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Shidaiqui - Chinese pop divas

By Liu2Web · 31/01/2009

With Chinese New Year coming up, incidentally the year of the Ox, The National Gallery was hosting Shidaiqu: A Celebration of Chinese Pop Singers as part of the China in London season. I have been fascinated by the South East (SE) Asian addiction to pop, in particular Japanese pop or Jpop for the cool kids. Admittedly, I own a copy of S.H.Es album but I normally cringe when I hear modern SE Asian music as I dismiss them as heavily western influence with a cheesy twist. Director Lap-fung Chan show helped to uncover these pop roots with the performance of Alice Lee singing and Andy Leung’s piano skills.

I stumbled in a few minutes late from the damp weather to the 1300 show only to be confronted by a darkened room that reminded me of a generic conference hall of a modern Oxford College. Alice Lee was already in song and stood there on stage wearing a glittery turquoise dress like a piece of jade on centre stage. The sorrowful song being sung was by Zhou Xuan called “Age of Bloom”. The composition and lyrics were supposed to reflect the longing for peace in the turbulent 40s but the real sorrow conveyed was from Zhous personal love life. As Alice explained, Zhou was married to her director for three years. She then had an affair with a business man but he eventually left her. This left Zhou heart broken and her mental health deteriorated to the point of admittance to a mental hospital. There, Zhou died under the suspicion of suicide. Imperial colonialism and political strife has left China with the emotion of perpetual sadness to the extreme that I cannot remember the last time I saw a Chinese movie that did not leave me with an indelible mark of depression!

Alice's next two songs were based on Tereasa Teng. “Moon Represents My Heart” was a lovely Mandarin love song from the 60s. The legend Teresa, started her singing career via a competition not unlike X-Factor. The song was influenced by her long term relationship with her French boyfriend. She became a sensation and sung in several languages including Japanese and Cantonese. The second Tereasa song was called “Wishing Itd Last Forever” taken from the 80’s album “Lighten Heart” which was based on poems from the Ching Dynasty. Alice cheekily asked the predominantly English audience to participate if they knew the words. Unfortunately Teresa died at the relatively young age of 42 with no kids.

The final two songs sung by Alice were based on Wong Faye. Wong Faye was born in Beijing and started her career at the age of 22 only to a lukewarm reception. Wong subsequently upped and moved to New York. Her music was heavily influenced by rock and RnB and upon returning to Asia, she subsequently became a sensation across all the Chinese speaking countries and crowned the “Hevenly Queen”. Alice’s rendition of “Fragile Woman” was my favourite as it was the most soulful and I could relate to the western rhythmic melody. Cantonese is a language I often associate with rough and ready individuals not unlike cockney English. So I was pleasantly surprised at how a song sung in Cantonese could be so pleasant. It was at this point an epiphany occurred and I finally understood the SE Asian love affair with pop. However, Wong reached international acclaim when she sung for the famous Japanese video game, Final Fantasy. Alice sung this tune, “Eyes on me”, in English. It was strange to hear Alice sing English and I did get the impression that she struggled on certain notes. However, I cannot be too harsh on the women as she is a trilingual performer. I did wonder how a language such as Mandarin, which is tonal in nature, can be sung to a melodious tune without losing its tonal meaning.

Alice Lee driven performance and Andy Leung tuneful piano playing was a true testament to three pop divas that shaped a country’s modern music. Not only did this show attempt to bring Chinese pop to Western audiences, it also highlighted the point to me the influence of Zhou and Tereasa during a time when women rights were not yet fully recognised. It is fair to say Alice Lee is not going to win x-factor but she is far from talentless and the show was insightful yet entertaining. Before I knew it, half an hour was over and Alice concluded by saying, “Gōngxǐ fācái”.

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Other links:
Alice Guardian column