Hong Kong pop singer Nicholas Tse, one of the best-selling Chinese-language artists of all time, emerged on the mid-1990s “Canto-pop” scene with a string of treacly ballads. While still a teenager he won an enormous fan base in part by cultivating a “rock-star” image in defiance of the genre’s customarily wholesome constraints. He broke free from the Canto-pop slot just as its overall sales were declining, becoming a successful film actor and one of Hong Kong’s most avidly pursued celebrities. When asked by Time International writer Kate Drake what elements were necessary for success as Hong Kong pop singer, a pragmatic Tse replied, “You have to be a good boy, you can’t smoke, you can’t do this and that—I do all those things, on purpose. I guess I’m lucky I survive.”
Tse was born Nicholas Tse Ting-fung on August 29, 1980, in Hong Kong, when the island was still a British colony. His father, Patrick Tse Yin, was a major film star whose acclaimed performance in 1967’s The Story of a Discharged Prisoner was later remade by John Woo as A Better Tomorrow. Tse’s mother, Deborah Li, had once been a soft-core pornography actress.
Tse’s parents sent him to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to learn English when he was just seven years old; he also spent time at a boarding school in Arizona. By the time the teenaged Tse returned to Hong Kong, his parents had divorced and the province was readying for a takeover by China. Tse was at first an unwilling participant in his career: his father arranged a karaoke performance for executives of Hong Kong’s Emperor Entertainment Group (EEG). His confidence in performing was bolstered by singing lessons in Japan, however, and EEG’s reportedly lucrative contract offer may also have helped sway him.
Tse’s record company positioned him as Canto-pop’s next big star. (Cantonese is the Chinese-language dialect spoken largely in the southern province of Guangzhou.) The Canto-pop phenomenon began in the late 1980s, the product of Hong Kong’s well-established entertainment industry. Its young, attractive stars delivered sentimental ballads and catchy dance hits. The genre peaked in 1996 with sales of 9.2 million albums. Interviewed a few years later by Drake in Time Asia, Tse described Canto-pop as “music that is easy listening and easy to remember. It’s commercial, popular music. I used to dislike it,” he admitted, when he returned to Hong Kong after living abroad for so many years.
Tse’s first record, My Attitude, released in 1997, was standard Canto-pop fare. His second release was 1998’s Horizons. Although his good looks attracted
For the Record…
Born Nicholas Tse Ting-fung on August 29, 1980, in Hong Kong, China, to Patrick Tse Yin (an actor) and Deborah Li (an actress).
Signed with Emperor Entertainment Group, c. 1996; released first LP, My Attitude, on Fitto label, 1997; endorsement contract with Coca-Cola; film debut in Young and Dangerous: The Prequel, 1998; released first Mandarin-language LP, Grateful for Your Love ’99, 1999.
Awards: World Music Award, World’s Best Selling Chinese Artist, 2002.
Addresses: Record company—Emperor Entertainment Group Ltd., 28/F., Emperor Group Centre, 288 Hen-nessy Rd., Wanchai, Hong Kong, China.
young female fans, Tse still recalled the early part of his career as being particularly difficult for him. “When I stood on the stage all I got were boos from the audience,” he told Drake. “For two years I had nothing but crap thrown at me.” Despite these difficulties, Tse emerged as a new voice in the pantheon of Canto-pop stars.
He began to branch out with his next few records, which included Believe and Zero Distance. He gained new fans, recording entire albums in Mandarin (the Chinese-language dialect of northern China). His style also seemed to be maturing along with Canto-pop itself. “There’s also been a great improvement in the market,” Tse said of the Canto-pop scene in the interview with Time International’s Drake. “People are putting in a lot more time and thought into this Canto-pop thing. And there’s a lot more variety in the music.” Tse’s 1999 release, Most Wanted, debuted at number one on the charts and sold nearly 70,000 copies in just days. “[T]he audience is starting to appreciate his talent,” Frankie Lee, his label’s president, told Billboard magazine. Lee also said that EEG executives were “encouraging him to write his own songs.”
Other successful Canto-pop stars included Andy Lau, Leon Lai, Aaron Kwok, Sally Yeh, and Leslie Cheung, and concerts at Hong Kong’s Queen Elizabeth Stadium were usually sell-out affairs. But Tse soon emerged as the rebel of the bunch, adopting a signature concert-closing guitar smash like that of Pete Townsend. Followed constantly by the paparazzi, he began to lash out, even escaping an assault charge when he was accused of striking one of them.
In 2002, Tse won a World Music Award for his sales, which were said to have made him China’s most successful pop star. That same year, however, Tse was involved in a downtown Hong Kong accident while driving his $256,000 Ferrari. Tse landed in trouble when he fled, then telephoned his chauffeur at home and asked the man to present himself as the driver. The ruse was discovered, and Tse’s chauffeur and the police officer who made the initial report were charged with obstructing justice. During the trial Tse’s fans stood outside the courthouse and wept. He served two weeks in jail after the judge declared him guilty on the charge of conspiracy to commit perversion of public justice.
Tse said that his fellow inmates treated him cordially, especially after tabloid stories purported to provide “inside” accounts of the facility. When he was released, his Ferrari was gone. The car had been a gift from his record company, Tse told Drake in the Time International interview ruefully. “They told me that since I accounted for 56 percent of their revenue, I got the car. Now I wish they had just given me the cash.”
By this point, however, Tse had followed in his father’s footsteps into film and had racked up several well-received performances. The move was a wise one, for while Tse was still an immensely popular—and bankable—star, Canto-pop sales had been steadily declining, as Hong Kong and Chinese teens were exposed to other musical styles from aboard. Tse’s film debut came in Young and Dangerous: The Prequel, in which the star “revealed a complex screen persona, seductive and lonely, under that peekaboo mop of hair,” noted Time International’s Richard Corliss. Tse later “impressed critics as a gangster’s protege in Metade Fumaca and as the tyro gunman in Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide.”
Tse, who began directing films in 2001, also had a lucrative contract with Coca-Cola, which pitted him against his girlfriend at the time, fellow pop singer and Pepsi spokesperson Cecilia Cheung. He continues to release new albums, and when asked by Drake about the future direction of his music, that he simply wanted to make “my music. Comfortable music. The music that rightly expresses where I am at that time and place—unless someone cuts me a check for $80 million and says, ‘please write me this type of song.’”
My Attitude, Fitto, 1997.
Horizons, Fitto, 1998.
Believe, Fitto, 1999.
Grateful for Your Love ’99, EEG, 1999.
Most Wanted, EEG, 1999.
Understand, EEG, 2001.
Viva, EEG, 2001.
Zero Distance, EEG, 2001.
Jade Butterfly, EEG, 2001.
Prophecy, EEG, 2001.
Invisible, EEG, 2002.
Me, EEG, 2002.
Billboard, February 26, 2000, p. APQ2.
Entertainment Weekly, August 3, 2001, p. 47.
Time International, December 25, 2000, p. 88; August 20, 2001, p. 84; April 22, 2002, p. 12; October 14, 2002, p. 41; March 17, 2003, p. 56.
Variety, January 10, 2000, p. 110; March 27, 2000, p. 21; October 30, 2000, p. 26; September 10, 2001, p. 70.
“Getting in the Groove,” AsiaWeek.com, http://www.asiaweek.com/asiaweek/magazine/nations/0,8782,169837,00html. (June 13, 2003).
“People Don’t Really Take Us Seriously as Musicians,” Time Asia,http://www.time.com/time/asia/arts/column/0,9754,170514.00.html (June 13, 2003).
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