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Marvelous May...

By ASIANCE Staff, September 23, 2003

May Pang is a legend in the Rock n' Roll world. Propelled into the magical realm of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the early 70s, Ms. Pang eventually became known as the Yoko-appointed lover to John himself.

We were impressed and gracious for her candor, honesty and insight into her well traveled life. ASIANCE Magazine was lucky enough to speak with this worldly, spiritual and talented woman. She offers a glimpse into the prejudice world of Chinatown in the '70s, the rock n' roll industry in general, and the cultural avenues she faced in her life as an Asian-American woman.

Recently divorced from record producer Tony Visconti, May lives in upstate New York with her two children, Sebastian and Lara. She is working on a coffee table book titled, John--Thru My Eyes, which includes her personal photographs, mementos and numerous accounts of Lennon & May, recalled by friends, family and fans. In addition to her book, she has designed a Feng Shui-inspired jewelry line, and has developed a prototype for a reality show. Let's take a look at the interesting life of May Pang.

ASIANCE Magazine: Do you miss New York City at all?

May: I do. I grew up in Spanish Harlem. I remember it well. I still had an apartment in New York City up until a few years ago. It was a great two-bedroom, but the building itself was going condo. One of my friends had a similar apartment and was paying three times the amount I was paying. I had a great deal there. It's ridiculous. How can anyone pay $4,000 a month? But it was time to make a commitment and I figured the house upstate was the better choice. I'd rather have a piece of land and not have to worry about my neighbors. It's better for my kids. I have better piece of mind and I don't have to give up my car. My kids love their school and their friends. Ever since my divorce, my kids have the best of both worlds. Their father lives in the city; they go into Manhattan all the time...and then they come home and have their own rooms.

ASIANCE Magazine: Did you face any obstacles as an Asian American Woman in the 1970s? Or as a woman in general?

May: I think I was ahead of my time. I was born in 1950 and grew up in Spanish Harlem. I wasn't accepted by the Hispanics and I wasn't accepted by the Chinese. I was treated lower than the Hispanics. My family was always in Chinatown. Every week I'd get on the subway or we'd get in my father's car to pick up groceries and come home. It felt like I grew up in Chinatown. It was weird. I don't know why we lived where we did, because my parents are as Chinese as they come. My father and mother didn't really speak a lot of English. My mother was more ambitious. She had a laundry business in Harlem. The only reason we moved out of Harlem was because the tenements were being torn down. We moved to the projects, which is now 97th and 3rd. Today I look at that area, which isn't far from where I had my last apartment, and now it's the chi-chi area. 97th street has this huge mosque now across from where the projects are. It's kinda funny, but it opened me to other cultures. It gave me much more of a world knowledge and that helped me. I saw a lot of my Chinese friends fighting to get out of the tiny enclave of people.

Let me give you an idea of the prejudice in Chinatown. I was walking down a street with John (Lennon) in the '70s. At that time, there weren't many interracial couples and the gangs were out. There were two different Chinese gangs. One was called Bak Yin (meaning white eagle) and I can't remember the name of the other gang. But they were rivals. It was just awful. They all wore these sunglasses trying to look cool. Anyway, we were just walking down the street and I heard one of them yell to me in Taisonese (an old Chinese dialect), "What, you're going out with a white person?" We were with another couple, Bobby Keyes (of the Rolling Stones) and his wife. We were about to get into a cab and John asks, "What are they saying?" I said, "Let's just get into the cab." I told John what they said, so he decides to give them the finger. All of a sudden these gangs start running toward the car. Thank god us girls were sitting in the middle, because the gang members open the door on Bobby's side. Now Bobby is a rootin-tootin Texan. He just looked at the guy and said, "Shut the door!" Of course, they had no idea who John was. Finally, Bobby screamed, "Shut the door!" grabbed it and we took off. The gang member was so shocked that a white guy stood up to a Chinese man on his turf - Chinatown. He was standing there dumb-founded. It was pretty amazing. John was so amazed that this stuff was happening.

At that time, I wanted to be a model. I went to the Ford Agency and was told that I was too ethnic. Today, there are so many Asian models. It's the "in thing" to be Asian. I even had projects and shoots planned out in my head - but no one would go for them. Of course, I would see it done a couple of years later. So I've always been ahead of my time, whether it's projects, ideas, films, whatever. I've experienced the things I've always wanted to do, but the timing was off. The interracial thing I experienced...doesn't really happen as much today.

Being Chinese-American, born and raised in America, I'm considered an outcast on the other side. I have a sister who is 10 years older. She was raised in China while I was raised here. When I did go to China, I'd be introduced as "my mother's youngest daughter born over there." In those days, it was common to leave children behind. Today people don't understand this because it's so far removed. Now my sister lives in Chinatown; she's been there ever since she came to America. We're not really close. She always thought I was a spoiled child because I lived here. She thought I lived in the lap of luxury. However, she never experienced any of the traumas that I had here.

I also have an adopted brother, who came to America with my mother. He was very jealous of me and constantly tried to harm me physically. I had many things to overcome as a Chinese-American girl. As far as I'm concerned, he's my disowned brother. He hasn't talked to me in years and isn't a nice person. When my father died, he didn't even come to the funeral because he said he was offended about the things I wrote about him in my book. I mean, what does that have to do with my dad's funeral? He doesn't speak with any of us and he never tries to make contact.

My father was a tyrant when he was alive. He was always ranting and raving. By the time I was 9, I was at the beginning stages of an ulcer. But in later years, I took care of him and my mother. I'm the only one who talks to my mother. She suffers from paranoia, so it's difficult to have a relationship with her. She thinks everyone is going to hurt her. She doesn't want anyone to get close. There are some things I can't even tell her. You don't choose your relatives. My best friends, the ones that I've chosen to be with me, are my family. That's how I look at it.

ASIANCE Magazine: Go into more detail about your actual job in the music industry. What was a typical day like for you?

May: In the mid-80's I had a few jobs and one of the ones I loved was a song plugger. I was one of the first women in this field. I would take songs written by songwriters, both known and unknown, and try and match them up with artists who would record them. I had pitched a song to Diana Ross called Love Lies. Two unknown writers out of Nashville wrote it. Diana recorded it on her SILK album. That was really major. Who would have thought a Nashville song would do so well on an R&B album?

Another unknown writer who wrote Christian pop songs came to me with one. I was a little hesitant, but I asked him to change it around a little; maybe make it sound a little more like Foreigner. Foreigner was popular at the time. He went home and re-wrote it and he called to say, "I've got it!" He came in with the rough piano and voice. After listening, I said, "Great let's demo it!" At first John Waite (formerly of The Babys) wanted to record it but then I took it to Judas Priest and they loved it. It was the only song not written by the band on their album, Screaming For Vengence. The song (Take These) Chains was also a hot single in England.

There was another song that I thought was great but everyone passed on it. It was similar to the pop songs at the time. Two years later, I was walking down a street talking to Andrew Oldham (original Stones producer) and I heard the song over the radio. I screamed, "Who's singing this?" Andrew said, "Don Johnson." Turns out that that song, Heartbeat, was the song I was pitching a couple of years earlier and now Don Johnson was having a hit with it.

ASIANCE Magazine: Give us some insight into your jewelry collection. Are you planning to launch your collection?

May: It's starting off on my website, www.maypang.com. I've been designing it for three years. It's stainless steel, which means it doesn't tarnish. It'll last for life. It's Feng Shui-inspired and represents the flow of my energy. It represents good energy. I use the principles of Feng Shui in my life. It's a very Southern Chinese custom that my mother used to practice. In Hong Kong, they don't set up any business unless it's been cleansed out by a geomancer.

ASIANCE Magazine: Tell us about your music show idea?

May: I've had this idea for years and, in 1998, I made a demo pilot. The premise is, I would interview many of the rock 'n rollers from back in the day, bands like the Procol Harum, The Moody Blues, etc., on location in the cities they hail from. I would conduct a good interview because I was around for it, I experienced it as both a fan and an insider, and I know it inside-out. I see 14 and 15-year-olds today who are interested in the music of the '60s and '70s. Most interviewers are in their early 20's and wouldn't know what to ask. They didn't experience what it was like to be around the music in those days, it was just magical!

ASIANCE Magazine: What do you like to eat? Do you cook? Any favorite restaurants these days?

May: I love Chinese-Cuban food. When the Chinese left China on the way to America, many settled in Cuba. It's the greatest thing to see Chinese people speaking Spanish. The Chinese are some of the best cooks in New York. They make the Cuban food very tasty and it's not expensive.

ASIANCE Magazine: Who are your favorite musicians/bands today?

May: That's tough. Nothing really grabs me. I like Train. U2 is still one of my favorites; I had met them before they got signed to Island Records. I like Matchbox 20. I don't understand some of the music today...but I do like music from Mary J. Blige to Faith Hill to Pink.

ASIANCE Magazine: What is your favorite line of makeup? Do you frequent spas?

May: I have recently started taking better care of myself. I use a lot of different makeup. Rimmel sold at Walmart - which is a line from London. Also, Mac makeup. I would love to find a good line. I like Toni & Tina's lipstick. One side is a lip brush, the other is a pencil. I like Bourjois, a French one. I would truly like to find a good foundation, being that our skin is totally different. We can't use makeup for Black women; we can't use makeup for white women. I would love for someone to come out with a line that was light and I could feel that it was made just for me. I like Janet Sartin for cleansing at night. I'd love to be the guinea pig for a new cosmetics line! Whatever I put on my eyes it seems to disappear. I don't have a crease like Western eyes.

I also need someone that can work with my Asian hair. It's so straight and needs to be cut right otherwise you can see the mistakes. I like to experiment with different hair streaks. I currently have red tints with end bits of blonde.

I love this spa in Westchester. I got a seaweed wrap and loved the fact that I got rinsed off on the table so I didn't have to move. The shower was overhead. It was absolutely fabulous.

ASIANCE Magazine: What do you think has changed in the world today? From the '70s?

May: I think what's lacking in the world today is presentability and class. The work ethic and manners today are so lackadaisical. Kids today don't properly address people. The way they treat seniors is so disrespectful. No one says "Sir" or "Madam" anymore. It's so informal today. I also find that what's lacking in the work place are properly dressed employees. And benefits for women. We are still lacking in equal pay. Let's face it, women are the only ones who can have a baby. I think more companies need to provide something for the working mother, whether it be a daycare center, flexible hours or what have you. We have a lot of single parent families as well as both parents in the work force...it is only going to increase as time goes on. The caring of children while the parents are at work need to be met, especially by employers.

ASIANCE Magazine: What is your bit of advice that you would give any woman today?

May: If you really want something, reach for the universe and if you come away with only the moon and stars, then you're still way ahead of most people.

I really felt I came into being in my 30's. I wish I had that same confidence in my 20's. I even wish I had that confidence now in my 50's. I have confidence, but now you think of the vulnerability of life and how fragile it is because of all the people around me that have died.

I grew up very quickly. In my 30s, I tried to figure out what I missed and experience it. In my late 30s I became a mother, which I never thought I would ever be.

And it's ok to have a therapist to help you along these days. The world has become much more stressful. When I was younger I used to think that having a therapist meant you were nuts. But today, I think it's good to be able to speak to someone and understand that what you are going through is not necessarily wrong. I had gone to a couple couselor when I was going through some hard times with my marriage. And it was not as painful as I thought it would be. I truly believe in it. It was helpful in finding myself at that stage of my life. And I'm in a good place now.

ASIANCE Magazine: Did you receive any feedback from Yoko Ono?

May: In the early days, when my first book came out, Loving John, people were asking me if Yoko ever said anything. But what could she say? That it didn't happen? She wasn't there! Yoko's changed her "official" story around a few times, and it's pretty close to what I've always said, but I try not to focus too much on that.

ASIANCE Magazine: Tell us something about you and John that you both shared...something the outside world doesn't really know.

May: What was great about John and me was that we could sit and talk about music, which was of course his love. We loved music from the same time period. He would be amazed that I knew so much because I was so much younger than he was. I would always just tell him that I got it firsthand and you got it secondhand. All the rock 'n' roll music that he loved came from America. He loved the B-sides. He loved Carla Thomas, who had this Memphis sound. One of her hits was B-A-B-Y. Recently, I met Carla and I had the chance to tell her just how much John loved her music. She was ecstatic. I never thought in a million years that I would be able to pass along something like that. She couldn't believe that John Lennon loved her music. I got a thrill also.

I saw Ann Peebles again, who sang I Can't Stand the Rain. John also loved, I Can Help by Billy Swan. John would DJ at parties and play these songs after their time, then they'd come back and become number 1 hits.

Oddly, with all the fantastic music he wrote, "our song" was Reminiscing by the Little River Band.

ASIANCE Magazine: You are always so sweet and accommodating when it comes to questions about John Lennon. Is it something you enjoy or is it trying your patience?

I do enjoy speaking about John and sharing my experiences. Most people are curious and want to know. I also enjoy meeting new fans from all over the world. I do, however, keep our private moments to myself.

ASIANCE Magazine: You've lived abroad? What country to you find most fascinating? How many languages to you speak?

May: I love England. I go there quite often. I love living there. Unfortunately, I gave up a great house there in the north of London. At the time, the neighborhood wasn't so posh -- I couldn't give the house away. Now, you can't even get near the place.

I love the South of France. The lifestyle is totally different than ours (American). The French have two hours of lunch, an afternoon nap and a grand way of life. No stress. Paris is nice, gorgeous.

But I still love it here in America. There's so much to see. I once took a car trip out West and I want to do that again. One of my favorite cities is San Francisco. I also love Seattle, except it rains a little too much. Paul Allen's museum, Experience Music Project, is just fantastic. It's amazing what Bill Gates and Paul Allen have done for that city. I'm a member of the Grammy Organization and I recently attended a regional award show in Seattle and it felt like home with all that music.

I only speak two languages. Chinese was my first language but has now become my second. Of course, the other is English.

ASIANCE Magazine: Tell us about the new man in your life.

May: He is Tom Scott, the renowned saxophone player. He had a band called "Tom Scott and The LA Express." He's had 26 albums of his own, and has played with Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison. He was in the original Blues Brothers band and has done a lot of music and conducted for television; Oscars, Emmys and was the music director for the Pat Sajak and Chevy Chase shows. Tom's an all-around player. People sometimes come up to him and tell him that they've never heard a white guy play like that.

ASIANCE Magazine: Regarding Feng Shui, can you recommend one good cure that could help bring out prosperity and health in one's home?

May: Don't have your bed facing the door. It means death. Remove all clutter. Organize and put away, even if it means throwing it into a box and hiding it. As long as it is out of sight, everything changes. All negativity leaves. There's a great book on Feng Shui by Sarah Rossbach, called Feng Shui: The Chinese Art of Placement. I highly recommend it.

ASIANCE Magazine: In 1988/89, you made an admirable decision, yet one that's not considered prestigious...you became a stay at home mom. Have you always wanted to be a stay at home mother? What would you say to girls/women who are thinking about that chosen career?

May: I was able to work from home because I worked with my husband and I didn't have to go out. I was always there for him, but now that we're divorced, I have to go out and work. When Sebastian and Lara were young, I was able to stay at home even though I also had help, and it's great to have help, but it's still mom that has to do the things that are important in my children's lives.

When they were younger, it was great because they didn't talk back (laughs). Then they entered the next phase where you have to worry about them running off. Now, they are 12 and 14 and they talk back. But they really are good kids. I always encourage them to see their dad. But there's a lot more peace in the house now that we're divorced; I don't go to bed angry anymore.

I always tell them that they'll always be my kids and I'm their mother, but I'm also their friend, so they might as well tell me when they need help, or when they do something bad. Otherwise, if they don't I find out later then they'd wish they had told me earlier (more laughs).

ASIANCE Magazine: What do you do with your free time? What do you think of all these reality shows?

May: I don't have much free time. The time I do have is used to put a lot of my projects in order. As for watching reality TV, I've watched The Bachelor with Aaron Burge. I actually met Aaron and Trista (The Bachelorette) on a Christmas show for ABC. Tom was the music director for ABC. I'm only interested in the beginning and the end of these shows.

I watched Who Wants To Marry My Dad. That's really the only one that hooked me because the father wasn't a bad looking guy. I guess I was also interested because it was closer to my age bracket. But I just thought to myself, "Would I allow my children to pick out my husband?" The chances of it working out are so low. I have no clue about this kind of stuff.

I also love Queer Eye for The Straight Guy. It's about homes and decorating, which I love to do. I also watch Changing Rooms, which is the British version of Trading Spaces.

I'm also working on another book, a coffee table book called, John--Thru My Eyes. I was inspired to do this as I was looking through my old photographs with friends. They would tell me how fantastic, happy and healthy John looked and I should share them. It will also include memories from friends who were with us at the time and what they remember about John. Recently, a friend recalled that she remembered John and I going somewhere in disguise -- and John was in hair curlers. I received e-mails from people saying they saw us here, they saw us there...and I ask them, "Would you like to contribute to the book? It's a time period piece. I'm currently looking for a publisher.