If you didn't get a chance to listen to my special mix on Zoë Baxter's Lucky Cat radio show two weekends ago, I'm happy to report that it is now available as a podcast. You can download the mp3 HERE (right-click and save) or listen to it in the player below.
I've put together some liner notes for each of the songs, annotated with choice links for those who want to explore further. As always, I've tried my best to present accurate information, but this time around I had to rely on my paltry translation skills more than I usually do. A brief note about song titles. If the English title comes first, it's the translation that appears directly on the record album or from another reputable source. If it comes second, then it's my own translation. Apologies in advance for any errors. If you catch anything wrong or have something interesting to add, please leave a comment. Finally, at the end of the notes you will find a short list of recommended resources.
Thanks to Mei and Oldflames for their translations tips, to Todd for getting the name of that song off the tip of my tongue, and most especially to Zoë for making this happen (I never would have done it if she hadn't asked). Hope you enjoy the show!
- "The Queen Envoy" 王昭君 (1957)
by Tung Pei Pei 董佩佩
Dubbed "Little Zhou Xuan" because she styled her singing after the legendary Shanghai songstress, Tung Pei Pei shot to fame after playing the lead role in Golden Voice (1955), a Taiwan film based on Zhou Xuan's life. This traditional ballad from the Han Dynasty tells the story of the imperial concubine Wang Zhao Jun — one of China's legendary "Four Beauties" — whose treaty marriage to the king of the Xiongnu tribes is remembered as a noble sacrifice resulting in peace and understanding between the two peoples. According to legend, as Wang Zhao Jun left her hometown on horseback, it neighed in agitation, releasing a flood of sadness within her. As she sat in the saddle, she played a sorrowful melody on her pipa. A flock of geese flying southward, upon hearing the plaintive sounds coming from the forlorn beauty, immediately forgot to flap their wings and fell to the ground. From then on, Zhao Jun acquired the nickname Luo Yan (literally, "falling geese"). Perhaps you too will forget to flap your wings as you listen to this song's poignant evocation of the sadness of exile.
- "The Choice of a Lover" 愛的抉擇 (1964)
by Lui Hung 呂紅
Lui Hung is the daughter of renowned composer and erh-hu virtuoso Lui Man Sing (one of the "Legendary Four" of Cantonese classical music and a pioneer in the nascent development of Cantonese popular music). According to the liner notes of Chinese Folk Songs (released in the U.S. on the Lyrichord label), Miss Lui "distinguishes herself in classical Cantonese songs as well as modern Cantonese and Mandarin songs. She is equally expert in playing Chinese music, acting in Chinese opera, and dancing in Chinese classical and folk dances." After listening to this lively folk tune, check out her cover of Yao Li's "A Thousand Mountains Apart" (and if anyone knows the original song Yao Li's version comes from, please let me know).
- 情種 "The Affectionate Type" (ca. 1967)
by Fong Sum 方心
Fong Sum got her start in movies at the age of 16, in the Cantonese film Ten Schoolgirls (1960). Two years later she made her debut as leading lady in Soaring High (1962), a crime film directed by Wong Tin-Lam and shot in color (somewhat rare for a Cantonese film at that time). Despite such a splash, Fong Sum's career never took off and she soon found herself supporting the next wave of Cantonese teen idols Connie Chan, Nancy Sit, and Josephine Siao. As for this song, I must confess it's a bit of a mystery. I wasn't able to trace it to any of her films. So just find yourself an affectionate type and slow dance to the breezy rhythms of this rare track.
- 鼓舞新生 "Encouraging a New Life" (ca. 1967)
by 俊郎 Chun Long
Even more mysterious is this fabulous Cantonese cover of The Beatle's 1965 hit "Yesterday", which appears on the B-side of Fong Sum's "The Affectionate Type". Unfortunately, I can't find any information whatsoever about the singer Chun Long. He appears to be a missing link between the proto-Cantopop singers of the late 50s and early 60s, such as Chow Chung and Cheng Kwan Min (check out his wonderful version of "Jambalaya"), and the "godfathers" of modern Cantopop, Sam Hui and Roman Tam — both of whom got their start in the late 60s performing covers of Western hits in English rather than Cantonese. This song is proof that there is still much to be rediscovered.
- "Three Flowers of the Factory" 工廠三小姐 (1967)
by Ting Ying 丁瑩, Lydia Sum 沈殿霞 and Lee Chan Chan 李真真
The factory girl was an iconic figure in Cantonese movies of the 1960s. Hong Kong's booming manufacturing industry had brought many young women into the workplace. What disposable income they had helped sustain the largely female-centric Cantonese cinema of that time. Before teen idol Connie Chan won the hearts of factory girls in the late 60s (listen to her song "Long Live the Factory Girls"), Ting Ying was the "Queen of the Factory" (the title of one of her 1963 films). Ting Ying had got her start in Mandarin films in the mid-50s, switched to Cantonese films in 1960, and then moved to Taiwan in the late 60s, where she made a handful of Mandarin swordplay films before retiring. This delightful romp comes from the 1967 film Three Flowers of the Factory. Joining Ting Ying is the much beloved Lydia Sum, who had just become a host on the popular Hong Kong TV variety show Enjoy Yourself Tonight.
- 賣花姑娘 "The Flower Girl" (1966)
by Josephine Siao 蕭芳芳
I still remember the first time I saw Josephine Siao. Her hilarious performance as Jet Li's kung-fu fighting mom in Fong Sai Yuk (1993) made a huge impression on me. Little did I know then that she was one of Hong Kong cinema's top idols during the 1960s and had been making martial-arts movies since the tender age of 12. Whereas fellow idol Connie Chan was adored by Hong Kong's working girls, Josephine was admired by the colony's student set. A Shanghainese transplant, she exuded the classic cosmopolitan chic of her birth town, updated to reflect the latest mod styles of British Hong Kong. This rocking reboot of Zhou Xuan's evergreen hit "Picking Betel Nuts" aptly captures Josephine's voguish charm.
- "Chivalrous Girl in the Air" 空中女殺手 (1967)
by Connie Chan 陳寶珠
Although she was nicknamed the "Movie Fan Princess", Connie Chan was a bit of a Plain Jane when compared to fashionista Josephine Siao. But dress her up in men's clothes and something magical happened. It was like an electric switch was turned on the moment she swapped her dress for a pair of pants. Not surprising considering that she was trained since childhood in the male roles of Chinese opera and that her sifu was none other than Yam Kim Fai, the cross-dressing superstar of Cantonese opera. Connie's talent for portraying men served her just as well on the silver screen as it did on the opera stage. During her teen years, she frequently played male heroes in the countless swordplay films that comprised the bulk of her work. As Connie matured into a young woman, her films diversified into other genres likes comedies and romances, where she had a chance to play more feminine roles, but she continued to show off her tomboyish charms in contemporary actions movies such as the legendary Lady Bond franchise. This number comes from the third film of the series and features Connie singing in a masculine style derived from her Cantonese opera background. Check out my podcast with the Infernal Brains for everything you'd ever want to know about the so-called "Jane Bond" films of Hong Kong cinema.
- 愛情滋味 "The Taste of Romance" (1966)
by Connie Chan 陳寶珠 and Josephine Siao 蕭芳芳
Between 1960 and 1966 Connie and Josephine starred together in nearly 50 films, almost all of them traditional swordplay films. The girls were often cast as disciples of the same master, and sometimes — when Connie played the male lead — as young heroes in love. Capitalizing on their chemistry, veteran director Lee Tit cast them as the lovers in Eternal Love (1966), his update of the classic Cantonese opera Why Not Return? Connie and Josephine's fresh faces and a new, more melodious, musical arrangement revived this standard scholar-and-beauty romance. Released the same year as the film, this cover version of the Rolling Stones' "As Tears Go By" is much more than it seems on the surface. Rewritten as a love duet with classical Chinese lyrics, "The Taste of Romance" is nothing less than a modern-day reprise of the kind of idealized romance portrayed in Eternal Love.
- "You Are the One I Love" 我的愛人就是你 (1967)
by Josephine Siao 蕭芳芳 and Pearl Au 歐嘉慧
Although Josephine Siao was one of the most beloved teen idols of Cantonese cinema, she actually got her start as a child actress in Mandarin cinema. In 1955, at the age of eight, she won Best Child Actress at the 2nd Southeast Asian Film Festival for her role in The Orphan Girl. Five years later she played an orphan again in Nobody's Child (1960). She sang three songs in the film, among them the much beloved "Mama is Good", which ended up becoming a standard of Chinese lullabies. During the mid-60s, Pathé released EP soundtracks for many of Josephine's Cantonese films. At the same time the label also tried to promote her as Mandarin singer, including her in a 1968 promotional tour of Malaysia alongside such veterans as Rebecca Pan and Tsin Ting. This delightfully funky Mandarin stomp comes from the Cantonese film You Are the One I Love (1967). Sharing the microphone with Josephine is Pearl Au, who was herself a Cantonese teen idol during the late 1950s.
- "Sixteen Candles" (ca. 1967)
by Ruby Wah 華怡保
Known as the "Willow Waist Pop Diva" because of her 17-inch waist, Ruby Wah was born in Ipoh, Malaysia. Her mother hade been a singer in pre-communist Shanghai and ran a performance troupe after emigrating to Malaysia. She trained her daughter in singing and ballet, and by the time Ruby was a teenager, during the mid-50s, she was performing nightly at Singapore hotels, singing songs in Chinese and English. Starting in 1960 she began performing overseas in Hong Kong and Taiwan — always chaperoned by her mother — and reportedly even landed a 3-month gig in Las Vegas. In 1964 at the peak of her career, she made a guest appearance in the Shaw Brothers musical The Lark. A versatile performer, Ruby was equally adept at singing Mandarin art songs, like the highly regarded "Drizzles on the Eastern Mountain", as she was at belting out Western pop hits. Listen to "Sixteen Candles", with its dirty guitar licks, and imagine that Ruby has snuck away from her gig at the Hotel Singapore for a surprise number at that disreputable nightclub on the other side of town.
- 為甚麼我們要分手 "Why Must We Break Up?" (1967)
by Chang Lye Lye 張萊萊
Singapore songstress Chang Lye Lye's cameo in The Golden Skull (1967), a Cantonese "Jane Bond" film starring Josephine Siao, is illustrative of her colorful career. Her father was a circus performer and her mother a ballerina. In 1941 the family fled China and ended up in Singapore, where they joined the renowned Shen Chang Fu Circus. Lye Lye and her two younger sisters grew up under the big top and soon became stars of the troupe — singing, dancing, and performing acrobatics. Around 1955 the troupe traveled to Hong Kong, where they were evidently quite the sensation. Lye Lye was spotted by actor/director Lo Wei, who gave her a role in the Mandarin musical The River of Love (1957). A few other films followed, including two Hokkien-dialect productions she made for Shaw Brothers. She also produced and directed her own film, My Love in Malaya (1963), starring her younger sister Landi Chang. Although her movie career never took off, Chang Lye Lye continued singing through the end of the 60s. This rocking rendition of "A Taste of Honey" — which she sings during a nightclub scene in The Golden Skull — shows off the vivacity that made her such a popular performer.
- "Wish You Luck" 一路順風 (ca. 1968)
by Doris Ang and The Sandboys 洪佩佩聖童樂隊伴奏
According to music historian Joseph Pereira, when Cliff Richard and the Shadows visited Singapore in 1961 they set off a chain reaction that would reverberate through the end of the decade. Almost overnight Singapore was home to hundreds of guitar bands. The era of traditional Shanghainese pop was coming to an end. What didn't change though was the predominance of female singers. A new wave of young girls stepped up to the mike, usually with backing of the latest popular club band: Lam Leng and The Quests, Lara and The Trailers, Naomi and The Boys, Shirley Nair and The Silver Strings, Susan Lim and The Thunderbirds, and so many more. Not wanting to be left behind, some singers of the previous generation, such as Ruby Wah and Chang Lye Lye, added a little rock 'n' roll to their repertoire to keep themselves fresh. As for the group featured here, I can't tell you much about them except that they won me over with Doris Ang's tough, girl-next-door look and The Sandboys' gritty garage-rock sound. Their set list included Western hits like "Crying in a Storm" as well as Chinese hits like this one. Adapted from a Hibari Misora song, "Wish You Luck" was performed by Taiwan crooner Xie Lei and Hong Kong singer Amy Ying before getting a rock 'n' roll makeover in Singapore from Doris and the boys.
- 咪咪貓 "Mimi the Cat" (ca. 1968)
by Mimi Tsai and the Five Petals Band 蔡咪咪與五花瓣合唱團
Taiwan's first all-girl band was the brainchild of singer Xie Lei, who discovered them in 1967 while on tour. During one of his stops, his voice had become hoarse, so somebody suggested he find a local girl to back him up on vocals. That girl was Mimi Tsai, allegedly just 11 years old at the time. Later that same tour, he made the acquaintance of a band of budding girl rockers playing beat-up, out-of-tune guitars. Xie Lei eventually brought them all together, gave them music lessons, had their hair cut short like school boys, and kitted them out in matching mini dresses and white go-go boots. Success didn't come easily at first, but the girls finally got their big break in 1968 when they recorded "Mama, Give Me a Guitar". Originally written for Teresa Teng, who had unexpectedly left Taiwan for an overseas concert, the song was a perfect match for the band and gained them overnight success. Equally naive and charming is this B-side ditty about three little kittens — one black, one white, and one calico.
- 風流郎君 "The Playboy Prince" (ca. 1969)
by Yang Li Hua 楊麗花
Referred to as one of Taiwan's "living national treasures", Taiwanese opera superstar Yang Li Hua is bigger than you can imagine. The only way I can evoke her stature is by comparison to Connie Chan. Both came from opera families and were trained from a very young age; both specialized in male roles; and both inspired intense devotion from their largely female fans. The main difference is that Connie's hectic film schedule took her away from a career in traditional Cantonese opera. After cranking out nearly 250 films, she burned out at the age of 23 and retired from the entertainment world for almost 30 years before returning to her true vocation. Yang Li Hua, on the other hand, stuck close to Taiwanese opera her entire life, becoming one of its leading reformers and innovators. This jaunty number is from one of the dozen Hokkien-dialect films she made between 1967 and 1970. If you think the song sounds more Japanese than Chinese, you're absolutely right. Because of Taiwan's history as a Japanese colony, its homegrown pop music is heavily influenced by the sentimental ballads of enka.
- 多少思念無從寄 "Inexpressible Longings" (ca. 1973)
by Teresa Teng 鄧麗君
The legendary Teresa Teng needs no introduction. She's a household name throughout Asia, among young and old alike. And Western sinophiles will undoubtedly know her, either from watching Peter Chan's Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996), with its memorable use of her song "Sweet Honey", or from having to sing "The Moon Represents My Heart" in their Mandarin language class. While the 80s is considered her "golden years" by many of her fans, Teresa's early career holds many delights for those whose taste leans more towards the 60s. Nowadays, thanks to all the vinyl-sharing happening on YouTube, you don't need to spend $500 on eBay to hear the go-go funk of her first albums from the Yeu Jow 宇宙 label. This song from 1973, by contrast, features Teresa singing in a histrionic style that was more typical of Taiwan's wailing diva Yao Su Rong.
- 王昭君 "Wang Zhao Jun" (1971)
by Yao Su Rong 姚蘇蓉
When it comes to bittersweet songs, no Chinese singer does it better than Yao Su Rong, Taiwan's "Queen of Tearful Ballads". In 1969 she skyrocketed to fame with the title track of the movie Not Coming Home Today. Ironically, that same year also saw Yao effectively exiled from Taiwan after her performing license was revoked for publicly singing "Cruel-Hearted Lover", a song that had been banned by the ruling KMT government. During Taiwan's martial-law era (1949–87), countless songs were banned for such alleged crimes as "Communist propaganda", "eccentric melodies", and "dark and sorrowful lyrics". Given her specialty in songs of the last category, it will come as no surprise that she was also known as the "Queen of Banned Songs", with some 80 of her songs incurring the wrath of government censors. Keep that in mind as you listen to Yao Su Rong's tour-de-force cover of the Tung Pei Pei song that starts this mix.
- 想起你可愛的笑容 "Thinking of Your Lovely Smile" (1969)
by Lena Lim 林竹君
Winner of the 1969 RTS (Radio Television Singapore) "Talentime" contest, girl-next-door Lena Lim was famous for her silken voice, simple style, and natural beauty. She was also known for her charity. She frequently donated proceeds from her stage shows to educational and welfare funds in Malaysia and Singapore. Her first EP was a smash hit and made her famous throughout Southeast Asia, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan. "Thinking of Your Lovely Smile" comes from her second EP, which was released, like her first, by Radio Television Singapore. With the backing of the station's house orchestra and the polish of its top-notch production values, this song really shines. Special props should be given to composer Charles Lazaroo and conductor Ahmad Ja'afar, veteran musicians who nurtured the young talent of Singapore's burgeoning pop music scene.
- "Riding a Melodic Tide: The Development of Cantopop in Hong Kong" (Hong Kong Heritage Museum)
- "Taiwanese Popular Music from the End of World War II through the 1960s" (culture.tw)
- the hamster and the guppies (cool blog by Georgi, a Singapore librarian obsessed with girl groups and vintage ephemera)
- Singapore 60s: Andy's Pop Music Influence (a blast from the past from Andy Lim, who used to sing with The Velvetones, The Swallows, and The Silver Strings)
- MrRainbow's YouTube channel (great selection of Singapore music from the 60s with information about the bands and singers)