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Taiwanese pop star A-Mei was born:

To a high-ranking KMT official in Taipei
To the chief of an aboriginal tribe in eastern Taiwan
The daughter of a Kaohsiung taxi driver
In the United States

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Both Sides Now
She insists that only music moves her, but A-MEI is a Taiwanese voice reverberating in China

All A-Mei wants to do is sing, sweetheart, use that smoke 'n' sugar voice of hers to deliver a tune. The Taiwanese pop star doesn't much care about lyrics, just the mood-ring colors her music conjures up. Today, sitting in a candle-filled studio in Taipei where she's recording her next album, A-Mei is straining for a color, and she has the precise shade in mind. The background music is low funk, and A-Mei hums her way up the spectrum, eyes closed, past turquoise, sapphire and lapis lazuli. No words, just a husky voice scatting along until it settles into the perfect note—a sultry, soulful shade you would see at midnight.

"Did I make you feel blue, baby?" A-Mei opens her round eyes and fixes them on her guitarist. "Because I want you to feel like you've been swallowed up by blueness." The guitarist assures A-Mei that he does indeed feel that particular shade, not least because he's been caught in the A-Mei vortex—a sexy, impish gaze that leaves men feeling, well, a little blushed. "Mission accomplished," she says, leaning forward to blow out a candle. "Tomorrow I want to sing red, the color of a cut when it first bleeds. And after that, green, like wet grass."

But music is not just an abstraction in A-Mei's world: it's one of the great uniters of China and the little renegade island it half despises and very much wants to absorb—A-Mei's native Taiwan. When a Taiwanese singer evolves into a pop star, his or her main audience is across the strait in megalopolises and villages throughout the vast mainland. Fame and popularity have proved that to A-Mei. What the 29-year-old singer has also learned is that what unites can divide, that her songs can acquire shades of meaning she never intends, that a mere song can hurt, alienate, maybe cause a war when, as W.H. Auden wrote, " ... each ear/ Is listening to its hearing, so none hear." "I just want to sing," says A-Mei. "But everyone keeps connecting my music to the future of Taiwan and China." And that's how it's going to be: music joins the sundered parts of Greater China. Someone—in this case A-Mei—has to sing the songs.

A-Mei was born in the rugged mountains of eastern Taiwan, as a tribal princess of the Puyuma clan of aborigines. Making up just 2% of the island's population, Taiwan's aborigines have been reduced to kitschy tribal song and dance at ethnic theme parks. City folk disparage them as drunks and hookers—the disenfranchised underbelly of Taiwan. But historically, the Puyuma have always used song to communicate their deepest feelings, and A-Mei sang the loudest of all, quickly rising from small-time ethnic performer to pop-chart diva for the entire Chinese-speaking world. Proud of her native roots, A-Mei incorporated tribal rhythms into some of her pop songs, like Sister, which celebrates the matriarchal aboriginal society.

A-Mei's career coincided with a growing sense that the island was not merely a temporary shelter for the exiled officials who lost the Chinese civil war in 1949, but a permanent nation called Taiwan. As a member of an ethnic minority whose ancestors had lived on Taiwan for generations, A-Mei was scooped up by independence-minded folks as an icon of Taiwan's separate identity. Even though her hits were about all the usual pop topics—romance, relationships, heartbreak—she quickly came to represent much more than cheesy love songs. In 2000, at the height of her popularity, when she had just signed a fat contract to represent Sprite on the mainland and her songs ranked No. 1 on Beijing radio, A-Mei received an unprecedented honor. Chen Shui-bian had won the presidency and his Democratic Progressive Party had traditionally been pro-independence. Chen asked her to sing Taiwan's anthem at his inauguration. Even though she knew all the words from childhood, A-Mei practiced hundreds of times. Her solemn rendition that morning had none of the youthful pizazz of her pop concerts, and she traded her navel-grazing tank tops for a somber purple gown. This was A-Mei, Taiwanese singer, all grown up.

If A-Mei's performance was a milestone for independence-minded compatriots, it was also a touchstone for mainland Chinese. Furious at the fresh-faced pop star for connecting herself with separatist Taiwanese, China banned her from visiting the mainland. Under pressure from Beijing, Sprite buckled and cut its contract, replacing A-Mei with mainland Olympic diver Fu Mingxia. The Taiwanese icon had successfully toured China during the height of cross-strait tensions just a year earlier; suddenly she found herself completely unwelcome. "All of this fuss because of one song," says A-Mei. "I honestly had no idea it would turn out this way."

A-Mei was banned for more than a year before China allowed her to stage concerts again. Her re-emergence was also due to politics. Eager to win the bid for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing wanted to show the world that China could be generous. So on July 13, 2001, A-Mei was back in the mainland, singing to a truly jubilant crowd in the western city of Chongqing; just minutes before, her audience had been told that Beijing's Olympic bid had succeeded. "Singing at the moment was such an honor for me," she says, recalling the excited chaos as hundreds of People's Liberation Army soldiers held back the frenzied masses. "It was as exciting as when I was singing at ... " A-Mei breaks off and looks down. Her agent has warned the press not to ask about the fateful performance at Chen's inaugural, and A-Mei has almost broken the embargo herself. A few seconds later, she looks up again and smiles. "It was as exciting as that time in Taipei," she says, knowing you'll know exactly what she means. Then she adds, "I've been able to experience so many exciting moments in Chinese history. For a girl from the mountains, there's no bigger joy."

Such comments—not savvy political lines but simple emotional reflections—are what endear A-Mei to her fans. She has no Whitney Houston attitude and is content to sit at a fold-up table sharing a meal of fatty pork and home-style bean curd with recording-studio mates. Like most Taiwanese, she would rather get on with life than talk endlessly about identity: Puyuma, Taiwanese, Chinese, who cares? And when she is really stuck for a word or a phrase or a thought, she simply tosses her head back and throws out a tune. Because, for the tribal daughter and proud Taiwanese, music is what sustains her. Above all else, A-Mei was born to sing, just sing.

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