Anita Mui

Actress and singer dubbed Hong Kong's Madonna
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The Independent Online

Mui Yim-Fong (Anita Mui), actress and singer: born 10 October 1963; died Hong Kong 30 December 2003.

The death of Anita Mui is terrible news not only for Hong Kong's entertainment industry but also for the already battered morale of the Hong Kong people. Coming at the end of a year which also saw Leslie Cheung's suicide in April and the death of songwriter Lam Chun-Keung (who provided Mui with some of her best lyrics) in November, it seems to bring the "golden age" of Hong Kong showbiz to a symbolic close.

Mui was the epitome of the self-made diva - a point not lost on Hong Kong's embattled Chief Executive, Tung Chee-Hwa, who proclaimed:

She started her stellar career on her own and achieved much with her own efforts; this was typical of how many Hong Kong people achieved successes.

She was born in 1963 (sources vary as to whether in Hong Kong or mainland China), into an impoverished family of four children. She and her sister Ann were breadwinners before the age of five, singing for pennies in an amusement park soon after the premature death of their father. In 1982 she took a crucial step towards rebuilding her own future when she entered the first song contest organised by the popular television station TVB. Despite a regrettable choice of hair style and frock, she won with a cover of Paula Tsui's "Season of the Wind" and was rewarded with a record contract and, less auspiciously, a supporting role in a Zhang Che film, the macho action fantasy Dancing Warrior (1983).

Her singing career took off virtually overnight. Her début album, The Crimson Anita Mui (1983), sold a quarter of a million copies, unprecedented success for a newcomer, and she set house records with a 15-night stand at the Hong Kong Coliseum in December 1985 - only to break them with a 30-night run at the same huge venue five years later. Her fourth album, Bad Girl (1986), remains the best-selling Canto-pop record ever released in Hong Kong (it earned eight platinum discs, getting on for half a million sales) despite the title song's being banned from the radio for its "controversial" lyrics.

Including compilations and repackaged releases, she sold an estimated 10 million albums across her 20-year professional career. Journalists began comparing her with Madonna in the mid-1980s, largely because of her frequent changes of "image", but the way that her extrovert eccentricities were underpinned by suggestions of melancholy actually brought her a lot closer to Kate Bush territory.

Partly because of her "ugly duckling" looks, her acting career took longer to find a focus. Her gift for comedy was first glimpsed in Alfred Cheung's Let's Make Laugh (1983) and she was lucky enough to be cast opposite Leslie Cheung for the first time in Taylor Wong's crime thriller Behind the Yellow Line (1984), which also won her the Best Supporting Actress nod in the Hong Kong Film Awards.

Her breakthrough role was in Stanley Kwan's Rouge (1987) playing Fleur, a 1930s courtesan who dies in a suicide pact and returns to Hong Kong 50 years later as a ghost, looking for the lover (Leslie Cheung) who has failed to join her in the afterlife. Kwan opened the film with haunting portraits of Fleur applying her make-up and then brought her into the action as a sing-song girl in male drag; the mixture of androgyny and ethereal beauty came closer than any role before or after to defining Mui's unique appeal. The film made many Ten Best lists when it was released in Britain in 1990.

Subsequent film roles included three opposite Jackie Chan (reputedly her ex-lover), the best being the Frank Capra homage Miracles (1989), which gave her another chance to wear 1930s dresses. She also played a notorious real-life spy, the Sino-Japanese Mata Hari, in Eddie Fong's Kawashima Yoshiko (1990), a sorceress with a man's voice in Jeff Lau and Corey Yuen's Saviour of the Soul (1992, a film rewritten without credit by Wong Kar-Wai) and a comic-strip superwoman in Johnnie To's The Heroic Trio (1993).

The best of her later roles were in films by Ann Hui: an adaptation of Eileen Chang's classic novel Eighteen Springs (1997), in which she played a Shanghainese woman betrayed in love, and July Rhapsody (2002), in which she was a modern woman dealing with the realisation that her husband is attracted to an underage girl.

Mui never hesitated to use her fame to support causes she believed in. She headlined the 1989 Hong Kong concert for Chinese Democracy to aid the student protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, and vowed never to perform again in China. She changed her mind two years later and took part with other Hong Kong stars in a Beijing concert to raise money for victims of the catastrophic 1991 floods. She set up a charitable fund for the under- privileged in Hong Kong in 1992, donating to it from her own earnings. And she organised a benefit concert last spring for children orphaned by the Sars epidemic, while still grieving for her best friend Leslie Cheung.

No one who met Mui could doubt that she suffered frustrations and disappointments that went largely unexpressed. In 1997, I played her Finlay Quaye's remarkable début single, "Sunday Shining", and she expressed a strong enthusiasm for recording a Cantonese cover version - before admitting that the Canto-pop industry would never accept such a song. At parties and receptions she was famously either quiet and withdrawn or noisily boisterous.

Hounded by journalists, Mui held a press conference last September to confirm that she was battling cervical cancer and intended to beat it; her sister Ann had died of ovarian cancer in 2000. She gave a series of eight Coliseum concerts in November, climaxing with an appearance in a wedding gown; many in the audience sensed that they were seeing her for the last time.

After her death, her last statement was read by her friends Jackie Chan and the fashion designer Eddie Lau: "Don't cry for me. Don't say my name. Let me go on my journey in peace."

Tony Rayns