You may never have heard of Clay Garner. But hundreds of millions of Chinese have. They adore him.
Well, they adore 高山. That’s Clay’s stage name. Pronounced Gaoshan, it means “Tall Mountain” (though he’s hardly Yao Ming).
Like Justin Bieber here, Clay is a huge pop star in China. Unlike the Canadian heartthrob/thug though, Clay — a lifelong Westporter who graduated last spring from Greens Farms Academy — records and uploads all his own songs and videos.
Unlike Bieber, Clay’s career is totally at the whim of a government halfway around the world.
And of course, Clay does not get into regular alcohol-infused legal difficulties. After captaining GFA’s soccer team for 2 years, he is now a freshman at Stanford University.
Clay walks around Westport unnoticed, but in China his face, voice and guitar are easily recognized. Singing his own songs — a combination of traditional styles, R&B and pop – in both English and Mandarin, he’s all over the Chinese versions of YouTube and Facebook.
He has a gigantic following on Weibo — the Chinese Twitter — and appears regularly on Beijing TV, China Radio International, Youku.com and 56.com. He has been to China 5 times, though one trip was just 48 hours long. (He had to get back to school.)
Not bad for an 18-year-old American who, when he began, could not find the “upload” button on Chinese YouTube.
Clay’s unusual path to fame began nearly 5 years ago, when he took his 1st Mandarin class at GFA. (He already spoke Spanish.) He liked the sound of Chinese pop — “sad love songs and ballads,” he says, not unlike the Carpenters’ music — and soon was writing his own tunes.
The next step was recording them, in his grandmother’s attic. He did all the arrangements, production and editing himself. Then came — why not? – uploading them for the enormous Chinese audience.
But the government blocks many sites, so China’s version of the internet is quite different from the rest of the world’s. Clay had to figure it all out on his own.
Three years ago, he had a small group of followers. They left comments saying his Chinese was good, and he should keep going.
One day in 2012, a video received “thousands and thousands of views.” He was — literally — an overnight sensation. He still does not know what caused that song, at that moment, to go viral.
His channel has now been viewed 50 million times. Hundreds of millions may have seen him on CCTV — the country’s major network. “I have no way of knowing,” Clay says.
“It’s the oddest fame I know of. I don’t feel famous, but millions and millions of people know me.”
With strict government control of websites, and no Chinese iTunes — though piracy is rampant — Clay makes no money from his music. He does it strictly for fun. “It’s my contribution to international relations,” he says.
He thinks it’s important for Chinese people to see an American trying to learn their culture. For years, it’s been the other way around.
Seeing firsthand the power of social media, he’s become interested in using it to promote openness and political movements. While the Chinese government encourages Clay’s work — it’s a validation of their culture — he realizes he could been regarded as their puppet.
Once, in China, he was made to sing “Red Song” — a communist anthem. He vowed never to do that again.
“Chinese entertainers are not taken seriously,” he says. “Someone wrote somewhere that I sing ‘harmless love songs.’ I want to do more than that.”
At the same time, he knows, officials could “cut me off in a second. All my videos, all my views could be deleted in an instant. I’d have no access to my fans, to the internet, to anything. I’m walking a fine line.”
This summer, Clay hopes to make his 6th trip to China. There’s a new indie scene there, which he’d like to be part of.
Millions of Chinese would love to see 高山 return.
Millions of Americans could not care less.
ADD AUDIO LINK FROM WEBSITE