Movement: Reflections on the Shidaiqu

By ZH Liew. Photo by Azzief Khaliq.

The immediate feeling that one gets from listening to the shidaiqu (时代曲) is distance. The crackle of vinyl, the compression inherent to a digital presentation, the vocalization that defies present-day conventions – all this ought to bestow a foreignness to one’s ears, an impossible otherness that does not belong, an alienated universe that has since vanished in the unrecorded abyss of time.

And yet, when I heard it on a snowy night in Philadelphia, locked in the red brick of suburban America, there was a sense of familiarity, of warmth, recognizable through the distortion. Some feeling of having heard this before.

I placed the music on hold, huddling underneath the blanket and its abrasive texture – holding on to some kind of place, some imagined space where I had never been before: an epiphany of distance, the strange divide that was being closed by the voice playing through speakers; a gap now carried over, even if all there was was just a few untouchable waves in the air.

Feelings. This is what they mostly sang of. The unattainability of love, the distance in even the most intimate relationships – and ultimately, their transience, through either circumstance of time, or place. This is the main theme of the shidaiqu, the music borne out of a period of cosmopolitan encounter, the urban conjunctions of a boom in Shanghai, the golden 1920s that today conjures up a hazy, tinged nostalgia, manifesting in vintage kitsch.

Shanghai Lounge Divas, Volume 1. “夜上海,夜上海…” The voice of an icon, in the heyday of a heady, cosmopolitan city, the Shanghai that is referred to, in the hushed tones of reverence – the Shanghai Bund, the Shanghai Straits, mediated through global transmission to become this neat package of “lounge music”. Even the most vaunted memory of an era is not safe.

It hardly mattered to me, though, as I was hooked by the image of these powdered ladies, caught in a rhythm that swayed in a seemingly awkward dance between jazz and Chinese poetic conventions, the beginning of a journey into a time where melodrama was permitted, the vulnerability of a songstress laid bare in a few plaintive lyrics that spoke of an abandoned, broken heart.

Feelings. I was looking for my own, walking through the neon haunting of Chinatown, where the snow settled ever so heavily, enclosing the walkers, the street urchins, the shoppers – a messy cosmopolitanism, the logic of American multiculturalism. I was there, looking for a Chinese cafe that would serve some hot tea, when it struck me: the sound of another shidaiqu originating from a huddled, corner structure, the three words that undoubtedly set off countless hearts in the past: “忘不了…” Unforgettable. I had been looking to forget, yet I had never really forgotten – like the woman in the song, touched by her now departed lover, searching for something in her memories to bring him back to her.

Why is the shidaiqu so sad? What gives it its peculiarly melancholic character? Is it due to its pentatonic basis (i.e. the black key scale, the “Asian sadness” of the folk tradition), combined with the imported jazz instrumentation of African American blues? Fusions and cosmopolitanisms of this sort are hardly rare in musical traditions, yet there is something uncanny about the awareness that the shidaiqu has of its own transience. A music made to disappear, about disappearing times and lovers. Add a shidaiqu melody to any archival footage of the past, and the result is an instant nostalgia, a ready-to-made Wong Kar-Wai, a longing for the past triggered by the combination of a place no longer there and a sound that only survives as the past itself.

If its character is melancholic, the way it is transmitted to us today only heightens this – from the crackly vinyl that fills the room with that voice, degrading with every spin, to the digital archive of the internet, technically unlimited yet so contingently marked by the nostalgia present in the uploaders, the commenters, the strange community that forms in the worship of this sad music and its sad songstresses. If you are even more old fashioned, there’s also the good old radio, where you overhear a shidaiqu and are immediately transported. Either way, it has reached you through a distance, and that distance is enough to make you cry. And you haven’t even explored the stories behind the singers and characters of this golden world…

Once I started down that path there was no turning back. It is a world of its own, yet it was peculiarly familiar. Even though I was huddled in a corner in a world far removed from the place where these sounds and melodies were produced, I realised that the shidaiqu was calling me to attend to a particular world that had disappeared for the most part: it was a call to home.

My mother tells me that she grew up with these songs, that she would overhear them being played by her rich neighbour, one record at a time. The air of her childhood was filled with these already old melodies, which she recalls now in the odd occasions she stumbles upon a classic golden age Mandarin film, or vintage CDs scattered on the floor, or the radio station that plays them every Sunday with callers who request to hear a part of their childhood again. She remembers each song and singer and where they appeared in the movies that she saw in the neighbourhood cinema after school, walking down the hill in anticipation of the next major release from Shaw and Cathay.

My father sings a few words from this particular song, the fragments of which are about an idyllic island where one meets again, under the moonlight. I do not know if it was from his parents, or whether it was a song that he had heard when he was growing up, but it is endlessly melancholic, the island that is being sung about, as if it were a container for those who have already left and gone.

There is a history concealed within these memories, specifically to do with the experience of Chinese migration. From Shanghai to Hong Kong, the initial transmission: the movement of singers, entertainers, the diaspora of those fleeing war. An unsettling movement, a melancholic movement, a movement that tries to return to a place of origin, which no longer appears as it used to be.

Then there is the second movement of these songs to the imagined South (the Nanyang), which is where my parents, themselves children of migrants fleeing poverty and war, enter the picture. The songs that reached their parents through the gramophone; films and cinema which reminded them of an imagined homeland, and yet was irrevocably tied with the spark of a new, upcoming nation – the present place and space which they inhabited; and the singers who, in a quirk of history, ended up living out their old age and dying in a foreign land, where their voices had filled the air, as a reminder of a “home” elsewhere to its diaspora.

There is a third movement of those who grew up in this milieu of displaced memories and songs, leaving the physical space of the South for other lands, but returning to the affective and mental space of the shidaiqu again and again, as another kind of diasporic response.

And then there is my own journey, the songs only reaching me in my own faraway land in America: a place that I left for, yet where I never felt particularly at home.

All these songs achieved, perhaps, was a form of longing, and an impossible desire for something that had already become past through either the circumstances of space or time. And yet, in the broken-hearted, the melancholic, the insatiable feeling of being elsewhere, they themselves become documents of a thousand tears, a thousand memories that will remain. In the sadness there is time, space – captured, relived, and endlessly cycled through, to unknown places and figures, living on for mysterious reasons that have yet to be discovered.

I remember this particular tune that goes, “don’t forget me / along the river of love” (自從相思河畔見了你 / 就像那春風吹進心窩 / 我要輕輕的告訴你 / 不要把我忘記); a warm, reaching melody, which ultimately speaks only of a separated existence, cocooned within the dream of the song. Another world, another place in which the song exists as a reminder, a memento from another time. For me, a world where I felt like I could belong.

I do not know where our memories overlap, or where the connection between these different songs are, but it is there, somewhere.

Now that I am back, these songs seem to have existed everywhere. The places where they arrived, became influential, and were the main source of excitement, and talk are all around me, a reminder of the era that exists in my mother’s memories. A time that I cannot access, except through these mediated images and sounds. A time that has disappeared with only traces of what used to be, the hints of which are increasingly difficult to catalogue and discover in the face of the immense monolith that is development. In this era of glass buildings and tall skyscrapers, what is the point of remembrance? And what price memory?

The old cinemas have disappeared. The music that one heard back then—paradoxically, as the harbinger of modernity, the excitement of the new—has faded into the background of what used to be, only to be rediscovered by people of my ilk and inclination, the “vintage” collectors, driven by some kind of furious desire to become part of a past one never knew.

My mother tells me that her childhood home—one that I recognize from the numerous trips we made back there, in my own childhood—may not exist in the future, as the lease for the house expires and plans are afoot, for a new development area, for more shopping malls and air-conditioning. The cinemas that she frequented have long vanished, and the records that her family and neighbors owned have been discarded. I frequently lament this while I imagine getting my hands on an artifact of the past, a corporeal thing that would prove to me that such a time and place existed, beyond my projections and fantasies.

“忘不了,忘不了”, she sings. Of an unforgettable love, which cannot but be forgotten. “它重複你的叮嚀 / 一聲聲, 忘了忘了…” It is repeating your lament, and in each, it has always already been forgotten. The shidaiqu knows its own time, that it was always meant to fade away into the background of history, as if the dusty trails that are left behind in the endless building and zoning, the concrete put in place. Beneath that layered mix of cement and stone, I wonder what used to be there, and who used to step foot. The air is filled with the noise of tearing down and building up, the ever-present rattling of machines. Leaving the dust of the construction behind, I seem to hear a sound out of place, out of time – the shidaiqu, that I have heard many times in my dreams.

James RiversZH Liew writes and makes films about history, places and the Chinese diaspora. He is particularly interested in thinking about the early history of Malaysia, a place that he sometimes calls home. When he isn’t digging up old Chinese music, he is looking out for disappeared films of the classic Golden era, and pretending to karaoke. Share film, music and karaoke suggestions at joeliewzh (at) gmail (dot) com.