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by Reginald Smith
Like many long-time expatriates, Ormander (Mandy) Gaines did not start out planning her life abroad. Growing up in Cincinnati, what she did know is that she loved music, especially singing. Whether it was church, school, or college clubs she was always singing and was largely self-taught having only received minimal voice instruction. Her love of singing got her involved with many musical groups, but it was a chance promotion for Coke that started her 20 year career in Asia.
In 1988, a college friend, then teaching English in Taiwan, contacted her about a music gig. Her friend was a talented musician and apparently a great promoter as well having landed a contract with the Coca-Cola company to promote Coke in Taiwan using both American and Chinese artists. He needed an English speaking vocalist and contacted Mandy for help. Though she had some trepidation on traveling so far for a gig, she joined and they became very successful. Not only did the Coke contract go well, but their performances helped them build contacts and name recognition that allowed them to book other non-Coke related performances across the island. She ended up making many lifelong friends amongst locals in Taiwan even though she admits she was driven crazy for a bit since there were almost no other Black people in Taiwan her entire time there.
Her short stint turned into a three year stay in Taiwan where she performed across the island and later across Asia. Her contacts from Taiwan allowed her to books gigs, eventually going solo, in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and later China. Her eventual routine settled into doing 3-6 month contracts to sing at a venue and to return home to the US to see her family in Cincinnati in-between. Typically during a gig, she sings six nights a week. Her sponsor also typically books her in nice hotels and pays for her performance.
The schedule gives her the day to herself but makes it hard to hang out with other expats or musicians since their schedules are the opposite with them working the day and going out at night. Despite the fact that she spends much of her year in Asia, she doesn’t completely think of herself as a ‘true’ stay abroad expat since she always returns to the US in between gigs. She also sings at festivals and clubs in Europe in between Asia gigs.
As of this interview, she was on the tail end of a 4 ½ month gig at the Ritz Carlton Shanghai singing jazz in the evenings Monday-Saturday. In recent years she has performed 6-8 months out of the year in China. Her shows are pretty well attended with a mix of guests, local jazz fans, and expats in the city. She even occasionally has members of the audience who have seen her perform in other countries in Asia. The jazz scene in the city has grown enormously over the last several years with increasingly more jazz clubs and musicians in Shanghai. It has especially boomed with the frenzy of activity currently in Shanghai with the World Expo.
One thing that clearly came out of her experience was the importance of contacts. Often times in international settings, there are not as many formal job networks such as monster.com and can even lack anti-discrimination laws. In these settings, knowing someone is crucial. Mandy’s leveraging of her network is a good tip for any expats thinking of finding work abroad. Remember, it’s not what you know, but who you know (and who knows you!)
Quick update 1Q11: Mandy has continued her singing career and has performed for two stints in Moscow and is currently wrapping up a stint in Taipei. Her next destination will be a return to Shanghai.