A couple days ago, I had a phone conversation with Jonathan Bing, a producer who’s working on a film about Taiwanese folk and popular music with director Wayne Wang. We began a conversation about the transformations of folk music in Taiwanese popular music. In his followup email, Jonathan sent me the biography of Chang Chen-Yue and Luo Dayou (or Lo Ta Yu) as key figures in this musical movement. In particular, Chang and Luo’s work intersects and is highlighted in the Superband, a group that brings together four of the most iconic Mandopop artists in the last decade or two.
Below is my email responding to our phone conversation and Jonathan’s followup email about Chang and Luo. Here I have set out to contextualize what I know of the historical folk music movement in Taiwan in the 1970s and its cultural remnants in the 1990s and 2000s. My knowledge of the subject is by no means comprehensive. But I’ve tried my best to point out the shifting politics surrounding “the folk” in pop music discourses and political contradictions of the Superband.
I grew up as a huge fan of Luo Dayou. I especially love the earlier (1980s) part of his repertoire. I do think it’s interesting to consider Luo’s music in the context of pan-Chinese pop music, a musical bridge between Taiwan and the PRC. During the last presidential election, he came forward to express his opposition against the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and, in a less explicit way, support for the KMT. In general, his musical successes in Taiwan and the PRC throughout the last few decades enabled him to navigate smoothly amidst the polemics regarding Taiwan and its status in relation to the People’s Republic of China and the United Nations. Luo, however, is not immediately tied to the folk music movement in Taiwan in the 1970s, though his contribution to the Folk Song movement is remembered to be more significant than it was at the time because of its commercial success.
I think the best source in English on the Taiwanese Folk Song Movement is actually Yeh Yueh-Yu’s dissertation on popular music and cinema in Taiwan. In it, Yeh traces the folk song movement in the 1970s to a group of leftist, Marx-reading youth intellectuals. These young intellectuals fueled the Modern Folk Song movement. The most iconic singer songwriters of this movement is perhaps Yang Hsuan. Yeh also distinguishes this movement from the genre known as “Campus Folk Song,” which was a product of the recording industry’s efforts to commodify this music. The politics of this modern folk song movement was mixed. Most parts of the movement were state- and KMT-sponsored. But there were other strands of dissent, for example Hu De Fu (Kimbo) who represented the Taiwanese Aboriginal groups and spoke up against the government. There were also musicians who advocated for the independence of Taiwan. These voices were generally repressed by the martial law of the KMT administration.
I have a feeling that this movement is way more complicated than it is remembered. Taiwanese scholars have produced quite a bit of literature on the topic. Chang Chao-Wei’s（張釗維） book is probably the most and substantive and definitive work on subject. But it’s in Mandarin. Moskowitz’s book Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow, has a tiny section on campus songs but he mostly frames this topic within the larger political environment of Taiwan’s exclusion from the United Nations, thus leaving the story rather uncomplicated.
I have always associated Chang Chen Yue with the Taike movement. People in Taiwan use the term “Taike” to refer to a kind of Taiwanese pride. It’s associated with rural, working-class masculinity. Specifically images of betel nuts and flip-flops come to mind. Taike became a pop culture chic in the late 1990s as youth started to fashion themselves, speaking in Taiwanese Holo dialect, wearing flashy outfits while signifying a rootsy, local identity apart from influences of Japanomania. Also Taike became associated with the Taiwanization movement and the DPP’s political agenda of Taiwanese independence from China.
Taike as a concept became culturally pronounced around the same time when many punk-inspired musicians and bands emerged in Taiwan, particularly in Taichung, a city known as a political and cultural underdog to Taipei. Taike artists and fans embraced a “local” Taiwanese spirit, apart from Western pop, Mandopop and Jpop. These artists wrote songs mostly in Taiwanese Holo and ushered in a punk, raw aesthetic in performance and recordings. Chang’s song “Ai Di Chu Ti Yen”–characterized by ska rhythm, punk raw vocals, blue notes, Nakashi feel — embodies a kind of roots-y style common among these bands. These artists spread the ethos of “independence” that ambiguously connotes both a political independence from China and a position of independence from mainstream pop music (Mandopop). In addition to Chang Chen Yue, artists labeled as “Taike rock” include Bobby Chen, Wu-Bai, MC HotDog, as well as the now mainstream May Day and Soda Green. These artists were featured on the Taike Rock concert in 2007. The documentary concert video of this concert was put out by Rock Records, which ironically is one of the two major record labels of popular music in Taiwan.
I’m not sure if there’s much written in the English language about the Taike movement. I did attend a paper presentation about Taike at the last Asia chapter meeting of the International Association for the Studies of Popular Music (IASPM) in Hong Kong. Also Taiwanese pop music studies scholar Ho Tung-Hung has a paper abstract on Taike rock.
Given Chang Chen-Yue’s aboriginal heritage and affiliation with Taike (DPP-leaning) and Luo’s support of the KMT (particularly during the last presidential election in Taiwan), their “collaboration” in the Superband is worth a closer look. My sense is that the creation of the Superband is a commercial move. But it may also be a move toward an international exposure, perhaps representing Taiwan to the Chinese diaspora and to the world in less politicized manner. The inclusion Chau Wakin, a Hong-Kong-born Mandopop star, furthers the pan-Chinese front of the band.
This stuff is so complex. Most of what I’ve said comes from my own experiences with the music. Other parts come from my not-so-systematic research on the topic from the perspective of an ethnomusicologist and a musician-advocate for Taiwanese music (in the context of my band Dzian!). I hope that I will continue to delve into this topic. Maybe I will write a paper on this topic to present at the IASPM Asia chapter meeting in Taipei next summer.