Film Review: ‘The Songs We Sang’ Reminisces The Heights of Home-Grown Music in Singapore4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
The Songs We Sang is a documentary about Singaporean Mandarin Folk Music that was popular in the 1980s and 90s. It traces the birth and development of the genre and its community with the backdrop of a modernising Singapore.
Director: Eva Tang
Language: Mandarin Chinese
Runtime: 168 minutes
Xinyao refers to the grassroots movement of home-grown Chinese folk music in the 1980s. The movement was spearheaded by the last batch of Chinese-educated students at Nanyang University before it merged with the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore in 1980. In an era where the Mandarin Chinese music scene was dominated by music from Taiwan, these courageous students desired to create a distinctive musical flavour for Singapore.
The Songs We Sang 《我们唱着的歌》premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival in 2015 and was partly funded by the National Heritage Board. It is directed by local filmmaker Eva Tang who resigned as a journalist to study film after being awarded a scholarship from the Singapore Film Commission. She later became the first Singaporean filmmaker to have her film selected at the Venice Film Festival in 2002.
Tang’s direction for The Songs We Sang is profound. The documentary is well-substantiated and beautifully layered with interviews by famous Xinyao artistes such as Dawn Gan and Liang Wern Fook, paired with archival footage of these singers and songwriters as students. The warm and homely melodies of their songs wrap you in a hug, as they accompany the browned and colour-faded images of the singers’ student days. I was taken aback by how rich the foundation of the scene was, and ashamed of my own undermining of Singaporean Chinese culture.
Despite being a documentary, it is an easy and enjoyable watch. Tang neatly takes her audiences — step-by-step — of how the movement developed and blossomed as the pioneers continued to spontaneously write music and organise musical events in lecture halls. Tang highlights the teamwork and good-spirited collaboration among the pioneers who later moved to inspire and encourage succeeding generations of students to write and sing their own songs.
What really struck me is their unflinching beliefs in achieving their dreams of not only succeeding as Mandarin Chinese singers in Singapore but also of carving a unique style for Singaporean Chinese music. We would most likely snigger at one’s dreams of even wanting to enter the music industry today.
At first watch, the documentary seems to be an uplifting celebration of the surviving culture and the tightly-knitted community surrounding Xinyao and the Chinese language. However, I saw it as a requiem to the slowly dissipating cultural scene. Tang wishes to keep a record of its history before it’s too late.
Tang immaculately captures the raw emotion of loss. You can empathise with the Chinese-educated students’ struggle against fading into irrelevance as they were propelled into an English-speaking world that disdained their world of the Chinese language and culture. The inability for Xinyao to leave a deep mark on Singapore’s cultural footprint also heightened with the government’s 1979 ‘Speak more Chinese’ campaign, which placed a ban on songs that contained Hokkien or Cantonese lyrics.
JJ Lin and Stephanie Sun, though presented at the start of the film as the height of Xinyao’s influence and success of Singapore’s music scene, are also the youngest and final two full-time contemporary Mandarin singers interviewed. It seems like the future for Singaporean Mandarin Chinese songs stopped dead in their tracks with these two singers.
As Tang weaves through the past and present, the documentary concludes with a recording of a special public Xinyao concert that was held at Bras Basah complex in 2014. The mostly middle-aged crowd braved the rain with their umbrellas as they waved their arms and belted along with the Xinyao singers (now probably in their 40s and 50s) on stage. It reminded me of our annual National Day celebration sing-a-longs whenever Kit Chan’s Home is played.
The sheer but simple delight on the crowd’s faces as they sang and reminisced their past youthful selves brought tears to my eyes. The Songs We Sang made me wish I was born 40 years earlier so I could know the lyrics of these songs and share in their joy.
The Songs We Sang is a documentary that will move you like most plot-based films can. It will also convince you of the cultural vacuum that will form if we remain indifferent and allow the Singaporean Chinese culture that had once so enriched our nation, to disappear.
The Songs We Sang is now streaming on Netflix.
Take a trip down memory lane with this playlist!