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Chitchat Teresa Teng Untimely Death in Chiangmai after being upped by Frenchie!


Another victim of Frenchie cocks.

What the butler saw: Teresa Teng’s death in Chiang Mai in Thailand, and how she found love there

David Frazier

David Frazier
Published: 7:45am, 5 May 2024
Why you can trust SCMP

For the Chinese-speaking world, Teresa Teng Li-chun’s untimely death on May 8, 1995, at the height of her fame, aged just 42, could perhaps be compared to the deaths of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana; in that they were deaths that not only shocked millions of admirers, but sparked endless waves of conspiracy theories.
Some of the more bizarre theories surrounding Teng’s passing allege that she was assassinated by the CIA to prevent East Asian unification, or faked her death and absconded to France.
There was talk of her being killed by evil spirits, or, according to one Buddhist group, Teng was an incarnation of the bodhisattva Guanyin and got called back to heaven.
In 2015, it was even proposed that Teng had been reincarnated as a Thai girl, Vanatsaya Viseskul, who, then 16, looked like the Teng of her 1960s album covers, and, while not knowing a word of Mandarin, was able to perform a much of the Taiwanese singer’s repertoire with miraculously high fidelity.

Teresa Teng was the first megastar of modern Chinese pop, selling more than 48 million albums worldwide. Photo: The Story of Teresa Teng by Billy
Teng, who was born in a humble Taiwanese military village in 1953, was the first megastar of modern Chinese pop, selling more than 48 million albums worldwide and inspiring adoration unlike any singer before her.

Although her music was banned as pornographic in China during the 1970s, her influence on the mainland was still compared to that of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the saying, “Big Deng rules by day, while Little Deng rules by night.”

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It was also commonly said that “wherever there are Chinese-speaking people, there is the music of Teresa Teng”.
The controversies following her death centred on events in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, where she spent her last years. And both the preserved hotel room where the singer spent her final days, and a second memorial created by the hotel’s former head butler, Praphan “Billy” Bonsook – one of the last people to see the singer alive – present an image slightly at odds with that of the “classic Teresa”.
Here, she is not known chiefly as the angelic child prodigy or the pan-Asian superstar. Instead she is remembered by those who knew her as a mature woman who sought to escape from the monster of her fame, who took a Western lover and pined for a simpler, more anonymous life.

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“Before, it was not easy to say some of these things,” says Praphan, who retains a clear image of Teng’s final years and final hours.

He and other long-time staff at the Imperial Mae Ping Hotel – now rebranded as the InterContinental Chiang Mai The Mae Ping – are able to dispel many of the conspiracy theories surrounding the superstar’s death.

Praphan “Billy” Boonsuk as a young butler. Photo: courtesy of Praphan
Praphan, a youthful 54-year-old and still the dapper host, has two large Teresa Teng pins on his vest as he cheerfully welcomes me to The Story of Teresa Teng by Billy, his self-created memorial behind a shopfront set amid strip malls on Chiang Mai’s eastern fringe.
“Now some time has passed, I think it’s OK to talk about what happened,” he says.
Bus tours of mainly Chinese tourists come to pay their respects, take afternoon tea and sing karaoke. Walls are adorned with photos of Teng in Thailand and other memorabilia collected with the help of Teresa Teng fan clubs.
The afternoon I arrive, three Chinese tour groups are expected to bring more than 50 visitors, which Praphan says is typical.
From the start of Teng’s career, she had a huge fan base among the Thai-Chinese community, many of whom lived in the north, especially in Chiang Mai, and Teng made her first visit to the kingdom in 1971 at the age of 18, promoting a Hong Kong musical comedy film, I Want to Sing (Ge Mi Xiaojie).
In Chiang Mai 29 years ago, she was not so special. She was just like a normal personPraphan “Billy” Boonsuk, former butler

Two years later, she released a cheerful ode to the country with the song “Flower of Love” (Qing Hua), which opens with the lyrics, “Thailand is a wonderful place” (taiguo shi ge hao difang).
Over the following decades, Teng would return repeatedly, in the early years offering performance runs in Bangkok music halls.
Photographers captured her as a darling ingénue on visits to Thai temples and Bangkok gold shops; her movements made headlines in Thailand’s Chinese-language press.
More than two decades after her first visit to Thailand, she was at the tail end of her career and her only desire was to avoid the limelight. So, in 1993, she found a retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s “rose of the north”, 700km (430 miles) north of Bangkok.
Although still giving occasional concerts or television performances, she had already put out what was to become her final album four years earlier. She was 40 years old, not in the best of health, and weary of her celebrity.
“She didn’t want to be a superstar any more,” says Praphan. “So she escaped.”

A drawing of Teng and Praphan in Teng’s suite in Bangkok. Photo: courtesy of Praphan
A Chiang Mai native, Praphan began working as a butler at the Imperial Mae Ping Hotel at the age of 20.
Excelling in his duties, he was soon promoted to the concierge desk on the hotel’s 15th and uppermost floor, where he would go on to attend Thai royalty, Malaysian sultans and the King of Bhutan. He met Teng on her first visit to the hotel, in 1993.
“I didn’t know Teresa Teng or her music,” recalls Praphan, who nevertheless noted that the floor’s other six staff members, all older, were in awe of Teng and shied away from her.
“Not me,” says Praphan, who, smiling and gregarious, would develop a familiarity with Teng, chatting and joking with the singer on an almost daily basis. “In Chiang Mai 29 years ago, she was not so special,” he says. “She was just like a normal person.”
Opened in 1991, the Imperial Mae Ping was Chiang Mai’s first internationally managed luxury hotel, its 15-storey modern, arc-shaped tower set behind an expansive, lush, northern Thai-style garden.

A photo wall at The Story of Teresa Teng by Billy. Photo: David Frazier
When Teng first arrived in the city, she stayed at the Royal Princess Hotel, but soon went looking for an upgrade. It was Praphan who showed Teng around on her initial visit to the Mae Ping, when she asked to see the nicest, most spacious room for a potentially long stay, he recalls.
He showed her the Royal Prince Suite, which was decorated with a mix of rustic northern Thai-style ornaments, comfortable Western furnishings, wood-panelled walls, Lanna carvings, patterned tapestries and wrought-iron chandeliers.
The anteroom had an eight-person dining table, sofa set, recliner and a rocking chair, while an almost equally enormous bedroom included more seating, built-in wardrobes and a writing desk.
Windows looked northwestwards, affording views of the old walled city and the majestic Doi Suthep, a gently sloping, 1,676-metre granite peak that sits like a guardian on Chiang Mai’s western flank.
Teng made the booking on the spot, not at all dissuaded by the room’s price of 30,000 baht (US$1,000 at the 1993 exchange rate) per night. Renting by the month, Praphan recalls, “We gave her a discount.”

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Although Teng’s stay in Chiang Mai is often characterised as a holiday, Praphan remembers she spent the greater portion of her final two years there, departing mainly on short trips for visa runs or concerts, and generally returning within days.
During this time, Praphan served Teng breakfast in her suite every day at 9am, then returned with cleaning staff between 1pm and 2pm. In the evenings, he says, the singer would dine out and often stroll through the nearby night market along Kampangdin Road.
Praphan describes Teng as being friendly, chatty and constantly making fun. She coached him in English and Japanese phrases, and he returned the favour, teaching her snippets of Thai.
In photographs displayed at the Chiang Mai memorials, one notices a significant presence in Teng’s life that is mostly absent in other memorials, including her gravesite, on Yangming Mountain, north of Taipei. It is that of her lover and fiancé, Frenchman Paul Quilery.
The couple met in Paris in 1989, when Teng was roaming incognito through the French capital and seeking to escape the demands of fame in Asia.

Teng (centre) and Paul Quilery (centre left) with staff at a Christmas party at the then Imperial Mae Ping Hotel. Photo: InterContinental Hotel
The meeting came via an introduction from Teng’s guitarist, Quilery’s friend. Quilery himself was tall, with long, straw-blond hair, austere Nordic good looks and a feature that likely later fuelled suspicion among some Chinese fans: facial expressions largely devoid of emotion.
He was also 15 years Teng’s junior, he 21 and she 36 at their initial meeting. Yet a spark was ignited. He invited Teng to his studio for a photo session, then another. The pair would stay together for the rest of Teng’s life.
It was only after Teng died, however, that the couple’s relationship became widely publicised.
Chinese- and Japanese-language news reports in the wake of the star’s death began to define the figure of “Paul” for an Asian readership.
Some of that early, sensationalist coverage has snowballed over the years into full-blown conspiracy theories, which continue to malign, slander and disparage the Frenchman, often with racist undertones.
He immediately burst into tears, cried all the way back to the hotel, and then locked himself in the roomPaul Quilery’s reaction to Teng’s death, according to Praphan

In web searches, top hits for “Paul Quilery” lead to articles referring to him as a “boytoy” or “Teresa Teng’s baby French boyfriend” and from fake news sites to TikTok, insinuations of domestic violence and even murder are common.
One blogger alleges “either he intentionally killed her, or she was killed by his selfishness”. Others charge that had he been a properly attentive boyfriend, Teng would be alive today.
Even Wikipedia alleges that Quilery maintained “a rather indifferent attitude towards her sudden death”.
Praphan says that none of this is true, and contemporaneous Taiwanese media reports on Teng’s death support his claims.
When Quilery learned that Teng had died, Taiwan’s United Daily News reported, “he immediately burst into tears, cried all the way back to the hotel, and then locked himself in the room”.

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Two days later, after accompanying her body to Taiwan, Quilery was described as having “red and swollen eyes, obviously having passed another night of heartache”.
Praphan, whose concierge desk had a direct view of the door to their suite, avers that over the course of two years, he never heard raised voices or any evidence of arguments, fights or violence between the couple.
“I could feel that they loved each other,” he says. “When Paul talked to her, it was always very gently.”
For many Asian fans, Quilery exists as a fly in the buttermilk of Teng’s hagiography, and an inconvenient reminder that the star aspired to break free from the straitjacket of Chinese patriarchy imposed upon her by Asian fans and media, Taiwan’s government – which used her as a propaganda tool for much of her career – and even the whims of her own family.
In 1998, three years after Teng’s death, Quilery finally went public with details about the life he and Teng shared, releasing home videos and candid photos.

Praphan opened The Story of Teresa Teng by Billy. Photo: David Frazier
In reply, the singer’s younger brother, Jim Teng Chang-hsi, asserted the Frenchman had no right to pry into family matters, saying, “He should still not violate the rights of others […] If he says things that the person concerned cannot refute, according to the morality of we Chinese, this is not appropriate.”
Teresa’s older brother, Frank Teng Chang-fu, meanwhile, tended to diminish Quilery’s attachment to his sister, often referring to him as “just a friend” rather than a “boyfriend” or “fiancé”.
Quilery, in a 1998 interview with Hong Kong’s TVB Jade, shot back that Teng’s family perpetrated a public image of the star at odds with the woman she had actually become.
Her brothers wanted to present her “like a young girl, a young virgin”, he said, despite the fact that she was over 40 years old. “But she was a woman,” Quilery insisted. “Forty years old is not a baby any more.”
Teng’s five years with Quilery were perhaps her deepest and most abiding romance, and in some ways flout the conventional Teresa Teng narrative, which maintains that she was never lucky in love.

Teng in Chiang Mai, in a photo on display at The Story of Teresa Teng by Billy. Photo: The Story of Teresa Teng by Billy
In her teens and twenties, she lost one Malaysian magnate’s heir to a premature death. Later, she had a rocky three years with kung fu film star Jackie Chan, then broke off her relationship with a second Malaysian billionaire when his family demanded she halt her singing career and give a full written account of her sex life.
Yet, in April 1995, Teng and Quilery got engaged on the grounds of a prominent Chiang Mai Buddhist monastery, Wat Suan Dok. And it was Teng who made the proposal. In the 1998 Jade TV interview, Quilery was asked by the host, “So she asked you, ‘Should we get engaged?’”
“Yes,” Quilery replied, noting that the wedding was set for August 1995. He then further confirmed the interviewer’s suggestion that Teng “was ready to establish a family”.
The day of May 8, 1995, is still clearly etched in Praphan’s memory.
As every other morning, the butler served breakfast to Teresa and Paul in their suite. “Then I asked her, ‘Oh, would you like anything else?’ But she said, ‘No.’”

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Quilery would frequently go out alone in the afternoon and around 3.30pm, Praphan remembers, “Paul went out to buy some flowers, rent a video and buy some fruit. She loved mangosteens.”
Not long after, around 4.15pm, Teng burst out of the room, wet from the shower and in obvious distress. “She was naked,” says Praphan.
He and two female members of staff were manning the 15th floor concierge’s desk as Teng staggered towards them and uttered words that to Praphan sounded like “Mama, mama,” then collapsed. Fetching a dressing gown, they clothed Teng and sat her in a chair.
“She was still alive,” says Praphan, “but unconscious.”
The situation was dire, but it was not Teng’s first health crisis. The singer’s health had been shaky for several years, and in December 1994, she had spent a night in a Chiang Mai hospital on an intravenous drip after complaining of dizziness.

The entrance to The Story of Teresa Teng by Billy. Photo: David Frazier
Two months later, after she and Quilery spent the Lunar New Year in Taiwan, she began suffering from respiratory problems, possibly a flu or even pneumonia. Quilery later described her as having a persistent cough, but “not really asthmatic”.
When Teng collapsed naked on the carpet of the hotel, it was rush hour in Chiang Mai and its streets were clogged. Rather than wait for an ambulance, the Imperial Mae Ping’s general manager decided to send her to the hospital in a hotel car, which had no life-saving equipment or personnel.
The 4km trip to Chiangmai Ram Hospital would have normally taken just over five minutes, but mired in traffic, the drive took more than 20 minutes. By the time the car arrived, Teng was not breathing, her face was blue and her pupils dilated.
Emergency room staff spent around 45 minutes trying to revive her, using CPR, injections and a defibrillator, but to no avail.
At 5.30pm, they pronounced her dead, and it was only when Dr Sumet Huntrakul went to fill out the death certificate that he realised the patient they had been trying to revive was Chinese music’s biggest star.

Teng’s restored suite at the InterContinental Chiang Mai The Mae Ping. Photo: David Frazier
Teng’s superstar status allowed her to collect various citizenships, and she used these to keep a low profile while travelling. At the Imperial Mae Ping Hotel, she had checked in as “Theresa Teng” using a Belize passport.
For the cause of death, Sumet listed, “asthma attack”. He also later opined that she had probably died on the way to the hospital.
News of the tragedy travelled fast. Reporters began descending on the Imperial Mae Ping that evening, and by the following day the lobby had become a scrum of news crews from Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.
“Some of them were asking, ‘Where is the butler?’ But my general manager told us not to talk to anyone,” says Praphan. Laying low, he replaced his everyday name tag, “Billy”, with one using his Thai name, Praphan.
Quilery stayed on at the hotel for two nights following Teng’s death, then flew to Taiwan for what would become a state funeral, with more than 200,000 mourning fans paying tribute as she lay in state. The wake was second in scale to only that of Chiang Kai-shek.
We love her. I have seen many people cry. If I don’t keep her story, people will forget itPraphan “Billy” Boonsuk, former butler

Over the ensuing five years, Quilery returned to Chiang Mai every May 8 to commemorate his fiancée’s passing, says Praphan.
No autopsy was ever performed on Teng’s body, and for fans and conspiracists, this has remained a major source of controversy and blame.
Immediately after the accident, Quilery did not deny a request for an autopsy, he simply deferred it, writing instructions to the hospital, “Don’t touch the body. Just put her in the cool storage for tonight.”
The next day Teng’s brothers arrived, and the family also decided against a postmortem examination. “We accepted the Thai hospital’s cause of death,” Frank Teng later explained.
Though “asthma attack” has gone down as Teng’s official cause of death, Quilery later proposed that she may have actually suffered a heart attack precipitated by overuse of her inhaler.

A photo of Teng in Bangkok at The Story of Teresa Teng by Billy. Photo: The Story of Teresa Teng by Billy
In 2010, this theory was revived by a respiratory specialist at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Engineering, Zhong Nanshan, who said he had learned from the Chiangmai Ram Hospital chief pathologist that in addition to her inhaler, Teng had been using various throat sprays, which, if overused, could precipitate irregular heartbeat or possibly more serious cardiac events.
Journalists, fans and web sleuths have also pointed to a bruise on the left side of Teng’s face, visible in a leaked photo of Teng’s body lying on a hospital stretcher. On its basis, many have accused Quilery of domestic abuse and even murder.
The bruise was later explained, however, as resulting from either her fall or embalming procedures, which drain blood from the jugular vein and inject embalming fluid into the carotid artery, both accessed in the neck area where Teng’s bruising was seen.
In any biography, it is often the inconsistencies which are the most revealing, as they have a way of poking through the facade and offering a glimpse of the more authentic person beneath.
In the Teresa Teng story, her Chiang Mai years present just such a moth hole in the tapestry of her otherwise flawless and near-angelic life story. Perhaps this is why the city has remained such an enigmatic draw to her multitude of fans.

A photo wall at The Story of Teresa Teng by Billy. Photo: David Frazier
Before the pandemic, Teng’s suite in the Imperial Mae Ping Hotel was receiving 200 visitors a day, most of them Chinese, making it one of the more popular attractions memorialising the singer.
In 2019, the hotel shut down for four years, owing to a takeover by Bangkok-based real estate group Asset World Corporation, renovations and then Covid-19. Rebranded as the InterContinental Chiang Mai The Mae Ping, it reopened in November last year and has now dedicated its entire top floor to Teng’s memory.
“We’ve bubble wrapped Teng’s suite, so to speak, and built a Chinese restaurant around it,” says hotel general manager Peter Pottinga, as he ushers me in for a private tour.
The suite is now accessed through a door at the back of the restaurant, a portal that allows one to step back in time and onto the weave of a 1990s patterned carpet (though in a restored version).
“The furniture” – including a French style bidet – “is all original”, explains Pottinga. The visitor experience is now packaged with afternoon tea and the number of guests is controlled.

Teresa Teng’s restored suite at the InterContinental Chiang Mai The Mae Ping. Photo: David Frazier
The Imperial Mae Ping’s 2019 shutdown was also when Praphan left the hotel after 29 years of service, opening his own memorial, which, a touch campy but extremely heartfelt, offers a similar afternoon tea concept.
“We love her,” says the butler. “I have seen many people cry. If I don’t keep her story, people will forget it.”
Perhaps the most unusual feature of this final chapter in Teng’s life is that it relies on the memory of Thais, such as Praphan, who knew a Teresa different from the almost divine figure in the collective imagination of millions of Chinese fans.
In Chiang Mai, she had finally found love, with a foreigner, respite from the suffocating adoration of a Mandarin-speaking public, and a quieter, more private life.
“I didn’t feel like she was a big star,” says Praphan. “I felt like she was a friend.”
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