Monday, September 15, 2008

Shirley Kwan

Shirley Kwan, Kwan Suk’E, or Kwan Suk Yee is an idiosyncratic Hong Kong cantopop singer best known for her unique vocal and progressive music style. Kwan first shot to fame in 1989 as a pop sensation with the hit single "" . She then successfully morphed into a musical chameleon, infusing different western musical elements into the otherwise monotonous genre of cantopop. In 1995, Kwan published her coming of age psychedelic album , which has since become a modern classic.

After a decade-long hiatus, Kwan made a successful comeback recently. Her "Being Shirley On Stage" concerts in February 2006 opened to raving reviews, finally winning over the long-skeptical Hong Kong press.

Music career

Early Years

Kwan was born in Hong Kong to an affluent family. Since an early age, she has been exposed to a wide variety of music. At the age of 15, this middle child elected to move to Los Angeles, where she later studied fashion design in college. Kwan had her first taste of limelight in 1986 when she took part in TVB's New Talent Singing Awards as a contestant. Two years later at the prompt of a friend, she recorded a demo tape for the prestigious “Marine Blue” open singing competition in Japan and won. Her talent caught the eyes of record executives at Apollon, and was signed to a contract, recording two Japanese albums in two years. Singing in Japanese and English, Kwan produced many middle-of-the-road J-pop at Apollon, but could also be found experimenting with musical elements unusual for Asia at the time, even rapped for the song “Borderless”.

PolyGram Period

Kwan’s Marine Blue success in Japan also led to her discovery by PolyGram. In March 1989, Kwan released her debut Cantonese album “Winter Love” , a pop collection including her R&B-influenced first plug, “The Rebel” .

However, it was the follow-up album that propelled Kwan into international stardom. “” , the optimistic catchy title track about young love first gained attention as the theme tune of a popular daytime soap on TVB. Combined with Kwan's youthful good look, it became a huge success both on the radio and at the Karaoke scene, making Shirley Kwan a household name. In fact, the tune achieved such a level of popularity that it became synonymous with Shirley Kwan for the years to come. The album, meanwhile, supported by no less than four other hit singles such as the up-tempo “Lovers Underneath the Stars” , became an all-time bestseller. Being tipped as the next biggest thing in Cantopop, Kwan swept all the best-newcomer awards that year.

The following two years saw Kwan going through her first series of transformation in a matter of four albums. No longer content with the middle-of-the-road pop-singing eye candy that PolyGram mould her into, Kwan started exploring a different side of her personality. The result was a string of edgy and sexy Trip-Hop hits starting with “Lost in the Night” . Also evolving was her public image, which matured from a pretty teen icon into a more sophisticated and mysterious persona, complete with cutting-edge fashions and subtle sex appeal. It is also during this period that Kwan started covering crossover New Age music, such as the works of Gregorian and Michael Cretu. So confident was PolyGram with Kwan’s zestier version of “Once In A Life Time”, called “Love Is Forever” , that it was presented back to back with Gregorian’s original in the 1991 demo CD for DJs.

However, the song that captured the audience's attention at the time, was Kwan's cover of Amina’s 1991 Eurovision winner, “”, renamed “Buddhist Chant” . Talented lyricist Lam Man Chung put an Eastern spiritual spin on this Tunisian adventure and turned it into a glorious musical meditation embodying the battle against bodily desires. Originally a sidetrack, “Buddhist” became a surprise hit as well as a classic in Cantopop Alternative. It also signified her first rebellion against her production team, as she had to fight long and hard to have the song included in her “Love Is Forever” 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” , by far the most emotionally charged album to date. As reflected by the melancholic cover artwork, it is an intensely introverted and personal affair. Lead singles “Solo” and “Fabricated Love Stories” , shared an undercurrent of loneliness and despair. For the first time, attention was turned to Kwan’s talent as a vocalist and critics were pleasantly surprised by her new more polished sound.

Determined to establish herself as a serious artist, Kwan took even more risk in the following album. Published in summer 1994, “” was a wild carnival of collaborations aiming to showcase Kwan’s musical versatility. It contained acid jazz number “Lost Legend” by Dick Lee, traditional Chinese theme tune “Arrow to the Heart” by James Wong, the techno-influenced “Anxiety” and “Out of This World” by Lam Man Chung, as well as the hugely popular ballads “Cuddling Underneath the Stars” and “Farwell” . This wholesale musical reinvention together with her iconic crew-cut new look sent shockwaves across Hong Kong and beyond. “My Way” rightfully became one of the most celebrated albums of that year, and Kwan quickly became the critics' favourite.

Whilst the colourful adventures in “My Way” were impressive, they rendered the album rather unfocused. To produce something musically coherent, she handpicked ten personal favourite Cantopop songs and asked her producer Joseph Ip and eight different sound engineers to give them a complete makeover to create a tribute album with a new signature sound.
To much anticipation, “” was released in February 1995. The classics of Cantopop titans like Anita Mui , Leslie Cheung and Alan Tam were given a psychedelic eletropop revamp, with Kwan singing in a creative and delicate tone punctuated with breathy whispers. Much to Donald Ashley’s credit, the complete rework of Teresa Teng’s “Forget Him” , with its intertwining multilayered backing vocals, stood out most and elevated Kwan to a new level of recognition both within the music industry and amongst listeners. It was also featured in Wong Kar-Wai’s 1995 art house movie ''“”'' . Interestingly, the same tune was reworked yet again in the Taiwan release 'EX' as the acoustic underproduced but equally captivating “What a Pity” . Achieving critical acclaim as well as commercial success, 'EX' were held as one of the best Cantopop albums ever produced, and set off a tribute album fever in Hong Kong.

In the summer of 1995, Kwan released her third compilation album, "Journey of Life" , containing two new singles that cannot possibly be more different. "He needs you, She needs You" was a dreampop experiment with a distinct intro that creatively incorporated the Chinese instrument Erhu . "Are There Real Friends in Life" on the other hand, was an heavy and intense adult alternative, and 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 . Presenting a balanced mix of smash hits and colourful sidetracks, "The One and Only Shirley Kwan In Concert" 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 7 years at PolyGram, Kwan’s contract came to an end in 1996 and she elected to not renew it. Her last PolyGram album was originally scheduled for release in summer 1996, containing three American collaborations, “Infectious” and “Elusive Love” written by Andy Goldmark, and “Mumbling” by Sheryl Crow. But with Kwan leaving, PolyGram split it in half to produce 1997’s compilation “Connection” 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 important collaborations with close friends Lau Yee Tat and Anthony Wong Yiu Ming , of the "Tat Ming" pop duo. These include “Blessed Mary” , a sarcastic duet with about materialism; “Cuddle 28800BPS” , the very first pop song about cyber love; and “Forget If It’s a Him or a Her” - a remake of the gender-transcending Tat Ming classic, at their request. In 1997, Kwan lent her vocal to a radio drama theme tune, the head-turning “Take Me to a Dance” that blends soprano backing vocal into a thumping dance beat. Two years later, she held a “Music Is Life” concert organized by Commercial Radio, sparking rumours of a possible come back.

BMG Period

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

In fall 2005, Kwan stepped into the recording studio once again and duet with music veteran Alan Tam in “Rekindle The Flame” , 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 both TVB, RTHK and .

Two months later, Kwan was signed to a contract with Music Nation Group by the famous producer, Frankie Lee Chun. The first single “About Me” saw Kwan reunited with the talented lyrist Wyman Wong and her long-term collaborators Joseph Ip and John Laudon. Bluntly autobiographical, it is an uncompromisingly angry account of her struggle against the ever-present paparazzi and hostile media in Hong Kong. Supported by massive airplay, “About Me” steadily climbed to the top of 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” . Telling of a determination to adapt and evolve, “Evolution” bears all the trademarks of the classic moody Shirley Kwan. This coincided with the release of a 3CD-Karaoke plus DVD compilation by Universal Music , entitled “All About Shirley”. Much to all her fans’ delight, this compilation is comprehensive and well organized, containing side projects and rare tracks dating back to the very beginning of her career in Japan.

To much anticipation, three comeback concerts, “Being Shirley On Stage” were held in late February, at the legendary Hong Kong Coliseum. Belting out classics after classics in reverse chronological order, Kwan took the stage with exuberance, glamour and style. Positive reviews of her live performance dominated the entertainment headline for at least a week. In the final encore, Kwan famously covered Eason Chan ’s “Today Next Year” to a standing ovation. As the 30,000 sing-a-long audience exemplified, Kwan’s evergreen success is far from accidental.

As her liaison with Music Nation drew to a conclusion, Shirley released two very different new songs in 2007 as an independent artist. “All Living Flowers” came out in February as the theme tune for songwriter Keith Chan ’s multimedia musical “12 faces of woman” at the 2007 Hong Kong Arts Festival. A breakthrough on many levels, it features an original arrangement that seamlessly combines Chinese and Western strings instruments, and poetic lyrics by Albert Leung showcasing Shirley’s feminine side.

A month later, television theme tune “Just Once” from the primetime TVB sitcom series “Best Selling Secrets” was released. This mainstream karaoke-friendly pop song serves as a reminder of the days when Shirley used to be a regular on TVB as well as how far she has ventured into alternative music since.

Star Entertainment Period

By June 2007, longtime friend and veteran producer Herman Ho has successfully recruited Shirley to his the new company “Star Entertainment Ltd.” financed by Neway Karaoke Box . Projects under planning include a new Cantonese album to be released shortly and a Mandarin album in 2009. Two "Unexpected Shirley Kwan in Concerts" have been announced for April 24-25, 2008.

Shirley Kwan on Film

In early 1997, Kwan was invited offhand by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai to make a guest appearance in '''', taking on the role of the leading lady. She was flown to Argentina in five days' notice and ended up spending more two months there. Starring opposite Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Chang Chen , Kwan played Lai Yiu-fai's mysterious and lonely secret admirer and also recorded a cover of "Cucurucucu Paloma" for the film's soundtrack. However, her scenes were all taken out of the final cut of the movie, which later went on to help crowning Wong as the Best Director in .
It took another three years for those footages of Kwan's one and only big screen debut to resurface, as they were included in the alternative version of ''"Happy Together"'', ''"Buenos Aires Zero Degrees"'' . 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




Personal life

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.


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.


* Kwan has never had a manager.
* Before becoming famous, Kwan used to work in New York as a fashion designer in the 80s for two years.
* "" was originally written for another PolyGram Cantopop singer, Priscilla Chan.

* "Out of This World" sampled a dialogue from the 1991 Chinese movie "Raise the Red Lantern" between the third mistress and the forth mistress : "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! ''
* 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.
* 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.
* Kwan's wardrobe for the 2006 "Being Shirley On Stage" concert was partly sponsored by Christian Dior.
* Artists who has influenced Kwan: Elizabeth Fraser , Bj?rk, Cyndi Lauper, William Orbit,
* Dream pop archrival Faye Wong debuted in the same year as Kwan and was also called Shirley at the time.

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