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McCormick Senior Vies for Record Contract in Chinese TV Competition

Study abroad leads David Harris to unexpected success on stage

Northwestern University senior David Harris went to China to perfect his Mandarin. He didn’t expect to become a singing sensation on one of the country’s most popular TV singing competitions.

“I feel like every little kid has a dream that they want to be a fireman, a rock star, an astronaut,” Harris said. “Being able to do one of those things — it’s exhilarating.”

Harris, a double major in industrial engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and in Mandarin Chinese in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, studied abroad in Beijing during winter 2012 and stayed through the summer to work at the American Embassy. In his internship he mainly interacted with English speakers, so he decided to pursue a hobby that would introduce him to the Chinese culture and language. 

A longtime guitar player, he started performing in Chinese and English at a local bar. He also befriended a neighbor, a food vendor from whom Harris had bought pancakes each morning; the neighbor had recently started playing guitar and had dreams of performing on Xing Guang Da Dao, a competition similar to American Idol.

Harris’ neighbor dragged him to an audition. Of thousands of hopefuls, both of them landed spots, but Harris was back at Northwestern by the time he received the news. With classes under way, he declined. (Harris’ friend competed, but was voted out in the first round. “Not bad for a beginner,” Harris said.)

But when Harris returned to China last summer through the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship Program, he decided to give showbiz another try. He worked with the show’s producers to schedule filming for later in the fall. After his program ended, he used a period of free time to perform in several lesser-known competitions — including one similar to America’s Got Talent — to prepare for Xing Guang Da Dao.

Earlier this month, Harris flew to China to film the show, a weeklong process that involved hours of practice, coaching, and styling. (“It’s a big production,” Harris said.) He cannot disclose the results; the show won’t air until early 2014. If he advances in the first round, two more rounds stand between him and the grand prize: a record contract.

“Even if I get close, I would likely get a deal from other companies as well,” Harris said. “Just like American Idol, the winners typically achieve some level of stardom after winning the competition.”

During the same trip, Harris won another competition, Huan Qiu Shen Qi Xuan (video above). If he successfully completes another round of that contest, he will earn a spot on a televised New Year’s Eve show. 

How does a full-time student manage to become a Chinese television star? Juggling classes and this singing career has not been easy, Harris admits. “Luckily my teachers have been very understanding, but it’s not easy,” he said. “The jetlag is the hardest part.”