Could a 26-year-old woman with frizzy hair, a goofy smile, gigantic eyes and a penchant for white platform shoes that look like giant marshmallows be Taiwan's secret weapon against mainland China?
As warplanes from Taiwan and China shadowed each other across the Taiwan Strait, Zhang Huimei, the hottest pop phenomenon in the Chinese-speaking world, mesmerized a crowd of 45,000 screaming fans tonight in Beijing--1,000 miles from her home in the mountains of eastern Taiwan.
Zhang, better known as Ah-mei, put on a show. She pranced, she changed her clothes five times, she tied up one young backup singer onstage and shimmied up and down his lithe frame, she did the twist, and she rocked--an unusual thing in a nation known for its syrupy love songs but not its rhythms.
"Are you ready?" she asked the crowd of teeny-boppers at one point. "Ah-mei, Ah-mei, Ah-mei!" they replied.
One of the paradoxes of China's ties with Taiwan is that just when things seem to be at their tensest, wacky things like a rock concert are allowed to happen and, for a moment, peace seems to be at hand.
"Why should we invade Taiwan? I love Ah-mei," gushed 21-year-old Wang Hongxue, who came to the show with her roommates from college. "She's the greatest!"
In Asia, where most successful acts are manufactured in studios and lip-synched on the stage, Ah-mei is more than just another pop phenomenon. The daughter of the chief of an indigenous tribe that inhabits the mountains on the east coast of Taiwan, she's by birth a real princess. She doesn't belong to the Han majority that comprises 95 percent of the population in China and Taiwan. She lists hunting as a hobby, spicy foods as her addiction and warm boiled water as her favorite drink--even though Sprite is backing her China tour and ads of her and a Sprite bottle are everywhere.
And she can dance.
During a concert last month in Taipei, the diminutive rocker turned her back to a crowd in the Taiwan capital and gave them a friendly shake. The fans went wild. Tonight in Beijing, Ah-mei appeared more subdued, perhaps due to influence from China's Ministry of Culture, which produced the show. China's culture czars are notoriously uncomfortable with suggestive dance moves.
Indeed, some of China's cultural czars are a tad uncomfortable with Ah-mei as well. More than 2,000 police officers were on hand for the show, ensuring that Ah-mei could not reach her fans. (In June 1998, Singapore's curmudgeonly government fined her for touching her fans during the show because it's against the law.)
During a news conference to pump up the show, Ah-mei grinned and boogied for the camera, then told of a previous visit to Beijing.
"We were walking in this area with little shops on the street. Everybody was selling food. My belly was totally full from eating, but then I saw this really good-looking guy selling, what do you call them, lamb sticks. He was looking at me, and I thought, 'Oh no, he recognizes.' But he didn't. He just wanted to give me a lamb stick. I was really happy that there was such a good-looking guy cooking a lamb stick for me."
Christiaan Virant, an expert on Chinese pop culture trends who came here from Omaha, says Ah-mei represents a new breed of Chinese pop star. Her songs are about love and the rambunctious spirit of youth. She comes across as Madonna without the leather.
"The main thing about Zhang Huimei is that she's genuine," he said, nursing a cup of coffee at one of Beijing's three Starbucks cafes. "She rose to fame because of her vocal talents, her songs and her dance moves. She's a genuine artist in a saccharine world."
Ah-mei had been singing in clubs in Taipei for years when she teamed up with Zhang Yusheng, a prominent Taiwanese producer, and began to make music that, while heavily packaged, also had soul. Tastes in Taiwan were evolving, and Ah-mei rode that change. From a society accustomed to government-orchestrated pop songs, it was becoming a choosier place. Democracy has brought big changes to Taiwan, and one of them has been a better pop music.
It was easy for Ah-mei to take the mainland by storm. China's music scene is one of the jokes of Asia. It has an official side, which consists of over-packaged cheese balls singing abysmal love songs. And it has an unofficial side, in a couple of grimy Beijing bars called Scream and Angels, where punk, hip-hop, heavy metal and grunge bands compete to see who can sound the most cynical and who can blow your eardrums out.
"Ah-mei was one of the saviors of Taiwan's music industry," Virant said. American acts, he said, were taking over completely before she appeared on the scene. "After she arrived, you saw them drop the sappy artists fast and embrace a new crew of rockers."
There's no good way to track exactly how well Ah-mei's records do in China. For each official sale, industry executives speculate, there are 40 pirated versions hawked on street corners.
One of Ah-mei's attractions for mainland fans is the fact that she hails from Taiwan's mountains and is what is officially known in China as an "ethnic minority." As such she evokes feelings not only for Taiwan, which has been separated from China since 1949, but also for a multiethnic nation as well.
"Chinese can only imagine what Taiwan is like. Seeing Ah-mei, we think it's beautiful," said Xue Tao, a prominent pop music critic.
Another pull, Xue said, is that mainland Chinese still are drawn to Hong Kong and Taiwan because the two territories are much wealthier than China. "People here still look up to their riches," he said.
Among her fans, the Taiwan political issue doesn't seem to be a big one.
"I love 'Are You Ready?' " said Fan Chunhua, a 19-year-old woman, referring to an early hit by Ah-mei. "Why do you think about politics when she is dancing?"