THREE years ago, Joyce Chu was a 16-year-old Johor Baru girl recording herself singing in her bedroom. All she had was a ukelele, a handphone camera and her sugary sweet vocals.
Fast forward to two weeks ago, and she was in Bali, Indonesia performing for 8,000 fans alongside some of Asia’s biggest YouTube and social media stars at the aptly-named Viral Fest Asia.
Even by YouTube standards, Chu’s rise has been meteoric. Since her Malaysia Chabor music video exploded on the scene two years ago (it now has over 15 million views), Chu has managed to build a fan base across Asia thanks to her unique marketability among Chinese-speaking audiences.
She now has over 288,000 subscribers and 22 million views on YouTube, and that doesn’t even include the views she gets on music videos like Malaysia Chabor, which are released on her management company’s official channel.
On top of that, she has over 2.3 million views on YouKu (China’s version of YouTube), and she also played a leading role in Singaporean film Young & Fabulous. Not too shabby for a 19-year-old.
These days, she spends most of her time jetting around the region for work. When R.AGE spoke to her, it was right before she had to fly off for Viral Fest Asia (VFA).
“It’s a real honour being able to bring Malaysian culture to all these different countries,” she said, sounding every bit the average, laid-back Malaysian teenager.
“Every time I perform Malaysia Chabor (which means Malaysian girl in Hokkien) overseas, I know people are very curious about what it means, so I take the chance to explain some of the Malaysian things I mention in the song, like keropok and cendol.
“The fans at VFA were actually singing along with me, so that was really amazing.”
The song was written specially for her by controversial Malaysian artiste and director Namewee, who signed Chu to his Red People artiste management company after watching her earlier YouTube videos.
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“When we first met, he said he liked my voice, and he wanted to write a song for me. Two days later, I received the demo for Malaysia Chabor,” she said.
Chu first started uploading videos as a way of dealing with the stress of living in Johor Baru and traveling every day to Singapore for school. She would leave home around 4am every day and reach home after 8pm.
Making YouTube videos became a healthy distraction for her, because all her friends were so busy with their studies, she had “zero social life”.
“My first video wasn’t even a song cover – it was a Gwiyomi video!” she said, referring to the Gwiyomi Song phenomenon, which spawned countless homemade videos of people following the song’s dance moves. “I realised people liked that kind of thing. They want something fun, something not too serious.
“Then I did some covers of popular songs, and I eventually started putting more effort into making the videos better. Thankfully, people liked it! The comments gave me a lot of motivation and encouragement to make even more videos.”
That wasn’t exactly the case for Malaysia Chabor, though. Even though it went viral in a massive way, Chu started receiving a lot of hate comments.
The song was inspired by rumours that Chu was Korean and had plastic surgery done. Some people even made fake Joyce Chu social media accounts introducing her as being from Seoul.
While parts of the song were deemed insensitive, especially towards Koreans (quite a few comments criticised Namewee’s cameo appearance, where he sings the popular, almost sacred Korean folk song, Arirang), a lot of the hate comments had nothing to do with that at all.
“It was a tough time for me,” said Chu. “I’m used to the negative comments now, but when I first started, I never thought it could be that bad.
“The one thing I still can’t stand is when they bring my family or parents into it. That’s just too much.”
Speaking about family, Chu’s parents actually didn’t want her to take up Namewee’s offer to join his stable of artistes. She had only just completed her O-Levels at the time, and had received a scholarship to study a degree in arts in England.
“My flights and accommodation in England were all booked, so I had a big fight with my parents. I was really close to just locking myself in my room! Thankfully, everything worked out fine,” she said with a laugh.
Despite her success, Chu isn’t taking anything for granted. She candidly admits her fame could end just as quickly as it began, which is why she’s already planning for a future outside of the online content game.
Aside from her fledgling acting career, she’s also working hard on honing her skills as a songwriter and musician so she would have something to fall back on.
“I might even go back and get that degree someday, but in this industry, you really have to cherish every opportunity that comes your way, which is why I decided to put my studies on hold.
“Doing music on YouTube might be popular now, but things might change in a few years, so I had to take my chance,” she added.
Nevertheless, Chu works hard to keep herself ahead of the game. Apart from her TV and on-stage performances, she also makes sure she tries every new social app that allows her to connect better with her fans. “You have to be ahead of everyone with all these apps. It’s part of the job,” she said.
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