By Ng Yi-Sheng
I'm not a xinyao fan. I'm one of those jiak kentang, angmoh-ified, xiangjiaoren guys who got a C6 for his Chinese O-Levels on his second try. But I am a dutiful supporter of local cinema, so I turned up at a screening of Eva Tang's first full-length film, The Songs We Sang / 我们唱着的歌 : a documentary about the roots of xinyao.
And it was great. It made me laugh and sigh for the good old days and even tear up a little. It’s clear I wasn’t the only fan, either–I caught the film on a Wednesday afternoon, and the house was nearly full save for the front two rows (which meant I had to crane my head backwards for a couple of hours). So I’m going to grab this opportunity to spread the word about this film, just to keep it open in Golden Village for a few more weeks, if I can.
In case you’re perplexed: xinyao / 新谣 is a genre of Mandarin pop music that emerged in Singapore in the late 1980s, gaining international popularity across the Chinese-speaking world in the 1990s. You may have heard of its early stars–Eric Moo and Liang Wern Fook, for instance–and you’ve almost certainly heard of its younger celebs like Kit Chan, Stephanie Sun and JJ Lin.
It’s not seen as a political art form—after all, its idols reinforce the status quo by appearing in our National Day music videos. That pales in comparison to the work of the Mandarin theatre world, whose artists have consistently made plays that critique the status quo and even faced mass detentions on charges of leftism in the 1970s.
Nevertheless, The Songs We Sang reveals how xinyao arose as a direct result of government policies—specifically, the decision to phase out Chinese-medium education in the 1980s. Tang interviews alumni from Nanyang University, the only Chinese-medium university in Southeast Asia: they recall how they were furious that their school was closing, and concentrated all their attention on songwriting instead of their studies.
Other songwriters were in secondary school when the transition happened. Thrust into the Anglophone world of junior college, they founded bands and songwriting societies as a way of preserving their sanity. And it’s honestly astonishing to realise how young these folks were when they got famous. The entire scene actually experienced a major dip in performances in the mid-‘80s, when the male stars got called up for National Service.
It’s also to Tang’s great credit that she highlights the vital role of female DJs and TV producers like Lim Cher Hui who ensured that young Singaporean voices would be heard on the radio—even secretly slipping their amateur albums into sound libraries so other DJs would find them amidst the professionally produced tracks from Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is the how xinyao managed to gain mainstream popularity amongst Singaporean youth. (Why couldn’t Anglophone DJs couldn’t do the same for English language music scene?)
Tang further highlights how xinyao writers were, ironically, frustrated by the Speak Mandarin Campaign. Eric Moo was specifically told that he couldn’t use dialect when writing the theme song to the 1985 Channel Eight sitcom Kopi-O. Liang Wern Fook’s Sparrow with Bamboo Twigs / 麻雀衔竹枝 was actually banned from 1990 to 2013, just because it features a few lines in Cantonese.
Strangely enough, the documentary cuts off just as xinyao is getting mainstream in the ‘90s, with the founding of the first professional record label, Ocean Butterflies Music. As a result, we don’t get to see the rise of the most famous names in Singaporean pop.
Nor is this the show’s only flaw. It’s honestly a little draggy at times, so that its two-hour run time feels like more than enough for a single sitting. I’m also very much aware that my love for the film is influenced by my personal Gen X nostalgia for the ‘80s, as well as my Chinese roots. (A non-Chinese Singaporean viewer may well feel alienated—it’s tracing an almost exclusively Chinese thread in cultural history, after all.)
Nevertheless, I believe there’s something universally inspiring about the film. It captures a moment in post-independence Singapore when an grassroots artistic movement arose. The people who made xinyao a success—artists, programmers and fans—were ordinary Singaporeans, not economic or cultural elites. They were given little to no help from the government. Yet they made it happen.
To me, that’s the most important lesson to take away from The Songs We Sang. I don’t need that many details about the past; I’m looking to the future.
Because if that generation was able to start a movement, then we can too.