When the 24th Golden Melody Awards for music were announced in a nationally televised TV show earlier this year, one of the surprise winners was a Greater Tainan native named Hsieh Ming-yu (謝銘祐), a 44-year-old singer-songwriter-producer who has been in the music business for more than 20 years.
Hsieh won Golden Bell statuettes in the categories of Best New Male Hoklo Singer and Best New Hoklo Album.
All 10 songs on the new CD titled simply, but lovingly, Tainan were written in his hometown, to which Hsieh returned a few years ago after many years toiling in the sometimes cutthroat, often stressful music industry in Taipei.
Moving back to Greater Tainan with his wife was “the best thing I ever did,” Hsieh said in a recent telephone interview.
The pace of life in southern Taiwan is slower than in the nation’s capital, and Hsieh said he found time to reconnect with his roots and many of his former neighbors.
In a prolonged period of creativity, Hsieh said he visited local haunts and spent time chatting with homespun neighborhood eccentrics and artists and came away with 10 songs that he wrote and sings in his mother tongue, Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese).
“I grew up speaking Taiwanese in Tainan, so it was only natural that I return to my roots here and write my new lyrics in Hoklo,” he said. “I wanted this album to be totally rooted in Tainan, and the words and the melodies came easily to me once I got attuned to my old stomping grounds again. In Taipei, I was always writing songs for other people, celebrity singers, and in Mandarin, not Hoklo. And I wanted to reclaim my old hometown this way.”
To produce and market the CD by himself as an independent singer-songwriter, Hsieh relied on the moral support of his wife, he said, and borrowed money from friends and maxed out his own credit cards to fulfill his dream. Winning the two awards at the Golden Melody Awards caught the crooner by surprise when his name was announced and he bounded up to the stage like a teenage boy winning the lottery.
He was so ecstatic that although awards for Hoklo singers and lyricists are often ignored by the mainstream media, Hsieh’s happy face was plastered the next day over the entertainment sections of all the Chinese-language national newspapers.
After the awards show, Hsieh was interviewed by dozens of Taipei music critics and local press in Greater Tainan, and he joked that due to his “naturally dark skin,” he is often mistaken by Taiwanese to be a foreigner from Southeast Asia, but he is 100 percent “made in Taiwan” and 100 percent “Taiwanese.”
After spending many years in Taipei writing songs for Mandarin-language singers such as Andy Lau (劉德華), Nicholas Tse (謝霆鋒) and late Canto-pop star Anita Mui (梅艷芳), Hsieh said he came back to Tainan for three reasons: It is the city that nurtured him as a teenager, he longed for the smells of food and back alleys of his hometown, and he missed his Tainan friends.
Hsieh even made a T-shirt for himself that he often sports during his concerts with the slogan “I was forged in the heart of Tainan” on it.
In the 10 songs on the award-winning CD, Hsieh sings of fried milkfish, local temples and the smell of incense wafting through the air and even the smell of the old wooden buildings of Greater Tainan.
Each song is like a mirror the middle-aged troubadour is holding up to the memories and love of his aged, yet still bustling hometown.
This summer, Hsieh has been performing at a string of fund-raising concerts in the Anping (安平) area of Greater Tainan as part of the South Howl Music Festival, a grassroots cultural organization set up in May.