After a decade-long hiatus in the late 90s, she made a successful comeback in 2005 and is among the most acclaimed singers currently active in the Hong Kong music scene.
Early Years (1986-1988)
Kwan was born in Hong Kong, the middle-child to an affluent family. At age 15, she moved to Los Angeles, where she later studied fashion design in college. Kwan had her first taste of the limelight in 1986 when she became one of twelve finalists in TVB's New Talent Singing Awards, along with Andy Hui and Leon Lai, but lost to both. Two years later, with the encouragement of a friend, she recorded a demo tape for the prestigious “Marine Blue” singing competition in Japan and won. She caught the eyes of record executives at Apollon and signed a contract, releasing two Japanese pop albums in two years. Kwan sang in both Japanese and English for these releases, and notably made her first and only rap vocals in the song “Borderless”.
PolyGram Period (1989-1995)
Kwan’s Marine Blue success in Japan quickly led to her discovery by PolyGram. In March 1989, Kwan released her debut Cantonese album “Winter Love” (冬恋), with its R&B-influenced first single, “The Rebel” (叛逆汉子).
Her sophomore album, “Happy Are those in Love” (难得有情人), would produce her first major hit with its title track, which immediately propelled Kwan into Hong Kong stardom, and became the theme song to a popular day-time drama series on TVB. It was a No. 1 hit in various radio charts and a frequent request in Karaoke bars, making Shirley Kwan a household name, and its title becoming synonymous with Kwan's name for years to come. The album spawned four other hit singles such as the up-tempo “Lovers Underneath the Stars” (星空下的恋人), and had huge chart success. Being tipped as the next big thing in Cantopop, Kwan swept all the best-newcomer awards that year.
The following two years saw the release of four albums, in which Kwan started to develop a more individualistic style, incorporating elements from various musical genres. Though she scored another major pop hit in 1990 with 爱恨缠绵, she grew dissatisfied with only singing standard Cantopop fare, and wished to explore and diversify her own sound. Also evolving was her public persona, which matured from the early teen pop icon into a more sophisticated and mysterious artiste, noted for being fashion-forward with subtle hints of sex appeal. It is during this period that Kwan started covering New Age music, such as the work of Gregorian and Michael Cretu. Kwan’s 1991 version of “Once In A Life Time”, renamed “Love Is Forever” (恋一世的爱) was presented back to back with the Gregorian original on the promo CD sent out to DJs, as a promotional strategy by PolyGram.
From the same album, Kwan struck critics and audiences with her cover of Amina’s 1991 Eurovision winner, “Le dernier qui a parle”, renamed “Buddhist Chant” (梵音). With words written by legendary veteran lyricist, Andrew Lam (林敏驄), the original Tunisian adventure was given an Eastern spin. Originally a sidetrack, “Buddhist” became a surprise hit as well as a memorable hit in Alternative Cantopop. It also represented her first struggles in artistic control, as she had had to fight long and hard with her production team to have the song included in the album.
Towards the end of 1992, the tabloid’s reception of Kwan has shifted dramatically. Years of relentless invasion into her private life has taken its toll, making Kwan increasingly indifferent towards the press. This unfortunately triggered even more media hostility as well as negative publicity. Disillusioned about her future as a public figure, Kwan took some time off to recover, only to return with yet another transformation.
In November 1993, Kwan released “The Story of Shirley” (真假情話), with the lead single “Solo” (一首独唱的歌), followed by the minor hit “Fabricated Love Stories” (假的恋爱). This was another artistic breakthrough for Kwan, who was garnering increasing attention for her talents as a vocalist, pleasing critics who were surprised with a new and more polished sound.
Kwan further established her place as a critics' darling with her next album, “My Way” released in the summer of 1994, which would be the last album containing all original Cantonese material until Shirley's Era in 2009. Singles included the acid-jazz influenced “Lost Legend” (逝去的传奇) which sampled a riff from the Digable Planets' 1993 single "Rebirth of Slick," and the immensely popular ballad “Cuddling Underneath the Stars” (缱绻星光下), which won numerous song awards at the ceremonies that year. Other songs included the traditional Chinese melody, “Arrow to the Heart” (心箭), the more techno influenced techno-influenced “Anxiety” (紧张) and “Out of This World” (惊世感觉), and another popular ballad “Farewell” (告别恋曲). The album, together with a new crew-cut look which has now become iconic, was one of the most celebrated albums in 1994, enjoying both commercial and critical success.
With increasing confidence in her musical style, Kwan had wanted to produce something musically coherent for her next album and asked producer Joseph Ip (叶广权) and eight different sound engineers to rearrange ten of her favourite Cantopop songs which she handpicked for her new tribute album. The result, was “'EX' All Time Favourites,” released to much anticipation in February 1995. Familiar classics of Cantopop icons such as Anita Mui (梅艳芳), Leslie Cheung (张国荣) and Alan Tam (谭咏麟) were reworked with psychedlic and electro influences, with Kwan singing in her trademark tone punctuated with breathy whispers. Much to Donald Ashley’s credit, the innovative reworking of Teresa Teng(邓丽君)’s “Forget Him” (忘记他), released as the lead single, elevated Kwan to a new level of recognition in the industry. It was featured in Wong Kar-Wai(王家卫)’s 1995 arthouse feature “Fallen Angels” (墮落天使). Interestingly, the same tune was reworked yet again in “What a Pity” (可惜), sung with new Mandarin lyrics and to spare acoustic accompaniment for the Taiwanese release of 'EX'. Achieving critical acclaim as well as commercial success, 'EX' is widely regarded to be one of the best Cantopop albums ever produced, and set off a wave of tribute album fever in Hong Kong.
In the summer of 1995, Kwan released her third compilation album, "Journey of Life" (世途上 新曲＋精选), containing two new singles, "He needs you, She needs You" (他需要你, 她需要你), a dreampop track which incorporated the traditional Chinese instrument Erhu (二胡), and the minor hit, "Are There Real Friends in Life" (人生可有知己), a pop ballad which has since became a concert favourite.
Six years after her debut, Kwan finally held her first large scale solo concert in July 1995 at the Hong Kong Coliseum (红磡香港体育馆). Presenting a balanced mix of hits and album tracks, "The One and Only Shirley Kwan In Concert" (难得有一个关淑怡演唱会) was enthusiastically received and capped the most successful year in her career. Kwan had to encore for an unprecedented four times in the last show, as fans refused to leave.
After 7 years at PolyGram, Kwan’s contract came to an end in 1996. A final PolyGram studio album was initially scheduled for release in summer 1996, containing three American collaborations, “Infectious” (传染) and “Elusive Love” (爱难寻) written by Andy Goldmark, and “Mumbling” (自言自语 ) by Suzanne Fountain, along with seven other tracks. However, due to Kwan's departure, PolyGram released the material separately in 1997’s compilation “Connection” (心灵相通) and 1998’s EP “eZone”.
Kwan spent the second half of the 90s mostly away from the public eye, but managed to strike up some significant collaborations with friends and fellow contemporaries Lau Yee Tat (刘以达) and Anthony Wong Yiu Ming (黄耀明), formerly of the legendary Tat Ming Pair (达明一派). The first of these included “Blessed Mary” (万福玛利亚), a duet with Wong satirising Hong Kong's materialism; “Cuddle 28800BPS” (缱绻28800BPS), a collaboration with Lau, a song dealing with cyber love; and “Forget If It’s Him or Her” (忘记他是她) - a remake of the gender ambiguous Tat Ming classic, at their request. In 1997, Kwan lent her vocals to the theme song of a radio drama produced by Commercial Radio Hong Kong, “Take Me to a Dance” (帶我去跳舞) which featured a soprano backing vocal mixed in with a thumping dance beat. In 1999, she held a “Music Is Live” concert organized by Commercial Radio, sparking rumours of a possible come back, but to no avail.
BMG Period (2001)
In 2001, Kwan signed a contract with BMG in Taiwan, and published the critically acclaimed Mandarin album, Freezing Flame. However, after the extravagant press conference announcing Kwan's partnership, BMG soon ran out of money for promotion and the album sold poorly. Kwan was already pregnant at the time and left for America shortly after on an indefinite break.
 Music Nation Period (2005-2006)
In fall 2005, Kwan stepped into the recording studio once again and duet with music veteran Alan Tam (谭咏麟) in “Rekindle The Flame” (旧情复炽), a Cantonese remake of the French ballad “J'ai murmure va-t-en”. The news of Kwan making a comeback sent excitement through Hong Kong’s airwaves, and “Rekindle” took the charts by storm, reaching number 1 on TVB, RTHK and Metro Radio.
Two months later, Kwan was signed to a contract with Music Nation Group (大国文化) by the famous producer, Frankie Lee Chun. The first single “About Me” (关於我) saw Kwan reunited with lyrist Wyman Wong and long-time collaborators Joseph Ip and John Laudon. Bluntly autobiographical, it is an uncompromising account of her struggle against the paparazzi and hostility from the media in Hong Kong. Supported by extensive airplay, “About Me” steadily climbed to the top of various radio charts, and its limited-release special edition CD sold out within a day.
In early February 2006, the eponymous EP "Shirley Kwan" was released, introducing the second brand new single, “Evolution” (进化伦). This coincided with the release of a 3CD-Karaoke plus DVD compilation by Universal Music (formally PolyGram), entitled “All About Shirley,” which to fans' delight, containied side projects and rare tracks dating back to the very beginning of her career in Japan.
2006 Being Shirley On Stage
To much anticipation, three comeback concerts, “Being Shirley On Stage” (关于我 关淑怡演唱会) were held in late February, at the legendary Hong Kong Coliseum. Performing her biggest hits in reverse chronological order, Kwan garnered positive reviews for the performance, which dominated entertainment headlines for a week. In the final encore, Kwan famously covered Eason Chan (陈奕迅)’s “Today Next Year” (明年今日) to a standing ovation, and a sing-a-long audience of 30, 000.
As her work for Music Nation drew to a close, Shirley released two new songs in 2007 as an independent artist for songwriter Keith Chan (陈辉阳)’s multimedia musical “12 faces of woman” (十二金钗众生花) at the 2007 Hong Kong Arts Festival. This included the theme song “All Living Flowers” (众生花), released in February, which featured traditional Chinese and Western string instruments.
In March 2007, Shirley released the single “Just Once” (只得一次), which was the theme song to the primetime TVB sitcom series “Best Selling Secrets” (同事三分亲), and which went onto reach No. 1 on the TVB music charts.
Star Entertainment Period (2007- 2009)
In June 2007, longtime friend and veteran producer Herman Ho (何哲图) recruited Shirley to his the new company “Star Entertainment Ltd.” (星娱乐有限公司), which is financed by Neway Karaoke Box (Neway卡拉OK).
2008 saw a new concert series, "Unexpected Shirley Kwan in Concert," held at the Hong Kong Coliseum on 24–25 April 2008.
2009 saw the long-anticipated release of a full-length studio album, "Shirley's Era," which contains all radio singles released in 2007-2008, and newly recorded material. This marks her first Cantonese studio album since 1994's All Time Favourites.