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China Daily Website

Behind the mask

Updated: 2012-12-14 09:47
By CHEN NAN ( China Daily)

Sierra Leone's Miss World winner Mariatu Kargbo has captured China's heart with her devotion to its culture and people

Behind the mask

Mariatu Kargbo, a 24-year-old native of Sierra Leone, relaxes at her home in Beijing. PHOTOS BY ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY

Sierra Leone native Mariatu Kargbo dazzled judges with the ancient Chinese art of bianlian, or "face changing", to win the Miss World Competition's Best Talent Award and the Best Fashion Award in 2009. The 24-year-old, who's known as Maria in China, became the first to perform bianlian — a Sichuan Opera skill that involves changing facemasks at lightning speed — on the Miss World Stage. And she is perhaps the first African to have learned the performance art.

Maria says she brought the art to the world's attention to show her special gratitude to China. "I have two dreams: becoming Chinese and bringing Chinese culture to the world," she says.

She recalls international media besieged her with questions about bianlian after her show.

"There was a person asking me to teach him bianlian," she says.

"I said ‘no' because I promised my shifu (master) that I wouldn't tell the secrets."

The trade's secrets have been passed down from generation to generation, but women and foreigners are traditionally forbidden from studying it.

Maria has developed a large Chinese fan base and is particularly popular with middle-aged women and children.

She first came to the country's attention in 2007, when she appeared on the TV talent show Xingguang Dadao or Star Way, which is China's answer to American Idol.

Maria also expresses her gratitude to her host country in her recently released album, Thank You China, which is a musical narrative of her life's journey from Sierra Leone's Freetown to the world's stage.

Behind the mask

Kargbo wears her traditional Peking Opera costume. PHOTO BY ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY

She recalls being rejected by bianlian master Hu Dongxiao when she first visited him in Jinhua, Zhejiang province.

"I didn't know her," Hu recalls. "And I couldn't break the rules about passing down the art form."

The 43-year-old works for a local opera troupe. While he instructs about 500 students, he has only taught bianlian to two.

"The art is so secret, and only Chinese men with good opera skills and a pure love of the art can learn it," Hu says.

"She's a woman and not Chinese. So, I turned her down without hesitation."

But Hu saw a video that changed his mind. He saw a clip of Maria rushing with the first volunteers to the Sichuan quake zone a day after the May 12, 2008, temblor, which left 80,000 dead or missing. She served for more than three weeks before falling ill.

She visited hospitals, talking with and singing for survivors. Maria continues to support five children from Sichuan province, and she supports 680 children from her homeland.

"I was so touched when I discovered she was the first foreigner to join the Red Cross after the earthquake," Hu recalls.

"I wanted to express my thanks to her."

Maria was moved by her experience in the disaster zone.

"May 13 is my birthday," she says. "All my friends said ‘no, don't go'. But only two people supported me: my mom and my Chinese mom. They said that I am a good person with a good heart. I would be safe."

So, Hu began to train Maria, despite opposition from his peers.

"She's smart and practiced very hard," Hu recalls. "Within six months, she could change eight to 10 faces within a minute."

It usually takes a professional four or five years to perform 20 changes in a minute.

"When I saw her performing bianlian on the Miss World stage, I felt I'd done the right thing by teaching her," Hu says.

Maria has also learned Peking Opera, calligraphy and Mandarin — and even local dialects.

"I was born in Sierra Leone, but my heart is the same as the Chinese — kind and warm," she says.

"It is like an affinity. That's why I feel Chinese."

She started modeling and singing at school and was sent to the national music group Sierra Black Fire. The girl traveled to many countries as a singer and dancer.

Her adoration of China started in 2004, when she was invited to compete in a beauty contest in Weifang, Shandong province.

She was 18 and couldn't speak Chinese. When she fell ill on the train, a middle-aged woman from Shanxi province took her to the hospital and cared for her there.

That stranger, Zhang Yanling, later became Maria's "Chinese mother".

Zhang recalls: "She looked so sick. I have a daughter and just couldn't look away. I'd never heard of Sierra Leone. Now, she's a star and busy with performances. But she still calls and visits me. I'm proud of her."

Maria's first Chinese-language song, Marry a Chinese, debuted at a concert headlined by kung fu star Jackie Chan at the Bird's Nest.

Renowned composer Bian Liunian, who wrote the song, says: "Maria is very warm and optimistic. You never feel distance when talking to her."

Maria is also famous at home, where she is best known for her recording of the traditional African song, Pinam.

She led 1,002 dancers while performing Pinam in Freetown's national stadium in April 2012, setting the country's first Guinness World Records, for the largest-ever sampa dance.

Sierra Leone's president, Ernest Koroma, appointed her as the nation's cultural ambassador-at-large the following month.

"I have many friends in Freetown, and I have financed many children," Maria says. "When I came up with the (mass performance) idea, they volunteered to dance."

She says she's grateful to lead a happy life after a tough childhood.

Her father's death a month after her birth caused her mother's psychological problems, she says. Her mother was eventually hospitalized for mental illness, and her stepmother raised her.

But Maria's stepmother passed away when she was 8. The little girl sold ice water and worked as a housemaid to pay her living and school expenses. She walked for three hours to school every morning and spent her afternoons selling water.

She was reunited with her mother at age 11. Her mother visited Maria's home in Beijing in 2011 and died soon after.

"I guess that she just wanted to come to Beijing and check if I am well here," she says.

Her latest goal is finding a Chinese husband, she says.

"I had three Chinese boyfriends, but all failed. Chinese men are very shy and like girls to be small and tender. But I am big and straightforward," she says, laughing.

"Marriages or relationships can't last, sometimes, but my connection with China is always the same."



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