1995 / June
Ku Lin-hsiu /photos courtesy of courtesy of the Teng family /tr. by Phil Newell
On May 8, 43-year-old Teresa Teng died from a severe asthma attack while on a trip to Thailand. When the tragic news was released, it was as if an enormous boulder had been dumped into the lake of the global Chinese community, sending ripples in all directions. It was not only ordinary Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, and Southeast Asia who were saddened by the incident and thought fondly of their many memories. The media devoted a tremendous amount of space to the story, and many groups bestowed posthumous honors and accolades on Ms. Teng. The staff at her record company in Japan wore black armbands for a week. Teresa's death was reported in the New York Times and Time magazine, and these journals described her enormous impact on fans of Chinese music.
Teresa Teng was popular in Chinese societies worldwide for three decades. Even though she has left us, for countless fans she will always be their "eternal sweetheart."
At 10 o'clock on the night of May 11, Tseng Ta-fu, the 45-year-old owner of a bookshop, got in his friend's car for the journey to Taoyuan to meet his idol--Teresa Teng. The simple white coffin sitting in the huge transport warehouse at the airport presented an unexpectedly poignant scene.
With his hands clasped together, Tseng forlornly watched the hearse pull away into the dark of night. The next day, he went to the municipal funeral hall in hopes of paying his last respects, but was unable to because he is not a family member.
Twenty-some years ago, Tseng was serving as an army medic stationed in Kinmen. The long and lonely days at this front-line station were made a little easier to bear by the warmth that came through in Teresa's singing. After returning to civilian life, whenever things were not going well he always found solace in Teng's music. Teresa Teng occupies an important place in his memories of his twenties and early thirties.
He was there applauding wildly at a special concert marking 15 years of show business for "Little Teng." And during the special auction to raise money for Chinese civil war veterans stranded for decades in northern Thailand, he was unable to buy one of her pictures despite bidding NT$100,000. Besides listening himself, he has always given his friends and relatives Teresa Teng CDs and tapes for birthday gifts.
When the news of Teng's death hit, Tseng was unable to sleep for a couple of nights. He listened to her albums non-stop for ten days. His store was also constantly bathed in her gentle voice.
A subdued Tseng, who his wife describes as mourning as if for his own parents, says that he once gave his wife instructions if he were to die first: On the seventh day after his death, when by Chinese tradition the family arranges for ceremonies to pacify and see off the soul of the deceased for the last time, she need only play the music of Teresa Teng and he would surely rest in peace.
Tseng makes one point especially clear: He is far from being the only Teresa Teng fan with such a feeling of loyalty.
Teresa, who was born in 1953, is probably the most famous woman singer among Chinese people worldwide. Maybe younger people born after the 1960s don't see what is so special about her, but people of the generation before theirs can give a lot of reasons why they are so uniquely fond of her.
Teng's father was a great aficionado of Peking opera, and little Teresa often accompanied him to performances. She was thus infected by a love for singing. When she was only five or six, she would dress up in her father's oversized shirt and stand in front of a "microphone" made out of a shoe polish can and belt out folk operas just like the real thing. In primary school, she sang more clearly and better than anyone else. She began to stand out, and often performed at informal parties and evening gatherings. Later she won a singing competition with a Hubei folk opera composition entitled "Visiting Ying Tai." (Hubei folk opera songs were updated and made popular by filmmakers in the 1960s.) She gave up her formal education in her third year of middle school and began performing in floor shows.
Next came appearances on the television show "Galaxy of Stars," followed by hosting a show of her own called "Each Day One Star," and then playing leading roles in films. Her popularity spread across Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. In l973 she decided to take on the challenge of Japan, and she started on the path toward international stardom. She swept up the prize for "Best New Singing Star" in Japan's widely known Red and White Song Competition.
Before she had learned Japanese, she would make little notes and explanations on her sheet music in Mandarin Chinese phonetic symbols, Chinese characters, and romanization. Besides getting the pronunciation right, she also wanted to be sure she put the right feeling into each word, and make the right gestures. Everything was a struggle.
Nevertheless, she was able to reap what she had so assiduously sowed. She revealed in an interview, "When I performed in the past, I was always a little nervous. I would just stand there and sing the words, but I didn't dare to really let go with my emotions or gestures. It was only after coming to Japan that I learned what performing really means. I learned how to free myself and how to express my emotions to the utmost. Only this can truly be called singing."
Whereas in Taiwan she was best known for singing folk songs and romantic ditties marked by cute little vocal inflections, in Japan she began to do more demanding ballads and her singing technique matured greatly. Judie Ong, another big star living in Japan, once received from Teng a tape of her practicing her singing technique.
Next Teng did concerts in the US, and broke through the "bamboo curtain" into mainland China, inciting a wave of enthusiasm for "Little Teng." Besides all this she won the Golden Bell award (Taiwan's top award) as best female singer and was selected as one of the nation's Ten Most Outstanding Young Women. Moreover, as the child of a military family, she often returned to Taiwan to put on performances for the troops, and became known as the "soldiers' sweetheart."
How was Ms. Teng able to sweep so many fans off their feet? Of course, she had a face that fit the Chinese ideal of the genteel and sweet young maiden, and she had that fresh and pure "girl-next-door" demeanor. But she was more than that, and any analysis of her popularity must look to her music and her voice.
The highly respected author and music critic Chang Chi-kao once described the essence of pop music:"The lyrics must be connected to daily life, and they must be easy to understand. The tune should have a simple structure, and not be too complex, so that it is easy to sing. It shouldn't have notes that are too high or too low, so that it sounds natural and relaxed, and it is easily approachable and not too demanding to listen to."
Have a listen to Teresa's hit "When Will You Come Back Again?"
A lovely flower does not open often
A lovely view does not exist everywhere
Worries furrow a laughing brow
Missing you brings tears to my eyes
After you leave this night
When will you come back again
Or try "More Than Words Can Say":
Don't know why
But I'm surrounded by worry and fear
Every day I pray
That the loneliness of love
Will soon be chased away.
Another one of her tunes was the film title song "Small Town Story":
There are many stories in a small town
Full of joy and happiness
Life is truly beautiful
Everything is already here.
These tunes were among Teresa's most popular. All of them are ballads crooned in a simple style, thus fitting right into the popular music mold described by Chang Chi-kao. They are smooth and pleasant, and don't put any stress on the listener.
As for her voice, it was well described in an article by University of Southern California cultural theory PhD Yeh Yueh-yu:"It was the sweetness in her voice that made her famous. She had a perfect voice for folk songs and ballads, and she added traditional folk song stylings into Western-style compositions. Her songs basically follow in the tradition of popular Shanghai music of the 1930s and 1940s. Her sound was similar to that of Chou Hsuan in her later years."
Li Wen-yuan, the host of the "Piano in the Dark" radio program, believes that Teresa Teng was very wise, for she really understood herself. She could always display just the right demeanor for any performance,which is something few others can accomplish.
In the eyes of vocalist Fan Yu-wen, Teresa Teng may not have had a very broad range, "but she had great microphone technique." Generally speaking, the singer can only really touch the audience if the microphone is properly manipulated and the singer's breathing is well-controlled. This was especially the case for Teng, because her voice was not very strong, so she had to keep very close to the mike. But Teresa had masterful technique. Not only was there no background noise from her breathing, her enunciation was very clear, and she was able to project her delicate voice in such a way that you felt she was singing right up next to your ear, singing for you and you alone. In Japan her voice was complimented as being "like weeping and like pleading, but with strength, capable of drawing in and hypnotizing listeners."
The well-known songwriter Tsuo Hung-yun describes Teng's voice as "seven parts sweetness, three parts tears." What he most admired about her was how she was able to grasp just the right feeling while singing.
When the China Television Network (CTV) first went on the air, it began by broadcasting the country's first serial drama, "Crystal." Teresa Teng sang the theme song. The song describes a daughter separated from her mother; the daughter spends her days searching for her lost parent. Teng was at that time only 17, and her life was far removed from such tragedy, so she had little understanding of the vicissitudes and tribulations of life. When she first tried singing the song she was smiling. Tsuo then patiently described to her the experiences of the lead character in the drama, so that by the time Teresa went into the recording booth she was actually crying. And in singing the song "More Than Words Can Say," which was in the film Where the Seagulls Fly (based on a story by the romance writer Chiung Yao), Teng fully grasped the sorrow and loneliness of the main female character, deeply moving her listeners. Tsuo believes that this is the song that really made her a star.
Cellist Chang Cheng-chieh went off to study music in Vienna at the age of 14. In that foreign land, in Chinese restaurants or wherever there were Chinese people, one could always hear Teng's crooning. She is the only Mandarin pop singer ever to have left an impression on Chang. "When she sings, you can really feel the emotion. I was especially strongly affected when I would hear her tapes at my friends' houses when I was living abroad." For the classically trained Chang, "It doesn't matter if it's classical or popular, if it is done with emotion, then that's good music."
Teresa arose in Taiwan in an era lacking in stars. Culture critic Weng Chia-ming divides Taiwan's Mandarin pop song history into several stages, including the Teresa-Teng-dominated 1970s; the Feng-Fei-fei-dominated early 1980s; the mid- to late-1980s, which were the heyday of campus folk music; and the 90s, which are the era of commercialized "music factories."
Back in those days, there were so many things to be done, the atmosphere was powerfully affected by anti-communism, and people felt stifled. Opines Weng Chia-ming, "Let's put it this way: The only real solace for Taiwanese was to be found in Little League baseball champions, Yang Li-hua's Taiwanese opera, and Huang Chun-hsiung's puppet theater. The only thing mainlanders had to look forward to, besides seeing their favorite singers on TV programs like 'Galaxy of the Stars' or 'Milky Way Palace," was Teresa Teng!" Weng points out that Mandarin pop music in Taiwan traces its roots back to Shanghai pop music, and Teng can be seen as the heir to that tradition. Her ballads are infused with the sense of longing many mainlanders felt for their old homes. Her songs allowed people a momentary escape from reality and "massaged" their feelings."
After Japan and the United States broke diplomatic relations with the ROC (in 1974 and l978, respectively), the political atmosphere in Taiwan was rather clouded. As Taiwan's first international-level star, "she had the same inspirational impact as the Little League baseball champions," says Weng. Further, she continued to come back to participate in national day festivities and to perform for the armed forces, giving a considerable boost to people's morale.
Nevertheless, suggests Magic Stone Music general manager Landy Chang, before her voice reached into the mainland she was still just one of a group of leading stars. It was only after her music penetrated the mainland that she truly established her status as a superstar.
Mainland China at the end of the 1970s was still recovering from the debacle of the Cultural Revolution. Music from the Cultural Revolution was heavy-handed and stiff, and was weighed down by the responsibility of carrying the correct political message. As Kong Qiesheng, a mainland writer living in the US, describes it, "It became a propaganda tool to promote Mao's ideas, just like party newspaper editorials and critical articles." After Deng Xiaoping took power, there was some easing up in the political realm, and only then were limited amounts of Hong Kong and Taiwan music allowed in.
Kong describes the penetration of the bamboo curtain by Teresa's music as being "like the first ray of sunshine." It conveyed a feeling of sincerity, friendliness, and lightness, and it brought images of a more relaxed and emotion-filled lifestyle.
Kong recalls that life in the mainland was already burdened with more than enough heavy symbolism. "Under that kind of stress, people lost sight of and then completely forgot many ordinary feelings--things like appreciating nature, missing one's home, treasuring one's family and friends, experiencing the change of seasons, and coming to some understanding of life just by living it, not to mention something as forbidden as love between the sexes."
For everything from the "greater love" of one's nation to the "smaller love" and emotional lives of ordinary people, a billion mainland Chinese found an outlet for their pent-up feelings in Teresa Teng.
But mainland authorities found Teng's gentle, charming, and girlish voice and her mushy ballads to be the worst kind of bourgeois sentimentalism. At the most extreme, "When Will You Come Back Again?" was condemned as "reactionary ideology" and "a betrayal of the nation." Is the song hinting that the Kuomintang will return to recover China? Who exactly is the one who will "come back again"? What is the implication of "coming back"?
Although the authorities at that time issued frequent orders to ban the music of "Little Teng," after the first large-scale shipment of Japanese tape recorders into the mainland a decade ago, it became very common to retape Teresa's albums. Overnight they spread across the mainland, until Teng's fame approached that of the "engineer of reform," Deng Xiaoping. Later on, as Old Deng's popularity waned, people said things like "we'd rather have Little Teng than Old Deng." (Teresa's surname is the same as Xiaoping's, though she used a different romanized form.) One expression even had it, "By day, Deng Xiaoping rules mainland China. But by night, Teresa Teng rules!"
As Zhang Shouyi has described the mainland at that time, per capita income was less than RMB40 per month, and a Teresa Teng tape was going for RMB10 to RMB20. But still working people willingly laid out half a month's salary to buy a cassette on the black market. And at little stalls where palm-sized pictures of Teng sold for the extortionate price of RMB2, supply couldn't keep up with demand.
At that time, at the peak of her popularity, Teng was involved in a scandal over holding a fake passport, and she dropped out of public view. But she restored her reputation during the 1981 "You Are at the Front" shows for soldiers. In 1984 she held an Asian concert tour to celebrate her 15th year as a popular singer, and all the shows were jam-packed. In 1986, the mainland lifted the ban on her songs, and "When Will You Come Back Again" was recategorized as a "revolutionary patriotic song." In fact, her popularity had never been held back by political interference.
Thereafter, however, as the Chinese music scene became more diversified, new artists pushed the old aside, and Teng faded. Living abroad, she rarely made public appearances. Perhaps it was for health reasons. Perhaps she was tired of the grind and aspired to an unfettered life. Perhaps, having already seen the world from the top, she had little interest in remaking her image. In any case, she produced very few new works.
Then came 1989, and the Tienanmen Incident in mainland China. Teng, a supporter of the democracy movement, made her sympathies known through song on many occasions in Taiwan and Hong Kong, making a deep impression. A few days ago Wuerkaixi, one of the leaders of the demonstrators in Tienanmen Square, recalled that in 1993 he and a few fellow-exiles in Paris met on June 6 to commemorate their friends who died in 1989. Teresa came to pay her respects. Standing there before the Place des droits de I' homme, she broke down in tears before finishing even one song. And when she left, she said, in her quiet, sincere way, "no compromise with dictators, no giving in to tyranny."
Perhaps some people feel that Teng became overly politicized. "But," interjects Kong Qiesheng, "I had immense respect for her basic sense of morality. She never had any mixed good-and-bad judgments about the Tienanmen incident. She was always deeply pained about the martyred compatriots there, and she had great empathy for others and would have liked to alleviate all the suffering of mankind." These are feelings that one would think all people should have, but Teng felt them very sincerely, and unreservedly expressed them.
Let us go a step further to understand Teng and her significance for Mandarin pop music. Yeh Yueh-yu, a scholar of cultural theory, pointed out in an in-depth analytical piece that, attractive as Teng's voice undeniably was, there are different interpretations of her historical significance. Because she presented a soft and gentle mood aimed at warming the hearts of men, feminist theorists might say that she is the classic product of the culture of a male-dominated society. But cultural theory emphasizes the right of women to express their femininity, and Teng's songs do just that. "People listen to pop music to play a role and focus on themselves, because it gives people a chance to place themselves in the position of the character in the song."
One scholar of mass communications looks at Teng from the perspective of cognitive psychology. Listening to a song is in fact a "cooperative activity," with interaction between the singer and the audience. For many Teresa Teng fans, male and female alike, her songs are forever intertwined with fond memories of their youth. And it is particularly now, after her death, that her fans can hear in her songs the emotions, memories, and melancholy of the passing of time. As Chou Chih-wen has written, "Few people can live without warmth and nostalgia."
Amidst the harsh realties of everyday life, Teng symbolized the gentility and self-restraint of the idealized traditional Chinese woman, qualities that seem to be waning. Her death also punctuates the end of that era of popular music, and formally transfers her to the status of a "classic" in the history of Chinese popular culture.
The singer is gone, but her songs float through the air. She leaves behind posthumous glory and fanfare, and countless grieving fans. Teresa Teng is by no means forgotten. On main thoroughfares and in little lanes, in supermarkets, in record stores, in taxicabs.... everywhere you turn you can hear her sweet voice resonating:
The singing has stopped
Drink a final cup of wine
I chat and talk of anything
To ease your troubled mind
Life has few opportunities for intoxication
Why not look forward to them?
Come, have another glass
Drink it dry!
After you leave this night
When will you come back again?
Having done so many shows for the troops, Teng earned the nickname "soldiers' sweetheart" (photo by Tsai Sen-chi CTS)
In a rare moment of leisure, Teresa practices calligraphy at home. (photo by Kuo Chao- fang)
In 1967, Teng appeared in a traditional drama at the Orient Restaurant.
A family portrait from 1970.
The daughter of a military family, Teresa began giving special performances for the armed forces even as child. Pictured here at Wuchiu, she is wearing a commander's cap.
With her sweet and adorable girlish looks, Teng was loved by young and old alike. (photo by Chen Ching-hua)
Skilled at ballads based on Hubei folk opera as well as at romantic ditties, the young Teresa--even when dressed up as a boy--still looked fresh and winsome. (upper right photo courtesy of TTV)
(below) Teng attracted countless admirers across Chinese societies world wide. (photo by Chen Wei)
In 1994, Teng appeared in the Whampoa Forever shows for the armed forces . She took this photo with some officers, giving her famous "V" sign. (photo by Tsai Sen-chi of CTS)
She was the first Chinese singer to give a concert in Las Veqas.
In 1984 she was selected as one of the Ten Most Outstanding Young Women in the nation. The award was presented by the then Governor of Taiwan--and now President--Lee Teng-hui.
(right) In 1986 Teng performed on Japan's NHK in the guise of a bride. That Teresa never married was her mother's greatest regret.
It would be no exaggeration to say that among Chinese Teng's are the most widely distributed CDs and cassettes of all.
The only TV serial in which Teng played the lead role was TTV's "Always Remember This Love." She played an unfortunate orphan girl who became romantically involved with the character played by lead actor Chiang Ming.
(above) Fan Kuo Shih-hsi has collected a huge amount of memorabilia. (photo by Hsueh Chi-kuang)
One fan showed his devotion by collecting information about Teng's albums in a notebook.
Teresa's death left countless fans grieving. To remember her, her admirers have asked not only that postage stamps bearing her image be issued, but that a commemorative coin be minted. (photo by Yang Hai-kuang, Min Sheng Daily News)
1953 ~ 1995
English name: Teresa Teng
Stage name: Teng Li-chun
Given name: Teng Li-yun
Born: January 29, 1953
Father's provincial origin: Hebei
Place of birth: Yunlin County, Taiwan
Blood type: O
Interests: Singing, dance
Favorite food: Pigs' feet
Favorite color: Violet
Survived by: Mother, three elder brothers, one younger brother
Her Life in Brief
1959: Began studying under Teacher Li of the 93rd Entertainment Unit of the Air Force's Anti-aircraft Artillery, thus beginning her life as a singer.
1964: Participated in the Huang Mei Song Contest held by CTS, taking first prize with the song "Visiting Ying Tai."
1965: Enrolled in the Cheng Sheng voice training class. Won first prize at a singing competition held by the Golden Horse record company. Performed six live shows for BCC radio.
1967: Became hostess of the CTV program "Each Day One Star," marking her as a rising star.
1968: Appeared in Taipei performance halls.
1969: Began recording songs and acting in TV dramas. Invited to perform at charity concert in Singapore
1970: Played her first leading film role in Thank You Boss, and also did a promotional concert tour for the film, creating a sensation. First trip to Hong Kong to perform with the Kai Sheng Variety Troupe.
1971 : Began to tour in Southeast Asia. Selected as Hong Kong's "Bai Hua You Arts Auction Charity Queen," the youngest ever to be so named.
1972: Selected as one of the ten most popular singers in Hong Kong. Filmed Miss Music Fan with Chang Chung.
1973: Signed a contract with Polydor Records of Japan and went to Japan for training.
1974: (March) Released her first Japanese album, which was a smash hit.
1975: Won the top prize at Japan's 18th Album Awards. Won award for best new artist in Japan. Signed on with Hong Kong's Polygram Records. Released her first Love Songs of an Island Nation album.
1976: Released the number 19 selling album in Japan. First personal concert in Hong Kong.
1977: Signed a contract with Taiwan Television and began her TV show The Songs of Teresa Teng. Won a television prize in Japan.
1978: (September) Second personal concert in Hong Kong.
1979: First personal concerts in the US and Canada. Stayed in the US to study English and record an album.
1980: (July) During a concert tour of the US, performed at Lincoln Center, New York, and became the first Chinese singer to perform in The Music Center of Los Angeles (site of the Academy Awards). Teng's music penetrated the "bamboo curtain" as "Little Teng" fever spread in mainland China. In Taiwan, won Golden Bell as best woman singer. In Hong Kong, released first personal Cantonese-language album, which went platinum in a short time.
1981 : Concert tour of Southeast Asia. (April) Gave seven concerts in Hong Kong, setting a new record for consecutive concerts by a single artist. Returned to Taiwan at mid-year to perform for the armed forces, and made a two-hour "You Are at the Front" special for TTV. Received five gold records at a single time, an unprecedented feat in Hong Kong.
1982: Began preparatory work for the album Faded Feelings. At Chinese New Year, had an unprecedentedly successful concert at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and became the first person of Chinese ancestry to sign a contract to sing there.
1983: Released Faded Feelings, whose songs are based on Tang and Song dynasty poetry. Released her second Cantonese album, Walking the Road of Life, in Hong Kong. At the end of 1983 and into 1984, held a concert tour to celebrate 15 years as a singer.
1984: Released the album I'm in Your Debt. Selected as one of the Ten Most Outstanding Young Women in the 10th year of such awards made by the ROC government.
1985: Her song "Lover" set a new record by staying at the top of the broadcast charts in Japan for ten weeks.
1987: Release of the album I Only Care About You.
1992: Release ot the album The Unforgettable Teresa Teng.
1993: Participated in the "Eternal Sweetheart" show for soldiers in Taichung, broadcast on CTS.
1994: Participated in the "Whampoa Forever" celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the military academy. This marked her fourth consecutive year of returning to Taiwan to perform for members of the armed forces.
1995: (May 8) Died of an asthma attack in Chiangmai, Thailand. Posthumously awarded the Ministry of Defense's highest honor for civilians, the Kuomintang's "Huahsia Grade 1 Medal," the Overseas Chinese Affairs' Commission's "Hua Guang Grade 1 Medal," and the presidential Paoyang Medal. Her coffin was draped with the national and Kuomintang party flags.
Source: The Great News, Teng Chang-hsi
(photo by Tsai Sen-chi, CTS)