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Standing out while fitting in—that’s what the creators of Singapore’s Chinese pop music have been doing for decades as they try to make their mark in the larger markets of Hong Kong and Taiwan. And it hasn’t always been easy.
In this episode, songwriter-producer Billy Koh recounts his experience of working with singer Kit Chan in the 1990s as they tried to crack the Taiwan market. From her limited fluency in Mandarin then to the way Western alternative music influenced her debut album, there were many reasons for Taiwan’s music industry honchos to be sceptical about the commercial viability of this Singapore team.
To overcome these challenges, it took a boost from Singapore record producer Jimmy Wee (a well-known champion of homegrown music) and a hit song from Billy that threaded the needle of striving for mass appeal while sounding just different enough.
With that song, Heartache, Kit kicked off a golden age where Singaporean pop stars and songwriters flourished in the greater Chinese market. And to do that, they had to continue staying true to what kept them unique, while assessing how to connect with listeners in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Hear from songwriter-producer Li Si Song about how he honed these instincts, which helped him to craft Stefanie Sun’s first hit song, Cloudy Day.
In fact, the makers of Singapore’s Chinese pop learned to believe in their distinctive approach long before the 1990s. Musician John Teo explains how Singapore’s multi-cultural environment shaped his band, The Stylers—a highly sought-after getai and session band that worked with numerous local and regional artists beginning in the 1960s. Singer Lisa Wong shares how she was impacted by Western pop and local pop stars like Sakura Teng and Rita Chao, and her experience of venturing into the Hong Kong market in the 1970s. And, of course, the xinyao pioneers of the 1980s, such as Billy, changed the game when they started writing their own songs.
This embrace of the specificity of the Singaporean perspective is the key to making an impression, and making waves. As Billy puts it, “We can't change the external environment, but what you can change is your perspective. If you can build some kind of energy within yourself, then with this energy, you can radiate to the people who believe in you. And when more people believe in you, you can change the world.”
This episode is narrated by Esplanade producer Desmond Chew, and also features music writer Chen Yuneng, music industry veteran Lim Sek and entertainment journalist Alice Kwan. Some of the soundbites in this episode are in Mandarin and Cantonese, and these have been translated in the narration.
PopLore: Stories of Singapore Pop, produced by Hong Xinyi and Dorothy Ding, is commissioned by Esplanade as part of PopLore: A Year of Singapore Popular Music in celebration of its 20th anniversary in 2022.
Freshmusic's article on the evolution of pop music in Singapore and Malaysia (in Chinese)
The Songs We Sang, a documentary about the xinyao movement
《我們的歌在哪裡》Where Are Our Songs
Lyricist and Composer：梁文福 Liang Wern Fook
Publisher: 大石音乐版权私人有限公司 Touch Music Publishing Pte Ltd
Usage of the song courtesy of 海蝶音乐私人有限公司 Ocean Butterflies Music Pte Ltd and Touch Music Publishing Pte Ltd.
《天黑黑》 (Tian Hei Hei)
Artist: Stefanie Sun
Original Composer: Li Si Song, Liao Ying Ru, Wu Yi Zheng
Original Publisher : Warner Chappell Music, Hong Kong Limited (Taiwan Branch)
Sub-Publisher : Warner Chappell Music Singapore Pte. Ltd.
Usage of the song is courtesy of Warner Music Singapore Pte Ltd, Warner Chappell Music Singapore Pte Ltd, Universal Music Pte Ltd and BMG Pte Ltd.
Desmond is presently a producer at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre. He is part of the Community programing team that organises the centre’s cultural festivals including Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts and Moonfest – A Mid-Autumn Celebration, where he has had the privilege of working with some of the best artists around the world.
With a great passion for music, Desmond also spearheads and oversees a wide range of music programmes series including in::music, a platform to help the development of local Chinese singer-songwriters, Chinese Chamber Music, which features Chinese classical musicians, Beautiful Sunday, which showcases community orchestras, and Coffee Morning & Afternoon Tea, which has a special focus on evergreen popular music.
Desmond was also selected by Esplanade to participate in Atelier for Young Festival Managers, Chiang Mai (2016) organised by the European Festivals Association as well as the Young Business Ambassadors Programme, Shanghai (2013) organised by the Singapore International Foundation, where he gained valuable insights and different viewpoints of his professional practice.
Desmond holds a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) in Arts Management from LASALLE College of the Arts. Outside of work, he enjoys running, travelling, movies, and spending time with his wife and kid.
Chen Yuneng—also known as Howie Tan and by his nickname “Old Cucumber” (老黄瓜)—is the founder of the online music review website Freshmusic. Founded in 2006, Freshmusic is a no-holds-barred music review site focusing on both mainstream and indie Chinese music in the region.
Freshmusic also runs the annual Freshmusic Awards, which celebrates outstanding works for the year. It concluded its 14th edition in 2021, with a judging panel comprising music industry veterans, media and music festival directors from Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Freshmusic Awards has also successfully introduced many of Singapore’s talents—including Shye, Dru Chen and BGourd—to overseas judges and audiences.
Yuneng is also a current affairs and pandemic news correspondent for Shin Min Daily News.
John Teo was the leader of The Stylers, one of the most popular instrumental groups formed in the 1960s, and which remained active till the mid-1990s. The Stylers started as a band playing English songs, and soon switched to playing mostly Chinese songs due to the massive support it received from Chinese communities in Singapore, other Southeast Asian countries, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Characterised by John’s masterly lead guitar play, The Stylers were the backing band of choice for many artists, including Singapore’s Lisa Wong (丽莎), Huang Qing Yuan (黄清元), Ming Zhu Sisters (明珠姐妹), and Rahimah Rahim; and regional stars such as Feng Fei Fei (凤飞飞), Li Mao Shan (李茂山) and many more.
John now runs John Teo Productions, writing and producing music of various genres, providing music mentorship, as well as managing musical events.
Although his record review columns in the local newspapers introduced him to the Singapore music scene, it was Lim Sek’s seven-year stint as a variety programmes producer at the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation that gave him the opportunity to work with some of the best local and foreign talents and to build up a regional network to make local entertainment more exciting and enriching.
Since helming Music & Movement 31 years ago, this vision has expanded to include large-scale national events, ground-breaking musicals, music festivals, as well as the production of international concert tours by local and foreign artists.
Another highlight was the opportunity to either manage or introduce stunning music talents like Sandy Lam, Tracy Huang, Dick Lee, Tanya Chua, Najip Ali, Nathan Hartono, Cheryl Wee and Corrine May to different music markets in the world.
More recently, apart from curating and sharing his early television experiences on a YouTube channel titled BiLingual, he is also working on concerts, musicals and other online projects with several regional artists. Yet, the belief that more can be done for the local music talents, young and experienced, still inspires him to be involved in meaningfully important projects like PopLore.
Alice Kwan is a media veteran. Before she began her career as a full-time journalist in 1979, she was already writing freelance about the entertainment industry, and has borne witness to over 40 years of entertainment history. Alice is also passionate about performing, and has participated in numerous stage plays, as well as in countless television dramas since the days of black-and-white TV.
Lisa Wong started singing in 1968 when she was 17 years old, performing English pop songs with her brother’s band at tea parties and other events. When she was 19, she was signed by a record label immediately upon her first audition. By the 1970s, Lisa had already recorded more than 57 albums in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. Lisa’s first Cantonese song Tears of Love 《相思泪》shot her to stardom in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. In 1989, Lisa suffered an unknown auto-immune illness and fell into a coma for 11 years. She began her recovery in 2000, and started singing again. Now, Lisa is leading an active life performing at casinos and other live shows.
Twin brothers Paul Li Wei Song (李伟菘) and Peter Li Si Song (李偲菘) are two of Singapore’s most prolific songwriters and producers. The pair first made their names by penning memorable tunes for local Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Chinese drama serials. After a stint as singer-songwriters, both moved behind the scenes to focus on songwriting and production. They have written songs and produced albums for stars such as Jacky Cheung, Sandy Lam, Stefanie Sun and Gigi Leung.
Born in Singapore, Billy Koh is one of the most instrumental and influential figures in the Chinese pop industry. He is the co-founder of Singapore’s pioneer independent record label Ocean Butterflies. In 2014, he left Ocean Butterflies to pursue his new business, Amusic Rights Management.
As a star-maker, Billy has produced hits that paved the careers for many Asian artists such as JJ Lin, Kit Chan, A-Do and BY2. He has successfully nurtured stars for five decades.
Apart from speaking at international forums such as TEDx, Billy has been a judge for many popular TV talent shows including mainland China’s I am a Singer, Sound of My Dream and Super Boy; the United States’ One Million Star and One Chinese Idol; South Korea’s Asia Song Festival; Hong Kong’s Asia New Singer Competition; and Singapore’s Project SuperStar.
A household name in Singapore, Dick Lee has established himself as a multi-talented performer, composer, director and creative. Dick’s popularity extends overseas to regions such as Hong Kong and Japan, where he has collaborated with and produced music for many well-known artists and guided various projects successfully, including musicals, movies and many more. Dick Lee is a recipient of the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest honour for the arts, and continues to be a great inspiration to many.
A seven-episode narrative podcast series about Singapore pop.