The Songs We Sang (我们唱着的歌) (2016)

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My earliest memory of xinyao is seeing 巫启贤 and 黄慧贞’s 邂逅 hit the 龙虎榜 (The Chinese Top of the Pops) in the early 80s. Those days as a secondary school kid I already knew it is an unheralded phenomenon – a made in Singapore song hitting the charts filled with ubiquitous Taiwanese hits by idols the size of HDB blocks. My Chinese then was half past six (actually, it is still stuck there 😊), but there is something about that song that transcends language deficiency barriers and it put me in a good place. Then I learned the meaning of 邂逅 (chanced meeting) and I swear I tried to use it in my lousy Chinese compositions any which way I could. Last night at the full-house screening of Eva Tang’s The Songs We Sang (我们唱著的歌), I learned an interesting story behind the writing of that song – it was after listening to a Danny Chan album that made Eric Moo ask himself why can’t he write songs that mattered like Chan’s. Drawing inspiration from a Danny Chan song he came out with a tune in no time. He handed over the music to 黄慧贞 to write the lyrics and she came out with something truly sublime. Moo read the lyrics and he couldn’t understand half of it and even asked her why she wrote 行 so far apart, and she explained in the most poetic way that 彳亍 means to walk very slowly and contemplatively. That was one of the funniest moments in this 2-hour documentary – the self-deprecating humour. Last night I not only laughed and paid homage, I also stepped into a time machine and travelled back to the 80s, my 1980s…. and my bak sai di di lau lok lai (that’s Hokkien for my tears kept streaming down my face).

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Eva Tang, the director has crafted a touching love letter to this bygone era of Chinese-ed students who composed and sang songs of what they felt in a fast-changing Singapore. This is a heartwarming ode to xinyao, the zeitgeist of its time. Painstakingly curated, seamlessly edited and heartrendingly nostalgic. What is on the big screen must have been years of hard work – to get all the pioneers of the movement in front of the mic, from the original pioneers from the defunct 南洋大学 to the singer-songwriters we all know to the unsung heroes behind the scenes who gave these wet behind the ears youngsters a shot, Tang has archived this period of Singapore’s unique musical history for posterity.

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I learned so much of this part of Singapore’s history in 2 hours than through all my years of education which basically whitewashed certain areas and time periods. Tang has crafted a documentary so thorough it left no stones unturned. I had no idea that the xinyao story began in 南洋大学 through students who were frustrated with the lack of a say in matters when the government decided to merge Nantah with University of Singapore to become the present National University of Singapore. With the dilution and the impending loss of their identity, the Nantah students wrote music to penned poems to describe their pain and anguish. It doesn’t take a scholar to see why the government did what they did. The sign of the times dictated the necessary action, and the government probably also saw the intense fervour of the Chinese students as a possible future problem of dissent. So the problem was nipped at the bud. There are a few pointed interviews with these Nantah xinyao pioneers that spoke of these dark times and the stuff they had to suffer when they went into the workforce. However Tang wasn’t looking for aggressors or sufferers. To me, there were only victims on both sides of the fence. As with any sword of change, it is always double-edge. Look at the languishing state of Chinese presently and the sheer number of ‘talents’ we have to bring in to do the jobs we could have done. Sigh…. I am preaching. Eva Tang would have disapproved. I will just end this rant by saying it was a sad period that needed a mouthpiece to give context for the next phase of the xinyao movement. Who is to say that government’s action didn’t set a fire to the movement.

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The emotions did not die or even falter as these Nantah graduates earned their keep in society transferring their fire. In one sublime scene 颜黎明 (Dawn Gan), the first xinyao singer who scored a recording contract was reunited with her mentor who hailed from Nantah. Tang filmed the scene of reunion at a lecture theatre at National Junior College, the place where it all happened for Dawn Gan. In fact, Tang frequently tries to film the interviews at the important locations where it all began for them. We also go to Jurong Junior College and see how Eric Moo and 地下铁 hanged around the canteen to sing self-composed songs to the curiosity of the other students.

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No xinyao documentary will be complete without one of the most accomplished lyricist Singapore ever produced, 梁文福 (Liang Wern Fook). In a very moving scene Liang detailed how because of some words of dialect, the song 麻雀街竹枝 (The Sparrow with a Bamboo Twig) was banned for 23 years! The ban was only lifted in 2013. Yet another one of government’s Chinese culture master killing stroke and it is one that made me a victim because I can’t speak Hainanese and Hakka 😢. I think my voice mirrors so many people out there. In this particular interview conducted in a nondescript home piled with numerous articles of memories, Liang and his aging dad are about to blast into the dialect laden worded beginning of the song, and the dad softly asks his son to keep the tempo slower. For some reason it made me tear up. I think it made me think of my dad.

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There wouldn’t be Stefanie Sun without Li Wei Song and Li Si Song, and there wouldn’t be the latter two without xinyao. There are so many stories shared in these fruitful 2 hours. Some sad, some funny, but all inspiring. To my surprise I only found out last night that 水草三重唱 and Eric Moo were invited to sing in the chorus of 明天会更好, Taiwan’s We Are the World and Do They Know It’s Christmas. They were so awed by the Taiwanese talent on display and learned so much from them. At one point these who’s who of Taiwan told them 20 years from then they will get a chance to share similar stories. I guess this documentary represents their story.

Tang wisely never forgets the unsung heroes who gave these singers a platform to showcase their talent and voice. Radio DJs like Lim Cher Hui who gave up a spot on her programme to boost the popularity of xinyao. In an interview she even deflects her contributions to a particular radio listener who called in to vote for a new song for next fortnight’s Top 10 and he/she said 邂逅. Lim asked whether he/she was sure because she believed it wouldn’t stand a chance against the avalanche of Taiwan hits. Lo and behold a miracle happened.

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All the songs and heart-felt stories culminated to the xinyao concert held at Bras Basah Complex in 2014. People braved the rain to be awashed with the songs they grew up with once again. My heart welled up with warmth and pride coursed through my body. I can’t sing for nuts and my Chinese is shameful, but I am a good listener and I know honesty when I hear it. I am a child of the 80s and it is the time that most defined me. Other than the beautiful memories of this xinyao period, I actually bought the first xinyao album on LP called 明天21. Now I feel like getting a turntable just to spin it again.

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Who should watch this? Simple. Every true blue Singaporean. It doesn’t matter if you even know the songs. The documentary ends on a contemplative mood because we all know xinyao has evolved to a different plane now where everything is dictated by sales, gimmicks and statistics. This is a superbly made documentary with an eye looking out at the future of our musical landscape. It is a documentary that will show you what it means to be a Singaporean Chinese and it will make you want to embrace your cultural heritage.

5 / 5

PS – It was quite an experience watching this with my wife. Before the text can appear to say who the talking head is, my wife already uttered their names excitedly. Over a hot Milo after the film she told me more xinyao stories. OMG! Who did I marry? One of the lines that really hit her went something like this – 骄傲和自卑是一体的,英语让我自卑,华语让我骄傲。

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