In tune with my past

English pop might have been the soundtrack of my teenage years, but Mandarin songs are the balm to my soul

It all started when I caught Phil Chang in a Chinese music variety television show called Hidden Singer last year.

The format, a copycat version of a South Korean programme, pitted the Taiwanese crooner against five soundalikes.

As they all took turns to belt out a few strains of Chang's hits from behind curtained booths, a celebrity panel and the studio audience had to vote for the one they thought was the real McCoy. The singer with the least number of votes was axed each round until the best vocal doppelganger emerged.

The danger, of course, was that the guest star in each episode would make an early exit. But the suspense was not what kept me glued to the show.

Instead, I was drawn to the songs, overwhelmed with feelings that were at once strange and familiar as the music washed over me.

How long has it been since I last heard these, I wondered as I sang along to tracks from my youth such as Good Intentions and It's The Moon's Fault.


Then I went online to check out other songs by Chang that had piqued my interest on the show - and ended up lost in the labyrinthine virtual world. As each search led me to more options, I spent hours that night downloading one retro Mandarin pop song after another to my phone. Soulful ballads, stirring rock anthems, cheerful ditties - I couldn't get enough of them.

Since then, my playlist has been growing steadily as I reacquainted myself with tunes and singers I once knew and loved, but had somehow slipped between the crevices of my memory.

I grew up speaking Mandarin, but have been interacting with the world mainly in English for more than half my life. While I was weaned on Channel 8 dramas, Western or English-language sources have long made up at least 90 per cent of my cultural diet.

As an adolescent, I was more au fait with the English pop bands and idols of my time - Debbie Gibson, Rick Astley, New Kids On The Block. Anything Western was cool and, hey, I wanted to appear cool even if I wasn't.

My circle of friends didn't speak much Mandarin, so nearly all my crushes and friendships formed or faltered to the beat of English pop songs.

I did my first mass dance to George Harrison's Got My Mind Set On You and had a blast with my classmates.

I'll Be There by Escape Club was supposed to be "our song", but became an ironic reminder of puppy love's inherent transience when the boy and I broke up after just a few months.

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark's Dreaming still prompts flashbacks of a group of guys my girlfriends and I met during a chalet stay.

Just catching strains of these songs today whisks me right back to those sepia-toned days of young love and loss, and makes me smile.

But if English pop is the soundtrack of my teenage years, then Mandopop is the balm to my soul.

Mandarin was the first language I spouted and remains the one I lapse into only in the company of those with whom I feel most relaxed.

These songs touch a deep, soft spot within me because they remind me of family and what made me, me. I get the lyrics, I can identify with the cultural context.

My friend C, a karaoke queen who specialises in Mando- and Cantopop, puts it this way: "I'm a different person in Mandarin and in English. I feel more deeply in Mandarin because it's what I spoke in my childhood, so it's more primal and emotional. I'm very much more articulate and rational in English."

I might have hung out with the Perfect 10 (now rebranded 987) crowd. But I also tuned in faithfully with my sister to long hu bang, the weekly Mandarin pop chart countdown on radio, arguing over which song deserved the top spot.

Yet, while I was busy growing up and settling down in a world where English is the lingua franca, I've somehow lost touch with those songs that once resonated with me.

Technology has been a boon. With my music app all loaded up, I've been playing Mandarin classics in the car, as I work or when I'm plain bored. Sometimes, I even have them on speaker while I'm in the shower.

It is like reconnecting with a dear old friend and making up for lost time.

My playlist came in handy too during a road trip to Malacca with some friends last year. We bonded over Mandarin carpool karaoke, doing textbook renditions of melancholic ballads with a pained expression, half-closed eyes and furrowed brows.

"You guys are my type of people," I told them, delighted that we share similar family backgrounds and taste in music.

Then when a friend offered us tickets to a private showcase by Wakin Chau last month, my husband and I jumped at the chance.

We walked into the MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands to find a largely middle-aged crowd waving glow sticks, then walked out two hours later happily humming his chart-toppers.

There was not a single costume change, no nifty footwork and no fancy pyrotechnics. What we got instead were solid vocals, a familiar repertoire the aural equivalent of comfort food and amusing chatter from the Hong Kong-born singer we knew as Emil Chau while growing up.

He is probably the only singer whose concert I would willingly shell out money for, I told my husband.

Now, after months of being a captive audience to my Mandarin playlist in the car, my kids have become converts. They no longer pull a face or plead with me to switch to English songs because "I don't know what the guy is singing about".

My 10-year-old son, who goes for upbeat, catchy tunes, often requests Jacky Cheung's I Just Want To Sing or Liang Wern Fook's Too Much. His younger sister, who favours mournful melodies like me, has a soft spot for Chau and Chao Chuan.

They indulge me when I replay my favourites ad nauseam and make up their own lyrics to songs that they like, but don't understand.

I'm hoping that they will get it one day. And perhaps the music that speaks to my heart could then become the soundtrack of their childhood.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 21, 2017, with the headline 'In tune with my past'. Print Edition | Subscribe