Taiwanese singer A-Mei has been both an Asian superdiva whose songs were number-one hits in Taiwan and mainland China and a political hot potato, forbidden to perform in China at all. Her career has taken her from a remote Taiwanese village to international stardom. After a political fiasco in which she was muzzled by Chinese authorities, she has made a comeback throughout China and in other Asian countries.
Chang Hui-Mei, known by her stage name, A-Mei, was born into the Puyuma clan of the Bunun tribe, an aboriginal group in Taiwan that has historically been overlooked and disenfranchised from the mainstream of Taiwanese society ever since the first Chinese settlers on the island took their land and pushed them into the mountains. Music, however, is a strong element of Bunun culture, and A-Mei first sang in ritual ceremonies. She told Geoff Burpee in Billboard, “My mother sings, my sisters sing, my father used to sing. It’s a family thing. It’s really something that we do together with our tribe, something important in our culture.”
When she was 17, A-Mei made it to the final round of a national singing competition, but forgot her lyrics. Her father encouraged her to try again the following year, but he died before she reached the finals. When she won, she put her trophy on his grave.
Shortly after this A-Mei moved to Taipei to work in her older sister’s restaurant, and began singing in pubs; she sang in three different pubs five days a week, and practiced at home on the other two days. Her uncle, who had a band, didn’t think she could sing in English. She insisted, however, that he give her some American songs, and she learned them in a month. In 1995 she was discovered by executives from the Forward Music label as she was singing the Dolly Parton/Whitney Houston song, “I Will Always Love You.” Within a few years, she went from being a little-known ethnic singer to a major pop star, known throughout Asia. Her debut single, “Sisters,” which incorporated some rhythms from her tribal music, had sold over 700,000 copies by May of 1997 and spent several weeks on the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s bestseller charts.
Despite the fact that her music focuses more on love songs than political messages, A-Mei became embroiled in the ongoing feud between the independent Republic of Taiwan and Communist China. In addition to being popular in her native Taiwan, A-Mei was also a big star in mainland China. As Hannah Beech wrote in Time International, “When a Taiwanese evolves into a pop star, his or her main audience is across the strait in megalopolises and villages throughout the vast [Chinese] mainland.”
In August of 1998, A-Mei received a coveted opportunity to perform at a concert in mainland China, largely
Born Chang Hui-Mei on August 9, 1972, in eastern Taiwan, the third-youngest of eight children.
Sang in national singing contest at 17; discovered by Forward Music, 1995; debut single “Sisters” sold 700,000 copies, 1997; sang in mainland China, 1998; signed advertising contract with Sprite and sang at Taiwanese president’s inauguration, 2000; political furor dampened career; comeback concert in mainland China, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Forward Music, 13th Floor, No. 89 Nankin E. Rd., Sec. 5, Taipei, Taiwan ROC. Website—A-Mei Official Website: http://www.a-mei.com.
because Chinese authorities wanted to use her nationality and ethnic heritage to make a point. One of her producers told Mahlon Meyer in Newsweek International, “It is really hard to get a booking [in China]. They gave it to her because they wanted to show that Taiwanese aborigines were under their rule.” (China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, a claim sharply denied by the Taiwanese.) The concert was attended by 50,000 people, many of whom also disagreed with the government’s position on Taiwan—so vigorously that 2, 000 riot police had to keep the crowd in line. When an official announced that the concert was sponsored by the Beijing city government, the crowd turned violent, surging toward him and chanting, “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!”
A-Mei’s popularity peaked in 2000, when she signed a contract to represent Sprite in an advertising campaign in China. At the time her songs were in the number-one spot on Beijing radio, and she had sold over eight million CDs. When Chen Shui-bian won the Taiwanese presidency, the pro-independence candidate asked her to sing the Taiwanese national anthem at his inauguration. She told Meyer in Newsweek, “The president felt I could represent so many people, and I would never have another chance. I had sung the national anthem since I was a girl. I never expected anything to come of it.”
Deeply honored, A-Mei practiced the song hundreds of times, and sang it in a serious, respectful manner, dressed in a conservative purple gown instead of her usual bright tank top. Taiwanese patriots were overjoyed, but mainland Chinese officials were infuriated with her for so visibly supporting Taiwanese independence. According to Newsweek, one bureaucrat said, “This is a political issue. She went too far on such a big occasion. If a singer behaves like this, how can we allow her still to appear on the mainland?”
The resulting furor led Sprite to cancel her contract, and television advertisements and billboards featuring her image were removed. She was unwelcome at venues that previously had courted her, and was banned from performing in public in mainland China for more than a year. “All this fuss because of one song,” she said ruefully to Beech. “I honestly had no idea it would turn out this way.”
Upset, A-Mei entered a difficult period. Tabloids published various scurrilous stories about her, and her boyfriend began competing with her record company to represent her. Seeking refuge from the public eye, she traveled to New York and Los Angeles, where she is relatively unknown, and enjoyed the feeling of anonymity she found there. Eating the same meal three times a day for a month—oyster noodles—gave her a sense of safety and control. During this period, she told Meyer in Newsweek International, “There were a lot of things I was unable to foresee, and I now think about things more carefully.” And, she added, “no matter what, I will continue to sing what I love to sing.”
In December of that year she released a new CD and sang at a series of comeback concerts in Taiwan, dressed in provocative and eye-catching clothes. She resolved to stay out of politics, and according to Mahlon Meyer in Newsweek International, told one crowd, “I keep telling myself not to cry. I haven’t performed in so long, I was afraid everyone would forget me.” In January of 2001, according to Meyer, when a fan asked her if she had any plans to sing in China again, she replied cautiously, “I don’t have any performances planned there.”
However, just as A-Mei was forced from the spotlight by political pressure, it brought her back to prominence later in 2001. Chinese authorities wanted to win the bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, and were eager to show the rest of the world that they were forgiving and open-minded. On July 13, 2001, when China won the Olympic bid, A-Mei was allowed to return to the concert stage, singing in the western Chinese city of Chonging. “Singing at that moment was such an honor for me,” she told Beech, but stopped herself from comparing it to her ill-fated performance at the inauguration. She had been warned never to mention that incident again. She added, “I’ve been able to experience so many exciting moments in Chinese history. For a girl from the mountains, there’s no bigger joy.”
A-Mei is not the first Taiwanese singer of aboriginal origin, but she is the first who has not tried to conceal her ethnic background. Although most of her songs are in Mandarin Chinese or in English, she has sparked the public’s interest in aboriginal culture, performers, and history. Some aboriginal performers have followed her lead, and record companies have eagerly sought them. Other aborigines, however, consider A-Mei a sellout who has forsaken her roots. According to Newsweek International, one performer said, “A-Mei has the body of an aborigine, but in her music she doesn’t really represent our music. She sings pop songs.” A-Mei replied, “My friends and family don’t really have a lot of confidence, but I’m happy I don’t have that baggage. Aborigines are becoming more and more confident.”
Sisters, Forward Music, 1996.
Bad Boy, Forward Music, 1997.
A-Mei 1998 Concert Prelude, Forward Music, 1998.
Felling (EP), Forward music, 1999.
Cheung Century, Forward Music, 1999.
Best Sound of A-Mei, Forward Music, 2000.
Journey, Forward Music, 2001.
Bu gu yi qie, Forward Music, 2001.
Pearl Harbor Original Soundtrack, Forward Music, 2001.
Truth, Forward Music, 2001.
1996-2000, A-Mei, Forward music, 2002
Time to Say Good-Bye, A-Mei Hong Kong Live, Forward Music, 2002.
RE + Rui —In Musik [Ying], Forward Music, 2002.
Fever, Forward Music, 2002.
Women’s Heart Songs Collection, Forward Music, 2002.
Billboard, May 17, 1997.
Newsweek, January 15, 2001.
Newsweek International, January 8, 2001.
Time International, April 29, 2002.
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