Xinyao veteran Dawn Gan relives glory days on stage

Xinyao singer Dawn Gan's voice may be lower now but she is still a bright and bubbly performer

Dawn Gan and other xinyao singers performed to a nostalgia-filled crowd of 2,000 fans at Bras Brasah Complex (above) on Sunday. -- ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Dawn Gan and other xinyao singers performed to a nostalgia-filled crowd of 2,000 fans at Bras Brasah Complex (above) on Sunday. -- ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Dawn Gan (above) and other xinyao singers performed to a nostalgia-filled crowd of 2,000 fans at Bras Brasah Complex on Sunday. -- ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

"I am Liming. I bring sunshine and I bring hope," the woman with waist-long tresses, a white dress and pink heels told the crowd squeezed into the usually sedate Bras Basah Complex on Sunday.

Yes, her name means dawn in Chinese and Dawn Gan, better known as Yan Liming, used to sing sunny songs about love, friendship and school.

She may be 51 this year, but the mother of three children aged 18 to 22 was as bubbly as the 20something singer of Youth 123 - the Let It Go of its time for kids fed on a diet of Channel 8 dramas in the 1980s. It was the theme song for The Happy Trio (1986) starring Chen Bifeng, Hu Shuxian and Yang Libing.

Gan was performing at a concert held for The Songs We Sang, a documentary on xinyao by former journalist Eva Tang. Organisers had gathered leading lights of the made-in-Singapore song movement, such as Liang Wern Fook, Eric Moo and Roy Loi, to recreate the excitement of meet-the-fan sessions at the former student hangout.

Despite a downpour at the start, about 2,000 fans turned up, most on their feet for two hours, reliving the songs that they had grown up with.

They were treated to songs such as Vertigo Night (Ye De Xuan Yun) performed by Koh Nam Seng in a gentle caress as well as Liang singing The Sparrow With A Bamboo Twig (Ma Que Xian Zhu Zhi), a popular tune once absent from the airwaves for having Chinese dialect lyrics in parts.

"It's a way of preserving our history and memories," said IT professional Lee Ai Hoon, 43, who went to the concert with several friends. "We can still remember 70 to 80 per cent of the lyrics. It shows we are not suffering from dementia," she added with a laugh.

Some stayed behind after the concert to get autographs or photos with their idols.

"Your voice is still very bright," Ms Lim Lee Lee, a visually impaired trainer in her mid-40s who could sing nearly all songs at the concert, told Gan.

It's now lower and has more depth, Gan replied.

Gan's star shone brightest among the female xinyao singers and, as she told Life! in an interview, she scaled the highest notes among xinyao peers.

The alumna of Hua Yi Primary and River Valley High found her voice in church: She sang for the choir as a soprano and would sing in musicals or go carolling.

"My family didn't have the money to allow me to enrol for classes. My talent was nurtured in church," she says.

She found herself in the newspapers after she hit all the right notes in a performance at the prize-giving ceremony of a national Chinese contest at her school, National Junior College, in 1980.

"At that time, I was sha sha de (blur) and didn't feel much," she recalls.

She took part in more performances and also came into contact with songwriters such as Liang, a Hwa Chong old boy, who wrote Water Tales (Shui De Hua), which Gan sang in 1984.

It became one of the songs she is most famous for and her favourite xinyao song. "The song was a reflection of what I felt and was also about my life in some way. A lot of people didn't know where I went after I got married," she says.

She went to London with her businessman husband and they later settled in Hong Kong, where she now lives.

Known as Dawn Chia there, she is the former British colony's national sales director for Mary Kay, a line of American beauty products.

Among the "core values" outlined on her Mary Kay business card is "God first, family second, career third". She joined the company in 1999 after her children had grown older.

She lets on that she does not listen to pop songs these days and cannot remember her days as a singer well. Fans had gone up to her on Sunday with pictures of her performing in Malaysia but she had no recollection of it.

What she remembers clearly, though, was the excitement she felt when she and others such as Moo flew to Indonesia to sing backup for Taiwanese singer Julie Su Rui, who held a concert here with rock duo Power Station last Saturday incidentally.

"We were kids who didn't have the chance to go overseas previously. I remember we were running around excitedly at the airport," she says.

Like football strikers Miroslav Klose or Gary Lineker, Gan has the knack of being at the right place at the right time.

At least that is how she accounts for her success as a xinyao singer, but of course fans would point to her voice.

Pristine and saccharine, it had resonated with many and made popular songs such as Your Reflection (Ni De Dao Ying), a duet with singer Hong Shaoxuan that was reinterpreted by younger singers in the 2013 xinyao movie The Girl In Pinafore.

Gan, who acted in the 2012 Jack Neo movie We Not Naughty, has no regrets about turning her back on life as a singer and feels "very blessed" to be involved in xinyao, which to her is an inalienable part of Singapore's culture.

"When I look back at the songs, I think the lyrics are very beautiful. They talk of teenagers' expectations, unease and feelings of being lost. Yet there was a certain naivete and also passion."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.