Thailand, May 8, 1995:
Legendary singer Teresa Teng passes away from an asthma attack. She was 42. In her homeland of Taiwan, Teng is given a state funeral.
Los Angeles, Summer 1995:
My dad brings back a magazine from Taiwan. I don’t remember what magazine it was, only that a woman whose name I didn’t know, but whose songs my parents memorized, was on the cover. That magazine stayed on our nightstand for weeks. I wonder if my dad still has that issue.
Hong Kong, November 2, 1996:
Peter Chan’s film Comrades Almost a Love Story premieres. The Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai romance traces contemporary Chinese migration from Beijing and Guangzhou to Hong Kong and New York City. Teresa Teng’s songs provide the Chinese title of the film (甜蜜蜜) and give cultural meaning to chance encounters across borders.
Taipei, August 2004:
I take a Chinese language class at a university in Taiwan. My classmates and I are all children of Chinese immigrants from throughout China and Taiwan, who have settled and raised family around the world -- from California to Texas to Boston to Paris. Though we can read only a smattering of Chinese, we find, during a fateful karaoke session, that we can all sing Teresa Teng’s “The Moon Represents My Heart.”
Las Vegas, May 8, 2010:
On a road trip to Vegas, two friends and I listen to Teng’s “Sweetie” which just happened to be on a CD mix in our car. I’m reminded that my dad used to listen to Teresa Teng’s music during our long road trips. Unbeknownst to us, 27 years earlier, Teng became the first Chinese female singer to perform in Las Vegas. We also don’t realize that it is the 15th anniversary of Teng’s death.
In life, rare is the occasion for indulgence,
Let’s not let this chance pass by.
Come… drink first talk later.
After you leave tonight,
When will you return?
[Top Ten Teresa Teng songs, in no particular order]
“The Moon Represents My Heart” 月亮代表我的心
Beauty in simplicity. The words are so basic that everyone can sing it, the melody so sweet that nobody can miss the sincerity. Covered by Andy Lau, David Tao, and karaoke fiends worldwide.
In 1974, Teresa Teng took Japan by storm with this smoky nightclub classic. Teng slinks across keys with apprehension and vigor. Don’t stand in her way when she belts the chorus, but don’t look her in the eye when she purrs back down to a whisper.
Those infectious chirps, that impossible-to-get-out-of-your-head verse, that innocent moment of recollection – “ah! in my dreams…” Here’s a pop classic without a chorus: just a purr, a rumble, and a sigh.
“I Only Care about You” 我只在乎你
Teresa Teng’s last big hit resonated with her dearest devotees, especially after her unexpected death. What if I never had you? What would my life have been like? What if you left me? What sadness would I endure? “So I beg of you / don’t let me leave you. / If not for you, I couldn’t feel the slightest bit of affection.”
“South Sea Girls” 南海姑娘
As she was amongst overseas Chinese communities around the world, Teresa Teng was huge in Southeast Asia. This hula ditty is adapted from an Indonesian folk song and given an island twist, all while never losing that Teresa Teng tenderness.
“Alone Ascending the West Chamber” 獨上西樓
The best song from Teresa Teng’s best album, Light Exquisite Feeling, “Alone Ascending the West Chamber,” like the rest of the songs on the album, is adapted from classical Chinese poetry. The majesty of the track isn’t that it’s nostalgic for the past, but rather how seamlessly it’s able to project past sentiments into a contemporary pop vernacular. Teng effortlessly chants the words as a jazz singer might, even talking to the audience half-way before taking us out with torch-song flair.
“Hong Kong Nights” 香港之夜
Though sung by a Taiwanese singer and written by a Japanese composer, “Hong Kong Nights” may nevertheless be the best song ever recorded about the then-British colony. Teresa Teng doesn’t overdo the urban dramatics, nor does she simply romanticize familiar tourist attractions. Instead, it’s about holding hands while crossing the lit streets at night. Teng was never a sociological singer, but when it came to spinning the everyday into the radiance of first love, Teng had no match.
“Forget Him” 忘記他
Teresa Teng’s accented Cantonese always seemed more of a gimmick than a natural extension of her musical self. (Her Taiwanese never felt that organic either.) But with “Forget Him,” Teng crafted a song of such longing and mystery – it could be her most atmospheric song, a quality not lost on Shirley Kwan in her equally mystifying 1995 cover.
“On the Side of the Water” 在水一方
Late 70s, early 80s Taiwan saw numerous songs about lovers in nature, often appearing as theme songs in Chiung Yao films about destined romantics and their oppressive times. “On the Side of the Water” is Teresa Teng’s best entry in the genre, projecting an image of one’s dream girl, floating to shore from out of the fog.
“Goodbye My Love” 再見我的愛人
When critics speak of Teng’s signature ability to create the musical equivalent of smiling through tears, they’re talking about this song. Teresa Teng peers out from heaven, assuring her fans: I won’t forget you. I’ll see you soon. Goodbye.
Thanks to Winghei Kwok for additional input.