Review: The Songs We Sang // 我们唱着的歌 (2015)

Watching The Songs We Sang (2015) would not have held that much importance for me had it not been a special screening organised by both Hwa Chong Junior College and CHIJ St. Nicholas’ Girls alumnai associations. Surrounded by both fans, participants and their children, it was amazing to feel the audience hold their breath and exhale as one at various points of the film.
I am not very familiar with the genre in this film but I noted that director Eva Tang was audacious enough to not just cover the Xinyao movement from the music industry’s point of view but also from its very humble beginnings in the Chinese medium schools. 

The latter is what makes the film stand out, otherwise it would have been just another documentary, albeit still a good one, on a music movement. Eva Tang is of course, well-known for her work with Royston Tan and Victric Thng in Old Romances (2010) and Old Places (2012) which are social-historical documentaries on Singapore. It is such experience that we see Tang bring to the fore in her debut feature.

The closure of Singapore’s vernacular schools as it made to switch to all English-medium schools was a necessary, yet bitter move in the 1970s as Singapore sought to prepare itself for survival in the world economy. However, Nantah University had been built only two decades before as a pinnacle to Chinese education in Singapore. Thus it is usually such regret that comes to be associated with the switch. 

However, Tang shows us a completely different reaction in Nantah Chinese poetry club’s last days. Within this club, we see poetry and music flourishing dramatically as the university faced its imminent closure; The students creating poetry to express their emotions on the state of affairs and then taking cues from Taiwan’s folksong movement to set their poems to music which became wildly popular. Such creative outpouring of the students, a lesson in how to respond nobly to a traumatic event.
Of course, optimism alone would not have been able to sustain the movement. Tang then traces its increasing popularity to the willingness of a radio disc-jockey who was willing to take a chance on these students, which eventually catapulted them to fame as well as spawning similar movements in various schools across Singapore, leading to television appearances and of course, Singapore’s mandarin music industry as it is today. 

The scope of this research took 3 years to complete as hunting down members of the various bands and producers who have long since taken different paths was not easy. Similarly, Tang’s efforts to film their efforts in their original locations or to substitute with old pictures must be lauded for making this film a fantastic historical record of Singapore. This makes her attempt to organise a reunion concert for the various bands and their supporters, in Bras Brasah (a site where bands originally played), which was filmed for this documentary, all the more outrageous.

I cannot recommend this film well enough for its production values which are impeccable. In a city where archival materials are difficult and expensive to procure while historical places are torn down every other day, Tang has done us a huge favour in documenting the Xinyao movement for posterity. Even if you are not a fan of Xinyao or can’t speak Chinese, like me, the irreverent hope that its pioneers carried and their triumph over adversity holds a universal appeal that everyone can appreciate. Keep an eye out for it when it comes out later this year!

Review by Jenson Chen

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