“Seeing” the Music Contest
Cui Jian is known as the “Father of Chinese Rock.” His emergence in the 1980s symbolizes China’s 1980s reform and opening-up period, in which rock music was introduced to China and developed into a style of rock music unique to China.
Cui Jian’s music is influenced by Western artists like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, but also incorporates folk music and traditional Chinese instruments like suona, a type of horn, and dizi, a type of flute. In “Nothing to My Name,” for example, you can clearly hear the sound of the suona.
“Nothing to My Name” is often considered Cui Jian’s most famous piece of music. In the song’s lyrics, the speaker describes a girl they are pursuing who dismisses the speaker because the speaker has nothing. The song, however, later became a popular song among students in the 1989 student demonstrations in China that eventually led to the Tiananmen Square incident on June 4, 1989. Some compare the girl described in the lyrics to the China of the time, with the song reflecting the disillusionment of students towards the Chinese government. Cui Jian also performed in Tiananmen Square during the demonstrations, eventually leading to him being unable to perform in many large venues for the following two decades.
Shawn Sung was the winner of the Best Lyricist at the Golden Melody Awards, considered the equivalent of the Grammys for Chinese language music.
The song, “Life’s a Struggle,” describes how Sung left home in Taiwan to study in the United States at a young age, went through his parents’ divorce, and was framed by his friends and briefly jailed. Every word in the song reflects a personal experience, with an exhilarating feeling of power behind it. The song is one of the most important pieces of music from the early years of Chinese rap.
Sung died of bone cancer at age 23. Two years after his death, his mother and brother arranged his remaining work into an album that was released to the public. Many Chinese language rappers have paid tribute to Sung in their music. A biopic of his life is also currently under production.
海闊天空 / 愛自由／理想／一生／不羈
Beyond is one of Hong Kong’s most famous Cantonese rock bands of all time. Their song “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies” is one of the Chinese language world’s most popular Cantonese language songs.
During the recent Hong Kong democracy protests, the song was used by activists and students because of its lyrics’ highlight on the pursuit of freedom and not giving up on one’s dreams and ideals. The band’s late lead singer, Wong Ka Kui, also wrote the song “Glorious Years” to pay tribute to South African anti-apartheid activist and future president Nelson Mandela. As a result, some say that if Wong Ka Kui was still alive today, he would join the democratic popular movement and stand with the strength of the people of Hong Kong.
Music is like a journal, and The Village Armed Youth Band records the stories of society, especially issues of the environment, in their musical journal.
This song expresses discontent towards society and the politics of power and money, exploitation, and the educational narratives pushed onto children.
Taiwan is roughly the size of Vancouver Island but has a population of 24 million. The Village Armed Youth Band aspires to let young people know through music that Taiwan has precious things in nature that need to be preserved. The black-faced spoonbill, a species of water bird, and the Chinese white dolphin are two species found off the west coast of Taiwan that are currently vulnerable—humans need to help protect the future of the land and ocean, not aid in its destruction.
“Village Besieged” refers to how farms were surrounded by the expanding of the petrochemical industry and sacrificed to build growing cities.
Taiwan’s southeastern region deals with unresolved social and environmental issues caused by local petrochemical industry factories, including air pollution, water pollution, and the forced departure of the local rural population.
Lin Sheng-xiang, the lead singer of Sheng-xiang & Band, returned to his hometown at age 27, writing songs about these topics in both Taiwanese and Hakka languages.
How are stories remembered and passed around? Jolin Tsai, the queen of Chinese language pop, uses music to sing the stories of equality for gender and sexuality.
“Womxnly” brings gender and sexuality to the forefront for Taiwanese society and government and allows more to witness the power of pop music.
In 2000, a junior high school student in Taiwan, Yeh Yung-chih, died as a result of an incident in a school bathroom. Yeh was often bullied by his classmates for his gender nonconformity, and other students would force him to take off his pants in the bathroom. To avoid other students, Yeh often would ask to use the bathroom during class time, but one day, he did not return to the classroom and was found injured and lying in a pool of blood in the bathroom. Yeh later died in hospital.
Jolin Tsai wrote the song “Womxnly” with inspiration from Yeh Yung-chih’s story. In the song’s lyrics, Yung-chih’s name appears as a homonym for the words meaning to “remember forever.”
The Hong Kong idol boy band Mirror has become hugely popular during the pandemic, breaking away from traditional music labels and leading a new craze in Hong Kong music. In addition to their group’s songs, their individual members have also released a number of individual songs.
Mirror’s emergence highlights Gen Z’s feelings of power and strong beliefs. Their music brings positivity to young people even in the face of adversity.
Mirror member Anson Lo’s song “EGO” describes the cyberbullying he encountered after he became a celebrity. Despite the vitriol and attacks of anonymous netizens, Anson hopes to use music to encourage people to have empathy for each other and to be more careful with what they say online.
Malaysian musician Namewee has been targeted by government authorities for rewriting the Malaysian national anthem in a way that satirized government corruption, as well as for publicly criticizing the government on multiple occasions. Namewee is not only a singer-songwriter, but also a music producer and filmmaker. His work draws inspiration from a wide range of issues, from race relations in Malaysia, the political situation between Taiwan and China, and social phenomena. His work incorporates skillful use of wit and puns to talk about serious issues.
The song “The Wall” originated as a tourism song produced for Kinmen County, a county in Taiwan that is only a few kilometres away from China, but also insinuates that China has built a wall of un-freedom, mimicking the popular modern Chinese phrase “jumping the wall.” The phrase refers to the reality that Chinese Internet users need to use software to break through the government’s Internet firewall in order to access censored websites and information.
Tanya Chua is another popular singer in the Chinese language music scene, with her past work including many best-selling love songs. Her 2021 album, reflecting on life during the pandemic, won Best Album at the Golden Melody Awards.
“Into the Wild” is a song expressing gratitude for all things in nature. Chua believes that humans are only “guests” of nature on the Earth, with humans taking for granted and ignoring the fact that the Earth is what sustains and supports us. Recognizing and thanking nature is what Chua seeks to do through music.
Artists are often the people leading humanity to a better future, because their reflection creates beautiful works that remind us of where we should be going.
The members of Omnipotent Youth Society originate from the Chinese city of Shijiazhuang, with their music covering themes like depression or social issues. For example, their song “One Hundred Thousand Hippie” describes bassist Ji Geng’s account of guitarist Dong Ya-qian’s experiences of depression.
Through the lyrics of their song “Kill the One from Shijiazhuang,” we can clearly see the marks of the younger generation in China and the political and economic situation in modern China. The song describes the existence of a middle-class family which is seemingly happy, but actually meaningless and could collapse overnight. The first three verses of the song describe the family slowly losing faith and hope through the perspectives of the father, mother, and child, respectively.
Born and raised in Canada, Phil Lam returned to Hong Kong to pursue a music career, but that career proved to be a rocky one.
The song “Mountain and Valley” was his last attempt to break through into Hong Kong society, prove his worth on the music scene, and to use music as a way of understanding his vulnerabilities and the troubles of his heart.
The song was widely popular and gave a needed boost to Lam’s music career. Perhaps it also represents how the music scene in Hong Kong gave him a second chance to be reborn and use his music to empathize with and encourage those in need of strength.
Mayday is Taiwan’s most well-known rock band and the first Asian musical act to work with Live Nation, a major force in entertainment promotion.
“The Look of Love,” included on their first album, says that no one can draw the boundaries or set rules for love, and that everyone has the right to love.
When the song was written by Mayday’s lead singer Ashin in 1999, Taiwan’s acceptance of all forms of love was not very strong, yet the message and emotion expressed in the song is clear. Today, in Pride marches or activist movements for gender and sexuality equality in Chinese-speaking regions, this song is popularly sung.
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