Sun, Aug 07, 2016 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time : The resilience of suppressed tunes

Yeh Chun-lin, one of the most prolific Hoklo songwriters in history, persisted despite government attempts to suppress the language

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Yeh Chun-lin as a young man.

Photo: Weng Yu-huang, Taipei Times

Aug. 7 to Aug. 13

In 1976, Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) pop music suffered a major blow when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government passed the Radio and Television Act (廣播電視法), limiting programming in the language to one hour and two songs per day. Furthermore, the lyrics were often censored or changed to fit the KMT agenda.

The language had been in decline since the KMT started promoting Mandarin as the official language in 1946, punishing schoolchildren who spoke Hoklo and portraying it as a “vulgar” dialect. But Hoklo music continued to persist as it was still commonly spoken at home, and this act was the latest attempt in a long history of government suppression of Hoklo music, dating back to the days of Japanese rule.

However, this attempt at suppression only lasted for a time, as hits such as One Small Umbrella (一支小雨傘) started appearing as early as 1982, five years before the end of martial law and the lifting of all oppressive measures.

After the act was passed, Yeh Chun-lin (葉俊麟), one of the most prolific Hoklo pop song writers in history, went through a period of “hibernation and transition,” writes Chen Chi-meng (陳麒盟) in the study, Yeh Chun-lin and the Study on His Taiwanese Pop Lyrics (葉俊麟及其閩南語歌詞研究). He did not stop writing, though, and under the suggestion of his children, he embarked on a journey to the major sights of Taiwan, writing 14 songs with titles such as Bathing in the Hot Springs at Jiaosi by the Sea (濱海礁溪洗溫泉) and The Boat Song of Sun Moon Lake (日月潭船歌).


Even after Yeh’s career took off, he continued this Sketches of Formosa (寶島風情畫) series, writing 21 additional songs on places such as Taroko Gorge and the rainy port of Keelung. In 1994, he was finally recognized for his efforts and presented a Lifetime Contribution Award at the Golden Melody Awards — which was sponsored by the then-Government Information Office, the very institution that tried to stamp out Yeh’s type of music just over a decade earlier.

It had been a long road for Hoklo pop music since the localized theme song for the 1932 Chinese movie, Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood (桃花泣血記) became the first official “hit” that sent the populace into a craze.

A vibrant Hoklo pop industry blossomed during those years and faded just as quickly. In 1938, Taiwan’s colonial masters started their “Japanization” program, banning all Hoklo music in 1939.

Yeh, who was born in 1921 to a wealthy cloth merchant family in Keelung, spent his formative years during this boom. He is said to have shown a talent for literature at a young age, penning his first play at age 18. During the “Japanization” period, Japanese musician Asakuchi Kazuo reportedly took Yeh under his wing after hearing him sing on the balcony of his office after work, and taught him the basics of singing and songwriting.

During World War II, Yeh’s family lost everything when their textile business burnt down. Falling on hard times, Yeh worked as a street vendor for several years to make ends meet.

After the arrival of the KMT at the end of the war, Hoklo songs enjoyed another boom as the new government banned Japanese to erase of the vestiges of colonialism. Several songs became hits during this period, such as Hot Rice Dumpling (燒肉粽) and Mending the Net (補破網). But soon, the language came under fire again as the government started aggressively promoting Mandarin as the official language. Strict censorship laws were enacted after martial law was declared in 1949, and both the aforementioned songs were banned because the KMT government felt that the lyrics, which alluded to people falling on hard times, were too negative.

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