How did the popular music movement known as xinyao take root in Singapore? We uncover its beginnings and legacy.
TEXT BY DAPHNE ONG
Published on 18 August 2015
TEXT BY DAPHNE ONG
This is an apt year for celebrating one of the things that is true-blue Singaporean — xinyao. To the uninitiated, xinyao is an abbreviated way of referring to “ballads created by Singaporean youths”. As the name suggests, songs belonging to this genre are primarily composed by young Singaporeans, usually about life, love and friendship in the Lion City.
The homegrown Mandarin vocal genre began among teenage students in the late 1970s, possibly influenced by the Taiwanese folksong movement of the time. From simple guitar strumming and humming in classrooms and schoolyards, more and more new songs were born, with students forming groups and organising performances.
In its heyday in the late ’80s, xinyao competitions, concerts and courses sprung up everywhere, including at community centres, on television and radio. Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, the forerunner of today’s MediaCorp, even used xinyao compositions as theme songs for several of its Chinese television drama serials.
By the early ’90s, xinyao had lost steam and its popularity dwindled, though it was occasionally revisited over the next decade. In recent years, a sense of nostalgia has revived the genre somewhat. In 2007, The Theatre Practice’s Mandarin musical, If There’re Seasons, featured a number of veteran composer Liang Wern Fook’s signature xinyao melodies, while the 2013 Chai Yee Wei-directed film That Girl in Pinafore paid tribute to xinyao.
Live xinyao performances are also making a comeback. Xinyao pioneers like Eric Moo, Roy Loi and Dawn Gan collaborated for a concert last year to a packed house. End August, xinyao enthusiasts can sing along at the Xinyao 33 Reunion Concert, where many stars of the genre will be crooning the greatest hits of yesteryear (see sidebar).
Is local Chinese music created in Singapore today still considered xinyao? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Some say that xinyao refers specifically to the music produced during the ’80s to ’90s era, while others feel it should include all homemade compositions created then and since.
However you choose to classify it, xinyao indisputably laid the foundations for Singapore’s fledgling Chinese music scene, which would evolve to produce regional stars such as Joi Chua, Stefanie Sun, and JJ Lin. The spirit of the genre can be heard any time you hear a Chinese ballad accompanied by a lone guitar, which brings to mind the signature sound of xinyao in its earliest incarnations. One of the best-known tunes, ‘Voices From the Heart’, the theme song for the long-running ’80s Channel 8 television series Neighbours, is still heard at National Day Parades almost every year.
The Xinyao 33 Reunion Concert is on at The Star Theatre, 29 August, 7.30pm. Tickets available at Sistic.
Who’s who in the xinyao universe
Liang Wern Fook
Thanks to a prolific music career, Liang has become a household name among Chinese-speaking Singaporeans. In 1981, he wrote his first song as a singer-songwriter, at the age of 17, with the self-explanatory title ‘Sing a Song for Hwa Chong’. He released five xinyao albums in the course of a career marked by television drama theme songs, regional pop hits and musical theatre. In addition to winning numerous music awards in Asia, he is also a 2010 Cultural Medallion recipient.
Composer and music producer Koh is one of the most influential figures in the Chinese pop industry today, having produced for the likes of Kit Chan and JJ Lin. Koh is considered one of the pioneers of xinyao, which was instrumental in launching his music career.
Known for her bright voice, Gan remains one of the best-loved female singers in the early xinyao scene. Honed in school and at church, her musical talent placed her firmly among her male contemporaries like Liang Wern Fook, Eric Moo and Roy Loi.
Malaysian-born and Singapore-bred, Moo was another pioneer of xinyao. His best-known work is the ditty ‘Kopi-O’ which became the theme song for the popular 1985 Channel 8 television series The Coffee Shop. He is a mainstay in the Cantonese and Mandarin pop-music scene, having released more than 40 albums.
He was Singapore’s first full-time professional songwriter at a time when the country didn’t have much of a music industry. Since then, Loi has also become a fixture in the Mandarin pop scene, especially the vibrant Taiwanese music industry.