Interpreting the transnational Asian popular music of Teresa Deng: From twentieth century cultural legacy to twenty-first century digital heritage

Haekyung Um 

Published June 2024

Album cover for Love Songs of Island, Volume Two - Teresa Deng (1976)


The album Love Songs of Island, Volume Two (MRM 1002) was released in April 1976 by Polydor, Hong Kong. This vinyl LP album contains 12 tracks of Mandarin Chinese popular songs, Mando-pop sung by Teresa Deng. The two main title songs are ‘Tonight I Think of You’ (side A) and ‘Rain of Tears’ (side B). This album is the second of eight volumes of the Love Songs of Island series which Polydor released between 1975 and 1984.


Success and influence

Teresa Deng (also known as Teresa Teng; Deng Lijun in Chinese) (1953-1995) was arguably the most successful and influential Chinese pop singer of the twentieth century across the Chinese-speaking world, including China, Taiwan and Hong Kong and broader transnational Chinese communities. Her career also flourished in other East Asian countries such as Japan, where she was successful as a singer of enka - a style of Japanese popular music - and her Japanese fanbase remains strong in the twenty-first century. She sang in multiple languages including several Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hokkien and Holo) and other Asian languages (Japanese and Indonesian) as well as English. Many of her songs were performed and recorded in different languages. For example, two tracks on this album, side A ‘Tonight I think of you’ and ‘Foggy Night’, are in Japanese.


 Album cover showing Teresa Deng.


Child prodigy to international artist

Teresa Deng was born in Taiwan to a military family. Her family migrated from Mainland China when the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) led by Chang Kai-shek, moved to the island in 1949, relocating from the Republic of China, in opposition to the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong and the People’s Republic of China. As a child prodigy Deng’s musical career started early after she won a musical competition sponsored by a local radio station at the age of 11. Having established herself as one of the most successful pop artists in Taiwan, Teresa Deng made her debut in Hong Kong in 1970 performing at the Lee Theatre at the age of 17. Hong Kong in the 1970s was the hub of the music industry for the Chinese-speaking world, especially since when China was closed to the outside world during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). It was also in Hong Kong that Teresa Deng was scouted by the Japan-based record label Japan Polydor which launched Deng’s career in Japan from 1974, as an enka singer Teresa Ten and a ‘Taiwanese Misora Hibari’. Misora Hibari (1937-1989) was a Japanese enka diva. Deng’s career in Japan was initiated by Japan Polydor’s parent company PolyGram (founded in 1972 in the Netherlands) because PolyGram wanted to expand its international market and revenue by introducing the rapidly growing Chinese popular music to the Japanese music market which was already the largest in Asia. It is also interesting to note that international artist recruitment across national boarders was employed as a new business strategy by PolyGram.


A cosmopolitan, multicultural and multilingual approach

The cultural and musical influences of Teresa Deng’s music are immense for different Chinese communities. Teresa Deng also incorporated many different influences from a variety of sources. For example, as a Taiwan-born Mainlander with a military family background, her early musical training and performances were closely associated with Chinese folksongs and tunes from Huangmei opera (regional opera from Hubei Province). She was also exposed to the vocal style of the shidaiqu, a popular music which originated in Shanghai in the 1920s, fusing Chinese folk music, American jazz and Hollywood film music, which many Mainlander elders would have enjoyed in their youth. Her training in Japan, with Polydor Japan, had considerable influence on her vocal techniques and performance style, which have subsequently been copied by many singers in the Chinese popular music world, especially those who have competed in Teresa Deng singing contests.

Deng’s repertoire included songs from different eras, places and languages, reflecting her cosmopolitan and multicultural approach: her cover of the famous shidaiqu singer Zhou Xuan’s 1937 song ‘When Will You Return’; an adaptation of an Indonesian folksong ‘Sweet Honey’; a Cantonese song ‘Strolling on the Road of Life’; and Japanese pop song ‘Goodbye my love’, to name only a few. The 1983 Polydor album Fade Feelings (Dandan Youqing) employed Chinese classical poems written during the Song and Tang dynasties, heralding the emergence of the China Wind (Zhongguo Feng) style in the early 2000s. The multiple-language productions for different markets found in today’s Korean music industry are not a new phenomenon but a continuation of a practice utilised by Teresa Deng’s recording labels.



Censorship and criticism

Although Teresa Deng’s songs were predominantly romantic pop ballads not explicitly political in their lyrical contents, some of her songs were censored by both Chinese and Taiwanese authorities. For example, Deng’s cover of Zhou Xuan’s shidaiqu song, ‘Will You Return’ was regarded as ‘decadent music’. Her soft, intimate and breathy vocal delivery was also criticised in post-Cultural Revolution China in the early 1980s for being inappropriate or decadent, at a time when illegally-produced cassette tapes of Teresa Deng’s music were very popular in China. China’s response to popular music from Hong Kong and Taiwan (Gangtai) from the late 1970s onwards was mixed – while welcoming the freedom of diverse music listening experiences, the aesthetics of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop culture were yet to be appreciated by the audiences in China at that time.


Digital resurrection

After Teresa Deng’s sudden untimely death in 1995, many tribute recordings and posthumous compilation albums were produced in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. Recent developments in digital technology have enabled the holographic reconstruction and replay of Teresa Deng’s performances, bringing this Chinese pop diva of the twentieth century to twenty-first century audiences. The first Teresa Deng digitised virtual performance was presented at a live concert by Jay Chou, one of the most successful Mando-pop artists of the twenty-first century. Held in Taipei Arena on the 6th of September 2013, Jay Chou sang a duet with the 3D holographic Teresa Deng, who appeared wearing the traditional Chinese dress chongsam. This was followed by several other concerts including: the Japanese TV show Kin SMA, Teresa Teng 20 Years Anniversary Memorial Concert in 3D in Taiwan in 2015, the Teresa Teng: The Legend concert in Hangzhou, China in 2018, and, most recently, the New Year Countdown Show on Jiangsu Television with Chinese pop singer Zhou Shen. The digital resurrection of Teresa Deng is associated with cultural meanings and music industry values. On the one hand, there are political and nostalgic connotations to bringing back this Chinese pop diva who is adored by and unites Chinese audiences across the world and international fans alike. From the music industry’s perspective, with fast changing and advancing technology, popular music performances from the twentieth century can be archived as musical heritage and be recreated for new audiences in new contexts.


Legacy of a star

Teresa Deng was hugely successful as a recording artist and international pop star during the second half of the twentieth century. She embodied the twentieth century transnational Chinese identity formation processes, belonging to multiple locations, languages, ideologies and histories. Her career and musical trajectory offer us an opportunity to better understand the connectedness and dynamics of the local, regional and interregional music industries of the twentieth century which paved a foundation for the global music industries we know today. 


Dr Haekyung Um is Director of Postgraduate Research and Senior Lecturer in Music at University of Liverpool. She teaches on modules including Asian Music Markets, Popular Musics of the World and World Cinema. Her research interests include contemporary Asian performing arts, the politics of performance, cultural identity and policy, transnationalism and cosmopolitanism.

Haekyung is a kayagûm zither player and kagok singer. She completed her musical training at Seoul National University and holds a PhD in Anthropology and Ethnomusicology from Queen’s University Belfast.

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