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Behind the mask

Updated: 2012-09-25 09:19
By Chen Nan ( China Daily)

Behind the mask

Mariatu Kargbo relaxes at her home in Beijing. Photos by Zou Hong / China Daily

Behind the mask

Kargbo wears her traditional Peking Opera costume.

Sierra Leone native and Miss World winner Mariatu Kargbo has captured China's heart with her devotion to its culture and people. Chen Nan reports in Beijing.

Behind the mask

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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 lightening 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 among generations, 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 gratefulness 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.

She recalls being rejected by bianlian master Hu Dongxiao when she 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 90,000 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 kids from her homeland.

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