George Michael, brought pop to China, dies at 53
British singer George Michael, whose 1980s pop group Wham! was the first major Western band to tour China after the nation’s opening-up, died at his home in England on Sunday. He was 53.
The group’s 10-day tour in 1985 helped open China to Western music and gave Wham! global stature.
Michael later forged a career as a successful solo artist with sometimes sexually provocative lyrics.
“It is with great sadness that we can confirm our beloved son, brother and friend George passed away peacefully at home over the Christmas period,” his publicist said in a statement. “The family would ask that their privacy be respected at this difficult and emotional time. There will be no further comment at this stage.”
British police said Michael’s death was “unexplained but not suspicious”.
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou on June 25, 1963, in London to Greek Cypriot immigrant parents, Michael formed Wham! with a school friend, Andrew Ridgeley, in 1981. In the mid-1980s it was one of the most successful pop duos ever, with singles like Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Careless Whisper, Last Christmas and The Edge of Heaven.
In April 1985, just a few years after China began opening up to the world, Wham! performed in Beijing and in Guangzhou. In Beijing, they drew 15,000 people to Workers Gymnasium. The band also visited the Great Wall and Tian’anmen Square, the basis for the documentary Foreign Skies: Wham! in China.
Zhang Qin, then a Peking University student, said: “I stood in line outside the box office the whole night to buy a ticket. The price was 5 yuan but scalpers sold tickets for 25 yuan in a few days.” At that time, a worker’s monthly salary was about 40 yuan.
Chinese singer Cheng Fangyuan sang Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, translated in Chinese, before the tour. The Chinese version was aired on radio and made into a cassette, quickly giving Wham! fame in China.
“It was an unforgettable experience, the dazzling lights, the overwhelming waves of noise. We never saw a performance like that, their songs brought the hall down,” said Cheng, who saw the band in Beijing.
“Chinese audiences were unfamiliar with that kind of concert. They were impressed by the performance but did not know how to respond. Some foreigners in the audience stood up, singing and dancing with them,” she recalled. “After the performance, Wham! met officials from the Ministry of Culture. I still remember Michael looked so handsome and cool, in a colorful shirt and jeans with long blond hair.”
George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, members of the British band Wham!, visit the Great Wall in April 1985 during their groundbreaking tour of China.