The Songs We Sang captures the xinyao spirit

Musicians (from far left) Kelly Loo, Eric Moo and Low Swee Chen of the group Di Xia Tie (Mandarin for Underground Express) in the xinyao documentary The Songs We Sang.
Musicians (from far left) Kelly Loo, Eric Moo and Low Swee Chen of the group Di Xia Tie (Mandarin for Underground Express) in the xinyao documentary The Songs We Sang.PHOTO: IRENE FILMS
The film weaves together interviews from both artists and industry figures, including (from left) songwriter Wee Chin Hock, who also worked behind the scenes in sound and lighting; and Teo Kay Kiong, one of the founders of Ocean Butterflies Music.
The film weaves together interviews from both artists and industry figures, including (from left) songwriter Wee Chin Hock, who also worked behind the scenes in sound and lighting; and Teo Kay Kiong, one of the founders of Ocean Butterflies Music.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

REVIEW / DOCUMENTARY

THE SONGS WE SANG (PG)

128 minutes/Opens tomorrow/

4.5/5 stars

The story: The roots of today's glittery local Mandopop scene go back to the campus music movement christened xinyao (Singapore songs) in the 1980s and are linked to the closing of Nanyang University in 1980 and the end of Chinese as a language of instruction. Apart from interviews with key personalities such as Eric Moo and Liang Wern Fook and the use of archival material, director Eva Tang also recreates the heyday of xinyao by staging a one-off concert at the nostalgic venue of Bras Basah Complex.

The xinyao movement was previously given the big-screen treatment in the fictional drama That Girl In Pinafore (2013). While heartfelt, it was also a missed opportunity with its homage to a 1970s Taiwanese film.

The Songs We Sang is a labour of love that puts our stories front and centre. After a sold-out premiere at the Singapore International Film Festival last November, the film finally gets a general release.

Film-maker Eva Tang - co-director of popular feature documentaries Old Places (2010) and Old Romances (2012), about disappearing spaces in Singapore - puts together an ambitious account of xinyao, weaving together interviews with singers, songwriters, producers, media reports, radio segments and video footage of television and stage performances.

The research is meticulous, the narrative compelling. Even those who consider themselves fans of xinyao will probably learn a thing or two about its genesis and its development.

Apart from the influence of the Taiwanese campus folk song movement, xinyao could also be seen originally as a response to the dismantling of Chinese-language education in Singapore.

It grew to take on a life of its own as it fed a hunger in students who yearned to have their voices heard - there was such a proliferation of singing groups and concerts that many xinyao tracks were performed once and never saw the light of day again.

The film also shines a spotlight on those who helped to introduce xinyao to a wider audience from radio deejay Lim Cher Hui, who gave the genre a platform on her programme Ge Yun Xin Sheng (Singers And Songwriters), to television producer Lim Sek, who lined up the likes of singer- songwriter Eric Moo on variety shows.

Then there are the little surprises, such as seminal xinyao figure Liang Wern Fook singing with his father the traditional Cantonese ditty that was incorporated into Sparrow With A Bamboo Twig, once banned from the airwaves for its dialect content.

The flowering of xinyao was a unique event and Tang captures the spirit of the times. She also channels it into a moving concert that celebrates both the musicians who wrote and sang the songs, and the fervent fans who were very much a part of the movement.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2016, with the headline 'A heartfelt, meticulous tribute to the art of xinyao'. Print Edition | Subscribe