Anita Mui became a a major pop star and actress in Hong Kong during the 1980s and 1990s. Often described as the Asian Madonna, the comparison described not only Mui's popularity, but also her independence, her tendency to stir up controversy, and her ability to remake her image almost constantly. Mui was sometimes dubbed "The Chameleon" or "Anita of 100 Faces." A versatile actress, she appeared in several high-quality Hong Kong films and became known to audiences in the United States through her work with Hong Kong action hero Jackie Chan. Mui's death in 2003 at age 40 sparked a strong outpouring of emotion in the Chinese-speaking world.
One of four children, the singer was born Mui Yim-fong on October 10, 1963. Many details of her early life remain obscure; she may have been born in mainland China, but she grew up in the British colonial enclave of Hong Kong. Mui's family was poor, and their situation worsened after the death of her father, whom Mui never really knew. Before age five, Mui and her sister sang for tips in an amusement park to augment the family's income, and Mui's mother became abusive under the many pressures she faced. "I am not a weak person," Mui was quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times as she struggled with her final illness. "I can tell you that I have never had any fears and I will win this fight."
Mui dropped out of school early to sing in nightclubs, and in 1982 she entered the First New Talent Singing Contest, which was presented by Hong Kong's TVB television station. The competition was not unlike the television show American Idol in the United States. She won first place in a field of more than 3,000 other competitors, with one judge giving her a perfect score. The prize launched Mui's recording and cinematic careers. Her first album, 1983's The Crimson Anita Mui, notched sales of 250,000 copies, unusually strong for a young artist, and she appeared in the action film Dancing Warrior that same year.
Mui sang mostly in the Cantonese dialect of Chinese spoken in Hong Kong, and the genre in which she scored most of her musical successes is known as Canto-pop, although its reach extends across many Asian countries. She later added Mandarin Chinese and Japanese to her linguistic repertoire. By the time she released her fourth album, the racy Bad Girl, in 1986, Mui had become a major star. The album was banned in mainland China, but the publicity that came with the ban only stoked Mui's popularity. From 1985 to 1989, Mui won Hong Kong's Best Female Singer award, a streak that remains unsurpassed.
Apart from 1984's Fate, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress award, Mui's early films were mostly undistinguished. But she won critical acclaim for her performance in 1987's Rouge, directed by Stanley Kwan. Mui played a ghost who returns to the world of the living to try to find the lover who failed to rejoin her after a suicide pact in the 1930s. The film tapped Mui's characteristic mixture of toughness and melancholy, and Mui won Hong Kong's Golden Horse Best Actress Award.
Mui's musical career continued to grow, and in 1987 she performed for an unprecedented 28 consecutive nights at concerts in Hong Kong. The following year she performed at the opening ceremonies of the summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea. In 1989 Mui donated the proceeds from some of her concerts to a student pro-democracy movement in mainland China, and was also a generous supporter of various charitable causes. In 1991, worn out by a decade of touring and crushing publicity, Mui announced her intention to stop performing except for charity appearances, and to cut back on her film appearances. Fan demand forced her to perform at 33 consecutive concerts in late 1991 and early 1992, before she began her temporary retirement.
Although her resolve to stay away from film appearances proved to be short-lived, Mui did take a three-year break. She remained in the headlines, however, becoming romantically linked with a succession of Hong Kong movie stars, and fleeing to Singapore after a bizarre incident in which she was slapped by a Hong Kong gangster after refusing to perform for him. The gangster was gunned down shortly afterward, and Mui was besieged with death threats.
Mui resumed performing in 1994 and found that audiences' affection for her remained undiminished. Like Madonna, she looked different with each new album and concert, dressing for example as an aristocratic woman, a schoolgirl, an Arab seductress, or an athlete. Mui's later films brought her international popularity and respect. She appeared opposite Jackie Chan in the international hits Drunken Master 2 and Rumble in the Bronx, and she made several films with Hong Kong director Ann Hui. One of them, 2002's July Rhapsody, would be her last.
Early in 2003, as she worked on her autobiography, Heart of the Modern Woman, Mui was diagnosed with cervical cancer. At first she refused treatment from Western-style doctors, although she did consult a Chinese traditional healer. Various reasons were given for her decision: she mistrusted Western medicine, and she was depressed over the deaths of her friends, singers Leslie Cheung and Roman Tam. Mui herself, as quoted by Singapore's Straits Times, wrote at one point that "I'm not afraid of dying, or I would've cured myself of this illness by seeking early treatment." Her sister Ann had died of ovarian cancer three years before.
In September of 2003 Mui publicly announced her illness and vowed to fight it. Exhausted by the effects of chemotherapy, she nevertheless pressed ahead with a series of concerts at the vast Hong Kong Coliseum, some of which benefited victims of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic. At Mui's final concert in November, Mui appeared frail. At the concert's end she left the stage in a white wedding gown, telling the crowd it was apparent that she would never marry.
Fans feared the worst when Mui failed to show up for the launch of her autobiography in early December, and she died on December 30, 2003. Thousands attended her funeral, where Chan delivered her eulogy. "Don't cry for me," was her final message to the world, according to the London Independent. "Don't say my name. Let me go on my journey in peace."
For the Record …
Born Mui Yim-Fong on October 10, 1963; died of cervical cancer on December 30, 2003, in Hong Kong, China.
Won First New Talent Singing Contest, 1982; released debut album The Crimson Anita Mui and appeared in film Dancing Warrior, 1983; performed in opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea, 1987; temporary retirement, 1992–94; appeared in films Drunken Master 2 and Rumble in the Bronx, 1990s; released autobiography Heart of a Modern Woman, 2003.
Awards: First place, First New Talent Singing Contest, 1982; Best Supporting Actress for Fate, 1984; won Hong Kong's Best Female Singer award, 1985–89; Golden Horse Best Actress Award for Rouge, 1987.
(all titles translated from original Cantonese)
The Crimson Anita Mui, 1983.
Bad Girl, 1983.
Witch Girl, 1986.
Hot Entanglement, 1987.
Red Lips on Fire, 1987.
Intoxicated in Our Dreams, 1988.
The Return of the Ever-Changing Anita Mui, 1988.
Graceful Lady, 1989.
Say It If You Love Me, 1989.
Cover Girl, 1990.
The Street of Animal Desire, 1991.
Intimate Lovers, 1991.
A Life of Love and Illusion, 1993.
A Life of Drama, 1993.
Watch Out!, 1994.
The Woman of Songs, 1995.
A Beautiful Echo, 1995.
Women Flower, 1997.
The Flower in the Mirror and the Moon Reflected in the Water, 1997.
Greatest Love Songs by Anita Mui, Capital, 1998.
Variation of the Midsummer, Capital, 1998.
Moonlight in Front of My Bed, 1998.
Nothing to Say, 1999.
Search for My Beloved in the Crowd, 2000.
Independent (London, England), January 2, 2004, p. 16.
Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2004, p. B10.
New York Times, January 6, 2004, p. B9.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 10, 2004, p. D3.
South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), December 31, 2003, p. News-4.
Straits Times (Singapore), December 24, 2003, Life section; December 31, 2003, Life section.
Times (London, England), January 2, 2004.
"Anita Mui," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 2, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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