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China's Got Talent

THE highly anticipated finals of "China's Got Talent" will be held tonight and everyone's watching to see whether judges this year are going for genuine talent or just weird acts. Last year's winner was an armless pianist and the whole first season stirred controversy.

The lineup of six finalists this year looks better, there's some talent - song, dance and acrobatics - and the right touch of quirkiness and sentiment. An online audience poll will decide two more finalists for a total of eight.

Among the six is 30-year-old Chinese American street performer and acrobat Isaac Hou who juggles, manipulates a crystal ball and performs inside a rolling Cyr wheel, a large, man-size hoop.

Accompanied by music he manipulates the ball so it seems to weightlessly float between his fingers and along his arms and shoulders. As he stretches out his arms, the ball rolls from right to left, and left to right in an astonishing performance.

Hou grew up in the US state of New Jersey. His parents, who immigrated from Taiwan, originally wanted their son to pursue a well-paid, high-status career in engineering or the sciences. Because of that, he was named after Isaac Newton (1643-1717), the English physicist, mathematician and astronomer who "discovered" gravity. His brother is named Albert, after Albert Einstein.

However, Hou was driven by a passion for kung fu and acrobatics (which can be gravity-defying). He attended circus schools in Denmark, Sweden and Russia to learn juggling and circus and street entertainment. He went to Cirque du Soleil, Montreal, Canada, to learn difficult cyclic stunts and to China's Shaolin Temple to study kung fu.

He has been living and performing in Taiwan, where he started to learn Chinese. Most of his income comes from teaching English and performance. He performed at the 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and at Carina Lau's birthday party in Shanghai last year.

His family used to regard his athletics and performance profession as a waste of time, but after winning acclaim, recently in "China's Got Talent" semi-finals, Hou had tears in his eyes. He apologized to his parents for rebelling at an early age and said, "I want to make my parents proud of me."

Hou took time out from rehearsal to talk with Shanghai Daily.

Q: Why did you decide to perform in your parents' homeland after years of study abroad.

A: I was curious about my culture. I grew up speaking only English so it really limits my understanding of Chinese culture.

Q: Did you expect your high score from the jury? (You have my vote!) How do you feel about your "China's Got Talent" journey?

A: I did not expect such a warm reception, I was quite taken aback. Honestly, I did not expect to come so far in the show. It's been a bit hectic, but a very interesting experience.

Q: How do you define street art?

A: Street performing is when you make an impromptu show in the street. It's something often unexpected, with a minimum of equipment (lights, stage, sound, space).

A lot of unexpected things can happen in the street, which can become part of the show. Dogs bark, kids start crying, things happen and the audience tension goes around. It's interesting.

Q: Has recognition changed your life? Will you move from the street to the stage?

A: Some people started to recognize me in the street, so I started to wear a hat. I welcome any chances to perform on the stage but performing on the street will always have a special place in my heart.

Q: What inspires you? What are the challenges?

A: I am attracted to simple things, nothing too complicated. So the ideas that I decided to work with are all very elemental, such as water and metal. I guess I should also have a fire and earth in there, but I'm still working on that.

Q: What are your plans after the show?

A: I don't want to talk much about my future plans, I would like to keep my doors open.

Q: Since this is your first visit to the Chinese mainland, what are your impressions of Beijing and Shanghai?

A: Beijing and Shanghai are both very beautiful cities with their own distinct flavors. My first impression of Beijing is that things are very big, and there are many beautiful, historic buildings. Shanghai has more of a young vibrant feel to it; there's a lot of interesting modern architecture. I haven't spent enough time in each city to make a fair appraisal.

Other contenders: From China's Susan Boyle to kung fu hip-hoppers

China's Susan Boyle?

Cai Hongping, a middle-aged vegetable seller in a Shanghai wet market, is an ordinary-looking woman from Anhui Province - with a beautiful voice. She has been called China's Susan Boyle, after the British singing sensation in "Britain's Got Talent" (2009). She has changed the lyrics from a profession of love to a song in which all the words are the names of vegetables.

Body pop dancer

Body-popper Zhuo Jun is the only college student from his village in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. He delighted the audience with his robot dance of muscle jerks, or pops. He is self-taught, learning from videos on the Internet.

Sports acrobat

An Dong, a 39-year-old sports acrobat, has been trained for years for the Olympics but his sport was finally not included in the games. The native of Dalian, Liaoning Province, didn't give up. He created a "space walk" performance in which he hangs and rotates at a 90-degree angle on a pole - he is parallel to the floor.

Mongolian orphan singer

Uudam, a 12-year-old orphan from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, has wowed audiences with his pure tones, especially singing "Mother in the Dream." When he was 8, he lost his parents in a road accident. A video clip released by claimed Uudam was lip-synching. But Dragon TV, the Shanghai-based makers of "China's Got Talent," insisted the performance was live.

Kung fu pop

The martial arts hip-hoppers are the only group contestant in the finals. The four young men from around China combine kung fu with pop music and hip-hop culture.

Eight contestants will take part in the finals. The remaining two places will be decided by an online audience vote.

Finals: 7:30-11pm, today, Dragon TV


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