What is Xinyao?

The word itself Xinyao新谣 is shorthand for ‘新加坡年轻人创造的歌谣’. It is a genre of songs that is unique to Singapore, where the songs are composed and sung by young Singaporeans and are usually about life in this small island country. Xinyao can be clearly identified by its distinctive style of clean acoustics, with a group of people singing and harmonizing together in the singing style Shuochang (说唱), usually accompanied solely by the guitar. It is defined by Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians as ‘a Mandarin vocal genre accompanied by guitars which began in the early 1980s among teenage students’ (Groves 2001, pg. 421- 423).

Historical Development of Xinyao
As the ‘Campus Folk Song Movement’ (校园民歌) from Taiwan gradually spread over to Singapore, it stimulated a wave of excitement and interest within the young and adventurous regarding the composition and singing of local folk songs. From 1980 onwards, students from junior colleges and polytechnics started forming their own singing interest groups. It was a glocalisation process of Chinese folk songs, in which Singaporean students adapted the Taiwan Campus Folks songs and modified them to a Singaporean context, such that these local ballads were unique and resonant of the Singaporean way of life. The youths performed these self-created Singaporean style ‘ballads’ in their campuses, predating newspaper articles and newly minted terminology that became Xinyao. (Dairianathan & Chia 2010, pg 5-6). These songs originally were informally composed to be shared with youth counterparts within the confines of school who shared such a common musical interest and were initially only intended to be a local youth leisure activity.
As these songs were originally unintended to be commercially produced, its song lyrics of Xinyao were characteristic of youth concerns, including their unconcealed feelings and aspirations, and also the Singaporean youth’s candid views regarding events and happenings that they witnessed in Singapore, such as the day-to-day lifestyle, the multiethnic dimensions of the society and characteristics of Singaporeans etc. As Billy Koh, one of the pioneers of the Xinyao movement expressed, "The true spirit of Xinyao is to reflect the emotions and aspirations of youth in their coming –of –age." (The Straits Times, 4 July 1985). One good example of a Xinyao song that aptly portrayed Singapore in the eyes of Singaporeans in 1990s was Liang Wern Fook’s “Singapore-Pie” (新加坡派). One especially meaningful and memorable stanza of this song is shown below.
Original Lyrics
English Translation
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
The Apple-pie has come from overseas to Singapore
We can also create our own Singaporean-pie (pun on 派)
As foreigners continually immigrate here
Who doesn’t love the Singaporean brand? (pun on 派)
I love the Singapore pie!

Many young Xinyao composers and singers did not have any prior musical training. Their compositions thus generally consisted of simple melody lines using basic chords, and particularly in the early stages of xinyao development, it would not be uncommon to find that "two guitars at most provided the rhythm" (The Straits Times, 22 December 1985). Occasionally, there would be some supplementary piano, flute or violin accompaniment.
As interest in this amateur music-making grew, groups of students began to organise their own song-writing competitions and performances within their junior colleges in their assembly halls. Other students soon came to know about their activities and began to do likewise within their own schools. Groups and individuals were invited to perform at one another's schools and to judge at one another's competitions. The audience comprised almost exclusively youths. In this early stage then, xinyao was by youths, for youths, developed within the space of the school, away from the homogenising influences of the marketplace. Given this brief background, it is now understandable why such music was so influential in acting as a medium and influencing the outcome of Singaporean youth identity then.
As mentioned in the 1988 PA Souvenir magazine “Melodies of Merlion”, the emergence of Xinyao, provided an opportunity for the vibrant community youths to showcase their talents and gain personal confidence. The development of local arts were also very active then, as Singapore was still at the transition period towards being a highly-developed nation, and thus much attention in policy-making was diverted to education, especially appreciation of the arts. Much attention was given to the creation of learning environments that are conducive and stimulating for the appreciation of art and cultures, as it is instrumental in defining a society of refined and cultured individuals who are all-rounded and well-read.
Xinyao has also transformed the musical scene in Singapore. It represents a local music culture pioneered by our local budding artistes and thus essentially prevented the “dominance of imported foreign culture”, as Mr. Ibrahim Bin Othman (the MP for Tanah Merah in 1988) puts it. Xinyao thus has redeemed the Singapore arts landscape from potential cultural imperialism of the insidious Western media.
Xinyao was not only a practice but helped ‘with’ and ‘in’ the construction of identity among Mandarin-speaking youth and the empowerment of youth communities in its early stage of development (Kong 1996, p. 115). Xinyao was a significant social adhesive that bonded youths of different social backgrounds together. It was popular not only amongst Chinese-educated youths, but also youth who came from English backgrounds. These English-educated youths may not be proficient in their mother tongue, but they equally enjoyed the Xinyao activities and many took the extra effort to brush up their Chinese standards and Chinese pronunciation, so as to be able to compose quality Xinyao pieces. The cultural segregation of the Chinese –educated and English-educated was dissolved in the binding forces of Xinyao and thus was viewed by the government to be a healthy arts practice that was beneficial to social integration.
The Singapore government authorities in the 1980s were therefore very much in favour of this new-found music movement. It was seen as a “creative and wholesome activity” (C.G Lee, 1988) which had beneficial effects on the promotion of social cohesiveness and appreciation for local arts. The appreciation of arts was important the newly-rising country then, as it aided in the spiritual and intellectual development of the nation, alongside rapid economic and material development. As said by Mr. Lee Seng Lee, Chairperson of the Xinyao Centre at Mountbatten CC, Xinyao was a spiritually-nourishing activity that combined education with recreation, as it encourages youths to develop passion and the critical eye on issues of the national, social and personal dimensions. As such, the government invested significant sums of capital for the sustained development of this music movement.
For instance, the government pumped in considerable sums of public funds to hold frequent Xinyao concerts to provide platforms for interested young people to showcase their talent and for citizens from all walks of life to interact and understand each other better. These concerts were organized during many special national celebrations events, such as National Day, Chinese New Year and Racial Harmony day, and are also given the support from non-Chinese racial groups.
The first reported Xinyao concerts graced the period 1983-1985. In the same period, local broadcast media featured creators-as-performers on a half-hour radio programme. A singing competition (better known as the Talentime Series) organised by local Chinese (read Mandarin language) broadcast media introduced an amateur vocal group category in 1983. San Ren Dui became the first Xinyao group to win this section of the singing contest in 1984.
To ensure the continued interest of all Xinyao participants, be it composers, singers, instrumentalists or plain audience, in 1985 the People’s Association Youth Movement Regional Youth Council (East) has appointed a Xinyao Coordinating Committee under the Council. The realization and successes of the Xinyao concerts were largely accredited to the efforts put in by this committee in organizing and coordinating the Xinyao activities.
The release of the first Xinyao compilation album in 1984, 21 Tomorrow, generated sales of 20,000 copies and considerable interest in print and broadcast media. Xinyao Songs like ‘Chance Meeting’ (巧遇) by Eric Moo (巫启贤) gained entry to the Singapore Chinese Billboard charts. Thomas Teo, Dawn Gan and Eric Moo later, became the first Xinyao singers to successfully release solo recordings, encouraging the Chinese talentime series to introduce a ‘local compositions’ category. Although Xinyao was now developed for commercial music productions, producers and singers took extra care to continue preserving the essence of Xinyao music- to promote the Singaporean way of life.
There were also activities that aimed towards promoting the Xinyao songs to the general public, other than the youth Xinyao-fans. The inaugural Qun Ying Xinyao Festival in 1985 was one such event that brought Xinyao to the public members and provided comprehensive knowledge regarding this unique movement. It successfully increased the popularity of Xinyao amongst the working population and older generations too.
By 1987, the annual Xinyao Festival featured ‘newcomers’ such as strobe lights, back-up dancers, four-piece bands, performers’ outstanding outfits and slick presentation (Low 1987). Towards the end of the 1980s, prominent Xinyao songwriters took to singing their own songs; Liang Wern Fook and Loy Fei Huei being the most notable.
Obstacles in Growth and Solutions Proposed
Words from Xinyao Singapore Organisation President Lovell Chan Jiashan:
"When it reached the 1990s, the annual Xinyao Festival however, was ‘reduced to a school concert playing to a half-empty hall’ and the Sing Music Awards (1990) was scrapped because ‘too few Xinyao albums were submitted for nomination’" (Chin 1994).
As the years went by, lesser and lesser youth were actively involved in Xinyao activities or even interested in Xinyao music anymore. By 1995, more youths were gravitating towards the rapidly popularizing Amercian and Western pop music and hardly any youths are aware of the once booming Xinyao movement.
Moreover, according to a small survey research we conducted on 20 Dunman High Year 4 students, it is evident and distinct that the youth today are mostly unaware of this once popular form of Singapore music. Only 5 out of 20 youths interviewed are aware of the term ‘Xinyao’. Some of the remaining 15 individuals claimed to have heard of some of the Xinyao songs after I introduced to them to the singers and songs of Xinyao, but they responded that they did not know these songs were categorised under this term ‘Xinyao’. Many of the responses also shown the respondent’s lack of understanding for this music form, as many as 12 have listed wrong examples of Xinyao singers/songs, confusing between Taiwanese ballads and Xinyao ballads. All these misconceptions and lack of understanding can be explained so- there simply is not enough publicity of Xinyao in current years, or at least not sufficient publicity that is specifically directed towards the modern youths.
From the results, 19 out of 20 respondents agreed that Xinyao is a form of local arts that promoted the Singaporean identity, but only 15 out of 20 felt that Xinyao was worth publicizing. This is another indication that most youths might be aware of the importance of the local arts in constructing the Singaporean identity, but these arts may not relate to them well enough for them to see their actual significance and worth.
Another important observation seen from the results is the general ambiguity of ‘what is considered Xinyao’. 11 respondents felt that Singaporean Mandopop singers like Joi Chua, Stephanie Sun, Kit Chan etc. can be considered as Xinyao artistes, while 9 respondents felt that they should not be. When furthered enquired on why they felt so, many respondents were unable to give a reason as they were not sure of the exact distinctions between other singers and Xinyao singers. In fact, in my opinion it may be a good thing that there are no clear-cut distinctions between normal Singaporean singers and Xinyao singers, for there is no need for that to be. I think, the Xinyao spirit of promoting Singaporean culture should be present in one way or another, in varying extents, in all Singapore-produced music. After all, singing is “a natural human expressive outlet” (E.Dairianathan, 2010), and thus one good way to preserve and perpetuate a local culture would be through leaving its legacies and influences on the local music.
A very recent Mandarin print media article attempted to stimulate interest in Xinyao among a wider and younger audience (Chen, 2010) drawn around prominent practitioners like Liang Wern Fook, Loi Fei Huay and Xing Cheng Hua. This article highlighted results of a questionnaire about what Xinyao was or could be defined as and took on board a brief account of its prominence. A larger question loomed in the article pertaining to continuation, what it meant to have continuation, what about Xinyao might be continued, who might be identified in the continuation and the ways such continuation might take place. While Liang Wern Fook, the symbolic founder of Xinyao, suggested ‘continuation’ might be too onerous a term, he deferred toward finding ways to maintain the vitality and energy Xinyao brought through its prominence and practice as well as its advocacy and accessibility to a younger and larger audience who might not know of its shimmering past or its impact on Mandarin language popular music in Singapore.
Despite low publicity, the legacy of Xinyao is evident in local music labels such as Ocean Butterflies which launched the careers of local singers Kit Chan, Tanya Chua and A Do. Among these names, the Lee brothers, Tan Kah Beng, and Loy Fei Huay have established themselves in the region as composers and lyricists for Wen Zhang, Tracy Huang, Alex To and Tony Leung Kar Fai in Hongkong and Taiwan (Chin 1994). One name that continues to remain the most widely recognised as being synonymous with Xinyao is Liang Wern Fook who was recently awarded the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest honour for artists.
Therefore, it can be said that Xinyao has not truly in its death throes yet, but it is also indisputable that much more can be done to promote it in Singapore now. In the 1980s, a wide range of events such as Xinyao tea-session, Xinyao dialogue-sessions, Xinyao Singing Workshops, Xinyao Singing Competitions, Xinyao Annual Camps were organized with much enthusiastic responses. It was truly an integral part of Singaporean life in the 1980s. Similar events and activities can be replicated now, but it is obvious that its response would be drastically different from the past as the significance it once held no longer stands.
Xinyao is a music culture that was popularized in the 1980s. It is a popular culture that was very well-received then, but it is unlikely its original, unchanged form can be repopularized in our current era, for social conditions and circumstanced have evolved with lapse of time, and the people of the dynamic society has already developed different mindsets and preferences. Therefore, it is virtually impossible to forcefully try to fit a culture from another temporal context to the current context without making any modern adaptations or modification, as it would be a cultural and chronological mismatch.
However, it remains an inarguable truth that Xinyao is an important and valuable art form that can provide us with wonderful insights into culture and history of Singapore in the 1980s and such a valued heritage should not be forgotten and simply lost in time. We should preserve and promote the understanding for such a music culture, but in recognition of changing times and changing social trends, we have to extract only the essence of Xinyao, and readapt it to the modern context, so as reconnect its relevance to the modernized Singapore life. This is what we should do for this art form, so as to preserve it, refine it and publicise it so as to get more people to start appreciating it too. Although many argue that modern readaptations would diminish the significance and unique identity of Xinyao, but in another perspective, readaptations and modifications is also a process to improve and filter out the timeless essence of a particular art form, while removing the redundant and irrelevant elements.
After all, change is the only constant. In order to survive with vibrancy and vitality, all cultures have to constantly reinvent itself to catch up with today’s circumstances. Only then, will it be able to constantly adapt to the dynamic surroundings and in the process evolve and improve its form, until it can truly emerge as the ultimate essence of its older forms, leaving behind only what is truly the best for the future generations to enjoy. This crystallized form of the culture will then be evergreen and timelessly beautiful. The same applies for Xinyao. It was a form of music movement greatly popularized in the past, but it is slowly dissipating away, and fading into unknown now. However, there is definitely still a possibility of us reviving this dying beauty. We can do so, by creatively reinventing Xinyao with reference to the modern context, while still preserving its true essence will continue to enchant future generations. There are many approaches that we can go about reinventing Xinyao, so long as fresh new perspectives are infused into this older music form to revitalize it yet still its innate spirit is retained. We can modify the music styles, the beat, the rhythms, the instrumental accompaniments, singing techniques and etcetera to the likes of modern audiences, or we can even experiment with interdisciplinary arts, such as reinventing Xinyao as a form of local musical extravaganza! Dance, aerobics and other popular forms of local arts can meet with Xinyao at the crossroads, to innovate and revitalize the Singapore arts arena. There are endless exciting possibilities to what we can do to reinvent Xinyao.
Today, we also see the rise of a new popularized music culture- Mandopop. The mandarin pop music has its context well suited to the modern cultural and societal context, and it is a good opportunity for us seize in revitalizing Xinyao. Singaporean Mandopop can become synonymous with Xinyao. A refreshing new version of Xinyao can be created through the trans-temporal fusion of the modern elements of Singapore Mandopop with the essence of Xinyao. The intrinsic beauty of Xinyao that we should distill out, and infuse into the Mandopop genre is its vivid and timeless illustration of the Singaporean way of life. The brilliant combination of Mandopop and Xinyao that have both enjoyed popularity in Singapore at different time periods can spark off a new music form that will resonate within modern youths and adults alike, as hearts are touched by the vivid emotional connections that these songs have with our common memories in Singapore.
We can reignite the spirit of Xinyao, if we can reconnect the missing link between the music context with the modernized Singapore common identity and way of life, just like how the older Xinyao managed to strike a connection with the lives of the people in the 1980s.
Let the unique beauty and charisma of Xinyao, an essential element of our local arts heritage and also a valuable historical source, be reborn in front of the eyes of modern Singaporeans. Let it leave its legacy through its subtle yet essential influences on the popular music of Singapore. Last but not least, may the music culture of Singapore be dynamic and everlasting!
The Xinyao Hall of Fame
One name that continues to remain the most widely recognised as being synonymous with Xinyao is Liang Wern Fook who was recently awarded the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest honour for artists.