Farewell to Hong Kong's Sour Beauty

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They called her the Asian Madonna because, in the ultra-staid world of Hong Kong pop music, her boldness was not just a sensation but an affront. If Madonna was the Material Girl, Anita Mui Yim-fong was the Bad Girl. That was the title of her 1985 hit song (which was briefly banned from radio for its raunchy lyrics) and best-selling album. In concert, Mui was a strutting, scowling presence, exuding sexuality like a visual and aural musk. She didn't simply command the stage; she commandeered it. She set attendance records with concert series in 1987 and 1991, and her 40-plus albums sold more than 10 million copies.

Still, the Madonna analogy limps. For one thing, Mui really could sing. Her sultry alto voice wrapped itself like a python around Canto-pop ballads, giving them a power, precision and, often, a desperation that never begged for pity. She sang of a strong woman's isolation—above, apart, alone. She was not the Madonna of Chinese music, but its Garbo.

And Madonna didn't die at 40. Mui did, last week, of cervical cancer, in an exit as poignant as any of her songs or films.

Most Hong Kong thrushes are sweet vixens. Mui was different. Her large eyes, beaky nose and small, lurid gash of a mouth gave rise to another sobriquet: the Ugly Queen of Pop. That's a harsh way of saying that Mui was a throwback to chanteuse Bai Guang and other Shanghai "sour beauties" of the pre-Mao era. The sour beauty sang of love as a burden that made the sufferer superior. Mui was that survivor: battered but proud.

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Her vocal authority and concert-stage charisma served Mui well when she made films. She lent coherence and gravity to such doomed characters as Fleur, the ghost lover of Leslie Cheung in Stanley Kwan's Rouge (for which she won the 1989 Hong Kong Film Award for best actress), and a Chinese spy in Eddie Fong's The Last Princess of Manchuria. In the latter, she played the real-life title character Kawashima Yoshiko, who spied for the Japanese during the occupation, and Mui was cold steel personified. She slapped men's faces, spat out her scorn at those who would use, abuse or condemn her. At the end, facing a death sentence, she remained defiant: a ghost asserting her haunting hauteur.

Mui lightened up in action films. In Shanghai Shanghai, she showed her dancing skill in a wild kung fu tango with Yuen Biao. She played the double role of a (male) emperor and his ancient (male) ancestor in Wu Yen. She graced three Jackie Chan films (playing his stepmom in Drunken Master II) and four with Stephen Chow. Her finest fantasy role was as Tung the Wonder Woman in The Heroic Trio and Executioners, in which she joins forces with Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh to save the world. Even in this comic-book chaos, she has an iconic Mui moment: she hears that a child has died, and a teardrop falls from her eye to trickle down her super-heroine mask.

Mui was known as a tough cookie with even tougher pals. In 1992, a triad member who had slapped her was shot dead three days later. (No one was convicted of the crime, and Mui was not charged with complicity.) But she was famously generous, raising funds for a San Francisco nursing home and, last year, for the families of SARS victims.

In September, Mui announced that she had cervical cancer. (In 2000, her sister Ann, who had performed with her in a childhood act, died of ovarian cancer.) Flanked by a phalanx of stars, including Chan and Yeoh, she told her fans: "Please don't worry about me. Watch me win this war." She threw herself a lavish, tearful 40th birthday party and, ever defiant, prepared for a role in Zhang Yimou's next film, House of Flying Daggers. "I realized she would never surrender to the devil of the disease," Zhang told Time. "To her, this film wasn't just a job but her ultimate struggle—to challenge her life, her destiny."

She also gave her last concerts. At the end of her final show on Nov. 15, Mui, who had never married, stood on stage in a white wedding dress and told 10,000 onlookers it was unlikely she would find a husband. Then she walked into the darkness. At her deathbed last week were a slew of Hong Kong royalty.

All had sweet, sad words for the occasion. But Mui provided her own elegy when she said, "I wonder how many people will remember me after I leave the business for good. My hope is that when they look at the stars in the sky, people will think of my name."