Xinyao uniquely Singapore

While the movement and its popularity cannot be replicated, the legacy it leaves is a strong foundation for the music industry

The movie That Girl In Pinafore, which opens today, pays tribute to xinyao, the local Chinese music movement.

Set in 1993, the film features classic tracks such as Xi Shui Chang Liu (Friendship Forever) and Ma Que Xian Zu Zhi (Sparrow With Twigs) from veterans of the scene such as Liang Wern Fook.

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Tellingly, no new xinyao songs were composed for the film. Writer-director Chai Yee Wei, 37, says that he had thought of getting some new material written for the movie. "In the end, we realised these songs from the past were able to stand on their own. The songs are the star of the show," he says.

The year that the film is set in is significant. Xinyao giant Liang's fifth and final album, Go East, was released in 1992 and it marked the movement's end.

Asked if the film could have been set in the present day and Chai says with a laugh: "It wouldn't be realistic."

To TCR Music Station's producer, Mr Cai Yiren, 48, xinyao is a "historical term". He is the man behind the annual Chong Feng (Reunion) xinyao concerts and is also organising the upcoming Xinyao Reunion Concert at The Star Theatre on Aug 31.

During the heady heyday of xinyao in the mid-1980s, there would be a new album launched practically every week.

Mr Cai says: "When I booked out of army camp on Saturdays, I would make a beeline for Bras Brasah Complex because I knew there would be some launch or other."

Singer-songwriter Roy Loi, 50, better known as Li Feihui, declares: "If you want to recreate the xinyao of the past, that's not possible. That kind of shining moment can happen only once."

What led to xinyao's demise?

One key factor the major players pointed out was the drop in Chinese language standards as a result of the changes in Singapore's education policy. It was announced in December 1983 that in 1987, all schools would use English as the main language of instruction. It was a decision deemed necessary in multiracial Singapore and it had far-reaching consequences for xinyao.

Liang, 49, says: "The so-called traditional Chinese school students vanished and from the 1990s onwards, it has been clear that there has been no successors when it comes to lyric-writing, with the exception of Xiaohan."

Both Liang and Xiaohan, 39, have won the Best Lyrics award five times at the Singapore Hit Awards. Her works include Darwin I for Tanya Chua and Paper Plane for Sandy Lam.

Chai puts it more bluntly: "Since the end of Chinese education, you don't see this wave of people writing music out of passion anymore, at least not in the Chinese language, because we have totally lost the ability to do so."

Xinyao was not just about the music, it was also about the community of people making and listening to the music. It was a movement that grew organically out of campuses as passionate youth sought to discover their own voices and make themselves heard.

"Xinyao" refers to young Singaporeans (xinjiaporen) creating their own songs (geyao).

Mr Cai recalls: "It was at a press conference and forum in 1983 and there was a discussion on what to call this music that we have created. And someone came up with 'xinyao'."

Loi says: "We never thought about becoming somebody. We were students then and just wanted to share with everyone what we had written while holed up in our rooms. That was it."

The platform for showcasing such works included large-scale events such as the annual Xinyao Festival, first held in 1984. Loi composed the theme song for the event, We Are Waiting For You.

These get-togethers fostered a sense of camaraderie and a spirit that the xinyao veterans say cannot be replicated today.

Loi muses: "The platform was for a group of people and, with this group, there came a force and xinyao was the name of that power. Now, one person can become popular through the Internet on his own and it's much easier to get your works heard."

Another reason for xinyao petering out was the maturing of the music industry.

Singers and songwriters who started out in xinyao and moved on to commercial pop include big names such as Billy Koh, twin brothers Paul and Peter Lee, and Eric Moo. Among those who ventured to Taiwan to carve out a career was Loi.

Liang notes: "In a word, it's regionalisation. And because of that, works with a strong local flavour gradually disappeared. As a composer, of course I feel it's a pity, but from the point of view of the music industry, this was a natural development."

Xinyao is the strong foundation upon which Singapore's current Mandopop success is built.

Mr Cai says: "It was a movement which created a lot of good musicians, singers, arrangers and so on. Many people drew nutrients from that environment and grew strong. Xinyao may be a historical term, but its spirit of creation and its ripple effects were very important to Singapore's popular culture."

While xinyao as a movement may have met its end in the early 1990s, the songs and their spirit have been kept alive by various champions.

Mr Cai has been organising the xinyao-themed Chong Feng concerts since 2002, while Liang's songs have been given new leases of life in the musical If There're Seasons (2007) and in instrumental versions released on disc from 2010.

Personal assistant Elaine Chen, 26, has been attending Chong Feng concerts from 2008 and says that she feels no sense of distance from the songs.

She adds: "The songs are simple, sincere and direct. The lyrics are about student life and friendships and are easily relatable."

That Girl In Pinafore has also "given these songs a new coat of paint", says Chai. "We showed a very early cut of the movie to a group of 17-year-olds and they all loved the songs and thought that these were new songs."

Loi thinks this is the way to go. He says: "To get young people to listen to xinyao, if we were to sing it to them, they would feel that it is very distant. To get them to learn about xinyao, you need young faces to front it."

Others see xinyao as a cultural legacy.

Mr Cai says: "The songs are about country and society and the changes happening around us. For example, Liang Wern Fook's Singapore Pie (1990) summarises in a few minutes the course of the nation's history in a vivid and lively manner.

"This is where xinyao is invaluable. It is something that belongs to us."

Xinyao fan Wency Chay, 36, agrees. The civil servant says that Liang's works, in particular, spoke to her: "He writes about growing up and the phases we were going through, like exams, about Singapore's evolution. It's very close to life so it's very real. The songs are very Singapore."

Liang hopes that xinyao can be more than an object of nostalgia. "Every country has its own folk songs and when they are sung at a gathering, you can feel their strength. They have the power to stir us and bind us together. That is my wish for xinyao."

His own composition, Xi Shui Chang Liu (Friendship Forever), is well on its way to achieving the status of a community song.

Liang muses: "Things which are genuine will stand the test of time. Time can help you see the true value of something more clearly."

bchan@sph.com.sg

That Girl In Pinafore is showing in cinemas.

Xinyao Reunion Concert at The Star Theatre on Aug 31 is sold out.