Taiwanese popular music: World War II to the 1960s (Part I)

Written by Eric Scheihagen.

The years immediately following World War II were a commercial low point for the music industry in Taiwan.  The primary problem was simply that Taiwan, its infrastructure damaged and its economy severely disrupted by the war, was very poor.

The few records that were produced were of much lower quality than those that had been released in the 1930s, due to material shortages and the need to keep costs down.  Since there were few records and relatively few could afford stereo equipment, live performances were a major source of music for many people.  The chief venues for music were what were known as geting (歌廳), which translates as music hall.  In the first few years after the war, there were open-air geting along the riverside in Taipei, though soon these were replaced by cabaret-style venues, which remained popular into the 1970s.  Larger scale performances were occasionally held in the large hall which had recently been renamed Zhongshan Hall (中山堂).

Performances here or in the more expensive music halls were by big bands, of which there were several prominent in the 1950s. On the opposite end of the scale, in the streets there were itinerant musicians of all sorts.  Another source of music was radio broadcasts.  Many of the prominent musicians, composers and performers of the time did shows on the radio or worked full time for radio stations.  Many also performed at shows put on by the military for entertaining soldiers.

Though relatively few records were produced in the first decade or so after the war, quite a few songs that are now considered classics were released in this period.  One of the most prominent composers of the late 1940s and 1950s was Yang Sanlang (楊三郎), founder and leader of the Black Cat Big Band (黑貓歌舞團).  Working with lyricists like Nakano (那卡諾), who also played drums in the Black Cat Big Band, and Zhou Tianweng (周添旺), who had written lyrics for many classics of the Japanese era, Yang wrote “Hoping You Come Home Soon” (望你早歸), “Song of Bitter Romance” (苦戀歌), “Love’s Lonely Flower” (孤戀花), “A Rainy Night at the Port” (港都夜雨), “Autumn Wind on a Rainy Night” (秋風夜雨) and many more.  Another composer and bandleader in this era was Xu Shi (許石), who also established one of the first postwar record companies.

His best-known songs included “Anping Nostalgic Melody [Remembering Anping]” (安平追想曲) and “When the Gong Is Sounded” (鑼聲若響).  Other classics from the first decade or so after the war included two songs by Zhang Qiu Dongsong (張邱冬松), “Old Glass Bottles” (收酒矸) and “Hot Rice Dumplings” (燒肉粽); “Mending a Broken Net” (補破網), written by lyricist Li Linqiu (李臨秋) and composer Wang Yunfeng (王雲峰), both of whom were prominent songwriters in the Japanese era; and “You Can’t Raise Goldfish In a Wineglass (Bottoms Up)” (杯底不可飼金魚) by classically-trained composer Lu Quansheng (呂泉生).  These songs vividly reflected the times in which they were written, as did songs like “Miss Lottery Ticket” (獎券小姐), which referred to a very popular government lottery of the 1950s.  Some of these songs faced censorship problems, especially if the authorities felt they were too negative in their portrayal of local society.

All of these songs were in Hoklo (also called Minnan or Taiwanese), the language of Taiwan’s largest ethnic group.  Though Mandarin speakers began coming to Taiwan after 1945 and there was a huge influx of them in 1949 when China fell to the Communists and the KMT moved its government and what remained of its army to Taiwan, performance catering to this group consisted almost entirely of older Mandarin songs from Shanghai like “Night Blossom” (夜來香) or new Mandarin hits produced in Hong Kong.  Performances and records of such songs were popular throughout the 1950s and 1960s.  While cover songs predominated, however, there were two Mandarin songs of note which came out of Taiwan in the first decade after the war.

The first of these was the aboriginal-flavored “High Green Mountain” (高山青) from the first movie produced in Taiwan after the war, The Transformation of Alishan (阿里山風雲).  The second was “Green Island Serenade” (綠島小夜曲), which will be discussed in part two.

By the late 1950s, records were becoming more common, as were Taiwanese films, which often included new songs in their soundtracks or were inspired by and named after classic songs or recent hits.  However, many record companies preferred to keep costs down by copying foreign songs (international copyrights were not an issue in those days) and having Hoklo lyrics added to them, thus avoiding having to pay local songwriters to write original melodies (in many cases, they even used imported instrumental versions of the song as the backing track).

The vast majority of the foreign songs thus used in Taiwan in this period were from Japan, since, having grown up under the Japanese, many Taiwanese had a taste for Japanese melodies, particularly for the melancholy Japanese song form called enka.  One of the most popular singers of the late 1950s and 1960s was Wen Xia (文夏), the vocalist on well-known songs such as “Hometown At Dusk” (黃昏的故鄉), “Mama, Please Take Care of Yourself” (媽媽請你也保重), and “The Stars Understand My Heart” (星星知我心), all of which were songs he translated from Japanese originals.

Among the many other popular songs of this type were “Dusk on the Mountain Range” (黃昏嶺), sung by Ji Luxia (紀露霞), one of the most popular singers of the era; “The Orphan’s Wish” (孤女的願望), sung by Chen Fenlan (陳芬蘭), a child star who continued her singing career into adulthood; “Handsome Guy on the Mountain Top” (山頂的黑狗兄), sung by Hong Yifeng (洪一峰); and “Village Boy” (田庄兄哥), sung by Huang Xitain (黃西田).  The lyricist on many of these songs was Ye Junlin (葉俊麟), who wrote lyrics to hundreds of Japanese melodies in this period.

Songs adapted from Japanese did not completely dominate the Hoklo music scene.  The aforementioned Hong Yifeng composed a number of very popular songs with lyrics by Ye Junlin, including “Memories of an Old Love” (舊情綿綿), “Twilight in Danshui” (淡水暮色), “The One I Miss” (思慕的人) and “Formosa Mambo” (寶島曼波), all of which were popular in early 1960s.

Another successful singer-songwriter was Wu Jinhuai (吳晉淮), whose biggest hits were “Gloomy Moon” (暗淡的月) and “Guan-a-nia Romance” (關仔嶺之戀).  Guo Dacheng (郭大誠) was a singer-songwriter who emerged a few years after Hong and Wu.  Many of his songs, some of which had original melodies and others of which were adaptations of Japanese songs, were humorous, with titles like “The Muddled Tailor” (糊塗裁縫師) and “Pitiful Wino” (可憐燒酒仙).  He also wrote the lyrics for “Going to the Graveyard” (墓仔埔也敢去), a song originally popularized by Ye Qitian (葉啟田) and more recently by rocker Wu Bai (伍佰), as well as “The Oyster Picker’s Wife” (青蚵仔嫂), which has also been covered by many artists (the melodies for these songs were originally Japanese and a folk song from Hengchun in south Taiwan, respectively).

Eric Scheihagen (徐睿楷) is a pop music historian. He has collected a wide variety of Taiwanese popular music over the past two decades, including Mandarin, Hoklo, Hakka, and Aboriginal music. He currently hosts a radio show on Alian 96.3 Indigenous Radio. Image credit: CC by Tzuhsun Hsu/Flickr.

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