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Translated from the original Chinese article by Chen Yuneng.
The development of a music scene is never the result of just one or two breakthroughs but a whole confluence of factors. When we examine the original Mandarin music scene in Singapore, we have to begin with xinyao (literally "Singapore folk music"). Yet there is also the successive impact of numerous Singapore singers breaking into the regional market, leaving Chinese music fans with a lasting impression of Singapore.
Here are nine milestones by which we can chart the development of Singapore's Mandarin pop scene, and measure its future possibilities.
In the ’70s and ’80s, campus folk songs flourished in Taiwanese universities. Taking a leaf from their Taiwanese counterparts, students in Singapore also turned to songwriting as a way to express their thoughts and feelings. In 1982, Zhang Fan, a member of the Nanyang University Poetry Club, wrote a song titled《传灯》 Passing the Torch, which gained widespread popularity in Malaysia. This was a seminal moment that laid the foundation for xinyao.
The following year, two students in Jurong Junior College, Eric Moo and Huang Hui Zhen, wrote the song 《邂逅》 Encounter. Although it was not officially released, Encounter caught the attention of many and remained on local radio charts for over 20 weeks, demonstrating the resonance of xinyao. Following this, other xinyao pioneers such as Liang Wern Fook, Dawn Gan, Jiang Hu, Roy Li and Huang Hongmo created xinyao classics such as 《细水长流》 Friendship Forever, 《我们这一班》 The Happy Class and 《恋之憩》 Break From Love.
Eric Moo went on to find success in the Taiwanese music industry. And in Singapore, Billy Koh, Sunkist Ng, Colin Goh, Koh Nam Seng and Teo Kay Kiong founded the pioneering independent record label Ocean Butterflies Music. These were significant turning points.
Maggie Teng was Singapore’s pioneering artist who broke into the Taiwan music scene in the ’80s with her hit 《牵引》Lead Around. She then went on to release more than 10 albums in Taiwan. In the post-xinyao era, Ocean Butterflies artist Kit Chan made her breakthrough in Taiwan with the album 《心痛》 Heartache, which was an instant hit. She followed this with hit songs such as 《担心》 Worry and 《喜欢你》 Like You, which became classics.
In 1996, Mavis Hee released her albums 《遗憾》 Regret and 《都是夜归人》 Living By Night, which sold over 2 million albums in Asia. Her hit song 《城里的月光》 Moonlight in the City remains popular 20 years on and has been covered by countless artists. As the new millennium began, the baton was passed on to artists such as Tanya Chua, Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin, who all achieved international stardom and became the heavenly queens and king of the Mandarin music scene.
Industry players started paying close attention to Singapore to unearth new musical talent. Being at the juncture of the East and the West, Singapore’s Mandarin music artists' performances and compositions featured unique characteristics that injected new colour into the larger scene.
Singapore Mandarin music does not just exist on radio airwaves. If you watched Mandarin drama serials on television, you would have heard original Mandarin music in the form of theme songs. A drama serial fan would hear a theme song at least 30 times over the course of a 30-episode drama serial, making the theme song quite unforgettable. And since theme songs are written specifically for television, they are in themselves unique creations that are different from pop songs heard elsewhere.
Since the early ’80s, Singapore-produced television serials have featured their own original Mandarin theme songs, unlike current overseas productions, which feature existing popular hits as theme songs. The very first theme song that left a lasting impression on viewers was most probably Maggie Teng’s 《如何对你说》 How Do I Tell You?, the theme song of the 1983 serial 《小飞鱼》 The Flying Fish. Other memorable ’80s theme songs include Wu Jia Ming’s 《小人物的心声》 Voices from the Heart of the serial 《芝麻绿豆》 Neighbours and Jane Li’s theme song of the serial 《早安老师》 Good Morning, Sir!.
The ’90s saw the release of compilation albums of these popular theme songs, and even featured international collaborations, such as the duet 《当爱擦身而过》 When Love Passes By by Zoe Tay and Taiwanese artist Jonathan Lee, and 《别让情两难》 Don’t Let Love Become Hard for Us by Fann Wong and Taiwanese artist Jeff Chang. The 2000s saw fewer popular theme songs, but every once in a while a hit emerged, such as Olivia Ong’s 《如燕》 Like a Swallow for the serial 《小娘惹》 The Little Nyonya.
For every successful Mandarin music artist, there is always an entourage of supporting songwriters, producers and musicians. Here, Singapore has established itself in lyric-writing and songwriting, as well as music production and arrangement.
Many classic Mandarin pop songs were created by Singapore songwriters. The brothers Lee Si Song and Lee Wei Song are two iconic examples. Si Song’s songwriting credits include Hong Kong artist Sandy Lam’s 《听说爱情回来过》 I Heard that Love Had Returned, Stefanie Sun’s 《天黑黑》 Cloudy Day and Taiwanese artist Jam Hsiao’s 《王妃》 Princess. Wei Song’s credits include Hong Kong artist Jacky Cheung’s 《我等到花儿也谢了》 I’ve Waited Till the Flowers have Wilted, Taiwanese artist Hsiao Huang-chi’s 《末班车》 Last Train and Hong Kong artist Daniel Chan’s 《比我幸福》 Be Happier Than Me. Another notable Singapore songwriter is Eric Ng, who has written songs like Malaysian artist Fish Leong’s 《第三者》 Third Party and Tanya Chua’s 《无底洞》 Deep.
As for lyricists, Xiao Han is Singapore’s best representative. Her skill in bringing out delicate emotions in her lyrics has garnered her award nominations at Taiwan’s Golden Melody Awards. Some of her works include Tanya Chua’s 《达尔文》 Darwin, Sandy Lam’s 《纤维》 Angels and Hong Kong artist Eason Chan’s 《孤独患者》 Lonely Patient.
Televised talent contests are important avenues for aspiring music artists, as each round of the competition is a chance for potential stars to showcase themselves and increase their following. Although their future success depends on many other factors, this exposure is important for their music careers.
In the ’80s there were shows such as Talentime, but it was not until Project Superstar debuted in 2005 that we saw stars such as Kelvin Tan, Kelly Poon, Derrick Hoh and Sing Chew emerge. The second season of Project Superstar saw its champion and runner-up join forces to form the pop duo The Freshman. Later on, the show changed its focus to schools and became Campus Superstar. Notable names that emerged were season 1 winner Teresa Tseng who returned to Taiwan to release an album, Bonnie Loo who became an actress in Singapore and also sang many theme songs, and Stella Seah, who went on to form the duo StellaVee with fellow Singapore songwriter Vee.
This phenomenon also happened overseas. In Taiwan, Wong Jinglun and Jarrell Ng were discovered on One Million Star, while Nathan Hartono and Joanna Dong found fame on Sing! China.
Such competitions remain important channels for musicians and their songs, allowing them to grab the attention of many more people over a short time span. In the last few years, Singapore has had a string of competitions that put songwriting front and centre, instead of just vocal prowess. This includes SG:SW I Write The Songs which has run for five editions, organised by the Composers & Authors Society of Singapore (COMPASS), Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC) and Ocean Butterflies. This competition to unearth original Chinese songs gives mentorship opportunities to aspiring songwriters. In 2021, Mediacorp’s SPOP WAVE! saw eight celebrity contestants pitting their vocals against each other in a competition showcasing original and homegrown music.
In addition, last year’s inaugural SingVoice had mentors (such as Mandopop producers Goh Kheng Long and Kenn C) on a search for the local songwriter with the most potential. There is also the National Schools Xinyao Singing and Songwriting Competition which encourages the craft of songwriting from one’s school days.
Commercial radio played a significant role in the growth of Singapore Mandarin pop music—its reach was amplified greatly to new ears. In the early ’80s, the radio programme 《歌韵新声》 New Voices, New Songs provided a platform for Singapore Mandarin music artists. During a time when entertainment options were few, the free and easily accessible radio broadcasts played an important role in the spread of xinyao.
Even now in the era of social media, Singapore radio stations such as YES 933 and UFM100.3, and online music platform Hear65 are still effective avenues for promoting Singapore music.
However, with the emergence of K-pop and with diversifying music tastes, Singapore Mandarin music faces new challenges. A high standard has to be adhered to in order for it to stand fighting chance, and for its promotion on mass media to be more effective.
Starting in 2004, there was a rise in the number of indie labels in Taiwan. Taiwanese music moved away from the commercialised forms of songs and gained innovative new themes and styles. This created a greater potential for this new music to stand out amongst conventional commercialised music production.
In Singapore, such innovative independent artists also emerged in the Singapore Mandarin music scene.
An example is Bevlyn Khoo, a pioneering independent artist whose debut solo EP Lonely Afternoon combined jazz, bossa nova and other music influences. Starting out in the Singapore English indie music scene, Ling Kai serendipitously found herself in the Mandarin independent music world where she released her EP 《本能》 Unlearn.
Another Singapore independent artist, Celeste Syn, who released her album 《为什么要乖》 WHY with Taiwan’s JVR Music (Jay Chou’s record and management company) and received good reviews. She has since returned to Singapore to continue creating new works. NEKO Highway is another independent band with strong vocals and a unique style that has garnered acclaim in the scene.
In the past, independent artists worked independently. However, recent years have seen a small indie community forming. Who knows what new developments will sprout from this gathering of likeminded artists?
As the music industry moves from physical albums to digital music streams, live performances become another important avenue for music artists to develop their performance skills and how they interact with their audiences.
Unlike Taiwan where there are music festivals almost every week, there are fewer here in Singapore, especially the Mandarin music events. This is probably due to a lack of mass audience or high planning costs. Nonetheless these music festivals and venues do play an important role in promoting the Mandarin music scene.
One of the few music events is Esplanade’s in::music series. For over a decade, the series has been a regular feature at the annual Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts and also recurs throughout the year, presenting Mandarin music artists from Singapore and overseas.
Music venue-wise, the now-defunct Crazy World Café was an important space that regularly showcased Mandarin music artists. Concert production companies such as Livehouse regularly bring in independent music artists from Taiwan to perform in Singapore.
Besides being places for fans to enjoy good quality Mandarin music performances, these events and venues also provide the opportunity for Singapore and overseas music artists to meet and exchange ideas with one another, as well as a platform for Singapore independent artists to perform and hone their skills.
The COVID-19 situation has causing numerous setbacks for in-person performances over the last two years. Recovery has been gradual—JJ Lin recently performed two physical concert for 4,000 fans in Singapore—but on the whole, the scene is a far cry from before. The SCCC’s TGIF Music Station, held on the first and third Friday of the month, is one of the few fixed, ongoing platforms for local singers of all stripes, where getai artists and singer-songwriters alike share the stage.
When talking about successful homegrown crossovers from English pop to the regional Chinese-language scene, the name which comes to mind is Tanya Chua, who has grasped and fused the strengths of the two types of music. However she may soon no longer be the only one.
English is Singapore’s main language—this is a trend that is particularly marked among the younger generation. It has affected the choice of language in which many musicians write songs, and as a result the development of English-language music has been very vibrant. What is worth noting is in the past two years, a growing number who have made some headway in this scene have started taking on the Chinese music market.
Aside from Nathan Hartono and Jasmine Sokko, other examples include Gentle Bones who has worked with (Chinese Australian singer) Julia Wu, (Chinese American artist) Karencici and (Singapore’s) Tay Kewei to release Chinese pop singles, in a clear sign of his intention to break into the scene. In addition, after many years of working in the English pop scene, inch concurrently released English- and Chinese-language versions of a new single. Even an unlikely bilingual like Benjamin Kheng, while not yet taking the plunge to record in Chinese, has collaborated with Taiwanese rapper-singer J. Sheon on a duet (Fresh Feelings) to allow overseas Chinese audiences to get acquainted with him, and an incursion into the Chinese music market cannot be ruled out in the future.
At the same time, the Freshmusic Awards (FMA), organised by the homegrown online music portal of the same name, has in recent years seen quite a few local English pop singer-songwriters making its shortlist, who have been well regarded by the awards’ overseas jurors. This includes Singaporean rapper BGourd, known for his green hooded catsuit reminiscent of the vegetable, whose virtual performance was recently livestreamed as part of Asia Rolling Music Festival organised by Taiwan’s Golden Indie Music Awards. Then there is talented newcomer Shye, who has chalked up songwriting and production credits despite being barely 18. She won FMA’s Best New Artist award and was subsequently nominated for Best Asian Creative Artist at the Golden Indie Music Awards.
Will more homegrown artists take up the ‘bilingual challenge’? Stay tuned.
Will there ever be another music artist like JJ Lin or Stefanie Sun? Another songwriter like Xiao Han or Eric Ng?
In our current world where there is an abundance of music both in volume and variety, the next Singapore Mandarin pop music success story will need to possess a unique local characteristic that can distinguish itself from the rest.
The next chapter of Singapore Mandarin pop music will be one of finding inroads into a young audience base that is more used to expressing themselves in English. The industry will have to work together to unearth and nurture unique Singapore music talents and works.
Find out more about the upcoming concert XingPop 2.0, a showcase of some of the best and brightest in Singapore’s Mandarin pop scene.
Chen Yuneng is the founder of the online music website Freshmusic, which has been running since 2006. He used to write under the pseudonym 老黄瓜 (old cucumber), and went on to write music reviews and articles on independent music in Singapore and abroad for the bilingual newspaper My Paper and Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao.
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