From Shanghai with love

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2001, 12:00am

IT ALL BEGAN in swinging Shanghai of the 1930s, a metropolitan musical melting pot of old Mandarin folk songs, music hall and cabaret, peopled with Russian and Italian music-makers and set against a dancing backdrop of golden Hollywood movies.


At the epicentre of this swirl were shi dai qu, 'songs of the times'. These Shanghainese pop tunes would keep their appeal for the next 40 years, evolving from their Shanghai roots to take in post-1949 Hong Kong and spread as far as Singapore and Malaya.


In the same way as the Great Depression in the United States spawned a great jazz tradition, Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s, with first the Sino-Japanese war and then the Pacific war, was a fertile time for music and the heyday of live radio performances. While conflicts raged and the public suffered, they could take temporary sanctuary in the upbeat fantasy confections that were shi dai qu.


Hong Kong musicologist, author and artist Wong Kee-chee, 54, grew up with Shanghainese pop songs belting out from the radio. He was told you could like shi dai qu, but you should never love it. It wasn't Mozart, but then it was never intended to be. Its roots were in insubstantial, syrupy numbers that made its audience feel good in times of strife and hardship.


In Wong's comprehensive book, The Age Of Shanghainese Pops: 1930-1970, which encompasses the movement's sometimes schizophrenic nature, he describes how it adopted Western styles, cabaret and movie musicals, Chinese opera, and later 60s tempos and even a-go-go, while still harking back to the nostalgic folk songs of its roots.


Wong has compiled collections of the best-loved songs and other Mandarin hits for EMI, and his enthusiasm for songs of the times has never ebbed. 'They were popular songs in the Western style or jazz songs at the beginning. The term shi dai qu was only coined, I think, later by the Hong Kong cable radio station Rediffusion,' he says.


The founder of shi dai qu was Lee Jin-hui, a composer who first wrote children's songs such as The Grapevine Fairy for Shanghai musicals because he felt there were few tunes that appealed to children.


For a long time, daughters could never tell their fathers they had a stage career. Shi dai qu was never treated as serious music. 'Shi dai qu, no matter how melodious it was and no matter how well-played, would always be improper simply because it was shi dai qu, a brand of songs sung by lowly songstresses and enjoyed by the 'uncultured' masses,' says Wong. Singers have always suffered an inferior reputation to movie stars 'and it's still the same today, if you look at Hollywood'.


Most of the early music-hall singers and dancers who performed Lee's songs shared poor backgrounds - no father of social standing would have let his daughter anywhere near a cabaret. Daughters from well-to-do backgrounds kept their hobby quiet . . . unless, of course, fame hit.


Wong's book is full of photographs showing early music-hall performers, reproductions of record sleeves, magazine covers and adverts. There is an accompanying 24-track CD that charts the origins, development and sometimes eccentric mood swings of shi dai qu.


One number, written by Lee and sung by his daughter, Min-hui, 'is considered the first Chinese popular song', says Wong. 'Drizzles became the prototype for the standard shi dai qu in the 1930s, but the writer Lu Xun said, uncharitably, that it sounded like a cat being strangled.' Certainly, the untrained voices of the girls, often in their early teens, sounded strained, and although popular at the time, it is not easy listening now and can set your teeth on edge.


In time, the songs moved on from their 'cat-strangling' phase as more young women received classical training from Russian and Italian teachers in the city. Yao Lee, who would in 1958 be described by movie magazine International Screen as the 'queen of popular singers', achieved fame in Shanghai and later in Hong Kong after beginning her career at just 14. She described to Wong how she and her brother and sister, who were also involved in the music trade, would rush from one radio station to another to give live performances. Shanghai grew to have more than 30 radio stations.


'The public did own phonographs,' says Wong, 'and recordings were quite cheap, but most people listened to the radio. Many of the singers told me that they first came into contact with shi dai qu by listening to their family's or often their neighbour's radio. Not everyone could afford to own one.'


When the songs were recorded, it was the Pathe Record Company (now EMI) that was crucial to the movement; by the end of the 1930s it owned 90 per cent of the Shanghainese pop market.


Some of the tracks were traditional in style, such as Beyond The Frosty Waters sung by Kung Chiu-hsia in 1937 - it was created by academically trained composers and became a classic in shi dai qu and Chinese film scores. Other singers were less traditional. Martha Soo, for example, performed a storming version of Jeanette MacDonald's San Francisco in 1939. She sang it in Chinese but threw in a bit of Ella Fitzgerald's scat technique. There was Bai Kwong, too, whose sultry photographs are reminiscent of the smouldering Marlene Dietrich, and who also incorporated the sensual style of the screen siren and Billie Holiday in her singing.


Following the war and arrival of communism, some Shanghai singers continued their careers in Hong Kong. Many of the composers didn't follow and shi dai qu began to move away from its Shanghai roots, says Wong. 'Many of the musicians in Hong Kong were Filipino and they added their skill and creativity to the movement.' But the dearth of composers in this initial post-1949 period meant a decline in the creative standards of shi dai qu, as many of the songs became translations of American ditties. 'But the Hong Kong public often preferred a Western style of Chinese, so they loved it,' says Wong. An example of this is Yao Lee singing Changing Partners (1954-55), her tribute to Patti Page.


The vehicle for many shi dai qu songs was the film industry and musicals such as 1959's Calendar Girl. Actress Grace Chang was extremely popular for her singing, and the one film in which she did not sing flopped. Teenage musicals were taking off in the 1950s and Chang's foot-stomping rendition of I Want You To Be My Baby, sung both in English and Chinese, was a monster hit in the late 50s.


Billie Tam began as a cheongsam-clad teenager performing what Wong describes as 'rather lacklustre' folk melodies. Three years later, she changed her look to that of a 60s Western-style woman, abandoning traditional tunes and embracing other styles. Her I Can't Help Smiling (1966) is the closest brush shi dai qu had with a-go-go.


Wong's book takes the reader right through the shi dai qu movement to its demise in the late 60s and early 70s when Taiwanese and Cantonese songs rose in popularity. Following the publication of his book, Wong has been asked if the shi dai qu movement could be rejuvenated. 'You know, like a kind of Buena Vista Social Club. But although some of these singers are around and go out and enjoy life, once they retire, they really retire. Some have come back, like Rebecca Pan, but generally for shi dai qu, it's a soft, syrupy sound. Unlike jazz, where the voice can be any age, for this you need a young woman's voice.'


When he interviewed those that survive and are now in their 70s and 80s, 'some were real divas, others were like your mum', he says, 'but all of them, though many were famous at the time, were very happy about the book and that they were getting recognition for what they did'.


The Age Of Shanghainese Pops: 1930-1970. Joint Publishing (HK) Co Ltd (2000), 252pp, $450. Copies can be purchased from the publishers' shop (3/F Fou Wah Centre, 210 Castle Peak Road, Tsuen Wan, tel: 2412 3696).