It’s become show biz shtick throughout most of Asia: have a non-Chinese perform “The Moon Is Like My Heart,” also known as “The Moon Represents My Heart”, the mega-hit for the late Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng, undoubtedly the most revered Chinese recording artist ever.
The popularity of Teresa Teng transcends generations- as does “The Moon Is Like My Heart”. As a non-Chinese, but an Asian, all one can say is that Teresa Teng is the Chinese answer to India’s Asha Bhosle, the grandmother of Hindi music- iconic, and legendary. But with a far more complex personal life with strong political beliefs.
My friend Dan, who was with me last night watching our Filipina friend Maricel perform the song in Mandarin at a hotel lounge, was explaining the respect Chinese like him- someone who just turned forty- has for Teresa Teng. How it’s all about the purity and “sweetness” of her voice. How other Chinese artists might be hugely popular, but that Teresa Teng is in a different league. An untouchable.
When having only recently entered the world of advertising and with a local ad agency which went on to become DDB, it was then Chairman Philip Tse, below, who introduced me to the music of Teresa Teng.
At that time, the singer was living in Paris with her French partner, and had retired from recording and performing. Philip had the idea of turning twelve well-known Chinese poems from into music- and which could only be sung by Teresa Teng.
With mutual friend Norman Cheng running Polygram Music, the project was presented and sold to him. Successful and respected in the music industry, Norman used his persuasive skills to attract Teng back to the recording world for this project.
The elaborately packaged album of poems was released and immediately went Gold. Teresa Teng was back.
I met her briefly during that time and heard about her relationship with actor Jackie Chan.
There was then her engagement to Malaysian billionaire businessman Robert Kuok’s son Beau. Not agreeing with various prenuptial demands like giving up her singing career and never writing an autobiography, she walked away from this relationship. She was no pushover.
Extremely careful about keeping her personal life personal, to her legion of fans around Asia and Japan, it was all about her voice, described by one critic as “seventy percent sweetness and thirty percent tears”.
With Polygram, she recorded in Japanese and became the first Chinese artist to break into that market. For Norman Cheng, this was a huge step forward in his career ascendancy. The lucrative Japanese market came under his portfolio whereas Teresa Teng continued to record for Polygram before eventually switching music companies.
Returning home, I kept thinking of Teresa Teng. I remember writing English lyrics for “The Moon Is Like My Heart”. For who? No idea. There were a number of English versions. Most were bloody awful. The song with its simple folk song chords belonged to Teresa Teng. Could only work when sung in Mandarin.
I remember hearing about her death while she was holidaying in Thailand of a severe asthma attack. That was in 1995. She was 42.
Listening to her Greatest Hits record with my current partner, Chinese and someone in her early thirties, she talked about how, being Taiwanese, Teresa Teng had her music banned in China during the Eighties. About how she performed at pro-Democracy concerts in Paris and Hong Kong following the student uprising in 1989 at Tiananmen. I never knew. But her political leanings, a very personal life that faded to black with her passing made me realise how little we know about this fascinating woman.
Perhaps this is what makes Teresa Teng so special. She demanded privacy. She commanded respect. And let her music speak for her. After all these years, it still does.
Her music makes Teresa Teng timeless and ageless. She could have recorded a wonderful version of “Moon River”- in Mandarin. The only Chinese singer who could have made this A&R idea work.
Teresa Teng was and is very very special. Somehow, someone will bring her songs back again- and with the dignity they deserve. This has to happen.
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