International Women’s Day is a global day to celebrate women’s achievements and it takes place on March 8 each year.
This year, Star Media Group is marking the whole month of March as “International Women’s Month”.
Star2.com will be paying tribute to women through our WOW-Women Do Wonders campaign and we want you to join us by sending in stories and pictures of the women in your lives.
Even if you’ve not heard of the name Maria Cordero, chances are you might have heard her nickname – Fei Ma, or Fat Mama – which the 63-year-old has embraced whole-heartedly.
“I’m proud of that nickname because I think it’s a big compliment. Even today, Jackie Chan calls me Ah Ma! Andy Lau too!” she said with a laugh during a phone interview from Hong Kong.
Cordero got the nickname during her lounge singing days in the 1980s. According to her, guests loved her motherly image and personality, and the way she treated them like her own children.
“I used to stop them from drinking too much, and from driving after drinking. I even boiled some soup before I go to work and give them to customers when I am singing! So they started calling me Ah Ma. And because I’m fat, it became ‘Fei Ma’ (Fat Mama)!” she recalled.
These days, Cordero has a reputation as one of the hardest-working and most well-respected celebrities in Hong Kong. She performs in Hong Kong and internationally, has opened restaurants and nightclubs, helmed three cooking shows, and appeared in numerous films, including Hong Kong classics like Aces Go Places and City On Fire.
Cordero will be in Malaysia later this month for a showcase in conjunction with The Star’s WOW: Women do Wonders campaign, held in conjunction with International Women’s Day.
What is the secret of her productivity? “I’ve never considered it to be work. I sing, I cook, I make speeches … and I enjoy every minute of it,” she said.
“Even during my shows – when I’m on the stage, I can make people laugh, cry, get up and dance … I enjoy all that. People think that I am entertaining them, when in fact, they are entertaining me!”
Cordero may be a celebrity now, but she came from very humble beginnings. Born in 1954 in Macau to a family of Portuguese-Chinese blood, she moved to Hong Kong with her family when she was 10.
After her father died when she was just 11, Cordero had to start working to support her seven brothers and sisters.
Starting out as a cinema usher, she worked various jobs, including in factories and restaurants, as a telephone operator, a cashier, and even a cook.
According to her, one of the key lessons she learnt during that period was to never be afraid to ask questions.
“When you’re working at a factory, do you think they will teach you how to do things? You learn by asking. Even when I opened my restaurants, and my nightclubs … I did it by asking people. I asked lawyers, businessmen, the governments … when you ask people, you learn. Then after learning, you use that knowledge wisely. Don’t worry about what other people think – what are they going to do, kill you for asking?” she said with a laugh.
It was during one of her jobs as a telephone operator at a hotel that her music career began. After learning the bass guitar, she was hired by the hotel’s resident band to play with them, and things started escalating from there.
“I was just singing for fun at a lounge, and then the owner said he wanted to sign me as a singer. I looked at myself … I was 95kg, a mother of six … and I had nothing to lose. So I said yes,” said Cordero, who was in her 30s at the time.
As word spread about the vocal prowess of this unknown lounge singer, more and more people began to take notice of Cordero.
Then, renowned composer and film director Teddy Robin roped her in to sing the theme song for iconic Hong Kong film City On Fire. Titled You Yi Zi Guong (Light Of Friendship), the song became a hit and kickstarted Cordero’s singing career.
Apart from singing and acting, Cordero also helmed three cooking shows, including the current one, Maria’s Kitchen, which airs on TVB.
Her first one came about when she was working with the Hong Kong Cable TV company. She had been assigned to interview some ‘si fong choi’ (private home cooking), where people would open up their homes for guests to come for meals. During one of the interviews, the subject was late, so she decided to do the cooking herself.
“We were sitting there for two hours and no one was cooking yet, so I told the producers, ‘Why don’t you let me do the cooking?’. Everything was already prepared anyway, and because I’m used to talking to the camera, I could cook and talk at the same time.
“And in the end, we finished it in half-an-hour! After that, the producers said, ‘Instead of looking for all these places, why don’t YOU do it?” she recalled with a laugh.
That show, which was also called Maria’s Kitchen, became an instant hit. “They didn’t have a kitchen then, so we would film at my house, which had a big kitchen,” she recalled.
“While I was cooking, my grandchild would come in, my dog would come in, my husband would shout, ‘Where’s my coffee?’ … it was like a live show, and everyone liked it.”
Cordero said that one of the biggest secrets to her success is to never ask about how much she will get paid or how long she needs to work, no matter what the job is.
“When Teddy Robin asked me to sing the song, he told me he didn’t have a budget. But I said yes anyway. Because I sang that song, I later got offers to be in movies, TV, said Cordero. “I’ve never asked for payment or how long I had to work. That made people like me, and want to work with me more.
“Even today, if Eric Tsang, or anyone else asks me to appear in their movie, I would say yes without question. Chances come when you open your heart to people.
“If you’re only thinking about being paid or how long you have to work, you won’t get those chances. Just enjoy your job, even if you’re working in a restaurant or office … if you work with a smile and joy, people will always come back to you,” she concluded.
Come and meet Maria Cordero at the WOW: Women Do Wonders Talk & Bazaar on March 26 at SEGi University, Kota Damansara, Selangor. Don’t miss out on the chance to listen to Cordero’s stories and songs. To sign up, click on the WOW Talks registration button.