Love you to the moon and back

Published Monday, June 27 2022 at 10:41 pm
Love you to the moon and back
Teresa Teng, glimpsed from afar in the music video for "The Moon Represents My Heart"

Introducing people to a musician: The task seems redundant when eager algorithms are always at the ready. Trying to introduce people to the music of Teresa Teng seems especially Herculean. Unlike my meticulously translated and tagged MP3 collection, nearly everything of Teng’s on Spotify is labelled in the original Chinese or Japanese.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. C’mon, flip the tape. And rewind it a bit. Listen to the first song ache out.

SIDE A

I first discovered Teresa Teng in 2018 via, you guessed it, an algorithm. I was buying my fiancee a Kpop CD, and decided to complement it with a foreign version of Lana Del Rey’s most recent release. I wasn’t asking for much: maybe a cool obi strip or border around the album art. What I found and could afford was a Taiwanese version of Lust for Life.

There, right beneath Lana in the recommended items, was a CD by a famous Chinese singer: Teresa Teng. Or Dèng Lì Jūn. Well, you know the “rose by any other name” bit. Whatever you call Teng, she was a rare generational voice. The kind of singer with her own gravitational field. She sang beautiful, tender songs. She didn’t die rockstar young. But she did die at age 42, unexpectedly, on vacation in Thailand with her BF. He was out buying food when it happened.

It was still an early death, but Teng had left the kind of mark many artists would envy to leave: a smoking crater. With one of the softest, gentlest voices, she had terraformed the surface of Chinese pop music. And she did so without ever setting foot in mainland China.

That was how I understood the basic nut of the narrative. Suffice to say, I didn’t understand the whole story. I still don’t.

The Baozhong township, where Teng was born in 1953

SIDE B

The worst that can be said about Teng? Well, given her father’s military career and his role in the Kuomintang, there’s been the occasional conspiracy pointed her way. There’s really not much need for conspiracy though when Teng was so very public about her anticommunist views.

Addressing her mainland Chinese listeners about Taiwan: “It’s a free country here, and I want them to know it,” Teng said to the NYT in 1984.

She never performed live in mainland China. Hong Kong, yes. But the mainland was poised ideologically as her enemy. A land of revolution’s malcontents, a place to be liberated. The Kuomintang were keen to use Teng’s music as propaganda toward this goal.

On the island of Kinmen, this effort involved something called the Beishan Broadcast Wall. It’s a speaker array that once yelled across the ocean to the mainland Chinese city of Xiamen. When it wasn’t bellowing spoken messages, it was playing Teng’s songs at maximum volume. Exceeding volume. Torturous volume.

Or so it would seem. Per a student at Xiamen University, circa 1977:

“We wouldn’t hear it all day long, because the tides and wind direction would have to be just right. I think it had something to do with the moon. When the moon was bright, when the night was quiet, the sound would be quite loud.”

In the process of writing this piece, I came to confront an uncomfortable reality, or at least possibility, regarding Teng. A thread from r/Taiwan begins with a photo of the pop star brandishing a rifle. Many of the comments are fawning, complimenting Teng on her trigger discipline.

But one Redditor goes in on Teng, unrelenting. They respond to nearly every positive comment with refutation. To paraphrase: She was a mouthpiece for the Kuomintang. Her Mandarin songs were a repressive government’s attempts to silence real Taiwanese music. No one listened to her shit after military rule ended.

Love it or hate it, but Reddit tends to entertain aspects of ‘the discourse’ that are hard to find elsewhere. And it’s undeniable that Teng’s prominence aligns with a period of prolonged martial law. In fact the Kuomintang’s martial law is the second longest ever recorded, outpaced only by Syria.

Women in entertainment and art are often pushed to untoward ends by men in charge. That’s not to deprive them of their agency; it’s just an unwholesome truth about a woman’s work. At the same time, it’s clear Teng was a nationalist. It’s not unlikely for pop stars to contain contradictions. “Multitudes,” to borrow Walt Whitman’s word. And what multitude isn’t colored by paradox? In this respect, Teng’s militant softness is unsurprising. Extreme emotion can lead to extreme politics.

Various covers from Teng's albums, 1960s-2000s.

SIDE A

Teng was hugely influential at a time when I didn’t feel like writing. Keeping a diary to keep my words spry, I wrote down daily goings-on and, as usual, thoughts on music. What I wrote about Teng in 2018:

The basic narrative:
Teresa Teng (Deng Lijun) was an idol singer born in Taiwan.
Fiercely anti communist
her signature song: "the moon represents my heart"
she ruled the night; party chairman Deng ruled the day (it was said)...

Her tapes were bootlegged, traded widely, consumed in private...

She was born during a lunar eclipse (barely visible in Taiwan). But the best part? Her most famous song might be...The Moon Represents My Heart...

The moon represents me and it represents Teresa Teng. tomorrow i will trust the moon’s blessing and pray its light never secedes from me.

SIDE B

Regardless of Teng’s reception in Taiwan, it’s clear she influenced mainland China. One of the best sources on this is “Teresa Teng and the Network Trace,” the final chapter of Andrew F. Jones’ Circuit Listening: Chinese Popular Music in the Global 1960s (2020). It’s richly researched and worth reading in its entirety, so I’ll borrow what’s most salient.

Jones covers a range of “ex post facto narratives,” many from mainland Chinese writers. They tend to support the romanticized notion where, to quote 2018 me, “Teng’s music opened a new sphere of emotion for Chinese listeners.”

“There is a great deal of truth in all these,” Jones notes, “Yet they also tend to traffic in starkly binary and therefore suspect categories.”

What intrigues Jones most is the physical delivery of Teng’s music. In other words: the signal and its source. The speaker array at Kinmen is one dramatic example. But it was on an intimate form of media where Teng attained her mythology proper: the cassette tape.

China’s Communist party controlled TV. Cassettes were more renegade. They could be bootlegged, edited, taped over, revised, shared or not shared. Jones collects many narratives where “The elephant in the room…is precisely the room.” Listeners often encountered Teng hunched over a boombox, behind closed doors. The romance in her singing resonated in the spaces it filled.

Jones even compares Teng to a household appliance, such was her ubiquity on the tape deck. He writes: “The Sanyo, in other words, is the gate through which an exotic Teng jumps across the threshold.”

"Unofficial" (i.e. bootleg) Teng cassettes from various countries

SIDE A

“The Melancholy pop idol who haunts China” is one of the most accessible English narratives on Teng. Published in 2015 in the New Yorker, writer Hua Hsu presents a portrait of Teng as beloved-but-dead pop star. Unsurprisingly, Teng’s anticommunism is glossed over: “At times, her personal politics came to the fore.”

More helpfully, Hsu hints at how her very un-modern songs captivated listeners:

“I never appreciated her symbolism as a child, back when her music seemed soft and ubiquitous. But it’s not hard to imagine how Teng’s songs about love and distance spoke to the various migrations and political estrangements throughout the Chinese-speaking world.”

The takeaway: I became dazzled by music meant for boomers of the Chinese diaspora. Teng might not appeal to Taiwanese youth, but she can still capture a demographic that grew up concurrently with her target audience.

A YouTube comment preserved in my 2018 diary:

“Touching song by the greatest pure singer of all time. Teresa Teng forever, forever, indeed! Many thanks from a 63 y/o Caucasian Texas cowboy, Graham Lake, Texas. May the music, spirit, legacy, of the Asian Angel, Teresa Teng, live for time and eternity. I mourn her premature passing, but thank God for loaning His precious angel to Asia, and now, through the Internet, to the entire human race. We need her message of love and peace, more than ever.”

Excepting this cowboy’s Orientalizing gaze, this is quite the tribute.

Screencap from one of Teng's concerts, 1980s.

SIDE B

The tremor I feel is real. The private world of emotion needs no mirror to be sustained. There are moments in “The Moon Represents My Heart” or “Who Will Love Me?” that have the capacity to shatter. Because Teng’s voice, even if it were literal propaganda, has that capacity. It can render flesh supple.

Again: there are multitudes here. The arc of Teng’s life, with its tragic and abrupt end, elicits another tremor. The terror of mortality is real. Dying from asthma on vacation is legit a very unpleasant thing to think about. Supposedly, Teng cried for her mother before collapsing.

The final insult is that the Thai hotel room where Teng spent her last days has since been turned into a Teresa Teng suite. You can spend the night there. Or you can just walk through. A tourist among ghosts.

Whose shoes are dragging the most dirt over the carpet of this makeshift mausoleum?  Revisionists? Cowboys? Tourists? Haters? Writers like myself—that is, the most talented liars of all?

(the tape stops)

Then again, singers are persuasive liars, too. Communist governments’ historical dislike of pop music isn’t unreasonable; mass media does tend to dull and bloodsuck our radical faculties. The force of a song can rival even the most attractive politik. Wedged into a circuit as mechanical as it was political and social, Teng’s music hissed from bootleg cassettes and spoke to the ungovernable realities of emotion.

Perhaps her impact has been exaggerated or distorted. Perhaps she belongs to the realm of fond remembrance and not fond actuality. But it seems wrong to dismiss Teng as anything but a heavyweight. Again, she was the kind of singer who leaves behind a crater. The task of the present is often archaeology. Can we decipher what was left behind?

Today, it’s hypothesized the moon came from a collision with another celestial body. We attach so much meaning to the product of a cosmic accident. Might the moon’s history represent something?

Tonight it doesn’t matter. Let’s just look at our favorite and most committed satellite. The tape has stopped. Should we listen again? Whatever you want, sound or silence, let’s recede into the night. The dark is peerless, calling for our company. No masters or mobs can rule us here. There’s only the moon, and music if you want it. Flip the tape, love. Listen to the click of plastic on plastic. Listen to Teng’s voice tremor.

On “Hong Kong Night” she sings: “I love the beautiful night/with you by my side.”

The moon, May 2022.

SIDE A

Her emotion is tidal in its restraint: returning always to …

Returning to what? I wrote that in 2018 and never finished the thought. Maybe that’s also the essential motion of Teng’s songs: a return home that never happens.

Teng’s mother once noted:

“I don't understand why she has been concerned about the mainland's affairs since she was a child. She always asks why we left the mainland and came to Taiwan. It's natural!…Going back and having a look [at the mainland], I think this is a lifelong regret that she will never be able to achieve.”

Teng never did reach mainland China. Whatever her intent, Teng’s voice contained real, material yearning. Turn it up. You can hear it, can’t you?

The private spheres of pain and feeling: This is where Teng’s songs live.

It’s sad to think of these sweet songs weaponized.
It’s sad to think of Teng near death, crying out in fear: Mom! Mom!

[30 days of June: No. 27/30]
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