It wasn’t totally unexpected that such a large crowd would attend The Songs We Sang: Back to Book City (我们唱着的歌:重返书城) this Sunday afternoon (6 Jul). It was after all a free event and a rare occasion to enjoy xinyao (新谣), a local Mandarin folk music movement that began in 1982, peaked in the late 80s and has pretty much died down now.

I wasn’t a fan of xinyao then, being more of a “chiak kentang” and listening to Perfect 10 and American Top 40s. My younger sister however was very much into it, listening to Mandarin music and hanging out with friends who would sing original compositions in music cafes (民歌餐厅) way into the 90s. For me, though I have heard xinyao on radio and during SBC Channel 8 programmes when I was younger, it wasn’t really a part of my growing up years and I don’t have special memories of it.

I came to appreciate the xinyao movement rather belatedly in the recent years when learning more about Singapore culture(s). I think that even though the xinyao movement seems to have almost vanished by now, it is actually still there, in form and in spirit. Xinyao was written by Singaporeans and told of family, friendship, growing up, love, disappointments, dreams, and of our country in the 80s and before. The lyrics which spoke of almost universally local experiences are still close to our hearts and relevant to our lives today. Many of the singers and songwriters, though having ceased their singing careers, have continued to work in media or started schools to nurture younger music talents. Their presence is still very much felt and they continue to influence many of the singers and songwriters in the Mandarin music scene today. In addition, the spirit of xinyao is one of love of Singapore, a can-do attitude and looking towards a better future – one that is inspiring and necessary today. In short, xinyao, besides being an important part of many personal histories, is a valuable intangible cultural heritage that we possess.

It was extremely moving to see 2,000 people crammed into Bras Basah Complex for the event. They gathered around the performance area, trying to see the performers on stage, shouting out answers to questions, laughing at the jokes, singing along with the songs, waving their arms, clapping to the rhythm and applauding the singers. The brief rain and subsequent humidity didn’t deter them from standing there for more than 2 hours that afternoon. The audience who were there more than 30 years ago are now older, as were the singers, many of whom are around 50 now. And with them are younger people who have encountered the songs over the years as well as children who have come with their parents.

It was an event full of nostalgia, yes, but it was also one of celebration and hope. Xinyao, a ground-up movement, has succeeded in touching the hearts of Singaporeans like nothing else has, and this Sunday afternoon was proof that xinyao lives on and remains relevant today as when it first started thirty-two years ago. And I, for one, am grateful to have experienced its magic this time round. I am also really looking forward to the release of the documentary film, The Songs We Sang, directed by Eva Tang, later this year. As they say, “Long live xinyao! (新谣万岁!)”