Turkish entertainer Karlova aka Ufong becomes sensation in Taiwan
Turkey first heard about Uğur Rıfat Karlova, a Turkish entertainer living in Taiwan, when he won the “Best Host” award in 2012 at Taiwan’s Golden Bell Awards, which is the Taiwanese equivalent to the Emmy Awards. He was the first foreigner to receive an award in that category.
Uğur Rıfat Karlova, 38, is a Turkish entertainer living in Taiwan. He is well-recognized among the Taiwanese by the name “Ufong.” But Turkey first heard about him when he won the “Best Host” award in 2012 at Taiwan’s Golden Bell Awards, which is the Taiwanese equivalent to the Emmy Awards.
Karlova was the first foreigner to receive an award in that category. He was in the spotlight once again when Tom Cruise signed Karlova’s head after an interview for MTV Taiwan. Since then, Karlova has had many other groundbreaking achievements. He became the first foreigner to receive Taiwanese citizenship for his contributions in arts and culture. However, his recent success has gone unnoticed. Eight months ago, Karlova published a Chinese book in which he gives the reader a tour of Turkey. With Karlova, we talked about his journey to fame, his new book and future plans.
After receiving a university degree in tourism, Karlova went back to Tekirdağ and started working at his father’s oil shop. In the winter of 2001, he began to ask himself, “what can I do to change my life?” He found the answer in learning a new language, but his next question was, which language?
He was stuck between Dutch and Korean, but his plans changed when one of his friends recommended Chinese. First, he had to take a language exam, which would determine whether or not he could attend a sinology program.
“I would get up in the morning and work at my father’s shop in the industrial zone. I would return home in the evening, covered in rust and dirt, and would start preparing for the exam,” said Karlova.
The day right before the exam, Karlova stayed at a friend’s house where he learned two new words that would change his life. The word “junction” came up during their conversation and he saw the other word, “straightforward,” among his friend’s flash cards piled up in front of the bathroom mirror. Coincidentally, both words came up on the exam.
“If I had been unable to give the right answer to those two questions, I would not have gotten into the school and be in Taiwan today. In total, I had to have 70 points and I scored 70.5. I was the 29th person to be accepted into the Chinese department. That year, they only admitted 30 people. With those two words, my life changed,” said Karlova.
After completing sinology studies at Ankara University, Karlova went to Taiwan on a scholarship to do his master’s. While walking down the street one day, two Taiwanese men approached him and unexpectedly asked if he would play a Canadian missionary in a documentary. By accepting the offer, Karlova made his first debut. The rest came slowly and a little painfully.
irst, he started holding Chinese shows in a comedy club in Taiwan. In the beginning, only a handful of people showed up, but his crowd grew over time. Being Turkish, his good communication skills with the east and west was advantageous for him in the process. He also began making appearances on TV programs and advertisements with small roles. In 2010, he decided to participate in a comedy competition in Hong Kong. He even had to sell his laptop to go there, but this was his way of trying himself and seeing whether or not he had a chance in show business. After winning second place, Karlova went back to Taiwan feeling motivated to keep trying.
In Taiwan, he continued to take part in TV programs for amounts like $10 to $20.
“I was making shows, singing songs, jumping around, coloring my face. I was trying everything an entertainer would do,” said Karlova. He added how sometimes he would sleep on dusty shelves while waiting for his turn to appear on camera. To escape from poorly paid small roles, Karlova sent hundreds, perhaps thousands of emails to people in show business.
He would send clips and tell them about his work. However, no one was interested enough to send a response. One ordinary day, while performing at a standup show, a man in the audience came up to him with the offer to be a supporting host for a health program on TV. In 13 episodes, Karlova had to go through many different medical examinations, including a colonoscopy, which left him in tears.
“The host talks about check-ups on the show and they would send me to the hospital for a check-up. Think of it as being a guinea pig. One day, they show the MR scan so I go get it. Whatever they talk about on the show, they send me to try it. In the process, I suffered miserably but I had to do it because there was no other job. I somehow had to show myself,” he said.
Following this program, he started to present a travel show. But it did not last long. As he started losing hope, a new offer came along. The channel where he currently works offered him a five-year-contract to host a travel show. But the contract was demanding. He had to share half of the earnings with the channel, become well known in Taiwan and pay compensation in case he terminated the contract.
“There was nothing to do, so I signed,” said Karlova. In that show, he did everything he possibly could. He walked for hours, climbed mountains and jumped off hills. Moreover, he ate all sorts of insects and animals from snakes to mice for the show. But his efforts did not go unnoticed. In 2012, he learned he was nominated for the Golden Bell’s “Best Host” Award.
Until the ceremony, Karlova had many sleepless nights due to excitement. “Anti-anxiety pills, sedatives, I put anything I had in the bag. That day, I was going to walk on the red carpet. I put my Turkish flag in my pocket. I prepared everything and said, God, please let me go up on that stage. I was begging… When I went up the stage, I could not speak. That day, with that award, I went down in Taiwanese history,” said Karlova.
Later on, he began hosting a show for MTV Taiwan, where he asked Tom Cruise to sign his bold head after an interview. This incident not only made Karlova better known in Turkey, but also widened his audience in Taiwan. Interviews with other celebrities and shows on bigger stages also came along after that. He now hosts Taiwan’s most viewed travel show. It has even aired in Singapore and Malaysia. Karlova’s efforts also did not go unrecognized by the Taiwanese government either. He was one of 23 foreigners receiving citizenship for their extraordinary work in Taiwan. Karlova was recognized for contributions to arts and culture, becoming the first to receive citizenship in that category.
Invitation to Turkey
Eight months ago, Karlova published a book called “Invitation to my homeland: Beautiful Turkey.”
“This is the first Chinese book written by a Turk in Taiwan. At the same time, in the Chinese speaking regions, it is the first book in which a Turk presents his own country,” he said.
He added that the 250-page-long book sold 5,000 copies and is in its fifth edition.
“I started from the Thrace region. Safranbolu, Cappodocia, I talked about Turkey’s touristic destinations. Pamukkale, Ephesus, Konya, Antalya, Istanbul, I generally talked about the places most people visit. There is also a section on grease wrestling, which is not well known here and the Selimiye Mosque. I wanted to leave the reader with concrete information about Turkey, like where Turks come from, what language we speak and what type of eras we have gone through,” he said.
“Atatürk is not well known in Taiwan, so I talked about Atatürk and his principles and reforms. I also talked about the establishment of the Republic and about our festivals. I wanted people to know our country’s history. Many people do not know about the Battle of Gallipoli. I mentioned that. In the book, I included simple information such as the kinds of food we eat and what Ottoman cuisine is,” said Karlova. He also provided a section for those interested in learning basic Turkish words.
His wife and manager, Rynne Chen, became curious to see other parts of Turkey after proofreading his book.
“After reading the book and learning about the beautiful places, she asked me ‘Can you take me to these places?’ She really wants to see Pamukkale. She also wants to ride in a hot air balloon. We went to Cappadocia but it snowed as we planned the ride and we could not go on it. I still owe her a balloon ride. She also wants to swim in the Aegean Sea. I have yet to take her to the Aegean Sea and the Saros Bay,” he said.
Karlova has many long-term goals in mind. For instance, he wants to publish his book in China along with Korea and Japan. But perhaps his hardest goal among all is to gain fame in China.
“China, China, China,” said Karlova during the interview.
“In any case and in any way, I have to go to China in 2018,” he said.
Karlova explained that opportunities are limited in Taiwan, however, China could bring him to a better place in his career.
“My goal is to be the bridge between Chinese speaking regions and the West. I want to be better known as a Turk in the world of the Chinese. This way, I can represent Turkey in a more powerful way,” he said.