Back In The Spotlight

When the doors open at 6 p.m., a mass of students rushes into the arena. As the small hall on the outskirts of Taipei fills up, shouts rise up from the crowd: "A-mei! A-mei! A-mei!" It will be an hour before the slinky Taiwanese pop star (whose real name is Chang Hui-mei) walks out to greet the crowd and to pose for pictures. When she does, the audience of 2,000 young people--mostly of high-school age--cheers hysterically. A-mei turns her head, whips her coffee-colored bangs out of her face, and smiles radiantly. The lithe 28-year-old singer has been absent from the stage for six months, and her loyal fans--not just in Taiwan, but all over Asia--are pining to see her again. During a preconcert satellite hookup with admirers in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, she is peppered with questions. Someone raises the question on everyone's mind: will she ever go to China again? Normally exuberant, A-mei responds quietly: "I don't have any performances planned there."

It is the only response she can make. The superstar was banned from China last year after she sang at the inauguration of Taiwan's newly elected president, Chen Shui-bian. At that time, A-mei was the most adored singer in Asia--with CD sales totaling more than 8 million over the last four years--and the sole Taiwanese pop star to earn a near-cult following on the mainland. But after her inaugural performance on May 20, 2000, she fell victim to the political enmity that has roiled China-Taiwan relations for half a century. Beijing abruptly banned her concerts, CDs and promotions. A-mei's career went into a tailspin. Coca-Cola, which had employed her as a poster girl for its Sprite advertising campaign in China, dropped her under pressure from the government. Hurt and emotionally drained, A-mei dropped out of sight for months, living in New York and Los Angeles. Now, however, she has emerged from her self-imposed exile and is eager to regain her pre-eminent pop-diva status in Asia--despite Beijing's chilling interdiction. She released a new CD in December--her seventh--and embarked on a rigorous month of promotional activities and concerts in Taiwan. Her record company is mulling an Asian tour later this year. Is the magic still there? Both A-mei and her Taiwan-based record company, Forward Music, will soon know the answer. "She has been in hibernation for so long," says an MTV executive in Taiwan. "Everything hinges on this comeback."

A-mei has little interest in politics, but Beijing's leaders took a political interest in her. Two years ago, China offered the Taiwanese singer what anybody with a product to sell craves--access to the world's largest market. But the communist government wanted something in return: to co-opt A-mei's popularity as a way to legitimize its claim over Taiwan. Chinese fans see the singer--who is an aborigine--as a symbol of the free-spirited island they long to possess. At her only concert appearance in China, A-mei was billed by the government as an "ethnic minority," one of a number of nonethnic-Chinese groups the communists claim to have brought into their fold. "It is really hard to get a booking there," says one of A-mei's producers. "They gave it to her because they wanted to show that Taiwanese aborigines were under their rule."

A-mei says that her Beijing concert, in August 1998, was a political eye-opener. Cordoned off from the stage by more than 2,000 riot police, the crowd used the occasion to vent their fury at the government. "Everyone was really getting excited," A-mei told NEWSWEEK. After an official announced that the concert was sponsored by the Beijing city government, says A-mei, "the people in the front row started to yell at the bureaucrat, shouting, 'Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!' Soon, there were tens of thousands of people yelling, 'Kill him, kill him, kill him.' It was very scary."

Not as scary, from Beijing's perspective, as what happened next. Six months later, for the first time ever in Chinese history, voters on Taiwan elected an opposition president, Chen Shui-bian. He's widely known as a lifelong supporter of Taiwanese independence, and had always tried to project a youthful image. For his inauguration, he asked A-mei to sing Taiwan's national anthem. It was a great honor for a young woman who grew up in an aboriginal village in Taiwan's poorest region. A-mei got up early every day for a month to practice. "The president felt I could represent so many people, and I would never have another chance," she says. Neither she nor her record company considered the political consequences. "I had sung the national anthem since I was a girl," says A-mei. "I never expected anything to come of it."

Beijing felt betrayed. China's aging leaders, steeped in the shadow play of cultural-revolution politics, always decipher political allegiances through gestures and appearances. To them, A-mei's performance at Chen's inauguration was tantamount to supporting Taiwanese independence. "This is a political issue," says a Chinese official. "She went too far on such a big occasion. If a singer behaves like this, how can we allow her to still appear on the mainland?" Taiwan's leaders reacted to China's sales ban with indignation of their own. Vice President Annette Lu chastised Beijing for "bullying weak, little girls." Added Chen: "It's like treating your own flesh and blood, sisters and brothers, as enemies."

Suddenly a pawn in cross-strait politics, A-mei seemed to fall apart. China, a fast-growing and symbolically important market, was closed to her. Rumors broke out that she had overtaxed her voice. A Hong Kong magazine alleged that she had fostered an illegitimate child--an article that outraged the singer, who denied the claims. A-mei's boyfriend, who has his own entertainment company in Hong Kong, added a new complication. He began vying with her record company to represent her. Overwhelmed by it all, the perky singer fled to the United States, where she is a virtual unknown. Free of handlers and hangers-on, she says that she was revitalized by the anonymity she found on the streets of Los Angeles and New York. She ate the same meal three times a day for one month straight--oyster noodles. A-mei won't talk explicitly about her troubles with China. Even after her run-in with Beijing, she shows up for an interview in a swanky Taipei restaurant wearing a half dozen buttons, including one of Mao Zedong. "Oh, I just wear it because it's fashionable," she says. She and Forward Music are trying to ignore the political issue, hoping that China will lift the ban. The singer does say, cryptically, that "there were a lot of things I was unable to foresee, and I now think about things more carefully." Does that mean that she regards the inauguration performance as a mistake? Again, she is coy, saying only: "No matter what, I will continue to sing what I love to sing."

Actually, A-mei long ago stopped being a mere "singer." She's now a celebrity performer--and never more so than at her December comeback concert in Taipei. Amid a flutter of flashbulbs, she prances around on stage, wearing skimpy shorts, black boots and a sleeveless velvet halter. The sex-kitten look, says one of her staff, "is so that we can be sure she'll make the front page of all the newspapers." She sings one of the sexier songs from her new CD, "One Night Love." Her lilting voice seems to cozy up to every one of the male students leaping at the stage. Someone throws her a love letter, which she clasps against her microphone. But she is more nervous than she appears. During a commercial break in the televised show, makeup artists rush onstage to daub at her eyes. "I keep telling myself not to cry," she says candidly to the crowd. "I haven't performed in so long, I was afraid everyone would forget me."

That hasn't happened. Her spontaneity and warmth appeal to a whole new generation of Asians who reject the rigid authoritarian societies of their parents. During a concert in Singapore in 1998, she encouraged the audience to stand--a violation of Singaporean regulations that concertgoers must remain seated. The promoter was fined. Everywhere she is besieged by fans. Her music, especially the earlier CDs, captures her insouciance. Her first CD, "Sister," released throughout Asia in 1997, was an instant hit. Most of her CDs have sold around 1 million copies each--three times more than her nearest rival. "She makes me escape from the pressures of school and life," says Alin Huang, 18, a Taipei high-school student. "She helps me achieve spiritual release."

Like the pop idols who still dominate most Asian markets, A-mei's malleability has helped her to succeed. On most of her CDs she sings a mix of both English and Chinese songs. She admits her dependence on her talented songwriters. After her first collaborator, Chang Yu-sheng, died in a car accident, many fans found her subsequent work lacking intensity and originality. Recently she's been working with David Tao, a producer and songwriter, and seems to have regained her passion. "I wrote down all the feelings I had experienced over the past year, and David put them into songs," she says.

Born in Taitung, Taiwan, in a poor aboriginal tribe, A-mei first learned to sing in ritual ceremonies. When she was 17 she got to the final round of a national singing contest--then forgot the lyrics to her song. The following year her father encouraged her to try again. But he died before she reached the finals. She won, and placed her trophy on his grave. Soon after, she came to Taipei to work in an older sister's restaurant. She started singing in pubs. "She would sing in three different pubs five days a week, then practice on her own the other two days," says Barry Lee, vice manager of Forward. Her uncle, who had a band, once questioned her ability to sing English songs. When she insisted, he gave her a sheaf of American pop songs, which she mastered in less than a month. When Forward officials discovered her in a pub in 1995, she was singing, "I Will Always Love You," popularized by Whitney Houston.

Like Native Americans or Australia's Aboriginal population, Taiwan's aborigines have lived in poverty for hundreds of years--ever since the first Chinese settlers took their land and drove them into the mountains (sidebar). A member of the Bunun tribe (there are nine tribes in all), A-mei has helped to partially lift that stigma. With her delicate features and broad cheekbones, she does not look like most aborigines. But she was the first aboriginal performing artist to admit her ethnicity. Aboriginal singers before her tended to try to conceal their backgrounds. Though she sings mostly in Mandarin, she has helped set off a craze for aboriginal culture and performers. Record companies wanted to make Chi Hsiao-chun, a 23-year-old singer from the same tribe into a "second A-mei." But Chi insists on singing in her native language and wearing a native costume stitched by her grandmother. "After A-mei's success, other record companies did a 180-degree flip. Now they scramble to try to find aboriginal artists," says Forward's Lee. Some aboriginal performers consider her a sell-out to Mandarin and Western music. "A-mei has the body of an aborigine, but in her music she doesn't really represent our music," says one. "She sings pop songs." But A-mei says she is not burdened by her past. "My friends and family don't really have a lot of confidence, but I'm happy I don't have that baggage," she says. "Aborigines are becoming more and more confident."

A-mei may be soon be exposed to audiences outside of Asia. Her boyfriend, Brian Chow, will soon take over as her manager--and Forward officials suspect that he will probably arrange for her to work with Warner Records, the U.S.-based giant. For the time being, however, A-mei is plenty busy in Taiwan. Her schedule is so intense she eats in her van. Her agent brings her lattes from Starbucks and cream-filled buns. During one recent week, she appeared on Taiwan's most popular game show and took part in a photo op with police fighting CD piracy. She signs autographs on CD covers, posters, even mobile phones. Despite the pace, she often seems oblivious to the demands of a celebrity life. When one of her own songs comes on the radio in her van, she sings along. Whenever she finishes a CD or a difficult tour, she says, she buys herself an expensive gift, such as a diamond ring. A-mei may be persona non grata in China, but she is having fun again--thrilled to be back onstage, where she thrives--and far away from the ugly politics that temporarily dimmed her career.