In the three year period from 1995 to 1997, several new pop superstars rose up and nearly all of them were women. In 1995, actress Sammi Cheng scored a big hit and was to become the number one female singer from Hong Kong for the rest of the decade in the Cantonese-speaking region. The following year, the only one to challenge her popularity appeared—Kelly Chen.
But more importantly, the mid-90s was the time when Mandarin pop really began to fly, thanks to new superstars from Taiwan. The success of Jacky Cheung’s Mandarin album Goodbye Kiss convinced many Hong Kong stars that, by releasing Mandarin language albums, they could open themselves up to a much larger market. Teresa Deng died of an asthma attack in 1995. Though tragic, her loss surely inspired other singers to arise to fill the gigantic void she left behind.
Taiwan’s Rene Liu slowly climbed to fame as a singer. Valen Xu broke all records when her album Do the Clouds Know? sold an unprecedented 2.2 million copies on the island, thanks in part to the gorgeous song “Monologue”. And then, like a sudden whirlwind, entered Sherry “A-Mei” Zhang who took the nation by storm. David Tao returned to the island from his stint as a Los Angeles police officer to release the first Chinese R&B music. Notable also was Gigi Leung. Though from Hong Kong, her early Mandarin hits resonated with the masses, like her “Short Hair” and “Make a Wish” a duet with Leo Ku, another star who arose at this time. Hong Kong also saw the emergence of Cass Phang, Ekin Cheng, and Andy Hui who was mentored by Anita Mui. Other stars from Taiwan included Winnie Xin and Richie Ren.
It was only a matter of time before Singapore saw its first major pop star. Considered one of the best singers of the period, and Singapore’s answer to Faye Wang, Mavis Xu Mei Jing, dazzled the Chinese world for several years. In 2001, her record company was absorbed into Universal Music who didn’t allow her the same creative control over her music, so she made a conscious decision to retire. But perhaps the most gifted singers to arise came from the United States. CoCo Lee, born in Hong Kong, emigrated to San Francisco, USA when she was 10 years old. She tried to become an English singer in the States but, despite vocal qualities at the levels of Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, was largely ignored in a music industry that was and still is a blacks and whites only club. Beijing native Shunza also grew up in San Francisco, from the age of three. Her powerful but velvety voice stopped everyone dead in their tracks when she released the sweeping “Come Home” in 1997.
Chinese Name: 李玟
Cantonese Name: Lee Wen
Mandarin Name: Lǐ Wén
(b. 1975 in Hong Kong)
往日情 “Yesterday’s Passion”
Di Da Di
Before I Fall In Love (English)
Do You Want My Love (English)
月光爱人 / A Love Before Time
Although Coco Li Wen was born in Hong Kong, she grew up in San Francisco from age 10. She, her mom, and two elder sisters were all gifted singers. Her father died when she was young. CoCo’s mother, a doctor, expressed her wish that her three daughters pursue practical careers, but Coco had decided from a young age that she would take on singing professionally.
She began entering local singing competitions and usually won. Lee’s friend worked at a restaurant and began playing a tape of Lee’s karaoke singing there. Patrons asked to purchase copies of the tape. She won prizes in a number of beauty contests. After Coco graduated from high school, she took a vacation to Hong Kong and, just for fun, entered the New Talent Singing Contest at which most Hong Kong stars got their early breaks into the industry. She nabbed second place. The next day she was approached by Capital Artists and signed a recording contract. Her first few albums sold moderately well. Her big breakthrough came when she switched to Sony Music in 1996 and released the Mandarin album Yesterday’s Passion which became the biggest-selling album of the year in China. In 1998, she won MTV Asia’s award for Best Album – Di Da Di – and Best Music Video. Di Da Di sold a million copies in less than three months. She performed a concert to the second largest audience in Taiwan’s history—30,000 people (only Michael Jackson drew a larger crowd).
In 1999, Lee sang a duet with Julio Iglesias in Las Vegas. She released her first U.S. album Just No Other Way. Her song “Before I Fall in Love” was included in the soundtrack of the movie Runaway Bride.
At the end of 2000 she performed with Ricky Martin on his Asian tour. Coco sang the English theme song for the hit movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (“A Love Before Time”) which she performed to rave reviews at the 2001 Academy Awards.
Despite all her efforts, Coco never really cracked the U.S. market with a big hit single. Her only charting single was “Do You Want My Love” which peaked at #49 on the Billboard charts. Her English albums sold only modestly well and radio stations did not given much airplay to her songs. This is most likely due to notorious Western racism that has hitherto allowed only people of European and African descent to become big stars, not Asian.
Chinese Name: 郑秀文
Mandarin Name: Zhèng Xìuwén
Cantonese Name: Cheng Sau Man
(b. 1972 in Hong Kong)
舍不得你 “Can’t Give You Up”
Sammi Cheng is worth more than HK $100 million. In 2002 it was reported that she was the highest-paid female entertainer in Hong Kong. She entered the entertainment industry when she was 16 by taking part in the New Talent Singing Awards in 1988. She came in third place but was still offered a recording contract by Capital Artists. RTHK recognized her in 1990 where she was awarded as a best new prospect. Over the next five years she enjoyed some minor hits. She tried to draw attention by dying her hair orange and dressing in flamboyant outfits but realized she was with the wrong record company. She switched to Warner music in 1995 and enjoyed her first major hit, title track of the album Can’t Give You Up. The following year she released a Mandarin album, Worth It, which topped the charts in Taiwan. For the next several years, Sammi had at least one song in the year-end Top 10. Sammi is one of the most well-known actresses in Hong Kong as well.
Chinese Name: 刘若英
Mandarin Name: Liú Ruòyīng
(b. 1970 in Taibei, Taiwan)
After high school graduation in Taibei, Taiwan, Rene Liu Ruo Ying studied classical music at a university in the United States. After her degree, she returned to Taiwan and was recruited by a local record label. She didn’t begin singing herself but provided assistance to other singers. In 1995, Rene released her first Chinese album and began acting as well. Her acting career took off much more swiftly than her singing. She was given the lead role in the Chinese movie “Xiao Yu”, later winning the Best Actress award at the Asia Pacific Movie Festival in 1995. After starring in a number of movies and TV series, and winning many awards, Liu’s massive singing breakthrough finally arrived in 1998, via her fourth album Love You More and More. Its follow-up, Waiting For You, skyrocketed Rene to superstardom, propelled by the single “Hou Lai” or “Afterwards”. This song has become one of the biggest Chinese songs in history, an eternal favourite at karaoke venues.
Chinese Name: 许茹芸
Mandarin Name: Xǔ Rúyún
(b. 1974 in Taibei, Taiwan)
男人女人 (with Amguulan)
Singer-songwriter Valen Xu Ru Yun is a classically trained pianist. She began playing when she was four. Discovered while playing and singing at a restaurant in Taibei, she was offered a record contract before she turned 19. She released her first album in 1994. Though it met with critical acclaim, sales were low. Her second album, Sea of Tears sold six times as many copies. But it was her third album, Do the Clouds Know? that reached the clouds with 2.2 million copies sold in Taiwan. Though loved from start to finish, it was really the song “Monologue” that became one of the most cherished Mandarin Pop songs in history.
Ms. Xu’s fourth album Sunny Airport didn’t even do half as well in Taiwan, but, more significantly, it sold 3 million copies in the rest of Asia, propelling her into the levels of popularity enjoyed but only a few Asian stars, like Faye Wang and Sandy Lam. In 1999, Valen Xu performed a duet with none other than Enrique Iglesias, called “You’re My No. 1″. Considered one of the most accomplished singer / songwriters in Asia, Ms. Xu is known for her wispy, strong, and crystal clear voice. She is also known for the professionalism instilled into her concerts where she gives CD-quality rather than campy performances. In 1999, Valen traveled to Rwanda, Africa with the World Health Organization to do charity work.
She took a break from the music industry in 2004 to study English in New York. She travelled to Finland to record the music videos for her 2007 album.
Chinese Name: 陈慧琳
Cantonese Name: Chen Wai Lam
Mandarin Name: Chén Huìlín
(b. 1972 in Hong Kong)
风花雪 “Wind Flower Snow”
我不够爱你 (with Andy Lau)
Love Paradise (English)
北极雪 “Arctic Snow” (with Steve Zhou)
随梦而飞 (with Leon Lai)
Kelly Chen, blessed with an astonishingly beautiful voice, is perhaps the only Hong Kong celebrity who headed into married life without any scandals in the arena of romance. She has lived in many places. She attended primary school in Hong Kong, at a Canadian international high school in Japan, and college in New York, where she graduated in graphic design.
After returning to Hong Kong, her talent caught the attention of an agent and she was offered a role in the film Whatever Will Be Will Be in 1995. She was also invited as feature singer for the film’s soundtrack. Later that year, Kelly released her first album (Cantonese), Dedicated Lover. The following year, she came out with her first Mandarin album, I Don’t Think So. Being fluent in Japanese, she also released some Japanese songs. Her first big hit was “Wind, Flower, Snow” in 1996. The following year, her Mandarin album Insight sold over 1.3 million copies in Asia. In 1998, Kelly teamed up with Taiwanese singer-songwriter and producer Steve Zhou and sang a duet with him called “Arctic Snow”. She also sang a female version of his hit “Notepad”. The album on which the songs appeared, Love Me or Not, secured her status as a diva, selling 2 million copies.
Ms. Chen has also embarked on a number of world tours which included performances in Australia, Canada, Singapore, Mainland China, and the United States.
In more recent years, Kelly’s song “Hope” topped the charts on numerous radio stations across China and became one of the most popular ringtone downloads for cell phones. Besides her music and acting, Kelly Chen has done a huge amount of charity work. She performed at the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games.
Sherry (“A-Mei”) Zhang
Chinese Name: 张惠妹
Mandarin Name: Zhāng Huìmèi
(b. 1972 in Taiwan)
最爱的人伤我最伤 “The One I Love Most Hurts Me Most” (with Tom Zhang)
我可以抱你吗 “May I Hold You?”
听海 “Listening to the Sea”
Sherry Zhang Hui Mei, better known as A-Mei, an aboriginal Taiwanese, was one of nine children born to a lower class family in the mountains of eastern Taiwan. Her father, while seriously ill, encouraged her to enter a singing contest. She came out on top but her father died and, in her grief, she joined her cousin’s band which traveled north and began playing in Taibei pubs. She was eventually discovered by Tom Zhang. They sang a duet together called “The One I Love Most Hurts Me Most”. From there she was invited to sing the theme song of Taiwan’s UFO radio station. Finally she was offered a recording contract. She released her debut album, Sisters in late 1996. With the strength of singles like “Released”, the album topped the charts in Taiwan for nine consecutive weeks and sold over a million copies on the island.
In June, 1997, A-Mei released her second album, Bad Boy. It made her a superstar all over China. The song “Listen to the Sea” became one of the biggest hits of the 90s. While she was enjoying her success, the man responsible for it, Tom Zhang, was driving while fatigued one day and had a car crash. He fell into a coma and died after three weeks of hospitalization. Sherry sang a song for him called “Listen to You, Listen to Me”. The following year, Billboard Magazine in the U.S. named her the most popular singer in Asia. The American News Network CNN produced a documentary on her which was broadcast worldwide. Riding on the waves of mega-success, Sherry Zhang embarked on Asian concert tours, and drew a crowd of 80,000 in Shanghai.
By Y2K, Sherry Zhang had sold over 8 million copies of her recordings. She became the first and only Taiwanese singer to make the cover of Newsweek magazine. She was also named as one of the 20 Asian Heroes in a special issue of Time Magazine. She held a concert in the United States in 2002 and continued releasing albums at the rate of one a year.
Chinese Name: 梁咏琪
Cantonese Name: Leung Wing Kei
Mandarin Name: Liáng Yǒngqí
(b. 1976 in Hong Kong)
短发 “Short Hair”
胆小鬼 “Chicken Chick”
许愿 “Make a Wish” (with Leo Ku)
爱的代价 “The Price of Love”
This tall beauty started out during her school days as a part-time model. She then joined the film industry. She surprised everyone by releasing an album (Cantonese) in late 1996 which was well-received. But, when she released her second album (Mandarin), Short Hair, its title-track did two things: 1. It made her a household name overnight. 2. Young women all across China cut their hair short. If fact, though a Hong Konger, in the early years of her musical career, it was her Mandarin songs that outshone her Cantonese. The success of Mandarin hits like the aforementioned as well as “Washing My Face” and “Chicken Chick” made critics call her the fastest rising Hong Kong pop star. Her Mandarin song “Make a Wish”, a duet with Leo Ku, won a Song of the Year award. It remains one of the most popular songs played at Chinese weddings.
What made Ms. Leung more credible musically was the fact that she was one of the few singers who could also play music—and not just the piano but the guitar and drums as well. This integrity was subsequently sealed with a card she had held up her sleeve for four years: she composed her own song. While most Chinese singers could not compose their own music, Gigi wrote her own song, a song that nabbed MTV China’s “Song of the Year by a Hong Kong Artist” award in 2001. And that song was “Fireworks”. She began composing songs for other singers as well, including Sammi Cheng and Hacken Lee. In the last ten years, Leung has come out with over 20 original studio albums.
Gigi is a well-established actress as well. She is one of the few Hong Kongers privileged to star opposite Jet Li in a film. In 2003, she starred in Warner Bros. first-ever Chinese movie, Turn Left, Turn Right. She is also known as Hong Kong ambassador for both UNICEF and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature. This work has brought her to visit places seldom graced by Chinese celebrities, like Africa. Gigi has one of the most photographed faces in all of Asia, appearing in countless ads, billboards, and a myriad magazine covers.
Chinese Name: 陶喆
Mandarin Name: Táo Zhé
(b. 1969 in Hong Kong)
爱,很简单 “I Love You”
今天妳要嫁给我 (with Jolin Cai)
The life of David Tao Zhe is an interesting one. His parents (who apparently eloped to get married) were both famous entertainers in Taiwan—his mother for Chinese opera singing and his father (originally from Shanghai) for acting, singing, and composing. David spent his early years in Hong Kong but lived in Taiwan from kindergarten to junior high school. His family relocated to the U.S. where his father worked as an animator for Walt Disney. Later, D.T.’s parents returned to Taiwan where his father began a singing career. David was left behind in the States to fend for himself. His various jobs included, believe it or not, a stint as a policeman with the Los Angeles Police Department!
He completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. He then became a salesman. A Taiwanese producer offered him a job when he found out who his parents were, which brought David Tao back to Taiwan. He composed and produced songs for various singers before releasing his own self-titled album in 1997. The album featured the a cappella song “Spring Wind”. But it was “I Love You” that was so big that Tao was nominated for five Golden Melody Awards, a first for a new artist. To date, it remains his biggest hit. Tao’s production work was awarded at the ceremony. One of the reasons for Tao’s popularity was that he was the first Chinese to perform R&B style music. His popularity and releases continued through the next decade.