The year that I was born, Nantah closed. Singapore’s only Chinese language university, Nanyang University, bade farewell to its final batch of graduates and merged with the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore. That axial shift marked the passing of an era. Chinese was shunted in favour of English as the language of instruction and an entire generation of Chinese-speaking Singaporeans fought to find their voice in the uncertain future.
It was against this backdrop that the early Xinyao (新谣) songwriters sought to fashion their identity through poems and songs. Household names today, Xinyao pioneers like Liang Wern Fook and Billy Koh, started performing their compositions on campus, shuffling awkwardly at the fringe of mainstream pop culture. By the mid-1980s, through the persistent and sincere efforts of songwriters, television producers and radio presenters, this youth music subculture found acceptance with the public.
This coming-to-be story of Xinyao was made into a documentary late last year. Titled “The Songs We Sang (我们唱着的歌)”, the film captures the youthful optimism of the 80s generation, which laid the ground for our Mandarin music industry today. Through my work in Singapore Day, I have had the privilege of meeting some of them (Roy Li Feihui, Lee Wei Song and Lee Shih Siong) who mentored our current generation of superstars (Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin, to name a few).
The film captures many familiar scenes of growing up in Singapore in the 80s, accompanied by familiar tunes. Did you know that the soundtrack of The Awakening (雾锁南洋) was the winning entry from a Xinyao song writing competition? Or that Kopi-O was a stubborn push-back against the Speak Mandarin Campaign to capture the multi-layered dialect diversity of the people?
It might all seem nostalgic and a distant memory but it was only in 2013 that Liang Wern Fook’s “Sparrow with Bamboo Twigs” 麻雀衔竹枝was un-banned after 23 years, permitting dialects to be played on national radio. On that fateful morning, all three local Chinese radio stations came together to play the same song.
Through the lives of our Xinyao pioneers, the film explores what it meant to be a Chinese in Singapore, as compared to our peers in Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The unique circumstance of our history had cast our paths differently. There was something about being a Chinese Singaporean, as it did to be a Malay Singaporean and Indian Singaporean, cast adrift together in the new world.
In the English music scene, the celebrated Dick Lee grappled with what it meant to be an English-speaking Chinese Singaporean, tugged many ways by Western culture and Asian values, in his 1989 album “The Mad Chinaman”. In his autobiography, he recounts a significant meeting with a music executive in London.
“The man looked at me and said something that devastated me. ‘So you’re Chinese. What have you got to say, musically, as a Chinese?’ I was stunned. Nobody had asked that of me before. It made me think: What did I have to say as a Chinese, as a Singaporean? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” – Dick Lee, The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman (2004)
Many years on, I would like to think we have a better sense of who we are. Running three weekends from April 29 to May 15, the Singapore HeritageFest will celebrate the things which make our way of life so special, with different activities in the city centre, the heartlands and Pulau Ubin. Not unsurprisingly, food will be taking centre stage. There are food trails planned in Joo Chiat and Changi, and even a recreation of a 1960s street hawker scene at the National Museum. These stalls will be run by second and third generation hawkers carrying on their parents’ trade and retelling their versions of age-old stories. In one story, the second generation hawker of Springleaf Prata Place re-presents roti prata with an eggs benedict twist.
Inside the museum, there’s an exhibition on the history of radio broadcast in Singapore. Aptly named Celebrating Radio: Sounds from the Past, it will feature vintage radios, permits, photographs and recordings from seismic moments in our history. Just as radio paved the way for Xinyao into mainstream pop culture, Radio Singapore shaped our entertainment scene, providing the platform for young musicians like The Crescendos and The Quests to be heard.
Like a way of life, a radio recording can deny the passage of time, suspended for future generations. That’s how heritage is preserved and songs kept evergreen.