Wong Kar-wai’s feverish and charming 1994 romantic drama Chungking Express features the director’s greatest needle drop: The vibrant guitar riff of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” leads into a Cantonese cover by singer and actor Faye Wong that spills open over a montage of her character, a snack-bar worker who daydreams of escape, replacing every memento of a love interest’s ex with tokens of herself. The line between Wong, the performer, and Faye, the character, is already shaky—both possess a boyish, offbeat cool—but the former’s cover version mirrors the latter’s intention to assume another’s place. The guitars burn a bit brighter and the drums fold a little flatter, and though Wong adjusts to a convincing echo of Dolores O’Riordan’s warble and yodel, her voice sounds a touch more refined—her delivery similar, yet never quite identical.
Wong, who would later become heralded as the “queen of Cantopop” and also establish a noteworthy Mandarin discography, frequently reimagined other artists’ work in the early period of her career. After she signed to Cinepoly in 1989, the label held her to the standards of Hong Kong’s Cantopop; her early albums sandwiched uninspired renditions of Japanese and American hits between treacly adult-contemporary ballads. Adapting foreign hits in Cantonese had become a reliable method of generating mainstream success in Hong Kong, yet hints of a more innovative approach were audible in covers like Wong’s take on “Dreams.” Wong’s final four albums for Cinepoly, newly reissued on vinyl, showcase the maturation of her voice as well as her deepening desire for artistic freedom as she embraced idiosyncratic sounds and themes of escapism; they trace her evolution from competent copyist to singular talent.
In an interview, Wong pointed to the malleable nature of the voice as an instrument, and hers constantly morphed alongside her changing interests. After becoming dissatisfied with the direction of her career, she traveled to the U.S. for vocal lessons and demanded greater creative control upon returning. Subsequent releases between 1992 and 1993 showcased a heavy flair for R&B, with full and brassy tones, before she pivoted into pop-rock, her voice strained and willowy on covers of the Police and Tori Amos. In 1994, Wong embraced a more alternative sound with 胡思亂想 Random Thoughts—the parent album for her popular Cantonese “Dreams” cover—and ventured further afield with a pair of covers of Scottish dream-pop pioneers Cocteau Twins that closely recreated their style, Wong bending to match Elizabeth Fraser’s rolling trills.
While those records emulated Wong’s wide-reaching influences, 討好自己 Please Myself, her final album of 1994, sharpened her artistic identity. Up to that point, her covers had been faithful to the point of imitation, but here, Wong’s version of the Sundays’ “Here’s Where the Story Ends” offers a glimpse of her own vision. More dream than jangle, the cover flips the specificity of the original’s bittersweet narrative into a relatable lovesick sigh, and as Wong’s voice rises over the rattle and shimmer of the guitars, it sounds clear, bright, and full of infatuation. The rest of the album dresses Wong in a similar palette of dazzling dream pop and fond adoration.
The pair of songs Wong wrote for 討好自己 Please Myself suggest an artist growing weary of the Hong Kong entertainment industry. The slippery title track hints at future themes of escapism, but outlier “出路” (“Exit”), a weird one-off spoken-word experiment, and the only track in Mandarin, is one of Wong’s most direct statements: “I’m impatient, nothing satisfies me… I hate being a star, but I want to attract attention,” she mutters over its clomping bassline. Arranged by Dou Wei, then-boyfriend and former member of the influential Chinese band Black Panther, these tracks were ripe with apprehension and coincided with her increasingly frequent contact with Beijing’s rock scene along with her shift toward the Mandarin market.
Wong’s next albums are more self-assured, and, as a result, more captivating. 菲靡靡之音 Decadent Sound of Faye, from 1995, is a tribute album to Taiwanese legend Teresa Teng, who died midway through the album’s recording. One of Asia’s most eminent vocalists, Teng possessed a voice that was dulcet yet robust and resonant. Wong emulates her sweetness, but does away with much of the grandeur of Teng’s tradition-bound performances; Wong’s voice is instead airy, lofty, and lithe. Contrasted with Teng’s originals, 菲靡靡之音 Decadent Sound of Faye takes a more modernized and Westernized approach. Wong flips weighty arrangements into string-led chamber-pop pieces, like her take on the standard “但願人長久” (“Wishing We Last Forever”), shaping them to be lighter and livelier. Elsewhere, on tracks like “初戀的地方” (“Place of First Love”), her voice gallavants as electronic ornamentation swirls and prances. Wong’s renditions come alive with motion.
In contrast, Di-Dar, her second album of the year—as well as Wong’s final (and finest) Cantonese album—is more atmospheric, almost psychedelic. The spectral dream pop of “假期” (“Vacation”) pairs flickering synths with gothic guitar licks, while “(無題)” (“Untitled”) is a burbling trip-hop ballad that layers Wong’s gossamer falsetto over a sputtering electronic beat and tabla-like percussion. Even its most radio-friendly songs, like the radiant commercial success “曖昧” (“Ambiguous”), adopt orchestral arrangements that give them similarly vivid and sumptuous textures. Di-Dar coheres like an extended dream, yet beneath its haze are vignettes that sketch a deteriorating relationship. The album’s lyrics (with the exception of the Mandarin closer) were written by close collaborator Albert Leung, who fixates on the unease Wong presented on 討好自己 Please Myself, suffusing the album’s romanticism with a sense of anxiety and the burning desire to disappear.
These themes feature heavily on Wong’s last album for Cinepoly, 1996’s insular 浮躁 Fuzao—which best translates to “restless” or “impetuous.” Making no concessions to mainstream tastes, she was more creatively involved on this album than anywhere else in her career. For 浮躁 Fuzao, she pulled away from her frequent Hong Kong-based collaborators, instead turning to Dou and another Beijing rock musician, Zhang Yadong, for arrangements. Despite his lack of involvement for the record, her longtime producer, Alvin Leong, facilitated a working relationship between her and the Cocteau Twins, who had become interested in collaborating after hearing her faithful renditions of their work. They contribute two original tracks that land at the wispier end of the spectrum of their work. While the songs still fit firmly within the group’s oeuvre—the resplendent highlight “分裂” (“Divide”) floats over a bed of gentle synths and dainty coos, while the ghostly “掃興” (“Spoilsport”) staggers atop murky guitar textures—Wong makes them her own, her clearer enunciation lending substantive meaning to a band famous for its cryptic lyrics. Wong composed the rest of the album’s songs, often borrowing liberally from the Scottish group’s style. On “哪兒” (“Where”), she hums, coos, and babbles in incoherent syllables, her voice an extraordinary instrument that imbues each note with joy amid the turmoil.
Yet 浮躁 Fuzao isn’t simply a pastiche of the Cocteau Twins; the album’s producers steep the music in the sounds of Beijing’s nascent rock scene. Dou condenses a decade’s worth of styles into the miniature world of its opener as the song weaves from shimmering guitar to sharp, probing downtempo synths. Zhang’s lighthearted production on the title track is a sweet callback to Wong’s brief infatuation with jangle pop. Her voice bounds between jubilant shouts and apprehensive coos, ripping the song apart until it dissolves into electronic froth. It’s not just those outside influences that set her apart—her reserved yet playfully mischievous nature permeates the album.
Wong would never be afforded the opportunity to do another 浮躁 Fuzao. On her later blockbuster albums, she was forced to balance her idiosyncratic tastes with her label’s commercial objectives. But on these four records, she resists easy categorization, at once ethereal and eccentric, and refreshingly free of the straightforward romanticism of her period peers. Wong pulled the unfamiliar to the surface by highlighting sounds rarely explored and anxieties frequently left untouched, yet her elegant voice offered soothing, intimate comfort. Wong’s music of this period represents a welcome embrace of the undefined.