Dim Sum Diva

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

"It's never been my focus in life to conjure up the same reaction [as] when you think of Aretha Franklin. I'd much rather conjure that up in my home -- not yours," Austin says. "I don't want to be a household name, because I've seen too many people lose their lives to it. I don't want to lose the privacy I enjoy. I get recognized just enough, thank you very much, to still have it remain a pleasant experience."

If that sounds like a rationalization, so be it. Still, Austin insists that if she were given the opportunity to be famous again, she'd turn it down.

"Look, I had it once -- total fame -- and it sucked. It was meaningless. It made me very crazy," she says. "I'm talking about walking into stores and people saying, 'I love your song; take this car.' I succumbed to it because it was seductive and I was young. But it was stupid. Thank God it didn't last long enough to ruin me."

Ladies Who Dim Sum: Austin greets fans at Koi 
Palace restaurant.
Paolo Vescia
Ladies Who Dim Sum: Austin greets fans at Koi Palace restaurant.
The Piano Man: Carlton Liu confers with Austin and 
Paolo Vescia
The Piano Man: Carlton Liu confers with Austin and Bagaman.

Austin says she's happy living a modest life, doing projects that interest her. She recently bought a house in a suburb of Sacramento, where she lives with and cares for her octogenarian mother. The move from her luxury Nob Hill apartment was also a good cost-saver. As she joked onstage at last November's concert: "If you don't already have my records, please, please run out and buy them immediately upon leaving here this evening. Because I live in San Francisco and the rents are tremendously high."

Thanks to her steady Asian audience, Austin's paying the rent. "And that's all I need," she says. "I make decisions based on my life, not my career. When I'm on my deathbed I'm not going to say, 'God, I really wish I was rich and everyone knew my name.' No, I'm going to wish I loved my mother more. Those are the things that determine one's real success in life.

"You're in a sad place when being on the so-called 'top' defines your world," she says. "If I wasn't working at all anymore, perhaps I would say I'm washed up and a has-been. That you do not see my face on TV every week does not mean I'm not reaching an audience on a regular basis. Believe what you like, I'm still here. Whenever interviewers ask me if I consider myself a legend, I laugh hysterically. 'No,' I tell them, 'I'm a survivor, you idiot.'"

On the set of China Crosstalk, host Jay Stone Shih is eager to interview Austin and Yip. The nationally syndicated political affairs talk show reaches 11 million Asian homes in urban cable markets across America. Shih has booked these two singers because he's a fan, but the unique joint concert also fits his show's goal of bridging gaps between cultures.

Shih thinks that as American artists go, Austin commands more respect than other Western singers who've tried to break into the lucrative Asian market. That she's made the effort to honor the culture by singing in Mandarin is highly regarded. It's something most artists wouldn't bother to do, he says, though they're quick to go after Asian money.

As the trio tapes the interview, Shih -- who normally tackles serious, controversial topics like Taiwanese sovereignty -- gushes over his guests, lobbing softball questions and introducing Austin as an "international star." Shih asks Yip if she has any worries about combining cultures.

"Music should have no barriers," she says.

"I have a feeling you two will be tremendous together," Shih tells them. "I'm going to be there, and I know I'll have a good time."

Back in the control room, Bagaman nudges Liu and laughs out loud. "He's so nervous tonight -- he's usually a real tough cookie, but those are some powerful women around him," she says. "There's too much diva action going on in there for him to handle!"

To no one's surprise, Austin manages to make Shih blush.

"That's right, you're going to see two hot broads singing in Chinese."

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