Image: Dios Vincoy Jr for The Straits Times

This Friday evening, Nathan Hartono will sing in one of the most important performances of his life so far, in the final of the popular Chinese television singing contest Sing! China at the Beijing National Stadium.

Whether he wins or loses on the show, he has already won – the 25-year-old Singaporean looks set to develop a music career in the massive Chinese market, possibly with his coach on the show, Mandopop superstar Jay Chou.

He tells The Straits Times yesterday over the telephone from Beijing: “We have definitely discussed the possibility of working together on future projects, but the nature of which I probably won’t say anything for now because I don’t want people to get randomly excited over something that might not happen.

“We’ve definitely been discussing like how we can work together in the future and like where I intend to go after the show is over.”

Hartono has also received offers from music companies there, but is putting them on hold for now.

“Yeah, there’s been a bunch, but to be completely honest, I have been dodging a lot of those things because I really want to collect myself when this thing is over.

“I haven’t been able to have time to do my own proper life admin. Once this whole thing is over, I want to settle down back home for a bit, weigh all my options, make sure everything is all clear, then I’ll start thinking about what the next few months and years are going to be like.”

Before all that, he will first release an EP through Warner Music Singapore, possibly featuring a mix of English and Chinese songs.

Despite having the highest score among the six finalists, Hartono thinks that there is little chance that he will win.

Being in the final is already “a huge deal” for him and his focus is to put on a good show.

He cannot reveal what songs he will be singing, but unlike his Mandarin/English mash-ups in the previous episodes, all the songs, including a performance with Chou, will be in Mandarin.

“I’ve been working out the songs and different things with Jay and his team, and we’ve got a whole bunch of interesting things.

“From what I can tell, the vibe around what we’re going for in this final is not so much ‘shoot to win’, or ‘we have to outdo and strategise’. It’s pretty much just have fun, push your own boundaries and push your own limits.

“It’s crazy enough that I’m gonna be performing at the Beijing National Stadium.”

Formerly known as The Voice Of China, Sing! China airs on Zhejiang Television.

In July, Hartono, whose Chinese name is Xiang Yang, became the first Singaporean to make it through the initial blind auditions after he impressed all the coach-cum-judges – Chou, Taiwanese singer-songwriter Harlem Yu, China singer Na Ying and rocker Wang Feng – and they wanted him on their teams.

The initial 48 contestants hailed from countries all over the world, including China, Malaysia, United States and Brazil.

Hartono describes Chou as a “complementary” mentor, one who focuses and enhances his mentees’ skill sets rather than imposes his own style or views on them.

“I really appreciate it because it just makes this whole process seem more like a collaboration as opposed to this is just his job, that he signed a contract to do and like he’s obliged to help me or whatever.

“It’s really nice to be able to collaborate with somebody at his level, but other than that, he’s just like a chill guy.”

Chou, he adds, understood the pressure the contestants were facing in the competition and he always made sure that his time with them was not all about work.

They went out for meals together (“Jay always ordered hotpot”) and Chou even took Hartono and his other mentees to a gaming cafe where they played the multiplayer online game League Of Legends.

“The crazy thing is that he’s sort of the face of the game over here, so when you open the game in China, the first face that you see is actually his. And it was kind of surreal to open the game, have his face there and then you look next to you and he’s there playing. That was a very odd, dream-like thing going on,” Hartono says.

While he has been alone whenever he travels to China to film the show, eight of his family members, including his parents and siblings, will fly to Beijing to root for him at the final.

He is also pleased that his earlier remark to The Straits Times about treating Singaporeans to iced Milo if he wins caught the attention of Nestle, the chocolate drink’s company. It has promised to mobilise its Milo vans all around Singapore, regardless of the final result.

“It’s the Milo van, man, everyone knows the Milo van. Every sports day, or like some national event, there will always be one. And like, they put something different in there, I don’t know what it is, it’s a lot better.”

Many Singaporeans are optimistic that Nathan Hartono will win Sing! China

Image: Dios Vincoy Jr for The Straits Times

Singapore singer Nathan Hartono will be bringing home the Sing! China crown after Friday night’s final of the televised singing competition, if Singapore fans have their way.

In an online poll conducted by The Straits Times, over 82 per cent say that he will win.

After all, Hartono, 25, had received the highest score of 93.65 among the 12 contestants during the semi-finals broadcast on Sept 30. He also received 47 out of 51 votes from the judges and 333 votes from the audience of 350.

According to Sing! China’s page on Baidu, the format of the final and how the winner will be picked have yet to be determined.

In past years – on the previous incarnation of the Zhejiang Television show, The Voice Of China – the winners were determined by votes from the live audience and a selection of industry professionals. The champs were all from China and comprise Bruce Liang Bo (2012), Li Qi (2013), Diamond Zhang Bichen (2014) and Zhang Lei (2015).

Hartono is the only singer from Mandopop superstar Jay Chou’s camp to make it to the final. The other judges are Taiwanese singersongwriter Harlem Yu, China rocker Wang Feng and singer Na Ying.

Preschool educator Carol Tan, 37, says: “Based on the score he got from the China viewers, he is one of the highest. Hence chances are high that he will win. He also has more stage experience. But he has to choose his songs wisely as it is still a China market.”

Others struck a more cautious note.

UFM 100.3FM radio DJ Wong Woon Hong, 45, says that Hartono is likely to come in second or third. “I think that the championship might not be given to a foreigner.”

The other foreigner in the final is 16-year-old Li Peiling from Penang.

Wong adds: “Nathan has been very impressive in the previous rounds, but this means that others have a high chance of surprising everyone in the final, whereas he would maintain his usual very good standard.”

There is also the fact that this is, after all, a television show. “If everyone could guess the outcome, then it wouldn’t be fun,” Wong says with a laugh.

Hartono is the first Singaporean to make it past the televised blind auditions of Sing! China as well as The Voice Of China.

On the fourth and final season of The Voice Of China in 2015, husband-and-wife singers Alfred Sim and Tay Kewei represented Singapore, but were not picked by the mentors.

That series was the show’s most diverse up to that point, with Australian-Chinese Li An from Sydney making it to the top five.

In some ways, the results might not matter that much.

As Ocean Butterflies managing director Colin Goh puts it: “At the end of the day, the winner might not necessarily be the best as there are many conditions to determine the winner. More important, to me, is who will really advance his or her career after that TV show.”

There is no denying, though, that the programme is a good platform for boosting one’s profile.

Facebook user Leong Janice says in a post that even though the competition has been going on for a few years, previous winners have yet to make a mark on the international stage.

But, even before the final, Hartono has already garnered support from countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

“See, he’s already won.”

A version of this story was originally published in The Straits Times on October 5, 2016. For more stories like this, head to www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle.