Friday, March 5, 2010

Chasing Origins

It seems to be music week in the UCF, and since I have not been posting recently, but this has been sitting in the queue unfinished, I thought I should publish it.

I live in a household of three languages, only two of which I speak. What Hokkien gets spoken (between my wife, MIL, SIL, various Aunts and my wife's best friend in town) goes entirely over my head. But, like the man who was turned into a newt, my Mandarin is getting better. Largely through song.

I'm constantly exposed to stuff via my wife that's actually useful in my day job because I work in Asia a good deal. As a smarter than average High School and college kid, I used to despise pop culture, but as an older and wiser adult I see its value. Having a social connection to people, an instant one, breaks down barriers. And one activity every decent adult should be engaged in throughout their lives is in breaking down barriers.

So I've gone from rolling my eyes at my wife's taste for 70s and 80s mandopop to actually appreciating it. And using it. Much as it pains me to admit it, I can actually sing several Chinese songs as karaoke.

But being much more historically oriented than my wife, now and then I find some nuggets she overlooks being in the culture and accepting things, rather than looking at them with fresh eyes as I do.

Many melodies in mandopop are recycled. Weirdly to Westerners, some of those recycled melodies are hymns brought to China by missionaries. One of my wife's favorite song's melody is largely based on "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood" and another one - and I don't know why Disney never sued them - is pretty much entirely the theme song from "Davy Crockett", at a slower tempo. I kid you not.

But there are other influences, too. Despite the lingering hatreds from 50 years ago, Japanese culture pervades the East. Their aesthetic in clothes and music, especially. We were just back in Taiwan for Chinese New Year. My wife warned me not to wear black. Chinese people wear bright colors at New Years, she says. Well, they did 30 years ago when she left. Today? Not so much. I like black. I wore it. I fit in better than she did. She was the only one in a lot of photos wearing a red jacket. The blacks, grays, and muted browns of Tokyo's streets also adorn the figures on the streets of Taipei, Taichung and Tainan.

But the Japanese influence music, too. Not just the infusion of J-Pop since the 80s. This influence goes back a long way, all the way back to the origins of mandopop in Shanghai.

One of my wife's favorite singers is Tsai Chin (蔡琴), who has a lot of Chinese standards in her repertoire. This one, 意難忘 (Unforgettable Feeling) is one of her favorites:

Indigo street lights
Blink on the street corner through my lonely window,
My eyes focus on the moonlight
The stars are sparkling and my tears are flowing
My tears are flowing
My tears are flowing
No one knows who I am,
啊 ~~ 啊 ~~
Oh--, Oh--
Who is singing "Oh"?
A distant place gently brings on longing for you
Longing for you
I love to sing that song
You are my reverie
The two of us should be together
We're close by each other but poles apart.
Why don't we see
This life has ended in tatters
My tears are flowing
My tears are flowing
No one knows who I am
啊~~ 啊~~
Oh-- Oh--

It was originally recorded in Chinese by the early-60s mandopop star Mei Dai (美黛).

It's worth noting that when Mei Dai recorded her version, mandopop had been branded "pornographic" by the prudes running the Cultural Revolution on the Mainland. The center of Chinese music had shifted from Shanghai to Taipei and Hong Kong by the 50s, a blow from which Mainland music has yet to fully recover.

But I was looking for things related to this kind of music the other day and I stumbled upon the origins of this song. It's not Chinese at all.

It's Japanese.

The original title is "Tokyo Serenade" (東京夜曲), and it was originally recorded by Li Jichun in 1949:

The night passes under the blue lamp
A hand pulls the curtain back
Shedding tears to the starry sky
A stream swirls
That song is for
Whomever will sing
Tokyo Serenade

I start to knit with white wool
あなたのジャケツに 頬寄せて
I gather your jacket to my cheek
My thoughts follow the crimson to dark
They vanish to dark forever
Alone I listen to the
Tokyo serenade

Two people each reminisce
Of the fragrance of the Rose in Odakyu
やさしいソファーに 燃える身を  
On the simple couch my body burns
投げて夢見る 夢の果て
Throw away my dreams
With a sweet sigh?
Tokyo Serenade

The song was recorded in Tokyo, as the Nationalists were not really disposed to promote a lot of Japanese culture in the wake of losing the Revolution.

So what was Li doing in Japan? She had appeared in several Japanese propaganda films in the 40s, and was tried for treason by the KMT in 1946. Before she could be sentenced, it became apparent to her fans (and the KMT) that Li was not as Chinese as her stage name might indicate.

Her real name was Yamaguchi Yoshiko ((山口 淑子 - I'm using the Asian convention of last name first for real names), and she was a Japanese born to Japanese settlers in Manchuria, picking up a surname from one of her father's Chinese blood brothers. Classically trained by an Italian soprano married to a White Russian living in China (a common state of affairs in the Warlord Period), she became quite famous in the Shanghai singing scene. You can get a taste of the singing world of Old Shanghai, with Western opera, Jazz, and Beijing opera styles all blended together, in this old recording of Yue Lai Shang (夜來香), a Chinese standard first recorded by Miss. Yamaguchi (also covered by Mei Dai and Tsai Chin, among many others):

After returning to Japan she restarted her singing career, went to America to start in a few B movies, returned to Japan, hosted a TV show and then wound up as a member of parliament. She's still around, too, one of the last living witnesses to the flowering of modern Chinese pop culture in Old Shanghai. She has always felt a little bit uneasy around Chinese since the war, and never got over her guilt for the propaganda she filmed.

But the Chinese still love her music. I won't be so trite as to say music (or love) conquers all (despite most 1960s and 70s Chinese pop singers being able to sing in Japanese, the Chinese certainly didn't copy the lyrics to this song to include Tokyo as the setting...) , but it sure does go a long way to breaking down barriers.

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