It is probable that your parents have shared with you their most beautiful memories growing up, but if there’s one source of nostalgia they did not let you in on, my bet would be on Xinyao (Chinese for Singaporean songs).
Xinyao is a genre of music that referred to Singaporean Mandarin ballads composed, written and performed by Singaporean teenagers. But make no mistake, Xinyao was not a movement sparked off by a boy band of teenagers alone, but by the coincidental and collective efforts of secondary school, junior college and polytechnic students all together starting in the late 1970s. The Xinyao movement reached its peak in the 1980s, and has produced well-known Asian stars, the likes of Eric Moo, Liang Wern-Fook and Roy Loi. These were the names and their songs your parents surrounded themselves with when they were your age.
At its Zenith
A crucial factor that propelled the movement into the public consciousness was its increased exposure through radio and television. The then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) sporadically hosted Xinyao singing and songwriting competitions and used these freshly-composed tracks for Channel 8 drama theme songs.
The credibility of the movement was further strengthened when the first Xinyao album was released in 1984 to overwhelming success. Numerous concerts were attended by hawkers and ministers alike; albums with a more polished touch followed. The later half of the 1980s saw Xinyao become increasingly popular among young Singaporeans, and huge international record companies like Polygram began to pay more attention to local compositions and released many Xinyao albums to the Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong markets.
Globalisation and Xinyao’s decline
Unfortunately, with the rise of Hong Kong megastars like Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau and Aaron Kwok in the 1990s, Xinyao paled in comparison. Singaporeans and record companies chose to lend their ears to the hits of the former trio while radio stations felt that Singaporeans preferred listening to the commercial releases from Taiwan and Hong Kong to local compositions. Record companies attributed Xinyao’s demise to Singapore’s lack of singing talent and the lacklustre sales performances of the pittance of Xinyao albums produced due to a small Singaporean market.
Singaporean television channels also spread American influence over Singaporean youths with the American based MTV, movies, slang language and Americanised pop culture which was deemed cool among Singaporean teenagers. Even up till today, the Asian blood in us ironically chooses to surround ourselves with the musical tunes of Taylor Swift and Adam Levine rather than Singaporean singers like JJ Lin and Stefanie Sun, to the acting chops of Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart rather than the likes of Jet Li and Chin Han.
So who should take the blame for the lack of support for Singaporean talents? The government, for making English the predominant language nationally? The media, for its Westernised contents?
Or ourselves for simply not wanting to make the effort to support the efforts of homegrown music, movies, designer labels or even restaurants?
So what now?
Xinyao has made modest comebacks in recent years with many full-house concerts. A Xinyao documentary, The Songs We Sang was also produced. In conjunction with the film, a Xinyao concert featuring some of the heavyweights, such as Eric Moo, Roy Loi and Dawn Gan, was held at the Bras Basah Complex in July 2014. For the concert, more than 1,000 fans thronged the multistorey building, which was a popular venue for Xinyao events during its heyday in the 1980s.
Xinyao will undoubtedly be regarded as a key highlight in 1980s Singapore, a golden era for Singaporean Mandarin ballads, but… it still will be history. On a macro-level, Singaporeans must take the first step to support local brands, because if we don’t, no one else will. This support will ensure creativity in the Singapore Arts scene as local organisations are cognisant that their works are recognised and supported. They will flourish only through this support, really.
The Italians listen to a diverse range of songs, including Italian ones, the Koreans support their tech start-ups, so why can’t Singaporeans do the same?
The youths are the ones who have the power to make the most radical impact on this. So to quote Ben Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Do something now.
Dean Goh Yan Jin, 16S46
This is an entry received as part of our 2016 writing contest. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Victorian Press.