Relive Teresa Teng days at Beijing restaurant

Singers in elegant gowns perform renditions of Teresa Teng's signature ballads in the Teresa Teng Music-Themed Restaurant in Beijing, which also serves dishes inspired by her music. Teng's music was once banned in the mainland for being "decadent" an
Singers in elegant gowns perform renditions of Teresa Teng's signature ballads in the Teresa Teng Music-Themed Restaurant in Beijing, which also serves dishes inspired by her music. Teng's music was once banned in the mainland for being "decadent" and "pornographic".PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEIJING • A beer in one hand, a microphone in the other, Mr Meng Xiaoli stood in a crowded restaurant and began to sing.

"Your smile is as sweet as honey/ Just like flowers blooming in the spring breeze/I wonder where I've seen you?"

During the workweek, Mr Meng, 53, a strait-laced budget analyst who wears a red Chinese Communist Party pin on his lapel, spends his days shuttling between meetings and poring over reports for a state-owned firm.

But on weekends, he retreats to what he calls his "spiritual home", a two-storey restaurant and museum in Beijing that is a shrine to a woman he considers a goddess: Taiwanese pop singer Teresa Teng, one of Asia's most celebrated artists.

"She knows what it's like to be human - to find love and to make mistakes," he said.

Teng, who died suddenly in 1995 at age 42, was renowned for turning traditional Taiwanese and Chinese folk songs into maudlin Western-style hits.

She was once banned in the mainland, her music denounced by the authorities as "decadent" and "pornographic". But she never lost her base of rabid fans there, even as tensions have escalated between China and Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing considers part of its territory.

Her most ardent followers now gather at the Teresa Teng Music-Themed Restaurant, in a sprawling residential neighbourhood in western Beijing, near liquor stores, barbecue joints and hotpot restaurants. An enormous portrait of Teng, smiling as she holds a white rose, graces its front door.

Inside, singers dressed in elegant gowns perform renditions of her signature ballads, such as The Moon Represents My Heart and Sweet As Honey.

Customers sample dishes inspired by her music, including "moon pancakes" and fried pumpkin with honey sauce.

More than two decades after her death, Teng's mainland fans say her sugary voice and gentle personality are still one of a kind.

"She's a storyteller," said Mr Zheng Rongbin, the media executive who opened the restaurant in 2011. "She looks like the girl next door."

Teng is claimed by many mainlanders as one of their own, even though she was born in Taiwan.

Her father, who grew up in the mainland in the northern province of Hebei, was part of the Kuomintang forces that fought Mao Zedong's communists in the Chinese Civil War. He retreated to Taiwan in 1949, four years before Teng's birth.

Teng was one of the first overseas singers whose music flowed into China after it began opening its economy to the world in the late 1970s.

But her music was quickly banned as part of a campaign by the Chinese government to block "spiritual pollution" from the West.

The Taiwanese government used her music as a psychological weapon, blasting it from loudspeakers positioned near the mainland.

Tapes of Teng's music circulated on a black market in the mainland and her popularity was clear. Because of her last name, which in Chinese uses the same character as paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's, she was sometimes referred to as Little Deng, reflecting her hold on the public imagination.

Teng occasionally veered into politics, holding concerts to show solidarity with the pro-democracy protesters who gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. She never performed in the mainland.

In recent years, however, the Chinese government has warmed to her music and the state-run media has celebrated her mainland roots.

In 2011, officials opened a memorial hall in honour of Teng in her father's home town, Daming, where fans now converge on the anniversary of her death.

The mainland has at least two restaurants devoted to Teng, including the one in Beijing, which is at the centre of a struggling cultural development known as Taiwan Street.

Mr Zheng, the owner, said Teng's music is still popular in the mainland because it reminds people of hearing her songs for the first time in the years after the chaos of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

"For many people, it was a very new experience and very different from what they had heard in the Cultural Revolution," he said. "Now, when people hear it, they remember what it was like to be young."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2019, with the headline 'Relive Teresa Teng days at Beijing restaurant'. Print Edition | Subscribe