Stepping back into the lion's den

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 April, 1998, 12:00am

I didn't want to leave but I knew if I didn't, I would probably have died.' Dramatic words, perhaps, but Teresa Carpio knew she was headed for a breakdown unless she turned her life around.

The singer was all sung out. Disillusionment with the music business and personal and career frustrations were threatening to wipe her out. It was 1992 and Teresa Carpio had been singing for 29 years.

'Everything was negative then. When a person is upset and angry, you can never see the good things,' said a wiser and emotionally healthier 42-year-old Carpio this week in Hong Kong.

She found her salvation in Springfield, Missouri - population 150,000 - with a supportive new husband, a loving family, religion and, most of all, finding out how to be a real person.

A 'real person' was not something Carpio had ever had the chance to be in her native Hong Kong. Born to a Filipino father and a Shanghainese mother, it was obvious at an early age that she had inherited her musician father's love and talent for music.

In a frilly dress and her hair in ribbons, six-year-old Carpio thrilled judges at the first Hong Kong talent singing quest with her renditions of Baby Face and Teacher's Pet.

She beat out others such as Danny Diaz and Teddy Robin, who would also go on to be singing stars, for the $1,500 prize money - enough then to feed a family for a year.

She went back to school for five years, and on the eve of starting a hard-earned scholarship to St Paul's Convent, a call came through from her father in Tahiti. He needed her for a three-month gig where he was playing. Young Carpio said goodbye to her studies forever.

'We weren't very rich and I was the eldest child,' Carpio explains.

The next few years were spent doing the night club rounds, followed by a gig in Tokyo with a rock band, D'Swooners, when she was just 16. It was in Japan that she recorded her first single, did the obligatory television appearances, and even played a part in a Shintaro Katsu (of The Blind Swordsman fame) film. But Carpio was bored and it was not long before she packed her bags and returned to the night club circuit in Hong Kong. It was far from a normal childhood. 'The Filipino musicians thought I was a snotty kid because I didn't speak their language. People don't realise my world from the age of six to 21 was the stage. I didn't know how to relate or to communicate.' She was 18 when EMI Records offered her her first recording contract here. Then, as it would be later, critics downplayed her talents and harped on the idea that her Westernised performance style would not sell in Hong Kong.

She proved them wrong, went on to sell well and hosted her own television programme. In the years that followed, Carpio would score a lot of firsts. She was probably the first Hong Kong singer to be cast in a Stateside musical, City Of Broken Promises, in 1979.

She was the first to cover old Mandarin standards in Cantonese and also use Hong Kong Coliseum as a concert venue in 1985. That year, she led the way for Hong Kong singers into Japan when she was invited to record an all-original English album, Tokyo Dreams, there.

While she was doing her night club rounds aged 19 in 1976, she met a visiting Chinese American, Peter Mui. The couple decided to marry three years later, a decision that shocked her fans. But marriage did not dampen her musical aspirations. In fact, it was Mui who financed her concerts at the Coliseum, even bringing in sound engineers from the United States to set up the speakers. On the other hand, it could be said that her music put a major spoke in the wheels of her marriage: it fell apart after the concert.

Despite her successes, Carpio was made to feel that she never really fitted in; her preference for Western jazz, funk and rock did not help. Although many have pointed to a racist factor - Filipino musicians were not highly looked upon - Carpio denies it was the reason.

'I was treated like a foreigner because I sang in English. It wasn't racial, it was just the way I interpreted my songs. When I sing, my whole stance is just different. I even dressed different then,' she says.

She also had an endless battle with record executives who had strong preconceptions about what Cantonese music should sound like and precluded any other genres.

So, instead, they made her do cover versions and although this generated hits such as Sukiyaki, her heart was in original music. 'It was just something I did because it was popular,' she says with a shrug.

'When I came back after my marriage, I started a record label. I wanted to set the trend and to go forward on a programme with Chinese songs . . . I didn't want to do cover songs.' She remembers experimenting with Her Name Was Fire and was told that she could not do anything that rock-oriented with Chinese songs. She recorded a mellow Happy Ghost for the film of the same name and was told it was 'too jazzy'.

When she was in Japan to record her English album, her record company promised her it would do a Chinese cover of the album.

'We recorded 20 songs in 10 days,' she recalls, 'but then they crushed it. I just thought, 'what did I do?' ' By then her marriage was over, her concerts at the Coliseum had failed miserably - they gave away 8,000 of the 10,000 tickets - and the musical frustration sent Carpio reeling into a deep depression as well as hefty debts.

Seeing Carpio flash her dimpled smile and hearing her cheerful laughter, it was difficult to imagine she had ever lost them. That was the image Carpio had always left on people: a cheerful, if slightly wacky, figure who would break into gales of laughter at the slightest provocation.

But during those dark years, she not only lost her smile and enthusiasm, after releasing an album in 1988 she lost her voice as well. For three years, she battled half-heartedly against the inner demons that silenced her. Doctors found nothing wrong with her.

'The doctors said it was nothing but stress. I was physically fine but I had chronic fatigue syndrome. I went to see herbalists but nothing worked,' she recalls.

'It just all became too much - the failure of my marriage, the concert at the Coliseum and having my albums pushed back one after the other.

'Maybe I just wanted to lose my voice so that I didn't have to sing anymore.' Her ex-husband, who had steadfastly refused to grant her a divorce for almost a decade, introduced her to celebrated New York voice therapist, Don Lawrence, who finally started her on the road to recovery.

In 1990, Carpio was even encouraged enough to record another English album with Noel Quinlan even though her voice had not fully recovered. By then she had found love again with Andreas Panayi, a journalist who was sent to interview her and ended up being her manager and, now, her husband. Still life was not good.

Carpio recalls waking up one morning two years later and saying to Panayi: 'Let's leave this place.' Within a week, they packed and were ready to go - but where? They did the North American rounds going from Vancouver, Los Angeles, San Diego, Colorado Springs, Atlanta and New York City before landing in sleepy Springfield.

It is there that Carpio has begun to find herself.

'Nobody there knows I am a singer. To them I am just Teresa Panayi, a housewife on the look-out for sales and special offers, just like they are,' she chuckles.

'You know I never even knew what I liked to eat until I got there. I just went along with what other people liked. I think the biggest difference was being able to know what I am and know people who accept me for who I am, not who I'm supposed to be.' She and Panayi married in 1993, after she finally got a quickie divorce from Mui, and have two daughters, Alexias Victoria, aged four, and Serena Victoria, two.

Teresa Victoria, known as 'TV', her daughter from her first marriage, is 18. She has named all her daughters Victoria, she says, because she wants to 'remember Hong Kong'.

TV is already showing signs of the Carpio talent and wants to be in entertainment although 'she knows she has to finish her education first'. But mother and daughter have already starred in a 22-show Springfield stage production of Annie.

'I want a family, I want an identity as a woman. I want to try and see if I can be a so-called normal person, have children and live in a normal city.' Obviously she can. The past few years in Springfield have been therapeutic for Carpio who says she has gone from being a woman who sat and watched television every day to getting excited over the prospect of free toys at McDonald's.

The only singing she does there is in the church. Occasionally she gives singing lessons in Vancouver and in Hong Kong.

A few years ago, she was tempted back to Hong Kong by good friend, Clarence Hui, to appear in Peter Chan Ho-sun's film Age Of Miracles.

But Carpio's main love has always been music and so, when Hui called her up again this year and said he had a great Canto-pop song for her to sing, she did not hesitate.

Despite having willingly stepped back into the lion's den, Carpio notes a little sadly that things have not really changed that much in the Hong Kong music scene. 'Hong Kong is a very special place . . . but it deprives singers of live venues. If I don't sing how can my voice come out? If I don't listen to good music, how do I know the rhythm? There are a lot of frustrated singers here,' she says.

'You see so many promising voices [such as] Sandy Lam and Faye Wong. They have soul but then all of a sudden they're gone. Is it this place that just sucks you up and changes your identity? I don't know.' She still thinks that Hong Kong has not lived up to its promise as a trendsetter.

'The place was starting to have a name in the 70s in Asian music, excluding the Japanese.

'Until today they have not flushed out jazz, funk, blues or folk. It is sad, because I know Hong Kong has a lot of talent.' Carpio feels the good times for the Canto-pop industry in the 1980s dug the hole for the rut it is in.

'They had the market cornered but they never thought that to stay at that status, they would have to bring the product up to standard. And, they don't know what that standard is because they never had any measures for comparison,' she says.

'Before, we were brought up on international music. We have this background where we've got to be at least 30 to 40 per cent as good as what was there. With Canto-pop, it just got its identity as a language and it all blew out of proportion.' On this trip back to the SAR to promote her new single, Today Is Going To Be A Fine Day, which will be included in a new compilation Femme Extraordinaire, Carpio was heartened to hear some more innovative sounds coming from new singers.

'I think it's coming along. It's great there are some new singers who are really trying to make [their songs] sound more 90s,' she says enthusiastically.

As for her, will Today Is Going To Be A Fine Day mark another comeback? 'I don't know what to call it,' she says with her familiar laugh. 'This thing is God-given. It came at the right time. Clarence had the song and I was here.

'I just want to have fun. Things will fall into place. I'm sure Clarence has plans but I just want to enjoy every moment.

'I remind myself of this every day. If you're doing what you love to do, it is successful.' Just goes to prove: you can take the girl away from Hong Kong, but you can never take Hong Kong away from her.