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I was born in the eighties. I have always been surrounded by music as I grew up in a musical family. My dad was in a band and my mom was a music teacher. On top of the previously mentioned influences, as a Chinese Singaporean, I was consistently being exposed to xinyao. This reflective essay will seek to focus on how transnational popular cultural flows influenced the music culture of Singapore and a semiotic analysis on a piece of xinyao song.
A literal translation of the term Xinyao means Singapore folk songs. It is a genre of Mandarin ballads that is unique to Singapore, where the songs are written, composed and performed by youths in Singapore. The musical style of xinyao is believed to have been influenced by minyao, the Taiwanese folk song movement of the 1970s (Eresources.nlb.gov.sg, 2015). After undertaking the Exploring Asian Popular Culture course, I learnt that the theory of transnational popular cultural flow applied in this context.
According to Appadurai (1990), cultural exchange and change produced by the flows of people and ideologies between locations will cause new ways of perceiving. Even though the meaning of the term xinyao changes with time, it is not unlike the Mandarin popular songs from Taiwan (Koh, 1987). The xinyao movement started in the late 1970s and peaked in the 1980s. It had propelled many local singers and singer-songwriters to stardom (Koh, 2015). Xinyao can be clearly identified by its distinctive style of clean acoustics and often sung to the accompaniments of guitars, and sometimes piano or violin.
Xinyao songs are simple, folksy, catchy and they are usually about the lives of Singaporeans in the small island country. Xinyao is known to act as a social glue that bonded youths of different social backgrounds together.
During my secondary school education, I was introduced to this particular xinyao song, namely “Singapore Pie”, which was written, composed and performed by Liang Wern Fook in 1990 (Liang, 1990). Liang is a Singapore writer, musician, singer and researcher in Chinese literature and pedagogy. He was one of the pioneer figures in the xinyao movement in the 1980s and 1990s (Russell and Cohn, 2012). During the Exploring Asian Popular Culture course, I learnt about semiotics – a theory which is completely novel to me. Semiotics essentially refers to the study of signs. Semiotics allows one to understand how popular culture texts can be variously interpreted and become meaningful (Edgar and Sedgwick, 2005). In the next section, I will be using what I have learnt about semiotics to read in between and beyond the song lyrics; and denote the meaning of the song and decode the hidden message in the song.
In the following semiotics analysis, I will be focusing on one significant and notable stanza of “Singapore Pie”. In its final verse, Liang wrote in Mandarin: “(translated) While the others send us apple pies, we can also create our own Singapore pie. Now as foreigners are continually immigrating here, who doesn’t love the Singapore ‘brand’?” Liang used ‘brand’ as a pun on pie. This ‘Singapore brand’, ‘Singapore style’ or ‘Singapore model’ has served as a relevant reference for many countries politically and economically (Li and Qu, 2016). In the region of global Chinese education, Singapore has taken up a singular position as the only country with a Chinese majority population outside the Greater China, and therefore it is only natural to be compared upon. The aforementioned stanza is trying to convey that Singapore was once a small island country and nobody believed in the ‘Singapore brand’. However, ever since Singapore has become a global city, the ‘Singapore brand’ is gradually being accepted and loved.
Typically, xinyao consists only Mandarin lyrics but in “Singapore Pie”, Liang had incorporated some verses from various famous English songs, namely USA for African’s “We are the World” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (USA for Africa, 1985; Wonder, 1984). It is interesting to note that this particular xinyao song has a distinctive way of narrative, such as the mixture of various cultural components and its intertextuality with other texts. The choice of using this cultural hybridity of the genre was perhaps due to Singapore’s bilingual education policy. The bilingualism policy has been implemented predominantly through the Singapore’s education system, which requires students to study their respective mother tongues to strengthen their sense of cultural belonging in addition to the English language (Sim, 2016). In regard to the verse extracted from “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, the sentiment is loud and clear that Liang was giving a shout-out to the addressee, whom in this case referring to Singapore, that he loved and cared for her unconditionally. In regard to the extract from “We are the World”, the verse is implying that change is needed and the next generation depends on the current one. This leads to another stanza of the song which says “(translated) In the blink of the eye, we’ve come to the 1990s. Father, you once again sing the song reminiscent of our past memories. We will write our own Singapore story, but the future still lies in the hands of the next generations.” This stanza contradicted with the previous verse to some extent and suggested that, for better or worse, the future generations are the ones who will ultimately make their own changes. This also hinted that there will always be a shift in mindset from one generation to another. The ideology that Liang infused in this xinyao song is something that I can relate to and agreed upon.
Despite xinyao declines over the past two decades due to the lack of funding and the rise of Taiwanese and Western popular songs in Singapore’s music industry among other reasons, it is still close to the heart of Singaporeans (Lee and Wong, 2019; Low, 2016). To keep up with the times, Liang had actually updated the track “Singapore Pie” to “Singapore Pie 2.0” when Singapore celebrated its 50th year of independence back in 2015. The new song lyrics took on the latest developments in Singapore such as the regular breaking down of the old Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) trains; the building of iconic architectures such as Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands; Singapore finally won another Olympic gold medal, etc. The new take on the updated track was highly well-received as most Mandarin-speaking Singaporean listeners, especially those from the baby boomer generation, could resonate well with the meaningful and relatable song lyrics (Cheng, 2016).
Xinyao is also being widely used to promote Singaporean identity and culture by Singapore’s political leaders in the recent years. During the Singapore National Day Rally 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong broke into song when he sang a line from “Small Stream That Flows Forever” by Liang (Liang, 2007). Mr Lee acknowledged xinyao in his speech and he wished to drive home the point that there are many opportunities for Singaporeans, regardless of age, to fulfil their dreams even if they are just ordinary Singaporeans. He also drew parallels between the song’s title and Singapore’s journey: “Over the last century, our small stream has flowed continuously – each of us doing our ordinary bit, we have achieved something extraordinary together” (Lim, 2014). Education Minister Ong Ye Kung also sang the same song on stage along with the contest finalists of the National Schools Xinyao Singing and Song Writing Competition 2016 (Ong, 2016).
As change is the only constant, it is evident that xinyao has withstood the test of time while having to constantly readapting and reinventing itself to stay relevant in the modern context. As expressed, Edensor (2002) defines popular culture as mobile, flexible, hybrid and its meanings are never closed. The birth of xinyao was attributed to the concept of cultural hybridity due to transnational movement and transcultural contact. While other dominant popular culture like K-pop is reigning the music scene, xinyao still plays a big role in Singapore society and is undeniably a part and parcel of my life, even till today.
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