The Songs We Sang is a documentary that details the development of xinyao, a genre of Chinese music, unique to Singapore, that developed during the 1970s to 90s, which served as an influence to famous Singaporean Chinese pop stars like Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin.
The documentary is told entirely through the records of interviews with figures in the xinyao movement, including the performers themselves, producers, and radio DJs that collaborated in the effort to popularise the genre. This lends it a degree of intimacy and authenticity, but also runs the risk of over-representing their perspectives without clear critical commentary.
Indeed, The Songs We Sang can be viewed as a quiet indictment of many things – the parlous state of Chinese education and cultural awareness in Singapore (of which yours truly is a prime and unrepentant example), the Government’s heavy-handed approach in promoting English at the expense of Mandarin; the “cultural desert” that is the Singaporean musical arts scene.
In that sense, The Songs We Sang has value to me. As a product of a decidedly English education myself, I find xinyao as alien and foreign as Armenian folk music. I’m not really interested in xinyao in its capacity as a form of art. What I am interested in, rather, is xinyao as a response or coping mechanism to societal changes that are brought about by the Government’s policy decisions.
By starting the documentary with an account of the closure of Nanyang University to form NUS, the documentary seems to suggest that the suppression of Chinese education formed the conditions for xinyao to act as a kind of kindling flame to sustain Chinese culture and education in Singapore. It forms a clean and compelling narrative, but one that is perhaps too simple and self-serving, and bears more careful investigation. The nostalgic reminiscences of figures like Eric Moo also contribute further to a narrative edifice in which xinyao and its early practitioners were the cool outsiders, pioneers of a uniquely Singaporean art form, providing joy to the joyless, the only spark in Singapore’s barren artistic landscape. Again, at face value I’m not particularly sympathetic to this sentiment. But from an anthropological perspective, if you will, it’s interesting and instructive.
It suggests that Chinese-ness as a social and political force is alive and well. On one hand, there are the xinyao practitioners who claim credit for the emergence and success of your JJ Lins, but on the other, that the Chinese literati are still active and still somewhat resentful of their treatment under the Governmental aegis, forced to operate using a language they did not know well and put at a disadvantage vis a vis their English educated peers.
It’s ironic, then, that The Songs We Sang appears to have benefited from NHB grant funding. The film is about a grassroots folk music movement that arose as a response to the English language policy instituted by the PAP regime. Bright spots in our arts scene arise because of unsalutary social conditions, and governments in the future look at them as unexpected but desperately needed tools to build some semblance of a national identity for very technocratic ends.
I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 Straws