Veteran local singer Lisa Wong battles 10-year mystery ailment to stage comeback

Singer Lisa Wong, who performs in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, dropped out of the scene in the 1990s.
Singer Lisa Wong, who performs in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, dropped out of the scene in the 1990s.PHOTO: SHINING ENTERTAINMENT

The veteran singer overcomes mysterious illness and will stage her first solo concert here

At age 65, home-grown singer Lisa Wong (丽莎) is putting on her first solo concert in Singapore next month, capping a comeback that is all the more remarkable as she had to overcome a mysterious debilitating illness.

Wong - who in her heyday released more than 60 records in Cantonese, Mandarin and English and performed regularly in Hong Kong - left show business in 1982 as she thought there would not be demand for singers beyond a certain age.

She seemed to have vanished completely in the 1990s.

She tells The Straits Times: "My body wasn't listening to my brain. My head kept drooping and I was bedridden for 101/2 years, with the potty placed beside me."

Frustratingly, scans and checks revealed nothing, but she now surmises it was due to the stress she suffered in 1989 as her cassette tape business faltered.

She even had trouble keeping her eyes open at times during her illness, says Wong, who looks trim and healthy dressed in a black lace outfit for this interview.

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It fell to her mother to take care of her and her son, who was five years old in 1989. She declines to talk about her husband.

The turnaround happened in 1997, when her mother died and she recalls being "stretched out on a bed next to my mother in a coffin".

She was determined to get better. And she did, slowly.

"It's not like in the movies where you could suddenly start walking," she says with a laugh. "I had to force myself to walk short distances and worked hard at getting healthier."

And, she adds with pride, she has been off her tranquilliser medication for about four years now.

Emerging from her illness, she had to navigate the world anew, as if she had been trapped inside a time capsule all those years. When she first encountered karaoke lounges, she thought the bars of old had merely rebranded themselves.

Fellow veteran singer Ling Xiao, who has known her for a long time, encouraged her to take up singing again when he heard she was up and about. He told her that age did not matter as people were searching for nostalgia and wanted to listen to music from their past, such as her hit song Xiang Si Lei (Lovesick Tears), which will be familiar to fans of 1970s Cantopop.

She started performing at a few commercial events, including a couple of times on a cruise ship.

In 2008, she was invited to return to Hong Kong to perform at a concert after a break of 33 years. There was one hitch, though - she had not taken a flight in three decades.

Despite her concerns, she eventually flew, with two oxygen tanks and a neurologist in tow.

It was well worth it as the reception she received was thunderous, with snaking lines of autograph- seeking fans, some of whom were so overwhelmed that they broke down in tears. She says: "I never imagined it. There were fans who thought I had died."

She might have had been away from the stage for decades, but her professionalism would put younger singers to shame. For one thing, she insists on memorising lyrics instead of relying on the monitor to prompt her.

"If you are focusing on the lyrics on a screen, you'll sing carefully, afraid of making a mistake. But if they are already in your head, you're expressing the emotions."

She has quickly adapted to being an entertainer in the social media age, keeping in touch with her fans through Facebook and putting up a steady stream of photos.

The engagements have been coming in. In recent years, she has performed as far afield as the United States and Canada.

She embraces performing and says: "I'll continue singing until I can't sing any more. Some get nervous when they step on stage, but I'm just very happy to be on it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'Bedridden for 10 years, Lisa Wong bounces back'. Print Edition | Subscribe