It’s easy to forget that behind the singer on stage, there is often a collaborator offstage who plays an equally important role in the music. This holds true for one of the Taiwan folk scene’s longest-running and most unique songwriting partnerships, that of singer Lin Sheng-xiang (林生祥) and lyricist Zhong Yong-feng (鍾永豐).
Their latest work can be heard on Growing Up Wild (野生), Lin’s third solo album and fifth with Zhong, which was released last month and features Ken Ohtake (大竹研) on guitar.
As a fellow musician and friend of Lin’s, I’ve watched his music evolve into a finely honed and gentle acoustic sound, a long way from the rousing protest rock of his first band, Labor Exchange (交工樂隊). [See correction below.]
But what has always remained the same is a core concern for social issues and community, which has inspired many of Zhong’s lyrics, mostly written in Hakka.
For Getting Dark (臨暗, 2004), Zhong wrote about the effects of globalization as seen through the eyes of urban laborers; Planting Trees (種樹, 2006) was about the struggles of farming communities in the face of dwindling subsidies and trade liberalization after Taiwan’s entrance into the World Trade Organization.
Growing Up Wild looks at women and families in contemporary Taiwanese society, particularly Hakka farming communities, and touches upon the economic divide between northern and southern Taiwan.
“People love their music because it comes from a real place, it comes from a concern for people, and it comes from a sense of humanitarianism,” said Chang Tieh-chih (張鐵志), a music critic and author of a local best-selling book on rock music and social change.
He says that Zhong’s literary flair gives a unique touch to the music. “Yong-feng’s lyrics are like one poem after another, and moreover they’re epics. There’s almost nothing like this in Taiwanese popular music.”
But in talking to the 45-year-old, who has won multiple Golden Melody Awards for best lyricist, one might not immediately discern a passion for poetry and storytelling.
In a phone interview earlier this month, Zhong, who currently serves as the head of Cultural Affairs Department in Chiayi County, conversed more like a social scientist or grassroots activist.
This wasn’t surprising given his masters degree in sociology from the University of Florida. He was also one of the founding members of the Meinung People’s Association (美濃愛鄉協進會), an NGO that successfully prevented the construction of a dam that would have wiped out his hometown of Meinung (美濃) in Kaohsiung County in the late 1990s. It was during this time that Lin and Zhong started their partnership with Labor Exchange.
Growing Up Wild is different than past albums, Zhong said, in that he took a more “anthropological” approach to writing.
Zhong, who wrote all but three of the album’s 10 songs, focused on women in Hakka and other Han Chinese families in farming communities, which feature as the main characters in his stories. (Lin wrote the lyircs for two of the other tracks; the third is a traditional children’s rhyme.)
Family Break-Up (分家) tells of a young woman who watches as her family divides up their property. She doesn’t have any say in the matter, as heard in the refrain: “A daughter has no name/no part in the family/and no right to intervene.”
With this song, Zhong said he wanted to illuminate the fact that traditional families tend to ignore a woman’s “legal status” when it comes to inheritance matters, divorce or disputes.
The women characters in Growing Up Wild are doing exactly what the title suggests, said Zhong, as they must find a way to exist on the fringes of both family and society. They aren’t expected to be a “person of society” in the same way as men, who must uphold the family honor, handle business and legal matters, or be a “person of culture.”
But can a male viewpoint portray the experience of Hakka women with enough authenticity? This was one question Lin and producer Chung Shefong (鍾適芳) asked Zhong when they started working on the album.
He felt he could, by drawing from personal experience as the only son in a family with four sisters. “[When I was younger] I would look at, from my mother’s perspective, her relationships with my father and his father,” he said.
In the lullaby-like Back Home Again (轉妹家), Zhong frames the unhappiness of a woman within patrilineal family values. “Auntie” has returned to the home of her blood relatives and lays on her deathbed as her family recalls an unhappy life. She was a first-born daughter, married off at the age of 18 to a family with “razor-sharp tongues” and brothers-in-law who “were all talk and got nothing done.”
“Why does a woman after 50 or 60 years desire to return to her parents’ home?” said Zhong. “I think this is because there’s a different conception of one’s origin and where one comes from — it’s probably not what [traditional men] think. It’s not the so-called idea of ‘going back home’ or ‘returning to one’s native soil.’ It’s not that simple.”
The album’s final three songs are both tributes and laments for southern Taiwan.
In Ask the South (問南方), Zhong portrays southern Taiwan as a place of hope and then abandonment: “Industrial parks patched your hopes, chemical factories produced your dreams/In middle age your brothers and sisters looked elsewhere if they had the means.”
With this song, Zhong said he had in mind the economic divide between northern and southern Taiwan. He sees parallels with the “global north-south divide,” which refers to economic inequality between the industrialized north and the less developed countries of the south.
Also in the backdrop are the empty promises of industrial development in Zhong’s home of Kaohsiung County. “So many farmers go to Kaohsiung City with so many industries there, but it’s the same — they go to Kaohsiung only to endure the same hardship,” he said.
In comparison to past albums, Growing Up Wild dwells more upon on the sentiment and emotions of its characters.
Zhong says the shift in direction has been both a pleasure and challenge as a lyricist. “To write more about the internal, more of what’s inside the mind, more philosophical things, I think it only gets more difficult.”
* When this article was first published, it incorrectly stated that Lin Sheng-xiang's (林生祥) first band was Labor Exchange (交工樂隊). Lin's first band was Guanzi Yinyuekeng (觀子音樂坑). The Taipei Times regrets the error.
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