From the Gramophone: Teresa Teng
When I first asked my mother about the types of songs that she listened to growing up, she had a hard time picking a favourite. “I like all of them,” she confessed. “It’s too hard to pick just one.”
But after a moment of hesitation, she replied: “If I really had to, there’s no doubt that it would have to be 鄧麗君 (Teresa Teng).”
When I asked her what she liked about Teng’s music, she hesitated again before giving me the very broad answer: “Everything about her is fantastic. Everybody wanted to be just like her.”
For the most part when people say something like this, it would be a blatant exaggeration. But to say that Teng was simply “famous” was a massive understatement. Teng, a Taiwanese/Chinese pop singer (my mother–who is Taiwanese–touted that Teng’s popularity in both countries transcended national boundaries, so she technically didn’t belong to any one country) whose era stemmed from the late 60s all the way to her death, was tremendously popular in the three decades that spanned her career. My mother remembered listening to her songs on numerous records, and on the radio at night. Nearly every song that she released was a hit–and for the most part a lot of these songs weren’t even hers. Most of the songs she released were covers of decades-old popular songs that had already run their course, but when Teng sang them she breathed new life into them. This was great for many a record label, since new material wasn’t necessary for Teng to produce a hit record. With a voice that was lovely, warm, and simple (there aren’t too many difficult notes to hit in a Teng song), Teng quickly became a national sweetheart. What also helped was her modest girl-next-door appearance (extremely modest by today’s standards), sporting a look didn’t seem too impossible to emulate. The youth wanted to be her, the old adored her.
Like other pop stars at the time, Teng also sang in many different languages. Throughout her life, Teng released music in Mandarin, Taiwanese Hokkien, Cantonese, Japanese, Indonesian, and English (she even spoke French, though she didn’t record songs in French), making her a truly international star. A lot of the times she performed for troops in all different countries, making her the unofficial “Soldier’s Sweetheart” and further contributing to her spread in popularity. At one point, Teng also dated the legendary Jackie Chan, although the relationship didn’t last for long.
But things came to a tragic end for Teng when she suddenly suffered an asthma attack during a vacation in Thailand and passed away when nobody was around to help. My mother still recalls the news questioning the situation, wondering why nobody was there to support one of the most high profile pop stars to ever come out of East Asia. In fact, she even remembers who Teng’s boyfriend was at the time (“He was not Chinese!” she told me). Teng was 39 at the time.
But although Teng’s passing happened suddenly, dying early just added to her legendary status. Suddenly the prices of Teng’s records skyrocketed (what were once widespread popular records are now collector’s items) and it became harder to find them for cheap even though she sold millions of them. Teng’s legacy has become immortalized, especially since she’s not around today–think the legacy of James Dean, but tenfold.
Today, the songs that Teng popularized are some of the most iconic songs in the Mandarin language. Step into any karaoke room and you’ll know–someone’s guaranteed to pick one of Teng’s many songs to sing. While “童話 (Tong Hua)” might be the younger generation’s secret karaoke weapon, Teng’s “甜蜜蜜 (Tian Mi Mi)” or “月亮代表我的心 (Yue Liang Dai Biao Wo De Xin)” is my mother’s. There’s no doubt in my mind that if you’ve ever set foot in an Asian country, you’ve probably heard at least one of Teng’s songs in your lifetime.
Sometimes my mother still thinks about what it would be like if Teng was still alive. Would Teng still be making music today like her contemporaries? My mother laments never being able to see Teng in concert (“I was really poor, you know that!”), but Teng will always live on in her memory as the most popular woman who ever lived.
“Nobody compares to her.”
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Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!