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Chinese language cinema

In her heyday, Mona Fong was a star in Singapore and Malaysia, with her expressive voice drawing crowds

The late singer turned television producer toured the world in the 1950s and 1960s, with audiences in Asia charmed by her English and Mandarin love songs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 November, 2017, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 November, 2017, 4:09pm

While the late Mona Fong Yat-wah’s expressive singing brought her many fans in Hong Kong, her lilting voice and charming looks also made her a hit elsewhere in the region in the 1950s, especially in Singapore and Malaysia.

Newspaper articles from Singapore described Fong, who died on Tuesday aged 83, as vivacious and with a “sultry voice”, singing both Mandarin and English romantic love songs while wearing either a cheongsam or a western-style dress.

Mona Fong, widow of Hong Kong movie mogul Sir Run Run Shaw, dies aged 83

The September 6, 1953, edition of The Straits Times cooed over Fong and another Hong Kong singer, Lo Ling, saying that with the duo performing at restaurants with a live band, the number of men eating at those places had gone up.

Indeed, it was Fong’s Shanghai-style singing in Singapore, featuring strains of Chinese folk and European jazz, that caught the attention of revered Hong Kong movie mogul Sir Run Run Shaw in 1952.

Fong later became Shaw’s close friend and the chief lieutenant of the late mogul’s extensive empire, but the two only married in 1997, 10 years after Shaw’s first wife died.

Watch: Mona Fong performing in 1957

An article in The Straits Times on January 30, 1955, described Fong, then 22, as one of “Singapore’s most popular nightclub singers” who had left Hong Kong for a “tour of Malaya” in 1952 and now had big dreams of performing in Europe.

Anders Nelsson, the leader of the Kontinental Band in the 1960s, recalled seeing a huge poster of Fong’s concert outside the Penang City Hall in Malaysia during a visit to his family there.

“She toured along with other singers and actors from the 1950s and 1960s in Singapore and Malaysia, singing mostly in large Chinese nightclubs, but also in town and city halls,” Nelsson, who has lived in Hong Kong since 1950, said.

The former diva’s death has inspired nostalgia for her musical legacy and for the times when performers from one place could tour the region and appeal to audiences wherever they performed.

Ricky Fung Tim-chee, a lead guitarist from the 1960s and now CEO of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, said the “geographic divide” felt stronger these days, more so than in the past.

“Take for example Poon Sow Keng, Fong’s contemporary who had the all-time hit song Lover’s Tears. Music fans generally regarded her as a Hong Kong singer. But she in fact was born in Macau and grew up in Singapore,” Fung said.

Indeed, newspaper articles said Mona had also performed in Jakarta before going to Singapore. After her Singapore stint, she travelled to Manila, Taipei and Melbourne. In 1959, she sang at the Forbidden City nightspot in San Francisco, according to an interview with her published in The Straits Times on 6 March 1960.

“She was known as ‘The Patti Page in Asia’”, Tony Carpio, a Philippine master guitarist who recorded for Fong in the 1960s, told the Post, referring to the American diva who was popular at the time.

“She was very popular in Singapore and Malaysia in the 1960s mainly through the records she made in Hong Kong, but the level of popularity was always stronger here at home,” 77-year-old Carpio, who has lived in Hong Kong since 1957, added.

Fung said part of Fong’s appeal was her “uniquely expressive” voice, and how she would inject a “jazzy flair” to her performance.

“She was rather unconventional and liked to use her own phrasing to jazz up a popular song to express her feelings,” Fung said.

Fong stopped performing in 1965 to sing for films and cut her own albums. Four years later, she restored the hugely popular television variety show, Mona Fong’s Show, which she hosted and sang with a band of Philippine musicians at Reddifusion in 1957.

It was also in 1969 that she started as a wardrobe assistant with Shaw Brothers, she told The Straits Times, in an interview published on June 30, 1981.

Later she was transferred to its purchasing department and in 1973, she went into film production, something she never dreamed of.

“It just happened. My experience in show business helped,” she said in the interview.

Fong passed away peacefully at 5.28pm on Tuesday at Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital with family by her side, according to a statement from broadcaster TVB, which she used to manage. The TVB statement did not specify the cause of death.