The Chameleon Queen of Cantopop

Sketch of Anita Mui’s character from Rogue
Vinyl record sleeve for Leap on Stage
Statement white wedding gown
Stage costume worn by Anita Mui
Anita Mui stage costume
Anita Mui vinyl record sleeves
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Madonna of the East

In a successful career that spanned two decades, Anita Mui won over audiences with her elaborate and ever-changing costumes, contralto vocals and energetic presence. As a Cantopop idol, Mui helped expand Cantopop’s influence on the international stage. Holding 300 live concerts, besides major performances in Southeast Asia, Mui also appeared in the West. After having a sold-out show in Hammersmith, London, she was dubbed the Madonna of the East. Born into poverty, Mui’s meteoric rise to fame began as a need to help financially provide for her family. Despite her many successes, trouble continued to follow Mui as tabloids accused her of plastic surgery, drug addiction, suicidal tendencies and rumoured affairs with several leading actors. But she never let these troubles dampen her courageous spirit and artistic personality.

Eager to better understand this remarkable pop culture icon, I headed to the Timeless Diva: Anita Mui exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.

Asian Music Special Award

Mui’s journey to stardom began in 1982. Winner of Hong Kong’s very first New Talent Singing Awards competition, the event was organised by local broadcasting network TVB. Mui’s Farrah Fawcett hairdo, ruffled gold gown, and black lace gloves did nothing to detract from her powerful voice as she sang a rendition of Paula Tsui’s Season of the Wind. Mui shortly followed her competition win with the release of her debut album, Debts of Love, and a performance at the Twelfth Tokyo Music Festival, where she won the Asian Music Special Award.

These were the golden years of performers like Madonna, David Bowie and Kate Bush, when individuality was a valuable commodity. Anita Mui had that in spades. While she dazzled the audience with her varied singing styles, Mui also astonished with her elaborate costumes. From belly dancing outfits to ostrich plumes, Mui’s charismatic persona was amplified through her ever-changing aesthetic.

Eddie Lau

The late eighties and nineties were a time of fashion ostentation, embracing bold textures and statement outfits. Throughout her career, Mui worked extensively with local designer and close friend Eddie Lau, responsible for her iconic looks. While singing Flaming Red Lips in 1987, Mui radiated confidence and sensuality in her controversial costume, comprising a black fur bolero, black and gold studded corset and frilled lace miniskirt. Mui was a chameleon who was always mixing things up, constantly transforming herself to explore new artistic landscapes. In the opening section of her 1990 concert, Mui entered with a bang as she came out replete in a tall ostrich feather headdress, a heavily beaded long-sleeve crop top with matching ostrich feather lining and a matching miniskirt with a flared skirt at the back.

Her final performance was an artistic showstopper. To bid farewell to her fans, Mui asked Lau to design her a wedding gown. Though he was already retired, Lau didn’t hesitate. When he asked who she would marry, she said, “I’ll marry the stage.” Mui wore an ivory white wedding gown in her opening sequence, accessorised with long silk white gloves and a long tulle veil. Mui closed her show in an ornate red and gold jewelled gown to bid her fans farewell, replete with an embellished half-mask and extravagant matching headdress. After telling her fans not to mourn her, Mui and several of her closest friends left the stage through a construction reminiscent of church doors.

I don’t like being a weak and melancholy woman. When I have my own goals, I will work hard to achieve them.

Anita Mui

Anita Mui

“I don’t like being a weak and melancholy woman. In fact, I have a strong personality and I am quite boyish. When I have my own goals, I will work hard to achieve them.” This statement from the star reflected not only her myriad performances on stage but also her work in the film industry. A captivating presence both live and onscreen, Mui earned almost fifty acting credits during her career, as well as eleven acting awards.

Leslie Cheung

Stanley Kwan Kam-pang’s 1988 film Rouge cemented Anita Mui’s legacy, earning her Best Actress wins at the Hong Kong Film Awards and Golden Horse Awards. The Hong Kong cult classic paired Mui with local legend Leslie Cheung in a timeless love story navigating societal limitations. While Cheung embodied the love interest, Mui shone as the courtesan character. She effortlessly transformed, embracing the nuanced vulnerability and larger-than-life stage presence she was known for. Mui’s captivating performance elevated the film. Her subtle portrayal transcended the potential for stereotype, breathing life into the courtesan lost in time. This depth and artistry solidified Rouge as a jewel of eighties Cantonese cinema.

Anita Mui True Heart Charity Foundation

In 1993, Mui formed the Anita Mui True Heart Charity Foundation to support public hospitals, elderly homes and children’s welfare programmes. Through a fundraising dinner in 1994, Mui raised HK$ 7.5 million, of which HK$ 2 million was donated to the Queen Mary Hospital’s musculoskeletal reconstruction programme. Two years later, the hospital established a new orthopaedic operating theatre in her name.

Jackie Chan

In a moving press conference on December 30, 2003, actor Jackie Chan announced the passing of Anita Mui Yim-fong. Sharing her final wish, “Don’t cry for me. Don’t say my name. Let me go on my journey in peace.”

Cantopop

Anita Mui’s unconventional music style and versatile imagery led Hong Kong’s music scene. She took Cantopop to new heights, setting a benchmark for concert culture. On the silver screen, she played classic characters with her unique personal charm and sophisticated acting skills. Through her many records, stage costumes, films and pop culture products, Mui captivated audiences on the expanding international stage of the 1990s. As reflected by over ten million albums sold and winning over eighty music awards, Mui’s cultural impact continues to resonate to this day.

Text & photos Victoria Mae Martyn