24 December 2015

Singapore Diva Tracy Huang Sings Again

One of Singapore's earliest pop successes, Tracy Huang has survived the vagaries of the industry by shrewdly shifting her act to the right places at the right time. 
Daniel Goh  fathoms the woman and her image.

"Fat, fat," says Tracy, slapping her thighs. "Fat, fat. I've put on weight,. Three pounds. Fat, here," she says, cupping her cheeks. She lifts her arms and flaps them, making the flesh on her alabaster-white upper arms jiggle. "Fat, fat, do you see?"

Tracy's preoccupation with weight, her looks, her age is understandable. After all, her feminine and fashionable image has always been a strong selling point for her albums. As such, these vanity concerns, inherent in most women, must seem even more vital to Tracy. But today, just for the moment, Tracy, relaxed and light-hearted jokes, "I'm 28, two years older than Alan Tam!" Later, she would give me her age as 39.

Tracy Huang is folded neatly onto a black sofa in the photo studio. She's just completed a photography shoot, part of her efforts to promote her new album Traces of Love, but talk is not about the album. There is nothing so crassly commercial about Tracy.

Even relaxing, her legs are elegantly crossed, ending in pointy, stiletto-heeled ankle boots. She's wearing a two-year old Azzedine Alaia: A black stretch one-piece with a white patent leather belt. "It gives me the illusion of height," she says.

Her hair is straggly now, and is loosely tied back; her eye make-up has run a little, there are black smudges; her lipstick has bled into a crooked pout. Plumes of smoke from her cigarette surround her like an aura.

Tired and slightly dishelleved, even while chain-smoking Virginia Slims, Tracy Huang still exudes a glow. Her skin is not only just fine and creamy white, it has a translucent, jade-like glaze, like rare Song china.

As Tracy talks, her small, white hands flutter about her in arabesque, like twin doves. "Hands are important," she says, flipping through the lyric pages for her new album cover until she finds the illustration of her silhouetted hands, reaching for a bird on a branch. "Look at this picture, I like this very much. Hands can express so much. You don't see my face here at all. But it's me."

Her small, flower-like hands. They are not money-grabbing hands, nor dish-washing hands. No, these are the hands of a princess. I tell her so. "Oh, but I'm not a princess!," she says, laughing. "More like a Cinderella. My father was from Guangdong, a military man, a colonel, so he didn't earn much. My mother was from Shanghai. When they came over to Taiwan from the mainland, they had absolutely nothing, not even a roof over their heads. We were very poor.

"When I was young, I had to help my mother do all the chores. I was the oldest, I had to take care of three baby brothers. All I can remember of my mother from those days was that she was always cooking, cleaning. She'd give me some money and I would have to go to the market to buy vegetables. And I had to cook after school.

"I still found time to play, somehow. I ran around barefoot. I have memories of a little barefoot girl, piggy-backing one of my brothers – maybe that's why I'm so short and all my brothers are so tall!

"I remember one day, while out in the open fields, an aeroplane flew over. At that moment, I made a promise to myself that I would be on that plane someday. I would fly out into the world. And it was a big wish, for a little country girl like me."

She continues in a rush of words; she is enjoying the reminiscences. "Singapore put me on that aeroplane. I was discovered by a talent scout from Neptune Theatre. Here I was, a Taiwanese singer singing English songs – wow! What a novelty, you know. I was billed as 'Angel from Taiwan' at the Neptune!"

That was in 1969. The Angel from Taiwan took flight. Tracy appeared in countless TV variety shows and eventually recorded her own albums, mainly sentimental ballads and cover versions of Olivia Newton-John hits. Over a 43-album career, Tracy established herself as a major star in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. Now she has set her sights on Japan with her album, consisting of English songs by Dick Lee.

Not only was she a major recording artiste, Tracy was also a style icon of the 70s. The image conscious artiste embraced every 'look' that emerged – from frosty purple eye-shadow to padded sweaters, from tattooed eyebrows to cowboy shirts.

The correct 'look' no doubt contributed to her enduring popularity, but she attributes her success to a determination to better herself. "I want to learn something new everyday – then that day is not wasted." And indeed, there were many occasions during my meetings with her when she whips out a little electronic organiser and enters all sorts of information, with a great urgency: names, numbers, movies to see, authors to read, phrases, ideas.

"When I was in school, I only studied music and Chinese folk dance – these were subjects thought to be more befitting to a girl. I learnt to read only after I left school. When I first came to Singapore, I had no friends or family. There were long spaces of time when all the friends I had were magazines and journals and books. I read so much during this time. And all those English programmes on television here. Education is the world around you. It does not mean that if you go to a university you become educated. A lot of people don't realize that experience is so important – you can learn from the people and the environment. I feel that my education is still going on, never stopping."

But something that Tracy feels she has not learnt enough of is studio production and other technical aspects of recording. So last year, she formed her own production company in Taiwan called Inner Music. "I'm at a turning point now – or rather – I'm in a period of flux. I feel that Tracy, as an artiste, is fading out and Tracy, the producer is fading in."

Her energies, and her accumulated knowledge and contacts in the music industries, are now concentrated in production. "It is not that I don't want to perform anymore. Working behind the scenes on a recording is also like performing. What's on show is what you produce, is how Tracy sees it. Inner Voice is where she put together her last three albums – of which two became award winners and hits. Tracy is also casting about for new talents to groom, record and promote.

Next year, in her role as producer, she will launch a 17-year-old Singapore girl, Gina Tan. There are several uncanny similarities between Tracy and her protégé : Tracy herself started her musical career at about the same age (at 16, Tracy was already singing at the American Club). Gina has the same sort of demure, feminine beauty that has served Tracy well; she sounds remarkably like Tracy. They sing like they look: all peaches and cream. There is tinkling clarity in their singing, there is a breathy languidity.

"Also, I really want to act. I really feel like making a movie, something meaningful. Maybe it's a bit late. But I was really inspired by my experience doing the music video which Wong Kar Wai directed."

The video for her Mandarin number entitled Making You Glad has generated more than the usual attention because it features Tony Leung, the star of The Lover.

"All the reporters keep asking me about it, as if Tony Leung was the main thing. At my press conference a reporter asked me if I felt flattered and thrilled that I had Tony Leung to act with in my video. Just imagine.

"I replied, 'How so?' Tony Leung should be the one to be flattered and thrilled."

First published in 8 DAYS Nov 28 – Dec 5, 1992 edition, as a cover story

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