Like many other stars it was Wei Li-li's (韋麗麗) mother who first put her on the stage, aged 14, at a theater in Taipei.
Three decades later Wei is still singing for her supper, under the stage name Yi Xuan (翊瑄), though she now runs the Red Top Artists Theater (紅頂藝人劇場) in Ximending, one of the few remaining red envelope clubs.
Wei has traveled around the world, but her career follows the trajectory of red envelope clubs, from their early days to the heydays in the mid-1980s and up to the present.
“My family was quite poor and my mother's friend introduced me to the singing hall. I just did what my mother wanted me to do. I was young and scared, but people liked me, maybe they thought I was cute or had a nice smile or something,” Wei said, explaining her initial popularity.
“I was young and my singing was not too bad. After all, people always like kids. Then, my singing improved as I practiced every day and became more mature. Of course, at 18, I was quite beautiful and this was attractive to the audience.”
At that time, in the late 1970s, live performances were a big feature of Taipei's nightlife, much of which was based in Ximending. Wei had no problem making a name for herself and even went on tour to Hong Kong.
This all changed at 21, however, when she made the decision to join her sister in America and create a different kind of future for herself. Maybe Wei was burned out from having performed for so long at such a young age, but fate also intervened in the form of a serious car accident that robbed her of her voice.
“I was the passenger, my friend was the driver. She was just 18 and it was her first car. She didn't even make it for a mile before we went straight into another car,” Wei said and rolled up her trousers to show off a scar on her leg.
“I screamed so much that I couldn't control my voice any more. It wouldn't go up or down, there was no control at all. I couldn't sing. I had a bright future, I could have been a big star. I was very sad … too sad to sing any more.”
“I tried to change my life and become like everyone else. I worked in a factory, as a cashier, as a waitress, in a fried chicken store and opened up a restaurant. I learned how to run a business with friends and become independent.”
Wei pursued the American dream for seven years and said she “learned a lot about true friendships, who I was and what I was. I discovered that being rich, having a big house or car didn't matter so much, it's the small things that count. I learned from America to be straight and to be myself. If this hadn't happened, then maybe my career would have been over at 29.”
Instead she was in New York when the call came from a friend who had a nightclub in Houston, asking her to sing for two weeks
“I said no, initially, I don't sing any more, but they said, ‘No worries, just talk.’ Inside my heart I was still a singer, the fact that I got the offer and they still liked me, touched me. So I started practicing again and it was difficult, I couldn't even remember one song. But I got some records and found my voice had come back even better.”
This experience convinced her that her future was in singing rather than waiting tables and she returned to Hong Kong where she had a contract with a radio station. Then she went to Yogyarkarta in Indonesia on another singing tour. There she met her husband, a businessman, with whom she had a child. The marriage did not last long and Wei made the decision to return to Taipei.