ATF Tunes: Wandering through the jungle, facing the rain

Many Canadians have seen John Woo’s acclaimed masterpiece, The Killer, starring Chow Yun-Fat. Also starring in the film was a beautiful woman whom we first saw singing in a lounge until gunfire blinded her (see HERE). Most of us would assume that she was some actress born and raised in Hong Kong. Guess again.

Sally Yeh (also known as Sally Yip) is Canadian. She grew up in BC and, like many Chinese-Canadians, her English was stronger than her Chinese. Because the Canadian music industry had not been welcoming of the 12% of the country’s citizens who are of Asian descent, as a gifted singer, she decided to brush up on her Chinese (learning Cantonese as well) and relocate to China. After several releases and a couple of moves, she finally made it big, so big, in fact, that she became known as the Celine Dion of Hong Kong.

It is important to acknowledge that Canadian singers who become successful in the United States are not the only ones to be honoured. Our very own Sally Yeh became a superstar in the most populated country on earth. In the same year that Bryan Adams topped the charts with his Robin Hood hit (1991), Sally Yeh had the biggest song of the year on the western side of the Pacific. In January, 2011, she was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Golden Needle award in Hong Kong.

Every so often a song comes along that is so beautiful it makes you cry, even a song performed in a language with which you are not fluent. In 1987, Sally Yeh recorded one of the ten biggest songs of the year in Hong Kong—”Jukfuk“. It is sung with heartfelt precision backed with delicate musical arrangement. Halfway through, when the song picks up with bass and drums, it makes you feel like you’re flying. “Jukfuk” is one of our favourite songs of all-time by a Canadian artist.

Lyrics

Because many of you may not have Chinese character support on your web browser, I won’t put up the lyrics here as they may appear as gobbledygook. However, for the many Canadians who can read Chinese (and are learning to), you can view the lyrics HERE in addition to listening to the song.

Summary

Song: “Jukfuk”*
Album: Jukfuk
Year: 1987
Artist: Sally Yeh
Origin: Vancouver

* Assuming your web browser has Chinese character support, the Chinese characters are 祝福 which can be translated as good luck, best wishes, good fortune, blessings, etc. In Mandarin Chinese, the pinyin romanization for Mandarin (standard) Chinese is zhùfú. However, as the song is performed in the Cantonese dialect, we have titled the song with Cantonese romanization which is “Jukfuk”.

More songs…

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Sally Yeh

Born: 1961, Taibei, Taiwan
Debut: 1980
Genre: Pop

Studio Albums and Hit Singles

The Taiwan Period

1980: The Sculptures of Spring

1981: Love Poem

1982: The Beginning of Love

1982: Promise Me

1983: Even the Best Separation Will Result in Missing

The Hong Kong Period

1984: Sally

Hit Single: “Ten Past Midnight”

1985: Goodnight, My Love

1986: Cha Cha Cha

Hit Single: “I Want to Keep on Living”

1987: Sweet Words

Hit Single: “Cheers”

1987: Good Luck

Hit Singles: “Good Luck” (Year-End Top 10), “Dawn, Don’t Come” (from the film A Chinese Ghost Story)

1989: Face to Face

Hit Single: “Drunk for Life” (from the movie The Killer)

1990: Take Care

Hit Single: “Heart Aflame”

1990: Fall Has Come and Gone

Hit Single: “Fall Has Come and Gone”

1991: Caring

Hit Single: “Believe in Oneself” (with Alex To)

The Greater China Period

1991: Walking Coolly

Hit Single: “Walking Coolly”

1992: Red Dust

Hit Singles: “Past Heartbreak”, “Lover and Friend”

1992: Past Heartbreak

Hit Singles: “Sincerely for Life”, “Crying Sand”

1993: Another Day with You

Hit Single: “You’re Leaving Today”

1993: Heart of the Moon

1994: A Woman’s Weakness

Hit Single: “A Woman’s Weakness”

1994: Day Lovers

1995: Simple Black & White

1995: Wishes

1996: True

1996: Candlelight

1997: Rubia Cordifolia

1997: Concern

1998: My Heart Will Go On

2002: You Heard

Hit Single: “Mourning” (Year-End Top 10)

2003: Inside Out

Our story with Sally actually begins in the year 1858 (and, no, that isn’t a typo). Wen Ling left China’s Guangdong Province for San Francisco, USA. Later, he headed up to Canada, settling in the now nearly non-existent town of Port Douglas, British Columbia. During the Fraser Valley gold rush it was the second largest municipality on mainland BC. Early in 1861, Wen’s wife gave birth to a son. He was named Alexander and was the first baby to be born on Canadian soil from Chinese immigrants (that is known). What is most significant is that the birth took place six years prior to Confederation, the implications being that the British and French were not the only ethnicities who founded the country.

Nowadays, more than one-quarter of Vancouver’s citizens are ethnically Chinese, and Canada as a whole has a large population of Asian descent (13%).

Another important date in our story is 1957. The year saw the meteoric rise of Canada’s first rock ‘n roll superstar, Paul Anka. In a blacks-and-whites-only music industry in the west, most people would be surprised that, in Canada, it all began with someone of Asian descent. But, ever since the promising beginning for Asian Canadians, the music industry had failed to tap into such a pool of talent and open its doors to them.

Sally Yeh was born in Taibei, Taiwan. When she was four years old, her parents immigrated to British Columbia. She showed incredible talent for singing. After completing high school in Canada she was faced with a decision: launch a singing career in Canada or return to Taiwan to do so? Although born in Taiwan, she was Canadian: her English was better than her Chinese, she had adopted Canadian culture, and Canada was her home. Taiwan was a foreign land. Intimidated, however, by a Canadian music industry bereft of any Asian Canadian representation, she decided to venture over to the western side of the Pacific. After all, no Canadian with an Asian face could ever seriously think of becoming a singer in a country that prided itself on its diversity and multiculturalism. In Taiwan she would at least have a chance, nay an advantage.

Shortly after settling in Taibei, she was allegedly discovered by a talent scout while buying fried chicken. Yeh really wanted to sing but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to appear in a movie. This led to her signing the theme songs of several films and her securing a recording contract. There was a major problem, however. Although she could speak simple conversational Chinese (because of her parents), she couldn’t read it. How could she read and memorize song lyrics? Chinese characters were converted into pinyin romanization and large placards were held up in the recording studio as she sang into the microphone. She breathed a sigh of relief as she was asked to record some English songs in addition to the Chinese for her first album. Her debut, The Sculptures of Spring was released in 1980.

Although she was an amazing singer, the album drew little attention, as the populace wasn’t sure whether to embrace someone who wasn’t Taiwanese but Canadian and someone whose Chinese language skills were weak at best. She recorded several more albums, at least one per year but a big breakthrough eluded her. She gave up on Taiwan. In the early 80s, the music industry on the island was lagging far behind Hong Kong which was the center of the universe for the Chinese music industry. But there was an even bigger problem with her decision to relocate to Hong Kong: she couldn’t speak a word of Cantonese. Having grown up in BC, she no doubt had some Cantonese-speaking classmates, but to become a star in Hong Kong without being fluent in the dialect was a formidable challenge. She was up to the task, relocating to Hong Kong in 1984.

Working with language coaches and, again, using romanized words, she recorded the Cantonese album, Sally. The opening track, “Ten Past Midnight”, composed by George Lam was an instant hit. The song that rocketed her to superstardom came in 1987 with the release of Good Luck. Its title-track was one of the ten biggest songs of the year. The track “Dawn, Don’t Come” from the album appeared in the blockbuster film A Chinese Ghost Story and won the Best Original Song award at the 7th Hong Kong Film Awards. Sally Yeh was now rivalling local superstars Priscilla Chan and Anita Mui in popularity.

Director John Woo had gained prominence with the release of A Better Tomorrow in 1986. But he was still an unknown in the west. All that changed in 1989 when he came out with his acclaimed masterpiece, The Killer. Sally Yeh was asked to star in the film alongside Chow Yun-Fat and sing its theme songs, including “Drunk for Life“. In an interview, Yeh said, although she was glad to do the movie with Woo, she decided to drop out of acting because of the way that women were portrayed in Chinese cinema.

Sally had conquered Hong Kong, and now, as the decade ended, it was time to conquer the rest of China. This meant returning to Mandarin and releasing songs in both dialects. And with this, the early 90s belonged to Yeh. Her song “Walking Coolly” became the anthem of 1991, winning the Mandarin song of the year award, and she won the most popular female singer award four years in a row. Although she herself was Canadian, she came to be known as the Celine Dion of Hong Kong and developed a reputation for outdoing other singers in the Orient by staying entirely on key during live performances.

She collaborated with a couple of other western artists, recording “Dreaming of You” with Tommy Page in 1992 and “I Believe in Love” with James Ingram the following year.

In the mid-90s, when she married George Lam, Yeh’s popularity gradually diminished despite appearances from Sammi Cheng, Anthony Lun, and Jackie Chan on her records. The couple lived in Canada and bought a house in San Francisco. After recording a Chinese version of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” in 1998, she took a break from making records. In 2002, however, she made a triumphant comeback with the album You Heard and hit single “Mourning“. She followed up with Inside Out in 2003. She now had 30 studio albums under her belt. On January 7th, 2011, Yeh was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Golden Needle Award in Hong Kong.

While Canadians celebrate their singers’ success abroad, this is normally only true for achievement in the United States. Success by Canadian artists in other countries, like China, France, even Britain, is rarely acknowledged. We acknowledge Sally Yeh as one of the finest and most successful Canadian singers the world has ever seen.

Rise of Asian, French, and Female Canucks (1987-89)

People often lump all ten years of the 80s together when talking about music. But the late 80s was very different from the early 80s. While the United States was celebrating Madonna’s fusing of new wave and disco in the birth of modern dance music, Canadians, despite an occasional dabble, were moving away from new wave into bare bones rock, perhaps encouraged by Bryan Adams’ success. Things took a sudden sharp turn backwards in 1989 with a veering away from progressive music to more traditional blues, rock, folk, and country. Suddenly, to be “unplugged” with sqeaky acoustic guitars was fashionable, an unexpected move celebrated by some and lamented by others.

The late 80s saw the first (as far as we can remember) French song played on English radio stations, the rise of the first female Canadian rock star, which changed the musical landscape up to the present day, the first French-language Canadian album to be certified Diamond in France (and, no, it wasn’t one of Celine Dion’s!), and one of the most successful Canadian singers of all-time internationally, who remains unknown to most Canadians.

1987

Although the biggest Canadian song of the year was a cover tune (Corey Hart’s rendition of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love”), the year was the second most important of the decade (after 1985) for Canadian music, as twelve domestic ditties made the year-end Top 100 chart. Besides artists we’ve already profiled, there was Winnipegger Joey Gregorash, who had scored some hits back in the early 70s, his biggest being “Jodie”, a #3 hit in 1971. After years of inactivity, he suddenly surfaced again with “Together (The New Wedding Song)”, the second biggest Canadian song of the year. The most important newcomer in 1987 was a country-pop band from Toronto called Blue Rodeo. Their “Try” was the third most popular Canadian song of the year and won the Juno for Song of the Year. Blue Rodeo won the Juno for Best Group of the Year three years in a row.

Newcomers with significant hits that did not quite make the year-end chart included Ottawa’s one-hit wonder band Eight Seconds (“Kiss You When It’s Dangerous”). Sheriff (“When I’m with You”) members had split in half and formed two spin-off groups. The first, Frozen Ghost, came out with hits “Should I See” and “Round and Round”. The second was Alias which scored a megahit in 1990. (Glen) Johansen had played keyboards for Ronnie Hawkins after which he worked as a producer (M+M, FM) especially for reggae acts like Guyana’s Eddy Grant. He enjoyed his own hit single this year: “Walkin’ a Fine Line”. Saskatoon’s The Northern Pikes had their first Top 30 hit this year (“Teenland”). We’ll talk a bit more about them in the early 90s when they saw their biggest success. One of the most popular club bands in Toronto, The Jitters, managed a hit (“Last of the Red Hot Fools”). Another Toronto outfit, the twin DiBlasi sisters, as Tu, made the Top 20 with “Stay with Me”.

She never scored a Top 40 hit … on the pop charts, but Cape Bretoner Rita MacNeil‘s hits on the country and adult contemporary charts enabled five of her albums in row to achieve multi-platinum sales. 1987’s Flying On Your Own was the first to do so. In Quebec, Celine Dion had become a force to be reckoned with; her “Incognito” won the Felix for Song of the Year. Brother and sister René and Nathalie Simard‘s beautiful “Tourne la page” was popular as well.

A treat, especially for those who grew up in the 60s, appeared “somewhere down the crazy river”. The Band’s Robbie Robertson came out with a solo album with contributions from Canadian producer Daniel Lanois, U2, and Peter Gabriel. Robertson won the Juno for Male Artist of the Year. The album, certified 2x Platinum, won the Juno for Album of the Year. Robertson was the principal songwriter for The Band and is ranked as one of the 100 best guitarists of all-time by Rolling Stone magazine.

1988

The next two years are difficult to summarize because RPM weekly charts from October 1988 to May 1989 are missing, and there is no year-end chart for 1988. No songs from Canadian artists appear to have made Billboard’s year-end Top 100 singles chart. We do know that at the end of the year, Tom Cochrane and Red Rider released the album Victory Day finally seeing their big breakthrough: two Top 5 hit singles. It was a long time coming but they finally hit their stride with a driving rock sound. “Big Leauge” was about the death of a promising Canadian ice hockey player and gives the message that exporting Canadian talent to foreign lands is ultimately unsatisfying. New Order-sounding Kon Kan had a big international hit at this time as well: “I Beg Your Pardon”. Punky National Velvet dazzled with “Flesh Under Skin”.

Prior to mid-October…

Regina’s Colin James made a name for himself with “Voodoo Thing” becoming more successful in the 90s with a few Juno Awards. Andrew Cash, before a politician, had a hit single called “Smile Me Down”. A couple of Calgarians teamed up with a Seattle vocalist and recorded two albums in Vancouver with the assistance of Bob Rock and Mike Fraser. The result was four Top 40 hits, their first being “Never Give Up”. The band’s name was BLVD and they opened for Glass Tiger touring Canada. Barney Bentall scored his first hit: “Something to Live For”. Joe Bocan had a hit: “Repartir à zéro”. Richard Seguin was becoming popular (“Tu reviens de loin”). He had performed in previous years with his twin sister Marie-Claire as Les Séguins.

In the world of country music, small-town Alberta native k.d. (Kathryn Dawn) Lang, created a stir with “I’m Down to My Last Cigarette” off her (Platinum) Shadowland album. She was named Female Artist of the Year at the Junos. The following year, she topped the country charts with “Full Moon Full of Love”. In the 90s, she crossed over to pop and won a Grammy Award (U.S. equivalent of the Junos). Lang helped set the stage for the rising popularity of country music in the 90s which saw one of the genre’s top stars arise from Canada, scoring three 2x Diamond albums!

Canada tried its hand at dance music and managed to turn out a couple of hits. “Savin’ Myself” was a dance hit from Hamilton’s Eria Fachin. Sadly, she was diagnosed with cancer while working on her second album. She passed away in 1996, at 36 years old. Candi and the Backbeat had “Dancing Under a Latin Moon”. Her “Love Makes No Promises” made the Top 10 in ’89. Sway covered the European hit “Hands Up (Give Me Your Heart)” from French band Ottawan (not citizens of Ottawa). The cover made the Top 10 in Canada.

On the other side of the world, a Vancouverite had become a sensation. She had recorded albums in English that Canadian radio had ignored. Knowing that the racist Canadian music industry had closed its doors to Canadians of Asian descent (despite its first pop superstar’s belonging to that category), she entered the recording studio and sang from placards of romanized words from the language of her parents—Chinese. The next thing she knew, Sally Yeh was a pop superstar in the most populated country on earth. “Good Luck” was one of the ten biggest songs of the year in China. And from there everything snowballed for her, including playing alongside Chow Yun-Fat in John Woo’s classic masterpiece The Killer. No discussion of Canadian singers who have achieved international superstardom can omit Sally Yeh.

1989

This year saw the first French song played on English radio stations. In an as yet unrecognized national disgrace, the Canadian music industry has contradicted Canada’s policy of bilingualism, that encourages Anglophone youth to learn French, by segregating music based on language. In fact, Canadian English radio stations played two German language songs in the 80s while ignoring songs performed in Canada’s second official language. Although somewhat of a novelty song, the airplay across the country of Mitsou‘s “Bye Bye Mon Cowboy” was the one brief moment that Canada’s music industry showed some nobility.

Just as Anglophone Canadians had always struggled to achieve success in the United Kingdom, Francophones were having equal trouble trying to make it in France. In 1989 fortune came their way as the first French language album from a Canadian became certified Diamond in France. It wasn’t Celine Dion. In fact, it wasn’t a Quebecer. It was an Acadian from New Brunswick named Roch Voisine and his album Helene. (The album was certified 3x Platinum at home). Roch is one of the few Canadians who released successful albums in both official languages. His 1993 English-language album I’ll Always Be There (4x Platinum) spawned four Top 30 singles.

In Quebec, Johanne Blouin was shaking things up with “Dors Caroline”. Outside of French Canada and Chinese-Canadian Sally Yeh’s success abroad, English Canadian music had been dominated by the men whether in terms of soloists or rock bands. The women had been more successful in the folk and country arenas. In the 80s, all eyes were on Luba as one of the first successful women in pop/rock. In 1987/88, she scored a Top 10 hit with a cover of “When a Man Loves a Woman”. This year she did it with an original song: “Giving Away a Miracle”. Arguably, it was Luba who had opened the door for women. And the first one to walk through the door was Toronto’s Alannah Myles, Canada’s first female rock superstar. Her debut album was the third (after Adams’ Reckless and Hart’s Boy in the Box) to be certified Diamond, with domestic sales exceeding a million copies. “Love Is” was the first hit single. The bluesy “Black Velvet” did even better, breaking into the Top 10. Interestingly, the song was received much more enthusiastically in the United States where it went all the way to #1 and finished 18th in the 1990 year-end Billboard chart. Nevertheless it won the Juno for Song of the Year, as did her (self-titled) album for Album of the Year. “Lover of Mine” was her biggest hit from the album in Canada (#2).

Another female who did quite well with a dozen Top 40 hits to her name over the years was Montreal’s Sass Jordan. “Tell Somebody” and “Double Trouble” from her debut album made it to #11 and #12 on the charts respectively. Belleville Ontario rocker Lee Aaron sang “Watcha Do to My Body”.

The biggest Canuck song of the year was Tom Cochrane & Red Rider’s “Good Times”. It peaked at #2 on the charts. Offenbach’s former front man, Gerry Boulet, had the biggest song of the year in Quebec, “Un beau grand bateau”. He died of cancer the following year. Blind blues-rocker Jeff Healey had a hit with “Angel Eyes”. He died of cancer in 2008. Gordon Peterson, under the pseudonym Indio and with the assistance of Joni Mitchell, released one album (Big Harvest) in his career that spawned the Top 10 hit “Hard Sun”, later covered without his permission by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder for the movie Into the Wild. This resulted in a lawsuit.

New bands appearing at the end of the decade included Margo Timmins-fronted The Cowboy Junkies. Their debut album in 1986, consisting mostly of blues covers, did not create much of a stir. But the song “Misguided Angel” off their second album was a minor hit. We’ll talk about them more in the early 90s when they had bigger success. Sylvain Cossette’s Paradox scored with “Waterline”, Niagara Falls’ glam band Brighton Rock with “One More Try”, indie outfit Pursuit of Happiness with “She’s So Young”, and Kelowna BC’s Grapes of Wrath with the hauntingly beautiful “All the Things I Wasn’t”.

Coming up will be a list of big songs in the late 80s, a special on the brother-sister stars Simards and Seguins, mini-profiles on Barney Bentall, The Grapes of Wrath, The Jeff Healey Band, Sass Jordan, kd lang, Rita MacNeil, and Mitsou, and major profiles on Blue Rodeo, Tom Cochrane (and Red Rider), Alannah Myles, Roch Voisine, and Sally Yeh.