Legendary Hong Kong singer Paula Tsui's lasting star power

Paula Tsui has been performing for more than 45 years, but retirement is not on the cards

Kenneth Ma. -- PHOTO: TNP FILE
Charlene Choi. -- PHOTO: TNP FILE
Andy Lau. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Paula Tsui in her younger days. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Paula Tsui is known for her husky voice as well as her tiny waist and flamboyant gowns. -- PHOTO: APPLE DAILY

Legendary Hong Kong singer Paula Tsui is such a huge star that she can pretty much get any of her A-list celebrity compatriots to make guest appearances at her shows.

Her concerts held in Hong Kong earlier this year featured the likes of Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng and even veteran Taiwanese star Fei Yu-ching.

So is getting them to join her on stage as easy as making a quick phone call?

She is coy. Speaking to Life! in fluent Mandarin ahead of her concert here next month, the elegant 65-year-old says carefully: "I think in general, most stars would be okay with performing at my concerts. But I won't just call them up and ask them to come, because they could be busy, or are too shy to say no.

"I would never want to create that awkward situation where they have a hard time rejecting me."

That, surely, is a clear sign of how big a star she is. After all, who dares reject someone who is widely dubbed Chinese pop music world's "diantangji gehou", or Hall of Fame Diva?

Although there will be no guest stars at her show at Resorts World Sentosa next month, her fans in Singapore are sure to be excited, given that it is her first major concert to be held here - not counting the occasional performances at various nightclubs decades ago.

What took her so long to head here for a show?

"It's all about trust," she says of her professional relationship with Mr Keith Sim, the head of Biz Trends Media, which is organising her show.

"With Keith, I feel an instant sense of security, going by the way he works. You know, to be a singer and to agree to get on stage and perform a good show, we need to feel that security and mutual trust.

"Of course, I've had many opportunities to come to Singapore for a concert before, but if that trust isn't there, then it won't work out. If I feel that sense of security, then I can put on a good show."

She was originally scheduled to perform an invite-only concert here for just one night, for corporate partners and sponsors. Upon hearing the news, disgruntled fans bombarded Biz Trends with calls and more than 1,000 e-mail messages to lobby for a ticketed show.

The company's e-mail server crashed, the fans' point was made strongly and another show, for the public on Aug 2, was added. Tickets are still available but are selling fast.

Performing two consecutive nights is nothing to her, even now.

In Hong Kong in February this year, she sold out eight consecutive shows held at the Coliseum, Hong Kong's grandest concert venue.

She also holds the record for putting on the most solo concerts at the Coliseum over a continual period, ever, when in 1992, she put on 43 shows there over 53 days.

During her 30-minute interview with Life!, it is apparent that Tsui is a true professional, never the type to do things half-heartedly.

Her perfectionism causes her to still feel nervous about every concert that she holds, even after almost 45 years in showbusiness.

"It's strange, right? But I just keep thinking that I must give a good account of myself to my fans and give them a really good show, and those thoughts make me anxious.

"I get so nervous sometimes that my hands start trembling, and I have to hold my microphone with both hands to stop. So when you see me holding the microphone with both hands, it looks like I'm being extra earnest but, actually, it's because I need to stop myself from shaking," she says with a laugh.

Everything she does on stage, she emphasises, is for the fans.

At all her shows, she continues to don polka dot dresses - her signature look - simply because that is what the fans have signalled that they want. "I avoided polka dot outfits at a concert once, and I could tell that the fans weren't pleased. I tried to get away with it, but they didn't let me, so I must always wear polka dot outfits at my shows forever more," she says, chuckling.

She was also the first Hong Kong singer to perform a wire-work stunt at a concert, something which has since become a common sight at large-scale concerts.

"Back in those days, it's quite dangerous, because I was so high up above the stage and we weren't sure if the wires would be very secure.

"But when the producers asked me if I was willing to do it, I didn't even think twice before saying yes. I thought it would be quite fun and unique. I want to make sure my shows always offer something new for the audiences. Otherwise, why would they want to keep coming?"

Tsui debuted in the late 1960s after emerging the winner of a singing contest. In 1969, she released her first album, Autumn Night, and has since recorded more than 60 others.

Some of her most famous hit songs include Behind The Wedding Gown, Windy Season, and Go With The Flow, Go Against The Flow.

Known for her low, husky vocals, big dresses and trim waist, she is cited as the inspiration for late Hong Kong singer Anita Mui, who also gained fame for her deep singing voice.

At the mention of Mui, who died in 2003 from cervical cancer, Tsui immediately sounds sad.

Mui's death, in fact, was partly why Tsui did not perform for a number of years during that period, from 2002 to 2005.

"That was one of the lowest points in my life. Hong Kong was hit by Sars and then so many of my singer friends such as Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung and Roman Tam had all passed on. I could barely smile, so how could I possibly sing?"

With that period behind her now, she has no plans to retire. She adamantly refuses to entertain the notion of it, even if she has taken breaks throughout her career.

"I have never said that I have retired, so you can't say that I'm making a comeback of sorts either. I sing when I have the right feelings for it.

"I don't ever say that I'm quitting, because that would be dishonest. I would never want to be the type of singer who says she's quitting one day and then reappear onstage a few years later. That would be lying to the fans."

Tsui, who is single, is perfectly contented with the status quo. And the subject of her ex-husband, legislator Albert Cheng, to whom she was married from 1974 to 1979, is out of bounds.

"That is not worth mentioning," she says curtly, her expression immediately turning serious.

There is no life partner for her on the horizon, either.

"I don't like the idea that I always have to worry about someone else, because I'll keep thinking that I'll be boring him, or not spending enough time with him.

"After so many years, I've gotten used to having my own life.

"It's just like when I'm on stage, performing. If there are back-up dancers, I can't have them dance in front of me, because I'll get distracted. I'm used to being single and doing things on my own."

Ultimately, it is only all about the singing. "I like to see other people happy, that's what I live for. And if singing for them makes them happy, then that's good enough for me."

Despite her perennial star power, she comes off as extremely amiable and down-to-earth, even willing to quip about those who fall asleep at her concerts, instead of berating such behaviour.

"When I see people dozing off, I just think of them as being super fans. After all, they are so tired, yet they are willing to drag themselves to come and hear me sing. I must also be singing very well to make them sleep so soundly," she says, chuckling. "And these fans always wake up just in time to clap at the end of a song. What's not to like about them?"


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Life and times of a diva

Jan 1, 1949: Born to food company owner parents, the eldest of six children

1965: Wins a singing competition, beating 2,000 contenders with her take on singer-actress Bai Guang's song Fire Of Love

1969: Releases her debut album, Autumn Night. Also continues to perform numerous shows at various night clubs, peaking at 13 gigs over a single night

1972: Makes acting debut in the supporting role of a singer in the movie Love Is Smoke

1974: Marries legislator Albert Cheng

1978: Releases the album On The Road Of Wind & Rain, which sold more than 200,000 copies, considered a feat at the time

1979: Divorces her husband

1979-1990: Releases several top-selling albums including In The Night Winds, (1979), Missing You Every Day (1980) and Paula (1986)

1987: Stars in the movie The Thirty Million Rush alongside Karl Maka, Eric Tsang and Brigitte Lin

1989: Becomes the first Hong Kong singer to perform a high-wire stunt at a concert

1991: Releases her last studio album, Civil Tears

1992: Holds 43 solo concerts in 53 days at Hong Kong's Coliseum, which to this day is the record for the most number of solo concerts at the venue over a continuous period

1995: Puts on 15 concerts at the Coliseum, before easing up on the number of performances over the next decade

2005: Holds 23 concerts at the Coliseum

2006: Holds 10 sold-out concerts at the Coliseum

February 2014: Holds eight sold-out concerts at the Coliseum, which featured major guest stars such as Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng

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