Obituary: Teresa Teng

Teresa Teng's music was, by the standards of her international rock and pop contemporaries of the Seventies and Eighties, demure, even bland. Yet the multiple aspects of her appeal made her the Far East's first trans- national singing star, as popular in the Republic of China as in her fiercely anti-Communist homeland Taiwan, and through the entire region.

Teng's status may be gauged by the fact that senior Taiwanese government officials were at Taipei airport for the arrival of the singer's body from Thailand, where she died, while national and regional television stations began to broadcast tribute specials. Sing Tao, the region's principal Mandarin newspaper, ran a second edition for the first time ever, and record shops in Hong Kong were reported to have sold out of Teng's albums within hours. In London shops in Chinatown, in Soho, experienced the same phenomenon and Spectrum Radio's Chinese programme had to repeat its Teng memorial programme because of listener demand. "Lots of middle-aged people asked for this or that song because it reminded them of when they were courting," said Joseph Wu, Spectrum's presenter.

For the Taiwanese, Teng was a sort of forces' sweetheart, often pictured entertaining the "front line" who still maintain sizeable defensive positions along the straits separating the island from mainland China. Her patriotism and support for the army may have been based in her family background; she was born in 1952, the daughter of a career soldier who had fled mainland China after the revolution. She won a children's singing competition at the age of 12, made her first album at 16, and by her late teens was ensconced in the ranks of the Taiwanese entertainment industry, whose records and low-budget films dominated the Mandarin-speaking market.

When she was 21, her record Small Town Story was a great hit, establishing the soft, mellifluous voice that her one-time producer described in Billboard magazine as an "elegant whispering in your ear" as a national phenomenon. In 1970 she performed in Hong Kong, at first on a supporting bill, and within two years was among the colony's top artists.

In 1973, with the song "Airport" and later "Empty Harbour", she conquered Japan, where she remained a leading star despite a short exile in 1979 when she was deported for having entered on a fake Indonesian passport, bought for $20,000, a subterfuge rendered necessary by a break in relations between Taiwan and Japan on China's entry to the UN Security Council. Singing by now in Cantonese, Japanese and English as well as her native Mandarin, Teng was soon popular as far as Malaysia and Indonesia.

With the general opening up of the Republic of China in the late Seventies, Teng's cassettes became legally available for the first time. A wholesome girl-next-door figure in the brasher world of Taiwan and Hong Kong, Teng seemed sexy and glamorous to the mainland Chinese, so much so that her inoffensive love songs were briefly re-banned as unhealthy. The Chinese fell for her. A popular saying played on the fact that Teng's family name (Teng Li-Chun: Teresa was a stage name adopted for Hong Kong and Japan) was essentially the same as the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's: "Lao Deng [old Teng, i.e. Xiaoping] dominates the world by day but by night it belongs to Hsiao Teng [little Teng, i.e. Teresa]".

Teng received numerous offers of concerts in China, which she always declined, and was quoted in 1987 as saying that the day she performed in China would be the day Communism fell there. Although otherwise not given to political pronouncements, Teng was much affected by the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and performed at Hong Kong protest concerts afterwards: pictures show her casually dressed on these occasions, with a white headband and a placard, by contrast with her usual sequin-covered cocktail dresses.

By the end of the Eighties, Teng had semi-retired (she last recorded in 1989) and was living in Paris, where she met Chinese pro-democracy exiles. Unmarried and with no children, she was able to live comfortably on her Japanese royalties alone, she once said (total world sales of her 25 albums are estimated by Billboard at 22 million, with another 50 to 75 million pirate copies).

Prone to respiratory problems, she had contracted severe flu, pneumonia by some accounts, during her last visit home to Taipei at the Chinese New Year. She was on holiday with a group of friends, including her French boyfriend, in the Thai resort of Chiang Mai, when she was struck by a severe attack of asthma and died of heart failure after the ambulance taking her to a private hospital was delayed by heavy traffic. Her family, outraged by the intrusive coverage of the death by Thai television - Teng kept her personal affairs private - was no doubt mollified by the award, personally presented to her mother on 12 May by the Secretary General of the ruling Kuomintang Party, of Taiwan's second highest civilian honour, the Hua Hsia medal.

Philip Sweeney

Teng Li-Chun (Teresa Teng), singer: born 1952; died Chiang Mai 9 May 1995.

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