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Teresa Teng: An Asian Idol Loved in Japan

Hirano Kumiko [Profile]


As Popular As Ever

Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of the death of Teresa Teng, an Asian pop legend who won fame in Japan with a string of hits. Teng was only 42 when she suffered a fatal asthma attack in 1995 while at a holiday resort in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In Japan her songs remain as popular as ever on karaoke rankings and almost 3 million of her CDs and DVDs have been sold in the country since she passed away. It is rare for the Japanese to show such enduring affection for a foreign singer and this cannot be due simply to her remarkable voice and angelic appearance.

Photograph courtesy of Universal Music Japan.

Teng’s mother loved music. From early childhood the star learned traditional Chinese songs, which is perhaps why she understood so well the importance of lyrics. In China, song lyrics (ci) were once looked down on as a lower form than poetry (shi). But in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), exemplary works by noted writers helped develop them into a recognized literary genre.

Teng’s 1983 album Dandan youqing (Light Exquisite Feeling) is a magnificent example of Song Dynasty lyrics set to contemporary melodies. Teng delivers laments on the nature of life and odes of longing for home inscribed by ancient literati, releasing a flood of emotion that transcends time and space.

Connecting Japan with Asian Neighbors

When she sang Japanese songs too, Teng paid close attention to the lyrics. With the help of interpreters, she repeatedly asked songwriters and producers the meaning of different words and would not proceed to the recording booth until she was satisfied she understood them fully. While performing, she captured the hearts of her fans by imbuing each word with meaning as she carefully sang them to the melody so that it seemed to her listeners that she was speaking directly to each of them.

As well as her own hits, Teng covered Japanese kayōkyoku pop songs translated into Chinese. She recorded many of these while living in Los Angeles in 1980. These were later distributed on cassette and CD in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China as well as Southeast Asia, becoming widely known throughout the region.

In 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō sang the Japanese ballad “Kitaguni no haru” (Spring in the North) together with members of the Vietnamese government at a banquet during his visit to the country. This received considerable attention from the local media, but Koizumi’s singing skills only succeeded in stirring up so much interest due to Teng’s popularization of kayōkyoku in Southeast Asia. I myself have felt the benefit of this popularization, having deepened friendships with people around Asia through singing Japanese songs together at karaoke sessions everywhere from Taiwan and China to Vietnam and Cambodia.

  • [2016.02.19]

Nonfiction writer. Started writing after working in the publishing industry. Asian tea lover. Her 2000 work Tantan yūjō (Light Exquisite Feeling) won the Shōgakukan Nonfiction Grand Prize. As well as writing about various Asian countries, she is particularly interested in the period when Taiwan was under Japanese control. Works include Teresa Ten ga mita yume: kajin kasei densetsu (Teresa Teng’s Dream: A Chinese Singing Legend), Chūgokucha: fūga no uragawa (Chinese Tea: Behind the Elegance), Tōsan no sakura: chiriyuku Taiwan no naka no Nihon (Father’s Cherry Blossoms: Japanese Culture Fading in Taiwan), and Mizu no kiseki o yonda otoko (The Man Who Caused a Water Miracle).

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