Sun, Jan 14, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: The queen of the tea mountain

Lai Pi-hsia dedicated her life to documenting, performing and promoting Hakka mountain songs, which are difficult to learn because of their improvisational nature

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

This montage of old photos of Lai Pi-hsia can be seen at an area dedicated to the late singer at the Taoyuan Hakka Culture Hall.

Photo: Lee Jung-ping, Taipei Times

Jan. 15 to Jan. 21

Lai Pi-hsia (賴碧霞) learned enough Atayal to communicate with her peers while growing up in the Aboriginal village of Chingchuan (清泉) in Hsinchu County, but she still had trouble fully understanding their songs.

One day, she heard a different tune that spoke to her in a way she could not explain. And she could understand all the words and sing along. She ran into the construction site where the voice was coming from and asked the workers what song it was. They laughed and told her it was a Hakka mountain song. With Hakka being her native tongue, Lai immediately understood why the songs sounded familiar.

“After that, I asked about every song I heard and tried to learn from every person I encountered,” she writes in her book, Taiwan’s Hakka Mountain Songs (台灣客家山歌). She even walked across the mountains for three days to learn the art of writing lyrics from an illiterate maestro.

From then on, Lai not only dedicated her life to singing, collecting, recording, promoting and teaching Hakka mountain songs, she also wrote plenty of other material ranging from television shows to comedy performances to three-character, tea-picking dramas (三腳採茶戲), another Hakka specialty.

By the time of her death on Jan. 18, 2015, Lai had recorded more than 50 albums and had written more than 20 scripts for various productions, writes Chen Yi-chun (陳怡君) in the book Lai Pi-hsia and Her World of Hakka Folk Music (賴碧霞與她的客家民歌天地).


Chen writes that Hakka mountain songs were first brought to Taiwan from China by Han Chinese settlers in the 17th century. “Singing mountain songs while picking tea” was a quintessential image of rural Hakka life as music helped alleviate the drudgery of hard labor.

“Initially, it was likely a way for people who liked to sing to entertain themselves and others up in the mountains,” Chen writes. As more Hakka settled in the Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Miaoli areas, mountain songs became a mainstream form of entertainment.

These songs evolved in Taiwan and became increasingly improvisational. Since they were only passed on orally, the lyrics changed with the times. Cautionary songs, ballads and playful attacks were among the themes covered. Lai adds that during Japanese rule, many songs expressed their hatred for the colonizers.

“The singers skillfully adapted the lyrics to the time, place, person and event,” Lai writes. “Other singers can also arbitrarily respond to the lyrics. That’s why Hakka mountain songs can capture people’s hearts — you can listen to the same song 100 times and not feel bored.”

Hakka mountain songs, along with other forms of Han Chinese culture, were banned during the later years of the Japanese era. They thrived again during the early days of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rule, but soon loss popularity with the arrival of modern music.


Lai was born in 1932 in today’s Jhudong (竹東) Township in Hsinchu County. Her first musical love was the Japanese songs that she heard on her uncle’s phonograph, and she was encouraged by her Japanese teacher to pursue singing.

In 1947, her father retired from Chingchuan and moved the family back to Jhudong, where there was a higher concentration of Hakka speakers. Lai wanted to learn from folk music master Kuan Lo-cheng (官羅成), but he did not accept students. A persistent Lai befriended Kuan’s wife by washing clothes with her every day by the river, and eventually she was able to persuade Kuan to teach Lai.

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