Frances Yip is still a traditionalist at heart

Beloved Asian diva Frances Yip first performed in Thailand 36 years ago, singing "Bua Kaew" - in Thai - before a packed stadium. "I was terrified!" she recalls. "But Thai people are very kind and gentle, and they made me feel very welcome."

Now 63, Yip returned for another Bangkok concert last Saturday, her voice still crystal clear, her hit songs just as popular. She found time for an interview, and here are some excerpts.

Have you always loved singing?

Oh, yes. In fact I can't remember a time when I haven't sung. I was humming and whistling at a very young age and sang in school and church.

My family is quite musical. I have an uncle who's a Chinese opera singer.

Did you attend music school?

No, I can't even read music. I learn everything by ear. I have good ears, and I was born with a voice that carries. When I was a child I sat at the back of the classroom, and if I whispered to a classmate the teacher would hear me and punish me. So with a voice like that, I think it comes quite naturally to sing.

I never realised I had a proper singing voice because when I first singing I didn't have any style. When I was about 26 or 27 I went to England to sing and met a producer who said I shouldn't sound like anyone else, I should have my own style. From then on I had a distinctive style, and people even try to copy it, which is a compliment.

When did you decide to become a singer?

The turning point was in 1973. I was working in promotion for Cathay Pacific. I would go overseas and talk and sing about Hong Kong, and I recorded the album "Discovery", a collection of songs from each country where Cathay flew.

The first album covered nine countries, in nine languages, so it was a challenge to learn to sing in Thai and Tagalog and Vietnamese. The record was so unusual that an agent in London tracked me down and promised me a major recording contract if I'd move in London.

I thought that if I didn't go I'd spend the rest of my life thinking "if only". So I went and I never looked back.

I was signed to EMI and recorded in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and London. I even had two singles in Japan.

I lived in England for two years, but I found the winter very difficult, so every year I'd come back to Asia. Then in 1980 I recorded "Shanghai Beach" [also known as "The Bund"] and it was so successful that I had to come back to Hong Kong to live.

Everyone knows the "Bund" theme song, even young people today.

It was actually written for me when the Hong Kong TV station started making the "Shanghai Beach" drama series. Joseph Koo, the composer, had discovered me in a talent contest, and I recorded many TV commercial jingles and movie songs with him. He wrote the song based on my range - very low and very high.

Nobody really expected it to be so successful. The TV series was very well made and the music was written so well. Because it was on every day in primetime it became very big. In Thailand the series was dubbed but they kept the song.

Young people who have never seen the series know the song. Why do you think it's lasted so long?

It's a beautifully written song. It tells a good story, and there's a lot of emotion. It's a classic melody. It's been voted online one of 10 top songs of the century in China, which is a huge market.

In the '80s and '90s Hong Kong music was very popular in Thailand, but it's sort of died down now. What happened?

It has to do with pop music. In my youth the songs were beautifully written and uncomplicated songs. The lyrics were like poems you could remember easily.

Now it's all "faster and faster", not just in Asia but also in America. Music has become synthetic because computers have replaced real people - the drums and keyboards. They may sound absolutely perfect, but there's no soul in it, no life.

Because the pace of life is so fast today, people don't take time to enjoy each piece of music. So the songs just come out very quickly and disappear very quickly. And they want artists that look good but not necessarily sound good - they can fix that in a studio.

Is it harder to become a singer today?

It's much harder. They have to be able to dance. They have to look good. They have to attract basically a younger group, first. They need some gimmick to be noticed.

Many of the young singers can't really sing. If you ask them to sing live, they panic. But if you're pretty and you can act and entertain, you become successful.

In order to sustain the popularity you must improve. Some of them succeed and learn as they go along. They mature and develop a good style. But there are many one-hit wonders.

Careers are forged these days on YouTube.

The new media help because you're no longer dependent on a recording company. Everyone can record raw material on a computer and put it on the Internet. I had the radio and TV stations, but now they're not essential.

Do you listen to other types of music?

My taste in music is very wide. The only type I don't like is rap. I think it's rude and unnecessarily aggressive. Bob Dylan was never rude when he sang protest songs.

Who are your singing idols?

I'm a huge Barbra Streisand fan.

Do you consider yourself successful?

I have never thought of myself as successful. I always think of myself as very fortunate for being given a gift: I have a career and totally enjoy it. I have been able to give so much pleasure.

But I no longer actively look for opportunities to work, because in 1996 I had breast cancer. It was like a wakeup call. You have to re-prioritise your life. Your family is more important. Your career and money are no longer so important.

Is it hard singing in so many different languages?

During recording I have a lot of help. When I made the Thai record, the producer came to Hong Kong or I came here. They were in the studio to make sure my pronunciation was correct. And then I memorised everything for when I came to perform in Thailand.

To be honest I can sing only about six Thai songs. I can sing "Bua Kaew", "Rak Khun Kao Laew" and one or two others - I can't remember the names but I can remember the melodies.