Veteran pop star back in the spotlight

Updated: 2013-07-05 07:22

By Chen Nan (China Daily)

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Veteran pop star back in the spotlight

Chinese-American singer Coco Lee releases her new album in Beijing. Zou Hong / China Daily

Coco Lee walks into the room, but her laugh is heard before she comes into view.

The pop star is still buzzing from the day before, which saw her release her new album Illuminate in Beijing after a four-year hiatus.

In a bright pink one-piece pants suit and high heels, the 38-year-old singer is full of energy. She jokes around in front of the camera, posing like an experienced party queen. "The right side of my face looks better," she says, giggling while flashing a big smile.

She is the first and only Chinese-American singer to perform at the Oscars and has been a hit in Asia since 1993, with her unique mix of R&B and hip-hop.

Compared with other female pop singers of her generation, who are best known for gentle love ballads, the Hong Kong-born American singer broke with convention.

She dyes her hair either bright red or blonde and had provocative dance moves.

Part of the excitement surrounding her new album is the fact it is her first release since marrying Canadian businessman Bruce Rockowitz in 2011. Her new songs revel in her new marital status.

Lee's father died before she was born. As the youngest of three daughters, Lee thought she would spend her life looking after her mother.

"Before walking into the hotel, I started crying because I never expected I would get married one day," Lee says about her wedding in Hong Kong.

Her wedding song, I Just Wanna Marry You, has been included in her new genre-defying album.

Besides her trademark dance-electronic music, Illuminate sees Lee dabble in rock 'n' roll and reggae for the first time.

"I always liked rhythmic songs and I listened to Stevie Wonder and Mariah Carey songs," says Lee. "I would imitate their way of singing when I was a kid."

As the title of the album suggests, Lee is enjoying her best time as a singer and a woman. She has put aside complicated vocal techniques and takes a straightforward approach to singing.

Before releasing the new album, Lee was in the limelight as a judge on mainland reality show, Chinese Idol. She says the experience reminded of her of her own days competing in singing contests in the early '90s.

Lee was raised in San Francisco and dreamed of becoming a doctor. After high school she returned to Hong Kong, the city of her birth, for a vacation and entered a singing contest. She won first prize in the contest by singing Whitney Houston's Run to You, and her pop career was launched.

"I would sit there for a whole day, wearing heavy makeup and waiting for my name to be called," she recalls. "But when I performed onstage, I never felt tired and I knew I belonged there."

With nearly 30 albums released in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, Lee was also the first Chinese-American singer to break into the US market.

Her debut English album, Just No Other Way, in 1999 was a hit in the US, and the song Before I Fall In Love was included in the movie soundtrack Runaway Bride. That year, she also performed in Michael Jackson's charity concert Michael Jackson and Friends.

"When I first went to promote my albums in the US, the DJs were not interested at all. They didn't believe a singer from China could sing R&B, so I just sang right away without any accompaniment," Lee says. "Their faces would be frozen for a second, and then they clapped while smiling at me. I knew I'd made it."

Her career highlight was in 2001, when she performed at the Oscars. She says she was just like a fan seeing the big stars on the red carpet, such as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

"But as the curtain went up, I was totally in the zone," she says. "It was like when I performed at the singing contest in 1993. I saw the stage as my own place."

Despite tackling many different jobs in showbiz, such as acting, TV hosting and writing columns for magazines, Lee concedes she feels most at home when singing and performing onstage.

"That's when I feel myself and am myself," she says.

(China Daily 07/05/2013 page18)