Shirley Kwan

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Shirley Kwan
關淑怡
ShirleyOffStage2007.jpg
Shirley Kwan before her 2007 concert in Toronto
Chinese name 關淑怡 (traditional)
Chinese name 关淑怡 (simplified)
Pinyin Guān Shúyí (Mandarin)
Jyutping gwaan1 suk9 ji4 (Cantonese)
Ancestry Nanhai, Guangdong
Origin Hong Kong
Born Hong Kong
Occupation Singer, dancer, actress
Genre(s) Cantopop
Label(s) Apollon, PolyGram, BMG, Music Nation, Star Entertainment
Years active 1986-1995, 2005-present
Influences Roxette, Enigma, Cocteau Twins

Shirley Kwan, Kwan Suk’E, or Kwan Suk Yee (simplified Chinese: 关淑怡; traditional Chinese: 關淑怡; pinyin: Guān Shúyí, born 15 August 1966) is an influential Cantopop singer from Hong Kong. She first shot to fame in 1989 as a pop sensation with the hit, "Happy Are Those In Love" (難得有情人) and was popular throughout the early to mid-90s. She is noted for her distinct, breathy vocal style, and known equally for singing ballads and for more alternative pop fare.

After a decade-long hiatus in the late 90s, she made a successful comeback in 2005 and is among the most acclaimed singers currently active in the Hong Kong music scene.

Music career[edit]

Early Years (1986-1988)[edit]

Kwan was born in Hong Kong, the middle-child to an affluent family. At age 15, she moved to Los Angeles, where she later studied fashion design in college. Kwan had her first taste of the limelight in 1986 when she became one of twelve finalists in TVB's New Talent Singing Awards, along with Andy Hui and Leon Lai, but lost to both. Two years later, with the encouragement of a friend, she recorded a demo tape for the prestigious “Marine Blue” singing competition in Japan and won. She caught the eyes of record executives at Apollon and signed a contract, releasing two Japanese pop albums in two years. Kwan sang in both Japanese and English for these releases, and notably made her first and only rap vocals in the song “Borderless”.

PolyGram Period (1989-1995)[edit]

Kwan’s Marine Blue success in Japan quickly led to her discovery by PolyGram. In March 1989, Kwan released her debut Cantonese album “Winter Love” (冬戀), with its R&B-influenced first single, “The Rebel” (叛逆漢子).

Her second album, “Happy Are those in Love” (難得有情人), would produce her first major hit with its title track, which immediately propelled Kwan into Hong Kong stardom, and became the theme song to a popular day-time drama series on TVB. It was a No. 1 hit in various radio charts and a frequent request in Karaoke bars, making Shirley Kwan a household name, and its title becoming synonymous with Kwan's name for years to come. The album spawned four other hit singles such as the up-tempo “Lovers Underneath the Stars” (星空下的戀人), and had huge chart success. Being tipped as the next big thing in Cantopop, Kwan swept all the best-newcomer awards that year.

The following two years saw the release of four albums, in which Kwan started to develop a more individualistic style, incorporating elements from various musical genres. Though she scored another major pop hit in 1990 with 愛恨纏綿, she grew dissatisfied with only singing standard Cantopop fare, and wished to explore and diversify her own sound. Also evolving was her public persona, which matured from the early teen pop icon into a more sophisticated and mysterious artiste, noted for being fashion-forward with subtle hints of sex appeal. It is during this period that Kwan started covering New Age music, such as the work of Gregorian and Michael Cretu. Kwan’s 1991 version of “Once In A Life Time”, renamed “Love Is Forever” (戀一世的愛) was presented back to back with the Gregorian original on the promo CD sent out to DJs, as a promotional strategy by PolyGram.

From the same album, Kwan struck critics and audiences with her cover of Amina’s 1991 Eurovision winner, “Le dernier qui a parle”, renamed “Buddhist Chant” (梵音). With words written by legendary veteran lyricist, Andrew Lam (林敏驄), the original Tunisian adventure was given an Eastern spin. Originally a sidetrack, “Buddhist” became a surprise hit as well as a memorable hit in Alternative Cantopop. It also represented her first struggles in artistic control, as she had had to fight long and hard with her production team to have the song included in the album.

Towards the end of 1992, the tabloid’s reception of Kwan has shifted dramatically. Years of relentless invasion into her private life has taken its toll, making Kwan increasingly indifferent towards the press. This unfortunately triggered even more media hostility as well as negative publicity. Disillusioned about her future as a public figure, Kwan took some time off to recover, only to return with yet another transformation.

In November 1993, Kwan released “The Story of Shirley” (真假情話), with the lead single “Solo” (一首獨唱的歌), followed by the minor hit “Fabricated Love Stories” (假的戀愛). This was another artistic breakthrough for Kwan, who was garnering increasing attention for her talents as a vocalist, pleasing critics who were surprised with a new and more polished sound.

Kwan further established her place as a critics' darling with her next album, “My Way” released in the summer of 1994, which would be the last album containing all original Cantonese material until Shirley's Era in 2009. Singles included the acid-jazz influenced “Lost Legend” (逝去的傳奇) which sampled a riff from the Digable Planets' 1993 single "Rebirth of Slick," and the immensely popular ballad “Cuddling Underneath the Stars” (繾綣星光下), which won numerous song awards at the ceremonies that year. Other songs included the traditional Chinese melody, “Arrow to the Heart” (心箭), the more techno influenced techno-influenced “Anxiety” (緊張) and “Out of This World” (驚世感覺), and another popular ballad “Farewell” (告別戀曲). The album, together with a new crew-cut look which has now become iconic, was one of the most celebrated albums in 1994, enjoying both commercial and critical success.

With increasing confidence in her musical style, Kwan had wanted to produce something musically coherent for her next album and asked producer Joseph Ip (葉廣權) and eight different sound engineers to rearrange ten of her favourite Cantopop songs which she handpicked for her new tribute album. The result, was “'EX' All Time Favourites,” released to much anticipation in February 1995. Familiar classics of Cantopop icons such as Anita Mui (梅艷芳), Leslie Cheung (張國榮) and Alan Tam (譚詠麟) were reworked with psychedlic and electro influences, with Kwan singing in her trademark tone punctuated with breathy whispers. Much to Donald Ashley’s credit, the innovative reworking of Teresa Teng(鄧麗君)’s “Forget Him” (忘記他), released as the lead single, elevated Kwan to a new level of recognition in the industry. It was featured in Wong Kar-wai(王家衛)’s 1995 arthouse feature Fallen Angels (墮落天使). Interestingly, the same tune was reworked yet again in “What a Pity” (可惜), sung with new Mandarin lyrics and to spare acoustic accompaniment for the Taiwanese release of 'EX'. Achieving critical acclaim as well as commercial success, 'EX' is widely regarded to be one of the best Cantopop albums ever produced, and set off a wave of tribute album fever in Hong Kong.

In the summer of 1995, Kwan released her third compilation album, "Journey of Life" (世途上 新曲+精選), containing two new singles, "He needs you, She needs You" (他需要你, 她需要你), a dreampop track which incorporated the traditional Chinese instrument Erhu (二胡), and the minor hit, "Are There Real Friends in Life" (人生可有知己), a pop ballad which has since became a concert favourite.

Six years after her debut, Kwan finally held her first large scale solo concert in July 1995 at the Hong Kong Coliseum (紅磡香港體育館). Presenting a balanced mix of hits and album tracks, "The One and Only Shirley Kwan In Concert" (難得有一個關淑怡演唱會) was enthusiastically received and capped the most successful year in her career. Kwan had to encore for an unprecedented four times in the last show, as fans refused to leave.

After seven years at PolyGram, Kwan’s contract came to an end in 1996. A final PolyGram studio album was initially scheduled for release in summer 1996, containing three American collaborations, “Infectious” (傳染) and “Elusive Love” (愛難尋) written by Andy Goldmark, and “Mumbling” (自言自語 ) by Suzanne Fountain, along with seven other tracks. However, due to Kwan's departure, PolyGram released the material separately in 1997’s compilation “Connection” (心靈相通) and 1998’s EP “eZone”.

Kwan spent the second half of the 90s mostly away from the public eye, but managed to strike up some significant collaborations with friends and fellow contemporaries Lau Yee Tat (劉以達) and Anthony Wong Yiu Ming (黃耀明), formerly of the legendary Tat Ming Pair (達明一派). The first of these included “Blessed Mary” (萬福馬利亞), a duet with Wong satirising Hong Kong's materialism; “Cuddle 28800BPS” (繾綣28800BPS), a collaboration with Lau, a song dealing with cyber love; and “Forget If It’s Him or Her” (忘記他是她) - a remake of the gender ambiguous Tat Ming classic, at their request. In 1997, Kwan lent her vocals to the theme song of a radio drama produced by Commercial Radio Hong Kong, “Take Me to a Dance” (帶我去跳舞) which featured a soprano backing vocal mixed in with a thumping dance beat. In 1999, she held a “Music Is Live” concert organized by Commercial Radio, sparking rumours of a possible come back, but to no avail.

BMG Period (2001)[edit]

In 2001, Kwan signed a contract with BMG in Taiwan, and published the critically acclaimed Mandarin album, Freezing Flame. However, after the extravagant press conference announcing Kwan's partnership, BMG soon ran out of money for promotion and the album sold poorly. Kwan was already pregnant at the time and left for America shortly after on an indefinite break.

Music Nation Period (2005-2006)[edit]

In fall 2005, Kwan stepped into the recording studio once again and duet with music veteran Alan Tam (譚詠麟) in “Rekindle The Flame” (舊情復熾), a Cantonese remake of the French ballad “J'ai murmure va-t-en”. The news of Kwan making a comeback sent excitement through Hong Kong’s airwaves, and “Rekindle” took the charts by storm, reaching number 1 on TVB, RTHK and Metro Radio.

Two months later, Kwan was signed to a contract with Music Nation Group (大國文化) by the famous producer, Frankie Lee Chun. The first single “About Me” (關於我) saw Kwan reunited with lyrist Wyman Wong and long-time collaborators Joseph Ip and John Laudon. Bluntly autobiographical, it is an uncompromising account of her struggle against the paparazzi and hostility from the media in Hong Kong. Supported by extensive airplay, “About Me” steadily climbed to the top of various radio charts, and its limited-release special edition CD sold out within a day.

In early February 2006, the eponymous EP "Shirley Kwan" was released, introducing the second brand new single, “Evolution” (進化論). This coincided with the release of a 3CD-Karaoke plus DVD compilation by Universal Music (formally PolyGram), entitled “All About Shirley,” which to fans' delight, contained side projects and rare tracks dating back to the very beginning of her career in Japan.

2006 Being Shirley On Stage

To much anticipation, three comeback concerts, “Being Shirley On Stage” (關於我 關淑怡演唱會) were held in late February, at the legendary Hong Kong Coliseum. Performing her biggest hits in reverse chronological order, Kwan garnered positive reviews for the performance, which dominated entertainment headlines for a week.[1] In the final encore, Kwan famously covered Eason Chan (陳奕迅)’s “Today Next Year” (明年今日) to a standing ovation, and a sing-a-long audience of 30, 000.

As her work for Music Nation drew to a close, Shirley released two new songs in 2007 as an independent artist for songwriter Keith Chan (陳輝陽)’s multimedia musical “12 faces of woman” (十二金釵眾生花) at the 2007 Hong Kong Arts Festival.[2] This included the theme song “All Living Flowers” (眾生花), released in February, which featured traditional Chinese and Western string instruments.

In March 2007, Shirley released the single “Just Once” (只得一次), which was the theme song to the primetime TVB sitcom series “Best Selling Secrets” (同事三分親), and which went onto reach No. 1 on the TVB music charts.

Star Entertainment Period (2007- Present)[edit]

In June 2007, longtime friend and veteran producer Herman Ho (何哲圖) recruited Shirley to his the new company “Star Entertainment Ltd.” (星娛樂有限公司), which is financed by Neway Karaoke Box (Neway卡拉OK).

2008 saw a new concert series, "Unexpected Shirley Kwan in Concert," held at the Hong Kong Coliseum on 24–25 April 2008.

2009 saw the long-anticipated release of a full-length studio album, "Shirley's Era," which contains all radio singles released in 2007-2008, and newly recorded material. This marks her first Cantonese studio album since 1994's All Time Favourites.

2010 October, Shirley performed a live concert "One Starry Night" in Macau Venetian.

Shirley Kwan on Film[edit]

In early 1997, Kwan was chosen by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai(王家衛) to make a guest appearance in Happy Together. She was flown to Argentina in five days' notice and ended up spending more than two months there. Starring opposite Tony Leung Chiu Wai (梁朝偉) and Chang Chen (張震), Kwan played Lai Yiu-fai's mysterious and lonely secret admirer and also recorded a cover of "Cucurucucu Paloma" (Song of Dove) for the film's soundtrack.[3] However, her scenes were all deleted from the final version of the movie, for which Wong later went onto win Best Director at the Cannes. It took another three years for Kwan's scenes to surface, when they were included in the making-of documentary, "Buenos Aires Zero Degrees" (布宜諾斯艾利斯之攝氏零度). This documentary premiered at the 2000 Berlin International Film Festival out of competition, and was also shown at the 2000 Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards in Taiwan[4]

Media[edit]

Discography[edit]

Filmography[edit]

Release Date Title Title in English Role
1992 九二神鵰之痴心情長劍 Saviour of the Soul II Supporting Actress
1994 鐵拳無敵孫中山 The Invincible Dr Sun Cameo Appearance
1996 廢話小說 Out of the Blur (silent, short feature film)
1997 春光乍洩, 收錄於「攝氏零度.春光再現」/「布宜諾斯艾利斯之攝氏零度」 Buenos Aires Zero Degree: The Making of Happy Together Leading Lady; All scenes deleted from Happy Together, but included in this documentary

Personal life[edit]

In September 2005, Kwan revealed in an interview on RTHK that she is a proud single mother, and has a 5 year old son. She, however, declined to disclose further details about the boy's father and called on the media to respect the privacy of her family.

Criticism[edit]

Apart from the long string of hostility and spats between Kwan and the media, her critics often found it ironic that Kwan's most celebrated work was a tribute album rather than an "original" piece of art.

Trivia[edit]

  • "Out of This World" (驚世感覺 ) sampled a dialogue from the 1991 Chinese movie "Raise the Red Lantern" between the third mistress and the fourth mistress (played by Gong Li): "你知道我和她生孩子的事吗?我们俩是差不多时间怀孕的。" Translation: Do you know about our pregnancies? We conceived around the same time! [1]
  • When the 1995 tribute album was conceived, Kwan wanted to call it 'Ex', but record executives worried that it might be too abstract for the record buying public.
  • Kwan was invited to perform in front of Bill Clinton in a dinner banquet in Japan back in November 1995, along with other pop stars from Japan and Taiwan. [2]
  • Kwan has stated that she was not upset by the exclusion of her scenes from the 1997 movie "Happy Together", as the whole unscripted filming experience was more of an experiment to her and she was only lending a help hand to a friend. [3]
  • Kwan's wardrobe for the 2006 "Being Shirley On Stage" concert was partly sponsored by Christian Dior. [4]
  • Kwan's wardrobe for the 2010 "One Starry Night" concert was sponsored by Versace
  • Artists who have influenced Kwan: Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins), Björk, Cyndi Lauper, William Orbit, Madonna [5]

References[edit]

External links[edit]