Sun, Jun 04, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: Love songs turned military marches

Teng Yu-hsien’s brilliant career as one of Taiwan’s top Hoklo pop composers in the 1930s was cut short by World War II and the government’s Japanization policy

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

A portrait of Teng Yu-hsien, who is considered the “Father of Taiwanese Folk Songs.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

June 5 to June11

It was the late 1930s and Teng Yu-hsien (鄧雨賢) was unhappy with what the Japanese colonial government had done to his hit Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) songs Flowers in a Rainy Night (雨夜花), Yearning for Spring (望春風) and Sadness in a Moonlit Night (月夜愁). It had only been a few years since he shot to fame as one of Taiwan’s top four Hoklo pop composers as an in-house musician for the Japanese-run, Taipei-based Columbia Records.

The Hoklo music scene was thriving before the government launched its Japanization policy around 1937. But after the policy shift, not only was Teng stifled creatively, his top three hits had been rewritten into the Japanese military marching songs Calling of the Earth, The Honorable Soldier and The Soldier’s Wife, respectively. It wasn’t just the lyrics, as no trace of the original wistful and romantic arrangement was left.

In addition, during the early 1930s, Teng had spent considerable time traveling throughout Taiwan, doing field research on traditional folk music that he had hoped to incorporate into his work. With strict regulations on melody and lyrics under the new rules, all his effort was for naught.

A frustrated Teng quit his job in 1940 and moved his family to what is today’s rural Hsinchu County to teach at an elementary school. He continued to write music, organized a local band and helped with student performances during school fairs. But as the war went on and resources dwindled, Teng’s health worsened, leading to his premature death at age 38.

MUSIC FOR THE MASSES

Teng was born in 1906 to a scholarly Hakka family that followed an ancestral motto: Do not practice medicine, do not serve the government. As a result, Teng, like many in his family, became a teacher. Although he was Hakka, Teng grew up in Taipei, and became fluent in Japanese and Hoklo.

Having been fascinated with music since he was a child, Teng had other aspirations. At the age of 24, he quit his respected teaching post and went to Japan to study music. Although he studied Western music, he wanted to write Hoklo pop songs to appeal to the masses.

“I feel that not only musicians, but painters and writers as well, often feel that art only belongs to themselves,” he said during a conference in 1936. “They distance themselves from the general public and may even look down on them. If possible, I hope that artists can move closer to the people, as it is what they are meant to do.”

“Currently, art in Taiwan has become entertainment for just a portion of white-collar workers. This needs to improve,” he added.

Teng was wary about promoting Western music in Taiwan, as he believed that people were not sophisticated enough to appreciate it.

“We should improve the melodies and lyrics of existing Taiwanese music, such as Taiwanese opera. I’ve been working on this for four or five years already,” he said.

In 1932, he penned the promotional song for the Chinese movie Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood (桃花泣血記), which is widely considered Taiwan’s first Hoklo hit. His other famous tunes were produced in the next few years, and it’s easy to imagine that he would have accomplished much if his life had not been cut short.

LASTING LEGACY

Japan’s defeat in 1945 did not revive Teng’s work. Bent on eradicating Hoklo and Japanese influences and promoting Mandarin, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) banned his songs along with countless others throughout the White Terror period. Still, the songs persisted and never disappeared. A notable event took place during the 1979 Kaoshiung Incident, when Chiu Chui-chen (邱垂貞), a musician and politician who sought to use Hoklo folk songs in his opposition against KMT rule, sang Yearning For Spring during the political protest that turned violent and landed him in jail for four years.

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