BEIJING — A beer in one hand, a microphone in the other, Meng Xiaoli stood in a crowded restaurant and began to sing.
Your smile is as sweet as honey,
Just like flowers blooming in the spring breeze.
I wonder where I’ve seen you.
During the workweek, Mr. Meng, 53, a strait-laced budget analyst who wears a red Chinese Communist Party pin on his lapel, spends his days shuttling between meetings and poring over reports as a budget analyst for a state-owned firm.
But on weekends, he retreats to what he calls his “spiritual home,” a two-story restaurant and museum in Beijing that is a shrine to the woman he considers a goddess: the Taiwanese pop singer Teresa Teng, one of Asia’s most celebrated artists.
“She knows what it’s like to be human — to find love and to make mistakes,” Mr. Meng said.
Ms. Teng, who died suddenly in 1995 at age 42, was renowned for turning traditional Taiwanese and Chinese folk songs into maudlin Western-style hits. She was once banned in the mainland, her music denounced by the authorities as “decadent” and “pornographic.”
But she never lost her base of rabid fans here, even as tensions have escalated between China and Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing considers part of its territory.
Her most ardent followers now gather at the Teresa Teng Music-Themed Restaurant in a sprawling residential neighborhood in western Beijing, near liquor stores, barbecue joints and hot pot restaurants. An enormous portrait of Ms. Teng, smiling as she holds a white rose, graces its front door.
Inside, singers dressed in elegant gowns perform renditions of her signature ballads like “The Moon Represents My Heart” and “Sweet as Honey.” Customers sample dishes inspired by Ms. Teng’s music, including “moon pancakes” and fried pumpkin with honey sauce.
More than two decades after her death, Ms. Teng’s mainland fans say her sugary voice and gentle personality are still one of a kind.
“She’s a storyteller,” said Zheng Rongbin, the media executive who opened the restaurant in 2011. “She looks like the girl next door.”
At a recent lunchtime performance, Wu Yingwei, 30, watched as her daughter, Muyao, 2, danced to a performance of “Ask Yourself,” a song that is a staple of karaoke bars in Asia.
Ms. Wu said her daughter only liked listening to Ms. Teng’s songs and could sing several of her hits, including “Sweet as Honey.”
“Teresa Teng’s style never gets old,” she said. “Her songs are very gentle and make me feel really warm.”
Ms. Teng is claimed by many mainlanders as one of their own, even though she was born in Taiwan.
Her father, who grew up in the mainland in the northern province of Hebei, was part of the Nationalist forces that fought Mao Zedong’s Communists in the Chinese Civil War. He retreated to Taiwan in 1949, four years before Ms. Teng’s birth.
Ms. Teng was one of the first foreign singers whose music flowed into China after it began opening its economy to the world in the late 1970s.
But her music was quickly banned as part of a campaign by the Communist government to block “spiritual pollution” from the West. The Taiwanese government used her music as a psychological weapon, blasting it from loudspeakers positioned near the mainland.
Tapes of Ms. Teng’s music circulated on a black market in the mainland, and her popularity was clear. Because of her last name, which in Chinese uses the same character as the Communist leader Deng Xiaoping, she was sometimes referred to as Little Deng, reflecting her hold on the public imagination.
Ms. Teng occasionally veered into politics, holding concerts to show solidarity with the pro-democracy protesters who gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. She never performed in the mainland.
In recent years, however, the government has warmed to her music, and the state-run media has celebrated her mainland roots.
In 2011, officials opened a memorial hall in honor of Ms. Teng in her father’s hometown, Daming, where fans now converge on the anniversary of her death.
The mainland has at least two restaurants devoted to Ms. Teng, including the one in Beijing, which is at the center of a struggling cultural development known as Taiwan Street.
Mr. Zheng, the owner, said Ms. Teng’s music was still popular in the mainland because it reminded people of hearing her songs for the first time in the years after the chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
“For many people, it was a very new experience and very different from what they had heard in the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “Now when people hear it, they remember what it was like to be young.”
Ms. Teng has been hailed as a symbol of commonality between China and Taiwan at a time when relations have deteriorated, with President Xi Jinping of China recently warning that efforts by Taiwan to assert independence could be met by armed force.
But Mr. Zheng said he did not have politics in mind when he opened the restaurant. “Music has no sense of borders,” he said.
The Beijing restaurant, which is officially recognized by Ms. Teng’s family in Taiwan, also includes a museum, on the first floor, displaying some of Ms. Teng’s dresses, pianos and clocks. On the second floor is the performance hall, with a chandelier and a disco ball.
On busy nights, hundreds of people pack into the hall, gathering around tables covered with red-checkered tablecloths. Some guests opt for private rooms, where they sing karaoke versions of Ms. Teng’s songs.
On a recent night, Wang Liang, 36, paid $15 to request a live performance of “I Only Care About You” for his wife and daughter.
“Ever since I was a child, I’ve always liked Teresa Teng’s songs,” Mr. Wang said. “Her songs aren’t as flippant as pop songs now, and they really stick in your memory.”
One of the singers at the restaurant, Wang Xin, 25, who was trained as a classical pianist, said Ms. Teng’s supple singing style, rich with vibrato, is difficult to imitate.
“The emotions are hard to capture,” she said. “It’s very hard to find the right tone.”
She practices by listening to Ms. Teng’s songs on repeat on her phone.
At a recent show, Ms. Wang, wearing fake eyelashes and red lipstick to evoke Ms. Teng, approached the microphone to sing one of the pop star’s tougher standards, “What Do You Have to Say?”:
I waited for more than a year,
Three-hundred sixty-five days isn’t easy,
You simply don’t have me in your heart,
Give me my love back!
Orignially published in NYT.