Fans, friends and show biz colleagues continue to grieve after news of Taiwanese pop diva Fong Fei-fei’s (鳳飛飛) death broke on Monday last week. Born Lin Chiu-luan (林秋鸞) in August 1953 in Dasi Township (大溪), Taoyuan County, the star, whose luminous career spanned 40 years, died of lung cancer in Hong Kong on Jan. 3 at the age of 58.
Her importance to Taiwanese popular culture is probably best summed up by writer, cultural pundit and PChome chairman Jan Hung-tze’s (詹宏志) oft-quoted comment: “To the Taiwanese public, the images of Taiwan are likely to be the city god temple, danzai noodles, fish-ball soup and Fong Fei-fei” (台灣人心目中的台灣，可能是：城隍廟、擔仔麵、魚丸湯和鳳飛飛).
Born to a humble household, Fong, the only daughter of a truck driver and housewife, was a tomboy.
Aged 12, she went deaf in her left ear because of an infection, and lived with the disability until she received an artificial eardrum when she was 30.
As a student Fong liked to sing and did well in art class, but not so well in other subjects. When she heard about a singing contest, to be held in Taipei, on the radio, the young singer wannabe persuaded her mother to let her go to the capital. She won the competition in her second attempt in 1968 and soon after started performing in restaurants and clubs under the stage name Lin Chien (林茜).
As Fong wrote on her official Web site (www.fongfeifei.com.tw), the first four years of her singing career were tough. To save money, the then teenage singer used to walk to her Sanchong District (三重) home, where she lived with an aunt and her family home, from her place of work on Nanjing East Road (南京東路).
Her breakthrough came in 1972 when the struggling singer was cast in a successful television drama under the new screen name Fong Fei-fei. Album deals and more television appearances followed, making Fong a household name. The performer was further propelled to superstardom in the late 1970s when she started singing movie theme songs for the big-screen adaptations of romance novels by Chiung Yao (瓊瑤). Both the songs and movies, including I Am a Cloud (我是一片雲) and The Wild Goose on the Wing (雁兒在林梢), were immensely popular at the time.
In her heyday, Fong was not only a singing diva, but a sought-after host of television shows. She starred in six movies, including Lovable You (就是溜溜的她, 1980) and Cheerful Wind (風兒踢踏踩, 1981), two of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s (侯孝賢) early commercial films.
In 1981, the then 27-year-old star married Hong Kong businessman Zhao Hongqi (趙宏琦), who died of lung cancer in 2009 at the age of 70. After marrying, Fong had devoted less time to her career, but remained active until her last days.
It has been said that Fong’s grassroots upbringing kept the star in tune with ordinary people.
Chen Chien-chih (陳建志), an assistant professor at Tamkang University’s (淡江大學) Department of English, who wrote a book on Fong in 2009, pointed out that during her early career, entertainers were required to sing in Beijing-accented Mandarin, but Fong crooned Mandarin songs with a Hoklo accent, which made her more “accessible” to the country’s Taiwanese population.
Her later Hoklo-language albums and tours of southern Taiwan’s industrial zones endeared her to blue-collar workers and earned her the moniker “People’s Diva” (國民天后).
Fong was renowned for her unisex look as she wore pants and a hat whenever she performed. With a collection of more than 600 pieces of headgear in her wardrobe, Fong was known as “Queen of Hats” (帽子歌后).