TIME International Magazine
October 14, 1996 Volume 148, No. 16

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Asian divas are digital-era Galateas, molded, tutored and hyped by their record companies in hopes that the public will fall in love. Faye Wong was just such a creation. Spotted at the age of 20 by a Hong Kong record company, the Beijing-born Wong was groomed for stardom, poured into perky dresses and supplied with standard ballads in the Hong Kong genre known as Canto-Pop. The efforts worked: Wong's first three CDs climbed the charts, and like many a pretty songbird before her, she was besieged with concert and television offers.

But Wong decided she didn't fit on that polymer plinth. Today she writes her own songs, performs them in an increasingly personal style--in Cantonese for the Hong Kong audience, in Mandarin for her larger following on the mainland and Taiwan--and has spurned the high-profile existence once thought indispensable to keeping a Chinese pop star in public favor. She ignores the press and seeks inspiration in such iconoclastic performers as Ireland's Sinead O' Connor. Amazingly, the public likes her better than ever. Her 16 records have sold an estimated 7 million copies, and in 1995 a trade association proclaimed Wong the most popular female singer in the Chinese-speaking world. In 1994 she starred in Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai's avant-garde film Chungking Express, for which she won a best-actress award in Sweden. "Faye does whatever she wants," says her manager, Katie Chan. "It's really quite a miracle that she became a success."

A handful of male singers, the "Four Pop Kings"--Jacky Cheung, Aaron Kwok, Andy Lau and Leon Lai--dominate Hong Kong's recording industry. Wong, 27, is one of the first women to gain anything like that kind of clout, and she has done so uniquely, through undeniable talent and a near complete rejection of all that is expected of a Chinese pop diva. Her latest CD, Restless, has five songs without lyrics: Wong hummed and scatted her way through them. Sally Yeh, one of Hong Kong's most successful musical stars, describes Wong as "an incredible singer who makes art rather than entertainment." Local radio deejay Angel Leung likens her to the protean David Bowie: "She has talent, personality, good looks and the courage to do what she wants. Her unusual achievements greatly improve the profile and standing of Hong Kong artists."

Wong's father was a mining engineer, while her mother sang in a Chinese revolutionary-music troupe. Faye was an outgoing youngster who loved sports imagined she would follow in her mother's footsteps. "My dreams varied," says Wong at a Beijing coffee shop during a recording break. Tall (1.72 m), lean and appealingly boyish, she sports her favored offstage look--jeans, T shirt and no makeup. "At one point I wanted to be a bus- ticket vendor because I fancied the uniform."

In 1987 her family migrated to Hong Kong, and Wong, out of boredom and loneliness, started lessons with a well-known singing teacher. "As a mainland Chinese," she recalls, "I harbored the usual expectation of Hong Kong as a glamorous and exciting place. After I arrived, I found it to be no big deal. I wasn't very happy because I couldn't speak Cantonese and had no friends." After two years of lessons, Wong's teacher introduced her to Cinepoly Records, a subsidiary of one of the world's biggest record companies, London-based Polygram, and the execs decided to make the investment necessary to synthesize a new pop star. They gave her a stage name, Shirley Wong, and a parcel of songs. Her first CD, Shirley Wong, was released in November 1989, and two more followed over the next 12 months. All three were big sellers.

Then Wong took a fateful step. She put her stardom on hold to go to New York City for several months. Although she intended to study music there, the real goal of the pilgrimage abroad was to learn something about herself. "I wandered around, visited museums and sat at cafes," she recalls. "There were so many strange, confident-looking people. They didn't care what other people thought of them. I felt I was originally like that too, independent and a little rebellious. But in Hong Kong I lost myself. I was shaped by others and became like a machine, a dress hanger. I had no personality and no sense of direction."

She decided to return to Hong Kong show biz, but on her own terms. Her next CD, Coming Home, included The Woman Who Easily Gets Hurt, which won several awards and confirmed Wong as an evocative singer who could master a wide musical range. The CD's popularity made her a superstar. Soon Wong changed her first name back to Faye. For concerts Wong demanded unheard-of controls: she chose the song lineup, orchestration and stage and costume design. She immediately abandoned the traditional glitz and frippery for a style more chanteuse than bubble gum. "I designed long sleeves because I want to hide my hands," she explains. "I don't have any choreography to go with my music, so I usually don't know what to do with my hands." Not that anyone notices. "She can mesmerize an audience of more than 8,000," says concert promoter Kevin Ching, "without the fancy trappings, without being backed by dozens of dancers and tons of props. Very few artists can afford to do this." The public adulation that energizes so many performers means little to Wong. "In a studio I can concentrate on perfecting the way I sing a song," she says. "Onstage one has to worry about atmosphere and audience response. I find it distracting." During a 1994 concert tour, she traded insults with hecklers, grew impatient with fans nagging her and told them they were "nuts." Few seemed to mind the rebuke from their idol.

Her new sound is polished, as in ordinary Canto-Pop, and her voice is familiarly soft and fluid. But a defiant edge is increasingly noticeable in both Wong's tough lyrics and her more stark enunciations. She has recently collaborated with the ethereal Scottish trio Cocteau Twins; she contributed to one of the songs on their latest CD, Milk 'n Kisses, released this year, and the Scots composed two songs for her Restless, which appeared in June. Also helping out on Restless was mainland pop star Dou Wei, Wong's current boyfriend. Hong Kong fans are eager for news about the couple, but Wong guards her private life zealously. She lives with her parents in Hong Kong's fashionable Mid-Levels district. Instead of partying, she would rather stay home and read a book (on philosophy or Tai Chi) or play mah-jongg and snooker. The press likes to portray her as the bad girl of Hong Kong's music scene, but she says a better description comes from her new album: she's just...restless. "Being restless is almost a universal human condition," says Wong. "You agitate to reach a certain kind of status quo. Once you achieve that, you agitate to change again. It's a never-ending process."

--Reported by Lulu Yu/Beijing