' guys living in an age of innocence and purity."

His generation grew listening to the songs of Cui Jian, China's father of rock, and Law Dai-yau, Hong Kong singer and songwriter, and reading the poetry of the so-called modern "Misty Poets" Bei Dao and Gu Cheng. Today's young people face pressures of getting a good job, being successful and trying to buy a costly home. "Sometimes they can't even figure out the difference between dreams and obsession with material wealth," Gao said.

He jokes that it's hard for people to make a living in the music industry, so they had better take up music for fun and relaxation.

Over the past decade, Gao has been involved in song writing and music production. But these days the Los Angeles resident is busy preparing for the shooting of a Hollywood martial arts film, "The Painted Love Story."

"It's about a group of Peking Opera performers' devotion to their dreams," Gao said. "It's not an artsy film. With both distinctive Hollywood and Oriental elements, it's my first commercial work."

Film directing and music production will be his career until he reaches 60 years of age, he said. Then he wants to be an art teacher.

In the meantime, he will enjoy life's gifts.

"I used to think that life would get bland and insipid," he said. "But my daughter has reignited my passion for life, making me a more positive person. I'm grateful for everything I have in my life."


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