Culture Vulture

A banana's window to Chinese pop culture

I may be Western-educated, but Eva Tang's xinyao documentary, The Songs We Sang, resonated with me on an emotional level

Pop culture, with its unabashedly common denominator heart, is often dismissed as a disposable consumable. Yet some pop cultural waves transcend these tinny roots to become something enduring and, occasionally, even heartbreaking.

There is much to be said then, for excavating the roots of these trends that do make their marks.

These thoughts were inspired after I caught a screening of film-maker Eva Tang's xinyao documentary, The Songs We Sang, recently. After debuting to strong reviews at the Singapore International Film Festival last year, it is finally in the cinemas for a limited commercial run at five Golden Village cinemas.

The 9pm screening I attended was packed. Granted, it was a small hall, but I was heartened by the full-house turnout for a home-grown documentary.

For the next two hours, even as I was engrossed by the story of xinyao's birth and flowering, I was also struck by the reactions of the crowd.

The audience, mostly in their 40s and older, with a tiny smattering of braver young souls, reacted in an almost visceral fashion to the archival segments featuring young xinyao performers. Some bits inspired murmured sing-alongs and, at the end of the screening, the crowd broke out in spontaneous applause.

It was the first time, outside of premieres and press screenings, I had heard a home-grown audience applauding a local film.

Tang's film was a loving and lovely tribute to a spontaneous flowering of Chinese pop culture that many who had grown up in 1970s and 1980s Singapore would remember with affection, if not outright passion.

Even a banana like me, Western- educated on a British book diet and an American pop culture feed, can hum the xinyao theme songs of local hit series such as The Awakening and Kopi-O, and remember the strains of catchy hits such as Friends Forever and Youth 123.

These bits and pieces of my limited Chinese pop vocabulary came bobbing up in my brain as I watched the documentary and I realised that xinyao had also resonated with me on an emotional level that I had not fully appreciated in my youth, when it had seemed merely a part of the aural landscape of the time.

Composed and written by young Singaporeans who had grown up in the same geographic, social and historical milieu as I had, these innocent tunes referencing local slang and landscape stuck in my heart because they were my first encounters with a Singaporean sensibility expressed in pop culture.

What I found most eye-opening about Tang's intricately pieced- together pop history, however, was how it unearthed the roots of xinyao, beginning with the literary pursuits of Nantah undergraduates at the tail-end of Chinese-language education in Singapore, blooming with the junior college-level hobbyists that produced its first media stars, and then sowing the seeds for the current crop of pop stars such as Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin.

The paradox of xinyao's beginnings struck me with particular irony.

It could be seen as the rebellious last gasp of a once-thriving Chinese-language education system that produced a crop of literary-minded lyricists, who understood the poetry of the Chinese language and expressed their deepest frustrations and greatest hopes with it.

The anecdotes from the singers/ songwriters who had emerged from the Chinese-language education stream highlighted the human cost of Singapore's switch to an English-language education stream. In a mostly upbeat documentary about pop songs, these were deeper currents which reminded the audience of the social and economic pressures that powered this movement.

An especially heart-rending moment showed vocal coach and Nanyang University graduate Ken Chang as he paused in mid-sentence, wiping away tears as he recalled a Straits Times headline: "Nanyang University graduates worth $300".

The headline was reporting a brutal reality - that the employment scene then was becoming increasingly hostile to the Chinese-language graduates - and the story came on the day he graduated as part of the last batch of Nantah students.

Now, decades later, his hurt and anger still burn through the screen.

Yet, this collective rage against the dying of the light ironically fuelled the fire of xinyao. With singing groups in practically every school and community centre, this was a grassroots movement in the truest sense. And it reached beyond the Chinese-language stream to English-educated fans. This is soft power at its most powerful.

Xinyao's pioneers now work behind the scenes, as producers and talent spotters for the next generation of Singaporean Chinese pop talents who have gone regional. What was once seen as a doubly doomed path - a Chinese-language education and a career in the pop music industry - has instead offered its most talented practitioners pathways into the regional Chinese pop market today.

All these remarkable reversals of fortune, narrated by xinyao's pioneers with warmth and wit, keep the story as pacy as a good thriller.

Despite the fact that everyone thinks of Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s as a cultural desert, The Songs We Sang offers ample proof that xinyao, a thriving cultural creation, was hiding in plain sight with its lilting commercial tunes carrying lyric sensibilities rooted in Chinese poetry and language.

It could be argued then that the "cultural desert" label was merely a product of English-language blinkers, where the definition of culture was tied up with Western perceptions of certain genres of visual and performing arts as the epitome of "culture".

Beyond a mere slice of nostalgia, Tang's documentary is a good reminder of the artistic endeavours made in different languages and forms in Singapore. Truly, uniquely Singaporean culture can come in many forms, including the sunny strains of a Chinese pop song.

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•The Songs We Sang is showing in cinemas here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2016, with the headline 'A banana's window to Chinese pop culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe