Huayi Festival Of Arts

Reunion of Chen's old friends

Composer Chen Jiaming's vast repertoire of songs he wrote took centre stage and it was like revisiting his life through them

The adjective "low-key" was repeatedly used to describe Mandopop composer Chen Jiaming at his tribute concert on Saturday, by his fans, peers and singers who have worked with him.

True enough, the reticent Chen turned up on stage only at the show's conclusion, practically incognito in a black hooded sweater, jeans and sneakers.

At a three-hour marathon concert staged to commemorate his 30th anniversary in show business, he spoke for only 30 seconds, quietly thanking performers and the full-house audience for their longstanding support.

Like most musicians, his most memorable utterances are not his speeches, but his gentle, elegantly constructed compositions, which often lament the elusiveness and sorrow of love gained and lost.

Many of these have appeared in television drama soundtracks and eventually became karaoke staples, such as Mavis Hee's classic Moonlight In The City, the evening's rousing sing-along finale, complete with fans waving their camera phones to light up the concert hall.

Chen's vast repertoire took centre stage at last Saturday's concert and the covers by a group of local singers proved how his songs could be re-interpreted time and again without sounding aged.



    Esplanade Concert Hall

    Last Saturday

These were accompanied by video projections of Chen's musings on his experiences, penned in lyrical prose, which have informed his works. The melody to Mavis Hee's Fallen City, for instance, was inspired by Chen's time in Hong Kong during its momentous return to China in July 1997.

Many older performers hewed to Chen's original arrangements, such as singer-actor Ric Liu, who turned in a palatable version of Eric Moo's impossibly difficult 1994 power ballad, Too Silly. His ex-bandmate from the now-defunct band Dreamz FM, Cavin Soh, delivered a lovely version of Mavis Hee's 1995 hit Regret, colouring it with masculine tenderness.

Together with fellow ex-bandmate and singer-composer Jim Lim, they were a riot on stage, ribbing each other and firing off Chinese New Year puns left and right.

The home-grown acapella group Micappella , however, took liberties with their spin on Jeff Chang's 1995 ballad Too Much, infusing it with beatboxing sounds and vocal harmonies for stellar effect.

Throughout the night, one could feel the weight of Chen's immense influence on Chinese music, particularly xinyao, the Singapore Chinese indie folk music movement which he helped pioneer back in the day as a Jurong Junior College student.

At times, the show, which stretched almost an hour beyond the scheduled three hours, felt like a reunion of Chen's old friends. His long-time pal, veteran singer Roy Loi Fei Hui, who was spontaneously invited onstage, recounted their halcyon days in the xinyao group Underground Express, when they would perform to a rapt audience of Bishan residents.

Singer Olivia Ong also acknowledged Chen for gifting her with Like A Swallow (2009), the poetic theme song for the hit drama The Little Nyonya, which propelled her to fame and paved the way for her Mandopop crossover.

A pity that Hee, Chen's other long-time mentee, did not perform - no cover could evoke the haunting restraint she brought to his compositions.

In the concert leaflet, Chen wrote to the audience: "Every song contains a part of me. If, in the future, a song of mine touches you, that sentiment will transcend time and space… and there we will meet again."

For this reviewer, and surely other audience members, the concert brimmed with that sentiment, as we revisited Chen's life through his songs, and our own as well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline 'Reunion of Chen's old friends'. Print Edition | Subscribe