Teresa Teng in white qipao

The Voice That Unites A Billion People

Teresa Teng (1953 – 1995) is arguably the most popular and influential Chinese singer up till the present time (2016). In 1999, Teng and Bruce Lee were included into TIME magazine’s list of 100 most influential people of the century.

copying_prohibitedWithout doubt, Teresa Teng of Taiwan is a legendary entertainer by all accounts. Two decades after her abrupt departure, she is still the undisputed all-time queen of Mandopop, Cantopop and J-Pop. She was extremely popular in Taiwan, HongKong, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and in Chinese communities around the world in the 70’s and 80’s.

Teresa Teng gained widespread popularity in China in the 80’s and 90’s and this earned her the nickname, “Little Deng” – an attribution to her influence in the modernisation of Mainland China; alongside the “larger” Deng Xiaoping – the architect of the modern People’s Republic of China (PRC). Polls have shown that she remains the most popular singer in Asia today.

After the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), the Central Radio Station in Taiwan beamed Miss Teng’s songs in 27 frequencies – directed at every corner of Mainland China. Taiwan’s Kuomintang military constructed a large concrete structure housing dozens of huge loudspeakers on the island of Quemoy that  broadcasted nationalistic messages and blasted the forbidden songs of Teresa Teng toward Communist Mainland. Her cassette tapes and photographs, which suggested the ideals of democracy, were airdropped by the Taiwanese armed forces across the Taiwan straits onto the coastal areas of Mainland China.

Fans on the Mainland paid up to the equivalent of a quarter month’s rent for her pirated cassettes to black market vendors. This began the democratic yearning of a billion people. As The New York Times wrote of her the day after her departure, “.. her music sold briskly in stalls in the tiniest towns.. Many other foreign singers became popular in China, but none captured the hearts of the country as she did.”

Teresa may be widely known as the “singer with the sweet voice” but this title does not do her any justice because the impact and significance of her contributions to Asia, and in deed, the world, go beyond her singing talent and accomplishments that only a small number of her fans knows.

A mainlander describing how the songs of Teresa Teng changed mainlanders' behaviour in 2002.

A mainlander describing how the songs of Teresa Teng changed mainlanders’ behaviour in 2002.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Teresa Teng was solely responsible for inspiring and preparing communist China emotionally and mentally, through the words of her songs, for an open society and the Laissez-faire system. Communism had created a nation of a billion people who had forgotten how to love and express their emotions because personal emotions were frowned upon and subsumed under devotion to the state or to the supreme leader. Teresa revived their lost feelings of warmth, tenderness and joy of loving again – whether this was family love, couple’s love, love for neighbours or country. Her songs embodied these themes. Today, the stress of modern-living has left many people everywhere devoid of the tenderness of love and thoughtful moments in their lives, and Teresa’s songs are helping them connect with their emotions again (perhaps this explains her continuous “currency” and a steadily growing global fan base).

Singing Was Teresa’s Second Career Choice

Both Teresa’s parents were instrumental in their daughter’s early interest in singing. As a young girl, Teresa had wanted to be a ballerina but the burden of expensive classes and imported ballet shoes to her struggling parents, who arrived in Taiwan from communist China not too long before, was just too obvious to her despite her very young age. So, Teresa switched to singing and she regularly accompanied her mother to watch Chinese operas. 

It is a well-known fact that when she was in junior school, her military father would make her rise every morning at 5am and cycled her to the nearby lake for voice training. Proud of her daughter’s apparent talent, he would take her to military gatherings and let Teresa performed in front of the troops and Teresa continued her relationship with the army until the time of her departure. During this time, her mother would encouraged little Teresa to attend singing auditions and enrolled her in singing competitions. Her mother soon began acting as her agent.

Young Teresa performing an opera number on stage.

Young Teresa performing an opera number on stage.

When Teresa was 10 years old, her mother took her to the Broadcasting Corporation of China in Taiwan (now Chunghwa Broadcasting Ltd) to compete in the popular Huangmei Opera National Singing Contest. Like all forms of opera singing, the Huangmei Opera singing style requires great discipline and voice maturity before one is able to achieve good voice control. So, being the youngest contestant, the organisers and older contestants did not pay much attention to little Teresa’s presence. However, to everyone’s surprise (and dismay to the other contestants), she won 1st Placing in the contest singing an opera number called, “Visiting Yingtai”, which showed off her extraordinary vocals. She had beaten the more experienced and older contestants. This was the first significant indication that she was destined for stardom.

Global Influence – Beloved by One-Fifth of Mankind

Teresa’s foray into the international scene as a singer and artist began in 1969 with an invitation from the then President of Singapore to perform in the President’s Charity Show. She was 16 years old then and was already a household name in Taiwan, hosting her own regular TV show. Her performance in Singapore was  a great success and she remained on the island’s TV screen regularly and became very popular there till today. The visit to Singapore was her first public performance outside Taiwan and this was to pave her the way to regional fame that included equally successful performances in Hong Kong, Japan and throughout SE Asia.

Teresa Teng in 1971

Teresa Teng in 1971, having already recorded 24 albums by the age of 18.

Teresa at an orphanage in Singapore.

Teresa at an orphanage in Singapore.

Teresa had recorded more than a hundred albums by the age of 30 (she had 40 albums to her name by the age of 20 – see here) and sang thousands of songs in many genres and in over 6 languages (watch video of her singing in seven languages) during her 20-year singing career (she stopped commercial singing in 1990 but carried on with appearances in charity, festive and military shows). She could sing and converse with her fans in no fewer than seven different tongues/languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujian, Shanghainese, Japanese, Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Melayu and English (watch this 1981 clip of her being interviewed in English and samples of her songs here.). She lived in France for 5 years and it is assumed that she was also fluent in French. It is believed that she translated many of the songs herself.  Considering that Teresa dropped out of school just after junior high, this ability can only be ascribed to her inborn linguistic talent. She sang an estimated 1,400 songs in Chinese alone – and sometimes a few versions of a song in the same language. Even long-time fans are not surprised when they come across songs they have never heard before (here are two clips showing Teresa singing in English when she was around 23: first clip and second clip).

In 1986, TIME magazine featured her among the top 10 most popular and influential singers in the world alongside Madonna. The New York Times described her as, “a superstar and brilliant linguist” in 1995. In 1999, Time Magazine included her in the list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. CNN, in 2010, named her one of the top 20 global music icons of the past 50 years alongside The Rolling Stones and Bob Marley (CNN has removed the article but if you search, “cnn + top music icon + teresa teng”, you will find many related articles.).

Teresa performed at Caesar's Palace to a sold-out crowd.

Teresa performed at Caesar’s Palace to a sold-out crowd.

Singing New York! New York!

Singing New York! New York!

Teresa was named the “Most Influential Cultural Figure in New China” in a 2009 survey held by the PRC’s State Council Information Office. In 2012, she was voted by more than eight million netizens as “The Most Influential Female”, “The Most Famous Female” and “My Favourite Female” in an online survey conducted by China’s www.sohu.com. This puts her above hugely popular political figures and top female movie stars such as Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. And in the same year, 17 years after her demise, the Wall Street Journal wrote of her in present tense: “Teresa Teng, the first empress of Chinese pop, is beloved by one-fifth of mankind..”. Well, certainly more by now (see Google’s chart below). A sample of recent (20 May 2015) comments from fans (both male and female) from around the world, between the ages of 13 and 80, who called in to China’s English speaking radio channel, can be found here. The New Yorker also remembered her with this August 2015 article here.

The Ideal Chinese woman

Teresa Teng epitomizes the perfect Chinese woman – gentle and demure, sensitive and compassionate; and at the same time: strong and  brave, and unyielding to setbacks and obstacles. Teresa Teng may be famous for her love ballads and folk songs. But in many of her songs, she sings about life’s struggles and hardships relating to making-a-living, entrepreneurship, family challenges, in-laws, working far away from home, the separation of loved ones and the unification of the two Chinas. These reflect pretty much her own life’s experiences and the experiences of many of her fans.

Teresa believed in the idea of “One China” and she felt a strong kinship with Chinese everywhere as belonging to one big Chinese family. Her actions were imbued with a strong conviction for justice, peace and helping the less fortunate as demonstrated in her refusal to step foot on the mainland (despite a huge market awaiting her record company after the ban of her songs were lifted between 1986 and 1989), her public support for the Tiananmen Square protestors in 1989 and her life-long community services since her teenage years.

In 1969, and barely 16 years old, she led her own fundraising concerts across Hong Kong and Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Philippines) for victims of a devastating typhoon that hit Taiwan. At 16, she became the youngest person in Hong Kong to be awarded the Queen of Charity title for two consecutive years. The ten years that followed, she performed regularly at charity shows in Singapore. In 1980, she raised more than US$1 million for the Yan Chai Hospital in Hong Kong. She also donated the proceeds of her shows in Taiwan to the country’s national trust fund. And she was frequently seen performing and gracing off-stage social events.

Teresa Teng in butterfly qipao

Teresa Teng in a qipao with her favourite butterfly motive.

Despite her many great achievements (see “Milestones” on this web site), Teresa is known in the music industry as a person who treated everyone with courtesy, respect and kindness. It is not uncommon to see her addressed comperes and hosts as “Brother” or “Sister”. To those close to her, she is a compassionate and friendly as well as a fun-loving person. Even though highly successful and having a tightly scheduled life, she is patient, obliging and down-to-earth (go to 14:10 of this rare interview with her where she talked about herself in relation to her fans). She indulges in simple pleasures and she hardly wore designer labels and she made it a point to immerse in the culture of the country she stayed in. While staying abroad or travelling, she was often seen eating street food and conversing in local language with service people.

Her younger brother said in an interview on TV, “Even when she was already such a famous personality, whenever she was at home with us, she would still perform household chores like before.” Owners of her favourite food outlets close to where the family stayed said whenever Teresa came home from her trips overseas, she would come to visit them and asked about their well-being. And she would insist in joining the customer queue. And her elder brother said on another TV appearance, “My sister is the ideal Chinese woman. If you ever imagined how an ideal Chinese woman should be, that would be my sister.” And her best friend, an ex-screen sex-goddess, said in public, “If my boyfriend were to run away with Teresa, I would understand.” Such is her appeal that people are made to say things out of the ordinary. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that the latter’s potential boyfriend did stood her up for Teresa!

A healing voice

In an emotional scene on a life TV show in Japan, a man who had suffered from a long and serious illness, called in to thank Teresa for his recovery. Now back at work, he credited his recovery to Teresa, whose songs gave him his daily strength to carry on and to eventually recover from his serious sickness. Teresa cried as she sang to him over the phone.

Francis Yip, another recording artist of Life Records, said this about her colleague, Teresa, on Australian radio recently, “I have always marvelled at Teresa’s voice. It is amazing that her voice remains crystal clear and unaffected after hours of singing.” In deed, you will not find another superstar, who will continue to accept song requests after her concert hours are over, and happily sings them (in the requested languages) until all requests are sung.

Male and female fans described her voice in many ways: “magnetic, addictive, like a drug..”, “..she will infatuate you!”, “she melts my heart..”, “I want to listen to her when I am on my death bed..”, etc. Reader’s Digest, quoting one fan, wrote, “When Teresa sings, her voice is like a clear stream which has everybody looking for its source.” Another fan wrote on Youtube, “If I die and return as an unsettled spirit, just play me her songs and I will leave in peace!”  To many people, their experiences with Teresa are profound and are no different from a spiritual awakening.

Singing to a fan over the phone.

Singing over the phone to a grateful fan.

Many of her fans confessed on Youtube that they listen to her songs repeatedly and never get tired. Karen Mok, another famous singer from Hong Kong, admitted that she had listened to Teresa’s songs every day when she was an aspiring singer. Considering that she sang a huge number of songs, it is no wonder many of her fans are still enjoying her songs even after three decades.

In deed, one special characteristic of her singing style is that in almost all her songs, the listener will hardly notice any gasping of air or audible breathing on her part as the notes flow smoothly from one to another (legato style?). However, as mentioned, Teresa had admitted that she did not adopt any special technique except that she had always sung with her emotions.

One veteran Hong Kong producer commented that each time he went into the recording studio with Teresa, he knew he was in for a treat because his job would be a breeze. That was because her delivery of every word would be perfect and there was nothing for him to correct or improve upon.

Increasing popularity even after death

Worldwide Google Search Trend (ex China)

Worldwide Google Search Trend (excluding China searches)

Yearly polls in China, including as recent as 2014, consistently show that Teresa Teng remains the most popular singer on the Mainland. She is also regarded in Japan as the most successful singer of all time and is widely revered and adored till today (see article here). A Japanese fan on Youtube referred to her as, ‘a Goddess in Japan”.

She is just as “current” today as she was 20 years’ ago. Documentaries, articles, web sites (including this one), events and tributes dedicated to her continue to be published or broadcasted across Asia daily. In fact, a 50-show tribute to her in the form similar to a Broadway musical, entitled “Love You, Teresa”, has just been launched on the Mainland as this article is being written (see article here.).

copying_prohibitedA regional poll in 2013 confirmed again that Teresa Teng’s songs have remained the top one third of all karaoke favourites in Asia and in Chinese communities everywhere. In Japan, the top 30 karaoke songs belong to Teresa (see a nippon.com report here and here). Many of her CD titles are displayed prominently in CD shops in East Asia and South East Asia even today. Her songs are played at wedding banquets, corporate events, community gatherings, coffee shops, exhibitions, coaches, taxis, restaurants, family gatherings, Chinese New Year day and reunion dinners, Christmas gatherings, state events, school events and funerals. Clearly, her songs are imprinted in Chinese tradition and culture.

This 8-minute video below shows Teresa interacting and charming her audience in Japan as her concert is about to end. She alternates between speaking Japanese, Mandarin and Cantonese because there are also Chinese in the audience. Sorry I do not understand what she is saying except that she is asking if anyone wishes her to sing any song that was left out in the concert.  You will notice she sings Mandarin and Cantonese songs as requested by her Chinese and Japanese fans. She forgets her words but her audience do not seem to bother (who doesn’t after singing thousands of songs?). The first request she sings, Mei Hua (4:30), is a famous Mandarin song symbolising the hope of a reunified China (please wait for the initial advertisement countdown to end. If you are unable to load here, please go to the link directly: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNTU0MDQ0MTI4.html):

Her number of non-Mandarin speaking fans are also growing by the day. People of all ages, gender and cultural backgrounds, from India to Finland are discovering her songs and her special person, as numerous comments on thousands of Youtube videos on her testify. Even Bon Jovi has taken to singing Teresa’s love anthem, “The Moon Represents My Heart” to woo the Chinese audience, as reported in the new Yorker here.

A fan (Barbara Hood) wrote on Youtube, “.. Teresa Teng has got to be the most talented female vocalist of the 20th Century. I was blown away by this medley. LOVE HER VOICE, HER SMILE, HER EVERYTHING. Until 14 minutes ago I had never heard of her. Thank you for sharing. Barb”

One of the the singer's memorial in China (Beijing).

One of the the singer’s memorials in China (Beijing).

Still on tour

Teresa died suddenly in 1995 while holidaying in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She was 42. It is widely reported that she died of an asthma attack. However, circumstances surrounding her death suggested that there could be other possible cause of death. A post-mortem on her body was prevented from being undertaken and this fueled numerous speculations.

(The New York Times wrote this article about her death here)

Her early death left many fans, admirers and industry colleagues across Asia and Chinese communities around the world, grieving but the incident immortalised her as the greatest singer in Asian history – or perhaps even in the world – if her legions of fans are anything to go by.

Hologram of Teresa that was projected on stage and watched by her brother, Frank.

Hologram of Teresa that was projected on stage and watched by her brother, Frank.

Memorials and museums dedicated to her have been erected on both sides of the Taiwan straits to meet the desires of her increasing fan base. There are hundreds of memorial events across the world staged in honour of her each year. Her family members are getting busier by the day – managing her affairs – namely, the activities of the Teresa Teng Foundation, her museums, memorials and publicity collaborations. Her brother, Frank Teng, chairman of the Teresa Teng Foundation, said, “We treat her absence as if she is still on tour and will be coming back one day.” In deed, many of her fans still speak of her in the present tense because they could not accept her parting.

In 2013 she was brought back to life in a Jay Chou-Teresa Teng concert in Taipei. A Los Angeles digital company projected a life-size hologram of her on stage singing one of her all-time favourite hits, “What have you got to say?” An audience of 15,000 (both Teresa’s and Jay’s fans) and her brother, Frank, who sat in the front row of the audience, beheld with teary eyes, an image of his sister on stage, as he had envisioned. And on the 9th of May 2015, 7,000 people turned up at an exclusively Teresa Teng digital concert that was held in Taipei (see report here).

A great humanitarian spirit

Teresa on a Japanese TV show.

Japanese host (insert) watching himself with Teresa when he was much younger.

Teresa Teng used the stage and her songs to demonstrate her empathy for the struggles of her fellow human beings and to comfort and soothe them with her voice. She reminded people, with her songs, to remain loyal to their loved ones, family, friends, hometown and country despite hardships. One observer noted that most of Teresa Teng’s concerts were more like huge family reunions rather than exhibitions of her talents. And  indeed, she did not endorse products (except for a few occasions when she started out as a singer) or promote herself just to increase record sales. She wanted to remain an artist rather than a celebrity.

Teresa contributed in no small measure to the political stability in East Asia during the 70’s and 80’s when she, speaking in Japanese, conquered Japan single-handedly with her sweet voice and personality and cooled the tensions between the two countries with her regular TV appearances, comedy sketches and songs, which made both the young and the old laughed. When in Taiwan and HongKong, she would include Japanese songs in her concerts; and in Japan, she would include Mandarin songs in her concerts. In Singapore, she would sing Mandarin, Japanese and English songs. Many of her songs are in bilingual versions too.

She also promoted mutual respects with her multilingual songs and concerts among the SE Asia nations. And she always made it a point to assert her

A Japanese TV host asking Teresa for a kiss after a long interview.

A Japanese TV host asked Teresa for a kiss after a long interview and she, naturally, complied.

“Chineseness” in all her concerts and appearances by wearing her qipao (cheongsam) and speaking in Mandarin, thereby promoting Chinese culture to the world.

Teresa’s contribution to the world hasn’t cease today because her songs fulfill the constant need of all people to be comforted no matter the times and culture.

Honoured by the state and fans

The loss of Teresa is still greatly felt by all her fans – more so by those who had experienced first-hand and benefitted from the comfort of her songs during the struggling years of their lives.

Each year, on 8 May (her death anniversary), scores of devout fans from all over the world, make their way to Taiwan’s Chin Pao San Cemetery in Jinshan,

Jinshan, in northern coast of Taiwan, lies the tomb of the singer.

Jinshan, in the northern coast of Taiwan, lies the tomb of the singer beloved by a quarter of mankind.

on the island’s mountainous northern coast. To satisfy the wishes of her fans, Teresa’s family had chosen this picturesque spot and built a tomb for Teresa, naming it after her maiden name as “Yun Garden”, so that her fans may come to pay her homage. Fans from all walks of life, including ex-producers, songwriters, record company executives, businessmen, celebrities, ex-housekeepers, notables – many of whom weep openly – come here to pay respect to someone whom they regard as a close family member.

Teresa was given state honours at her funeral, which was attended by a great number of people including the Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. It was described as the largest turnout for a funeral second to the legendary Kuomintang Nationalist hero, Chiang Kai-Shek. Her coffin was wrapped with the Taiwan flag and was carried by military officers and family members. Teresa is now regarded by the Taiwanese people as a national treasure and, increasingly, as a heroine, by her fans because of her bravery, her significant contribution to world peace, commitment to a lifetime of charitable acts and comforting the under-privileged, the sick and those who were struggling in life.

A well-known philantrophist and his wife from the mainland crying at Teresa's tomb in Chin Pao San Cemetery.

A well-known philantropist from the mainland, and his wife,  crying at Teresa’s tomb in Chin Pao San Cemetery recently.

You have heard that Helen of Troy was, “The face that launched a thousand ships.” Now you have come to know that Teresa Teng is, “The voice that unites a billion people.”

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in Hong Kong and Singapore has a full-sized wax figure of Teresa Teng.

Recently (April 2015), the Taiwan government issued a set of stamps featuring the face of Teresa Teng to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her death in May 1995. This is the first time an entertainer is being featured on stamps. But her fans know that this act is not to merely commemorate her as a great singer because in the past only national heros were featured in stamps.

Stamps featuring Teresa.

Stamps featuring Teresa.

Here is a 2010 BBC’s correspondent report on her visit to Teresa’s memorial museum in Taiwan and interviews with some of her fans.

This is one of the last few concerts Teresa performed just before her death. You can see that she has grown older but her fans, both young ones and matured ones, are still as crazy as ever over her. Despite her many successes you can tell that she is such a down-to-earth, obliging and approachable person  (go to 3:50 of the video where you can see how her fans genuinely love her.). In this video, she was introduced to some VIPs on the front row as she sings.

(Note: in 1983, the Chinese Anti Spiritual-Pollution Movement singled out Teresa Teng’s songs as  a pollutant and banned them. The ban was lifted in 1986 but revoked  in 1989 because of her involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. This decision was again revoked in 1995 and an invitation was being prepared for her to visit the mainland just days before her death. Teresa never stepped foot on the People’s Republic of China and her greatest wish was not realised. Nonetheless, she is loved by more than a billion mainlanders today. Like Chinese everywhere, they feel a sense of kinship with this incredible woman.)

Other names Teresa is known by

Teresa is also known by several other names. If you Google you will find that these names refer to the same person:

– Teng Li-yun (her birth name, as spoken in Mandarin)
– Dèng Lìjun or Teng Li-chun (her stage name, as spoken in Mandarin)
– Teng Lê-kun (her birth name, as spoken in Fujian/Hokkien, which is her dialect group)
– Te Ritzサ· Te nn (her Japanese name)
– Teresa Tang (her first adopted English stage name when she was a teenager)

– Teresa Teng (her most well-known English stage name for the rest of her career)
– Little Deng (as widely known in mainland China after the cultural revolution)

Chinese-speaking fans now call her Deng Lijun; Japanese fans call her Te Ritz and English-speaking fans call her Teresa Teng. But if one says, Teresa Teng, everyone will know whom you are referring to.

copying_prohibited_smallHere is a rare 30-minute Int’l Community Radio Taipei (ICRT) interview with Teresa in English revealing her person, music and how she feels about her fans (go to 14:10 of the video).

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