Dim Sum Diva

Why is R&B veteran Patti Austin making her comeback singing in Mandarin?

There she was, the goddaughter of Quincy Jones, talking scat with the Barbra Streisand of Hong Kong on an all-Mandarin TV interview show hosted by a man known as the Asian Larry King.

Come again?

You know Patti Austin. She is the R&B sensation who sang the megahit "Baby Come to Me." If you watched General Hospital in the early 1980s or have ever listened to a light rock or smooth jazz radio station since then, you've heard the song. Austin's duet with James Ingram was featured on the soap opera when it was one of the highest-rated TV programs ever, thanks to the wedding of fictional lovers Luke and Laura.

Makeup: China Crosstalk host Jay Stone Shih 
greets Austin before broadcast.
Paolo Vescia
Makeup: China Crosstalk host Jay Stone Shih greets Austin before broadcast.
She's News: A recent Austin press conference drew 
reporters from most Asian media outlets.
Paolo Vescia
She's News: A recent Austin press conference drew reporters from most Asian media outlets.

But for Austin today, getting exposure on a subtitled edition of China Crosstalk matters more. Asian audiences got hooked on her powerful voice and smooth style 20 years ago, and have stuck with her. In Hong Kong, the Tower Records equivalent stocks a full and prominent Patti Austin CD bin. The same can't be said in America, where her once promising career stalled when the traditional R&B and Motown sound fell out of fashion. "Suddenly, my career was going nowhere and my records were lining bird cages," she says. "The Asian market is what saved my life."

And that market continues to treat her well, which is why she recently appeared on the Chinese-language talk show to plug her new Ella Fitzgerald tribute album and to blow air kisses at the show's other guest, her Pan-Pacific sister diva Frances Yip. Austin performs with Yip in San Francisco on May 27 and 28, and teaming with such a star -- plus singing in Mandarin herself -- will surely bolster her celebrity standing among Asian audiences here and abroad. At first glance, Austin's soulful persona might seem to clash with Yip's more traditional choice of songs, but Austin's ballad sound (velvety, haunting, and with incredible range) is popular among her Asian fans. Though the full-figured, flamboyant Austin couldn't look more different sharing a stage with the slim, proper Yip, Asian audiences seem to find Austin just as pleasing -- if not a little more exotic -- than their own melodic legend.

Beyond record sales, Austin has good reason to love Asia and venues like San Francisco, where one-third of the population is Asian: She has embraced Chinese culture in particular as her own. While she's dutifully cultivated her popularity across the Pacific with frequent overseas concert trips, she's also transformed her life. She craves dim sum, won't live in a home that isn't organized by the principles of feng shui, and calls herself a Buddhist. The New York native has also made the Bay Area her home for years, where she's surrounded herself with an Asian entourage. "I have a great respect for things that are ancient and that work," she says. "The Asian culture has been working for thousands of years, which tells me something very smart is going on there that I need to be a part of."

Next week, two middle-aged divas from parallel worlds will attempt to blend their talents, when Austin and Yip sing together for the first time. Austin is practicing her Mandarin, and Yip may attempt to scat. If there ever was a place for such a cross-cultural display, San Francisco is it. Two sold-out nights at the Herbst Theatre could be the start of a most unexpected event: a total Patti Austin comeback.

In the kind of promotion that can whip ticket sales into a frenzy, a television commercial for broadcast on Chinese-language stations will prove that Patti Austin really can sing in Mandarin. Austin is almost three hours late for the taping, however, showing up with her entourage in tow: an Asian makeup artist from the Richmond District; her arranger and composer, a Hong Kong-born pianist based in Los Angeles; and the concert organizer, a Chinese-American radio producer at KOIT-FM (96.5). A chaotic energy swirls around Austin as she enters the TV studio, her group following close behind as they juggle bags filled with snacks, water bottles, and beauty products. Though she's merely stepping out of a van, Austin manages to appear grand and wind-swept, with flowing, colorful garments and wraparound scarves.

"OK, let's go, let's do this, let's finish," Austin announces to a waiting crew. Though they've been idle for most of the afternoon, they now spring into action.

"Lulu, do you have the lyrics or did you leave them in the other car?" Austin calls out to Lulu Bagaman. The women met in 1999 when Austin was cutting promo spots at Bagaman's radio station and the singer asked Bagaman if she knew anyone who could configure Austin's new apartment according to the principles of feng shui. The two became good friends -- "like sisters," they say. It was Bagaman's vision to produce a history-making, East-meets-West concert.

Bagaman doesn't have the lyrics. "They're in the other car," she explains.

"Well, you're going to get less than eight bars, then," Austin says, never looking away from the mirror while her makeup gets applied.

"Carlton! Where are you, honey?" Austin shouts. Finally satisfied with her appearance, she swivels her chair to look for Carlton Liu, the "genius pianist," as she calls him, who has flown in from Los Angeles to help while she shoots her commercial. "What am I going to do?"

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