November 2nd, 2006


Ballads of massive acceptance

"By day, Deng Xiaoping rules China, but by night, Deng Lijun rules."

Deng Lijun -- better known as Teresa Teng -- was a huge Asian Torch star right up to her early death, in 1995, of an asthma attack. Big sentimental power ballads with fabulously unwieldy titles like "The Moon Represents My Heart" and "Surrender Yourself To Time Going On" made her the ultimate Karaoke Queen.

Absurdist Asian Torch is the genre label for my Ocky Milk album (if you don't believe me, stick the CD in your drive and load up iTunes). Just like Teresa Teng (although perhaps more deliberately), on Ocky I sing several Chinesey-sounding power ballads which combine truly heartfelt, universal emotions with odd, clumsily-translated lyrics. Torch on its own is pure emotional manipulation, but put it together with some random confusion, some puzzling perplexity and some engineered cultural misunderstanding and you get... well, some kind of art.

My yen for Teng (and, speaking of yen, she was huge in Japan -- Hisae's mum, for instance, rates her the best singer of all time) probably began when I visited Hong Kong two years ago and my dear friend and guide, designer Cheung Lik, presented me with a Teresa Teng double CD.

Now that YouTube has more and more stuff (recent Momus adds include the original Hairstyle of the Devil promo and a weird manga mashup for Situation Comedy Blues), I thought I'd make a little Video Tour of the Torch of Teng here on Click Opera. In these video versions, it isn't just the songs that thrill, but the sets, constructed for communist state television shows we can only dream about -- and yet which aren't so far from Western showbiz models, either.

The typical Teng ballad combines melodramatic 1950s songwriting (think Roy Orbison) with Chinese melodies and 1980s production values -- tinkling synth fills and reverberant Rototoms. The lyrics detail the sufferings of a Plain Jane narrator filled with trust, devotion and loyal stoicism in the face of unhappy love affairs with men who keep promising to leave their wives for her... but never quite do. She's there, keeping her heart good, waiting, surrendering herself to the passage of time, never getting bitter.

First, here's a karaoke-style fly-by of clips and sleeves featuring Teng (she looks rather like Kumi Okamoto in some of them):

Now let's rewind to Teng as a cute beat boom teen, a yéyé girl confessing that "I Smile Whenever I See You". (Dig those crazy zooms, comrade!)

Here she is singing her biggest Japanese hit, "Surrender Yourself To Time Going On" (Toki No Nagare Ni Mi Wo Makase), with its message "go with the flow (of tears)":

"Mei Hua" has amazing studio scenography, as imperial palace gates and mist part to reveal a snow scene with full atmospheric effects:

In "Chat and Smile" Teng plays "Superlegitimacy Cosplay", dressing as a cook, a parking warden, a nurse and snooker player:

Finally, the moving "Ode for Republic of China", which takes Teng's "ballads of massive acceptance" into the political realm (she sang it in Taiwan):