Yao Lee, 97 (July 19, 1922 – July 19, 2019), was a Chinese singer active from the 1930s to the 1970s. She was the sister of Yao Ming, also a famous singer and songwriter. She was considered one of the Seven Great Singing Divas of Shanghai in the 1940s.
Born Yiu Sau Wan and raised in Shanghai, Yao began performing on the radio in 1935 at the age of 13. When she was 14, she recorded her first single with Yan Hua called “New Little Cowherd”. After being introduced by singers Zhou Xuan and Yan Hua, she was signed to Pathé Records when she was 16 in 1937, and the first record she released with the label was “Yearning for Sale”.
She married Wong Po Lo in 1947 and stopped her stage performance to devote time to her family. Following the Communist seizure of power in China in 1949, popular music was considered ideologically suspect and Yao fled to Hong Kong in 1950 but continued her singing career with Pathé Records HK (EMI). In addition to releasing hit records, beginning in 1955 with the film Peach Blossom River, she was also a dubbed-in singer for movie actresses. Many of the featured songs became popular. She stepped down from her singing career in 1967 after the death of her brother Yao Ming. In 1969, she accepted the invitation to become a Record Producer at EMI Music Hong Kong . In 1970, she traveled to Taiwan in an effort to sign Teresa Teng to EMI for the Hong Kong market but was unsuccessful. Yao produced records for many artists during her time as a producer and retired from this position in 1977.
Yao Lee was hospitalized with a low fever and passed away peacefully in her sleep on July 19, 2019 (she died on her birthday!)
With increasing Western influences in the region after World War II and her move to Hong Kong, Yao Lee’s singing style changed. She was introduced to more Western popular music and became an admirer of American singer Patti Page, whom she emulated by lowering her voice and incorporating some similar vocal mannerisms. As a result, Yao is sometimes called “Hong Kong’s Patti Page.” One of her biggest ’50s records was “The Spring Breeze Kisses My Face”.
Yao was extremely prolific with over 400 gramophone records attributed to her.
Yao Lee’s 1959 song “Ren Sheng Jiu Shi Xi” is featured in the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians, in the scene when the matriarch grandmother, played by veteran Chinese-American actor Lisa Lu, first appears.