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Queen of Taiwanese songs to say goodbye after four decades

2015/01/08 17:07:59

CNA file photo

By Christie Chen, CNA Staff Reporter

There are few performers in Taiwan with as wide an appeal as Jody Chiang, as the frenzied competition to secure tickets to her farewell concerts over the past three days has proven.

After the 53-year-old announced last week her plans to retire from her four-decade-long music career, many have been left wondering: What will the Taiwanese-language music scene look like without Chiang, the biggest name in the genre?

Born in 1961, she began her singing career at the early age of 10, entertaining patrons at bars to support her poor parents, a budaixi (glove theater) puppet maker and food vendor.

"I would think: why are other children so carefree and so happy? They could play, but I had to go sing after school without getting any rest," she once recounted about that period of her life.

After years of singing in bars, restaurants and hotels, Chiang launched her first album, a Japanese-language record, in 1981, followed by her first Taiwanese (Hoklo)-language album the following year.

In 1983, her Hoklo album "You Need To Be Patient" (Li Tioh Lim Nai) became a household hit. The following year's "Farewell Coast" (Sioh Piat E Hai Huann) also became a classic instantly.

With their down-to-earth lyrics and rustic melodies, Chiang's songs are beloved for reflecting the lives and hardships of ordinary Taiwanese. "You Need To Be Patient" is leaving home behind and putting up with hardships to build a future, and "Farewell Coast" is about lovers separated by circumstance.

[Jody Chiang (right) performs in the Taipei Arena. CNA photo Sept. 25, 2010]

Chiang has since released close to 60 albums and over 800 songs. She is often credited for championing Taiwanese-language songs at a time when Mandarin pop music had already become the mainstream on the airwaves.

Amy Lu, a 61-year-old teacher in Taipei, recounted her fond memories growing up with Chiang's songs.

"Before Jody Chiang, I listened to Teresa Teng and Fong Fei-fei, but they sang mostly in Mandarin. Chiang was the first singer who made Hoklo-language songs so popular."

"I love the deep emotions and feeling of impermanence in her songs," said the fan of 30 years.

It was her 1992 album "The Words After Drunk" (Tsiu Au E Sim Siann) that shot her to superstardom when it sold over one million copies, a staggering number for the Taiwan market, and earned her Best Album and Best Composer awards at the 1993 Golden Melody Awards. It also became a No. 1 request at Taiwan's ubiquitous karaoke parlors.

[Jody Chiang (right) performs in Kaohsiung during her 2013 tour. CNA photo May 19, 2013]

Chiang broke the one million mark again with her 1999 album "Half Awake, Half Drunk" (Puan Tsui Puan Tshing Tshinn).

The song won her a Golden Melody Award for best female singer in a local (i.e., non-Mandarin) language, an award she went on to capture for the next three years in a row. The runaway success streak led Chiang to announce she would no longer compete in the Golden Melodies in the category in order to leave it open to other singers.

"Half Awake, Half Drunk," a melancholy love ballad, not only touched the hearts of local listeners but also Phil Tchernegovski of New Zealand, whose son Reuben went missing in Taiwan in 1998 while hiking in the mountains near Alishan and was never found.

In an interview with Radio Taiwan International in 2010, Phil Tchernegovski said he first heard Chiang's music in a police car on his way up a mountain during one of several trips to Taiwan to search for his son. Since then, the diva's voice has been a comfort to him on his long search.

"From that moment of hearing her voice, the sweetness of her voice... It was just like a beautiful river flow of words," the sculptor said. "I felt great comfort within it, and still do. I get inspired with my art listening to it. It's that beautiful."

"She transcends all languages and cultures with her music," he said. "For people to understand, relating to that, would be like people listening to Gipsy Kings. You don't need to understand the language to actually feel the emotion that's coming out of her music."

Chiang invited the heartbroken father to one of her concerts in 2010, offering to pay for his plane tickets and accommodation. The singer gave a special shout out to the New Zealand artist during the concert and dedicated the song "Half Awake, Half Drunk" to him.

["Wife" (Ke Au)]

One of her most enduring -- and tear-inducing -- songs is 2001's "Wife" (Ke Au), which is about a woman's devotion to her husband. In an online Golden Melody poll in 2009, the song was voted the favorite song of the 2000-2008 period.

In 2002, Chiang performed a duet of the popular Taiwanese folk song "Flowers in the Rainy Night" (U Ia Hue) with renowned Spanish tenor Placido Domingo during his concert in Taiwan. The performance was watched by tens of thousands of people.

Despite her immense popularity, she did not hold her first live concerts until 2008, when she became the first Hoklo-language singer to perform at Taipei Arena, the premier performance venue in the capital.

Her concerts set for mid-2015 will mark an end to that illustrious career, driving fans across three generations to stake out places in line days in advance in the hopes of grabbing tickets.

Tseng Mei-tzu, who is in her 80s, was eighth in a line of several hundred people in Kaohsiung Monday.

"I really like Jody Chiang's songs," she said excitedly. "I listen to her CDs often and I am sad that she is retiring."

The first person in line in Taipei, who only gave her surname Chen, said she had waited 40 hours to get her hands on eight tickets costing a total of NT$54,400 (US$1,700).

"I'm pretty tired and want to get some rest," she told reporters. "I'm just very happy I got them."

The intense race to buy some of the 160,000 tickets, which sold out in just three days, shows how acutely aware fans are of Chiang's importance in Taiwanese music and indicates how much she will be missed.

Perhaps the prolific singer will finally get to sit down and catch her breath, something she has not had a chance to do since the frentic childhood that launched her career.

"I am thankful for that period of time," she said in a 2010 TV interview about her days singing in bars. "It is the reason I am able to sing with so much emotion now."

But the singer, known to her fans as Er Jie (Second Sister) because she is the second eldest of four children in her family, said she is not as vulnerable and tragic as her songs make her seem.

"Privately, I am quite a laidback person," she said in the interview. "My love songs are sometimes sad and beautiful. But must life always be so tragic?"

She will be missed as much for her music as for her persona.

Unusually low-profile and modest for a star of her standing, Chiang has long been dedicated to charity work. The song "Hold You Tightly" (Ka Li Lam Tiau Tiau) was dedicated to the 1999 earthquake that shook central Taiwan, and Chiang was among the first celebrities to pledge funds to victims of Kaohsiung's deadly gas explosions in July 2014.

"She is a warm person. She represents the best side of the Taiwanese: pure, unassuming, and not trying to compete with others for fame and gain," said Lu, the longtime fan.

"She is a model for the entertainment business."


Related stories:
●Jan. 7: All 160,000 farewell concert tickets of Jody Chiang sold out
●Jan. 6: Extra Jody Chiang concerts announced to appease angry fans
●Jan. 2: Singer Jody Chiang to retire

Click here for highlights of Jody Chiang's career.