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Winston Tong \ Biography

Winston Tong is a San Francisco-based performance artist and singer, acclaimed both for his solo work and his collaborations with experimental music group Tuxedomoon.

Born in San Francisco in 1951, Tong is the son of Chinese parents forced into exile by the Communist revolution. He graduated in theatre from the California Institute of Arts in 1973, and soon established a reputation in the Bay Area with a string of charismatic, left-field performance pieces such as Wild Boys, Eliminations, Frankie and Johnnie and Bound Feet, the latter loosely based on traditional oriental puppet theatre, and recipient of a prestigious Obie award.

In late 1977, Tong met an early incarnation of Tuxedomoon, then comprising Steven Brown, Blaine L. Reininger and Victoria Lowe, after both were invited to perform at a local salon, Chez Dada. Afterwards Tong agreed to perform with Tuxedomoon as and when time allowed, a flexible arrangement that would remain in place until 1985. During this formative period Tong also met Bruce Geduldig, who would take on responsibility for visuals and production design both with Tong and with Tuxedomoon.

Tong released his first record in the spring of 1979. Backed by Tuxedomoon members Brown, Reininger, Peter Principle and Paul Zahl, The Stranger paid homage to the existential classic by Albert Camus, while flipside Love/No Hope offered spiky angst-rock at one with the first two Tuxedomoon EPs, No Tears and Scream With A View. A recording for the Tong/Geduldig short film Wild Boys was also later released commercially.

Tong was absent from the first Tuxedomoon album, Half Mute, but returned to the fold for their second, Desire, released by Ralph Records to great acclaim in 1981. Tong joined the band on their first European tour, and shortly afterwards Tuxedomoon relocated to Europe on a longterm basis, settling first in Rotterdam and later in Brussels. Several albums followed, to which Tong contributed heavily, including Divine, Suite en Sous-Sol and The Ghost Sonata, the latter an ambitious 'opera without words' staged in Italy in the summer of 1982. This tally also includes the classic single Time To Lose, to which Tong contributed lead vocal.

The first Tong solo album appeared in early 1983 through chic Belgian indie Les Disques du Crépuscule. In its original form, Like the Others was a handsome cassette and book package, featuring a series of impressionistic monologues with spare musical backing by Tuxedomoon. The title track also appeared as a single in France, while an expanded CD edition later added an improvised live track, Last Words at the Scaffold, on which Tong is backed by members of Tuxedomoon and Cabaret Voltaire. At the same time Tong continued to reprise theatrical performances such as Frankie and Johnnie.

At the beginning of 1983 Reininger quit Tuxedomoon for a solo career. Although he would return in 1987, this loss slowed band activity for the next two years. Tong sang lead on an interim single, Soma, but elected to devote more time and energy to a collaboration with Belgian singer Niki Mono: "two voices of opposite sex from opposite ends of the earth." The pair made their live debut at the Plan K venue in Brussels in November 1983, and in January 1984 recorded a nine-song demo, after which Crépuscule signed the project for an album.

At this time the label attracted backing from Island Records, and in April Tong and Mono traveled to London to record the first single. Produced by Alan Rankine (The Associates) and Dave Formula (Magazine), Theoretical China featured a stellar cast of guest musicians including Jah Wobble, Simon Topping (A Certain Ratio) and Stephen Morris (New Order), although despite the exceptional pedigree of the supporting players this polished funk track didn't quite gel as a killer dancefloor cut.

At the end of April 1984 Tong and Mono flew to Tokyo for a string of live dates with The Durutti Column and Mikado. During this trip the pair recorded The Hunger, a haunting sixteen minute track on which several Japanese musicians guest, including Atsuo Suzuki and Satoshi Kadakura. The Hunger numbers among Tong's finest works, and light years from his witty update of The Twelve Days of Christmas, recorded for a Crépuscule Christmas album.

Theoretical China appeared on Crépuscule in November 1984, backed by The Hunger on 12-inch format, credited to Tong alone. After Mono departed the project, recording of the album continued with Persian-born singer Sussan Deyhim on backing vocals and Alan Rankine handling all production, arrangements, keyboards and sequencing. It's worth noting that a number of earlier Tong/Mono songs were dropped for the album, including To You, Incubo, Zimbabwe and Dream Assassins, although the latter was recorded.

The album swallowed up a good deal of time and money, and in tandem Tong undertook an altogether different musical project, Miserere (Mercy), the soundtrack to a modern ballet based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Commissioned by choreographer Pierre Droulers, Tong and Deyhim's remarkable music was recorded exclusively acappella. Feared lost for many years, the masters were eventually located and released by LTM in 2003.

Winston Tong's first album proper eventually appeared in October 1985 as Theoretically Chinese. It's an album of smooth electronic dance pop, sounding expansive and expensive, and a million miles from the angsty art-rock for which Tuxedomoon were renowned. Lush ballad Reports From the Heart made for an elegant second single, while Big Brother and a cover of Broken English by Marianne Faithfull hit the spot as sophisticated disco, and were remixed for single release in Italy. The album sold relatively well in Europe, although Crépuscule must surely have regretted the fact that Tong did not tour to support it, and had donated his most memorable solo song, In A Manner of Speaking, to Tuxedomoon.

In A Manner of Speaking proved a highlight of the Tuxedomoon album Holy Wars, released by Crammed in April 1985, and would later be covered by Martin Gore of Depeche Mode on the EP Counterfeit, and in 2004 by French lounge/bossa project Nouvelle Vague. Tong assisted Tuxedomoon with the launch of Holy Wars, but was gone by the summer of 1985, devoting his time to the completion of his solo album, and performances of Miserere in Paris and elsewhere. Since Tong had also become unavailable to Crépuscule by the time Theoretically Chinese appeared, the media had to make do with a special Interview 12-inch, itself highly collectable today.

Towards the end of 1985 Tong returned to the States, hoping to take a role in Bernardo Bertolucci's epic movie The Last Emperor, and David Hwang's Butterfly on Broadway. Sadly there have been no more solo records, although Tong has continued to perform new shows such as Rasputin, Isadora and Mao and the humouresque Winston Tong Sings Duke Ellington, from which Prelude to a Kiss was extracted, and recorded for a Ralph Records 'jazz' compilation in 1990. In 2005 he again performed with Tuxedomoon in San Francisco, and in 2010 returned to Brussels for a one-off concert at Plan K.

Today Winston Tong is alive and well and living in San Francisco, and flattered that In a Manner of Speaking has become a something of a standard, appearing in countless films, ads and television dramas the world over.

James Nice