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The Hindi voice of China sings on

As sub-zero winter evenings and personal cutbacks keep tables empty at Beijing’s restaurants, a Chinese girl still takes the stage to sing in Hindi, a language she doesn’t understand, Reshma Patil explores.

world Updated: Jan 09, 2009 00:38 IST

As sub-zero winter evenings and personal cutbacks keep tables empty at Beijing’s restaurants, a Chinese girl still takes the stage to sing in Hindi — a language she doesn’t understand.

This week at a six-year-old restaurant called Chingari, Hou Wei, 26, sang Lata songs for just two occupied tables, including this correspondent’s.

On better days at the Asian restaurant, disbelieving diners argue that Hou alias Vicky, lip-synchs. At least once a week, a customer demands that the manager unplug the music while she sings, to check if it is her voice and not a Lata Mangeshkar record.

Her audiences have included the former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad, 2006. But in Beijing, this daughter of Peking Opera artists — who would hold a cassette player near the television to record songs from Awaara and Caravan — is a legend for making homesick expats feel at home.

Hou’s parents encouraged her to practice singing Chadhti Jawani Meri instead of training for a life of hardship as an ill-paid opera artist. China is now backing a resurgence of the classical Peking Opera education in schools.

“I can also sing Kishore Kumar songs, both the boy and girl parts,’’ Hou told HT, munching papad after rendering Kehna hi Kya from the movie Bombay. “Most Hindi songs have the same story about boyfriend, girlfriend, no?’’

She downloads Bollywood songs and orders CDs online. “Then I repeat, repeat, listen and learn.’’

The last Hindi movie she saw is Umrao Jaan, but she prefers the original.

“The first time I heard Hindi songs, I couldn’t understand the meaning but the songs made me feel so happy,’’ she said. She taught herself English from Michael Jackson and Madonna songs. Today she teaches music, in English, to international students at the Pakistan Embassy’s school.

Hou remains a fan of the Bollywood of the 1970s and ‘80s. “New songs are easy,’’ she said. “I delete new songs on my MP3 within a month. But I never delete a Lata song.’’

After her first India visit in 2006, she lugged home a harmonium. “I get offers to sing in discos and bars,’’ she said. “But I’m traditional.’’ While she learns Kathak and teaches Bollywood dance to a few foreigners and Chinese, Hou dreams of meeting her heroines Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsale. She hopes someone in India can make the meeting happen.