STOP10 Mar 2017: 'The Songs We Sang' 我们唱着的歌 by Eva Tang

On the surface, this film seems just like an anthology of xinyao 新谣 music over its active decade in the 80s and early 90s, something made for diehard fans of xinyao. But the film The Songs We Sang by Eva Tang proves to be more than nostalgia or a trip down memory lane. It is a history lesson that answers and also raises so many questions, with a undeniable nuance of pain and regret. Like why Mandarin has become the poorer cousin of English as choice language among many Singaporean Chinese. Like the tumultuous chapter in Singapore’s education history that is Nanyang University. Framed against the socio-political events that shaped Singapore and our culture, the film depicts a coming-of-age of our identity and attaches context and meaning behind the most recognisable xinyao hits sung over the years. Many Singapore films have been made in tribute to xinyao such as Lim Suat Yen’s The Road Less Travelled (1997) and Chai Yee Wei’s The Girl in Pinafore. But none are as complete and anchored as The Songs We Sang. It is Singapore’s quintessential xinyao movie.

Here are 10 priceless moments from this documentary.

1. Onscreen meltdown - Watching Zhang Fan, a Nanyang University alumni, and pioneer of the Singapore Chinese music and poetry movement (a prelude to the xinyao movement) break down as he recounted the closing of Nanyang University. Certainly, an emotional anchor-point in the film.

2. A rare reunion - Former students of the defunct Nanyang University reunite in a chorus rendition of 挥手. Don’t forget these students were in their teens when attending university. Today, many of them have received their pioneer generation packages and are silver on top. They look like your typical uncles and aunties, but it’s so hard to fathom the fact that some of them were part of the only kind of student activism we ever had in Singapore. They held more placards and banners than we’ve ever done for G-dragon and Super Junior.

3. Lost in translation - An old television footage of a real school science class in progress with the Chinese-conversant students struggling to understand science taught in English.

4. First ever Xinyao hit - An old TV recording of the song 邂逅, which was the first xinyao song to claim a spot on the Mandarin Top 10 charts on radio. The recording features a young, earnest-looking Eric Moo and his duet-counterpart, 黃譓赬, whose studious bespectacled-look harks back to a formative time in Singapore’s Chinese pop music scene, when all you needed was a guitar and a sweet melody, and perhaps something the show producers fancied - currents of soap bubbles!

5. An old school concert - For fans of xinyao sweetheart Dawn Gan, who was Singapore’s first ever full-time professional xinyao singer performing under a label, the earliest singing footage of her can be found in this documentary. Still in her school uniform, she delivered the song 如何对你说 (which later became a TV drama serial theme song), in her signature pitch-perfect bird-like voice, during what looked like a weekend Chinese LDDS (Language, Drama and Debating Society) ECA event in school.

6. Xinyao in Malay - On of the most surprising discoveries of the film was a footage from an old Sing Singapore concert featuring a young Malay contestant singing a famous xinyao song 阿Ben阿Ben (original song track in video below) adapted into Malay. The transposition lends not only a different tongue but a quasi-reggae twist as well!

7. Small fish in a big pond - Watching an old footage of the Chinese pop music world’s answer to ‘We Are The World’, 明天会更好. ‘We Are The World’ was all-stars charity single helmed by Michael Jackson in 1985 in aid of the African famine relief. Albeit a copycat, 明天会更好 still featured an all-star line-up of the brightest in Chinese pop in the 80s with heavyweights like Tsai Chin, Su Rei, Tracy Huang and Jenny Tseng. Buried somewhere in the chorus of singers was Singapore’s own xinyao trio ‘The Straws’ 水草三重唱. See if you can spot them in this video.

8. 80s Gameshow Kitsch - It’s been a long time since we last saw the insecticide brand Mortein being advertised on TV. With its signature orange cap, it used to compete with Bygone for share of TV ad space in the 80s. In The Songs We Sang, Mortein takes centrestage in a hilarious replay of a ‘live’ game on Channel 8’s regular primetime variety show 缤纷八三. Complete with the game-show hosts sporting bona-fide 80s shoulder pads and puffy hairdos, contestants play to win supplies of the Mortein insecticide that could last for years. Times were different then. We had more cockroaches to deal with.

9. Finding the winning theme song - Faithful Channel 8 fans (of a certain age) will twitch their ears when they hear the familiar theme song of Channel 8’s first ever drama serial, The Awakening 雾锁南洋, a cross-generational period drama serial that depicts the lives of Chinese Singaporeans from pre-war to post-war. What many may not recall is how the theme song came about. The Songs We Sang carries clear footage of the song contest organised by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) held to find that winning theme song.

10. Banned and back again - In an understatedly heartwarming segment, eminent xinyao composer Liang Wern Fook, a signature face of the movement, attempts singing the song 麻雀衔竹枝 with his father. The Cantonese song was banned in Singapore when it was first released due to the ambitions of the Speak Mandarin Campaign (to rid Singapore of the use of dialects). The ban was then lifted in 2013. His poignant duet with his father speaks bittersweet volumes of lost time and heritage.

After a successful general theatrical release in Singapore last year, here is your chance to watch the film again this March. The Filmic Eye in conjunction with the National Arts Council’s Arts in Your Neighbourhood initiative, are bringing this film back at two screening events. Event details in this link.

Fri 17 Mar, 6:30pm @ Viva Business Park - Urban Park
*Sat 18 Mar, 6:30pm  @ Our Tampines Hub - Festive Plaza (*with dialogue with director Eva Tang)
Both screenings are outdoor and free for the public

The Saturday screening is part of a Xinyao Music & Movie Night which will feature experienced singers Tong Yek Suan and Tristan Ong from ETC Music, who will perform live some of the most popular songs from the movement. The movie screening follows this with director Eva Tang in attendance for a post-screening dialogue.


导演邓宝翠将在Our Tampines Hub与观众对话交流。

Written by Jeremy Sing

For the full list of March 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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