Tag Archives: Taiwan

community arts design research

Nakashi: making sound and place, from Taipei to Los Angeles

Cross-posting from the MovableParts blog — I’m writing to introduce a new series that explores the intersection between my research on nakashi street music-culture and contribution to the concept design for Movable Parts.

I revisited our project concept as I was preparing for our talk in the Arts and Electronics for Designers class at UCLA Extension. The latest version of my vision for Movable Parts is: to deploy a sound/place-making paradigm transplanted from Taiwan in order to spark bustling experiences in Los Angeles. In this post, I will elaborate on the meaning and practice of the nakashi (那卡西) street music-culture and connect to it our current creative engagement in and with Los Angeles. This is an attempt to bridge my research on Taiwanese and more broadly global practices and platforms of mobile performance with the Movable Parts design and build project.

What is Nakashi?

Nakashi is an itinerant performance practice in Taiwan. Brought over from Japan during the Japanese Occupation Era, Nakashi in its original Japanese is “Nagashi” (流し), meaning “flow.” Flow refers to a flexible mode of performance that has spatial and social connotations. Nakashi musicians use sounding objects such as instruments and loudspeakers to create ad hoc, mobile stages. Traditionally, using acoustic guitar and accordion, Nakashi musicians traveled on foot to perform popular songs of their time in tea parlors and hot springs resorts. Over time, nakashi performers innovate their practices by constructing stages on pickup trucks and farm tools to set up performances in the streets and public areas such as temple plazas. Equipping these mobile stages with loudspeakers, they turn toward the streets and public spaces as their stage  and spontaneously attract audiences. The photo below is an example of a performance troupe that traveled on a truck bed while disseminating sounds of their performance in the streets. Notice the loudspeaker that’s mounted on top of the mobile mini shrine.

“Sound truck for a temple god in Yngge” – CC-licensed photo by Joel Haas

The sound truck is a pervasive model in the nakashi street culture in Taiwan. It has become a platform for vendors to generate mobile and spatially flexible audiences and clientele.  The practice of mounting speakers on a moving vehicle is common among street vendors (ex. “dirt-roasted chicken” 土窯雞, freelance recyclers, and campaign trucks). These moving sound trucks make up a distinctively Taiwanese soundscape. Representing the voice of a migrating urban underclass, sound trucks constitute the gritty sound of the loudspeaker culture that is increasingly disciplined by informal and formal noise control in urban Taiwan.

On my last field trip in Taipei, I encountered a sound truck that in many ways represents the Nakashi performance platform and sensibility. Parked across from Lungshan Temple, the largest temple in Taipei in Mejia (Monga) district, the Exhortation Touring Tricycle is a mobile sounding platform that functions as a store that sells religious and folk recordings to passersby. The multi-colored LEDs, calligraphy writings, and custom-built shelving add to the down-home, ostentatious sensibility of nakashi. Encased within hand-built cabinets that are mounted in the back of the truck, the speakers broadcast popular Taiwanese tunes mixed with didactic music that teaches taoist morality and buddhist cosmology. Mobility serves as a dissemination tool. Sounds of exhortation move while extending its messages through the streets.

"Exhortation Tricycle", Taipei, photo by Wendy Hsu
“Exhortation Tricycle”, Taipei, photo by Wendy Hsu

On sound trucks or in stationary performances, amplification is a critical element in nakashi performances. Stationary nakashi performances typically take place in public spaces such as parks and metro stations. They are all unabashedly powered by diesel generators.

On my trip, I stumbled upon a performance in a park across the street from Lungshan Temple. Sound of amplification becomes aestheticized and is often heightened in a nakashi performance. In addition to its utility, the generator becomes an invisible sonic constituent that underlies all of these performances. In the video below, listen to the sound of the generator that powers the sound amplification. An overdriven amplified sound results a distorted, gritty, and lo-fi timbre. With an added effect of reverberation (in the vocals usually), nakashi amplification make up a uniquely textured sound-space.

What nakashi provides us is a mobile performance paradigm that intersects sound and place making through the use of low-resource technology. The constituents of both sound and place are inseparable. They make up the utilitarian and aesthetic core of the nakashi culture. Sound constitutes the social experience of a place; and vice versa. Sound plays a central role in creating not just any kind of space, but a bustling place where people congregate and form transient but meaningful micro-communities.

Sound/Place-Making for a Bustling LA

So how does this streetside practice in Taiwan relate to Movable Parts, a project based in Los Angeles? LA has an unusual history as a metropolis without distinctive sites of urban density. A city built for highways and suburbs, its decentralized structure makes location-based vibrancy a scarcity. At my day job where I work as an Arts Manager with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, we routinely come up against the city’s geography as physical and social barriers when we administer arts and cultural resources.

To mitigate the geographical and social fracturing that marks the LA experience, we at Movable Parts thought to make human-scale creative systems. Developing systems that generate a creative friction against the urban sprawl, coupled with event design and community collaboration, we spark place-based social interactions.

As a sound ethnographer of Taiwan, I’m interested in recreating a particular notion of bustling — renal 熱鬧. Re means “heat” (often used to describe the heated, hyper state of human presence) and nao means “loud.” Together, with an abundance of human and sonic energy, renao represents a specific kind of vibrancy that is lacking in LA. I’d like to think that what we’re doing is to create a platform to ignite an abundance of energy in a city that lacks these elements of social life, particularly in the public; or otherwise, to amplify the less legible social energy in an a city with compartmentalized and hard-to-access publics.

In the video, LISTEN to the embeddedness of conversations, scooter sounds, and lo-fi music blasting from the Exhortation Tricycle’s homemade speaker cabinets. Pay attention to the dynamic between sound and place-making in this scenario. This immersive multilayered sound environment is culturally desirable in Taiwan. A sonic and spatial experience at once, this recording comes close to embody the meaning of renao, a place-based abundance of social energy.

On a slow sound walk through the Menjia Night Market, I captured layers of nightlife cacophony saturating the bustling “Old Taipei.” Sound sources in this location recording include pervasive pinball arcade, children’s bantering over games, passing scooters, and pre-recorded techno music and sales messages piped in through lo-fi loudspeakers mounted discreetly in the semi-outdoor vendor’s booths. I love how one could identify the human, mediated, and (analog) machine elements of these sound sources in the recording. This variegated texture signifies social multiplicity and technological vicissitudes as, I would argue, key meanings of renao.

Provoking a Bustling Downtown at CicLAvia

For the first iteration of our project, we designed and built a pedal-powered generator that provides electricity for a set of PA speakers. Each piece of the system — the battery and the hub motors — could be transported via bicycles. By bringing people together to pedal in order to generate electricity (I blogged about the social meaning of power generation earlier), we create a Movable Party. Resonating with the classic nakashi model of generator-powered performances, the Movable Party is an outcome of our engagement with sound and place making through a combination of low-tech and high-tech modes of practices.

I captured this video at our performance at Ciclavia last October. Teaming up with a group called DanceLAvia, we set up our bicycle generator in front of Grand Park in downtown LA to encourage CicLAvia participants to slow down for a dismount point. There we spontaneously recruited passersby as participants including the young participants shown in the video. On that day, we made progress toward our goal of making a bustling micro-community in LA.

Does this embody the Taiwanese notion of bustling — renao? Who could we mobilize individuals to participate in the making of bustling in LA? What would renao in Los Angeles sound and feel like? Does it depend on the neighborhood and other social and geographical factors? I hope that by asking these questions, we will continue to productively experiment with this wild transpacific sound and place-making paradigm.

fieldnotes press research

More politics in sounds than what’s printed

An article about sounds in Taiwan came out in Taiwan Today, an online news digest in English published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic of China (the official, government-sanctioned name of Taiwan). The author of the article Steve Hands contacted me a few weeks ago asking me a set of interview questions regarding my recent field (recording) trip to Taipei. My answers reflect a critical angle, particular of the government; but only parts of my personal narrative and ethnographic research rendered as apolitical were included in the final version of this tourist-friendly article. I’m happy to engage in a conversation about Taiwan’s unique soundscape. But I thought that I would provide my complete answers to his interview questions in this post. With context, I hope to nudge this dialog to move alongside some of the social and political issues at stake.

Taiwan Today: What is your favorite Taiwan sound?

Me: The street vendors in Taiwan use the available technology, often low-resource materials like a megaphone or a car stereo system hooked up to a loudspeaker, to make audible their presence and whatever products or services they’re selling. Among these sound street vendors, I am most fascinated by the sound of the mobile street vendors. An ingenious setup, street vendors can create a space of their own through sound, using sound to form a sonic public with invisible and moving boundaries. This sonic and mobile structure covers much more space than a stationary vending setup, because sounds travel through air and in space much farther than visual and stationary objects.I have very fond memories of hearing the sound of truck vendors that sell clay-roasted ducks around my neighborhood. There are less motorized versions like the sweet potato (Yam) vendor who uses a rattle to attract people. Specifically I went around Taipei looking for recyclers who peddle through the city on a tricycle (sometimes motorized) on this trip. These recyclers use a sound system to project messages to inform local residents of their service to pick up recyclable goods like bottles and jars, scraps of paper, metal and plastic, and sometimes electronics.

The city-sanctioned trash trucks have followed this practice to make audible their pickup service, except other than using a person’s voice pre-recorded onto tape or CD, the city trash pickup sounds more institutionalized with its pre-programmed MIDI of classical music (Beethoven’s Fur Elise). The choice of “classy” sound, I think, is intended to draw distinctions from other unsanctioned street vendors. These sound trucks are also used outside of commercial contexts. I have seen versions of musical trucks (a wide variety including nakashi trucks and Electric Flower Truck 電子花車), and recorded one — the Exhortation Tricycle that Tours Taiwan — that sits in front the Longshan Temple on this trip. I have recorded some political campaign trucks that are set up similarly, using loudspeakers to project live and recorded campaign related messages.

Unfortunately, these mobile street vendors rarely broadcast sounds into the streets as they travel. The sonic publics that they create are disappearing. I have a feeling that their vanishing is a result of the noise ordinance and regulations due to the interest of developers and private-public partnerships, and and other gentrification related issues.

Taiwan Today: At one point you mentioned the Chinese concept of renao. Could you elaborate on this a little? Is this a big difference between East and West, a love versus a dislike of noise? What are the best places for a tourist to experience Taiwan’s renao?

Me: Renao is a rich concept and it’s more complex in practice. “Re” 熱 refers to heat, or a heated state of being and sociality. Nao 鬧 refers a space or an event that is marked by noisiness, loudness, and movement. Together, renao as a term refers to a hyper state of social energy that is expressed through movement. The closest concept to renao in the Anglophone world is bustling. Bustling suggests a social state that marked by people’s movement through space.

What marks renao as a unique concept is that sound is a core expression and constitution of its physical manifestation. Richness in sound and movement makes up the transient experience of a “heated” sociality. Traditionally, one could experience renao or ken renao (看熱鬧) in front of the temple of the town or village, where there is the most foot traffic. It is also there where street vendors, musicians, and beggars gather forming the infrastructure for an informal local economy.

Nowadays, renao is experienced in public spaces like parks, markets (day market or night market), and occasionally in the streets during temple festivals and political campagins. Definitions of noise are socially constructed. What’s considered to the loud and noisy in one cultural context can be constitute the everyday life in another culture. (My friend Yun Emily Wang has written a MA thesis about the meaning of sound in Taipei. In it, she draws a distinction between renao and chaonao 吵鬧 in the way people use these terms to make social boundaries.) My sense is that renao as a practice is being challenged at the moment. Renao has been linked with the lowerclass. With the shrinkage of public spaces, and the government’s efforts behind cleaning up the streets (in corroboration with private entities like developers), renao has begun to decay in sound and in practice.

community arts fieldnotes research

A DJ’ed set on Taiwan’s street music on KChung Radio

Archive of my guest DJ’ed set on Taiwan’s street music on KChung Radio: nakashi, niange/唸歌 (folktale songs), light music/輕音樂, field recordings

fieldnotes research

Flash Field Notes: Listening to the Wandering Underclass of Taipei

research

Fieldnotes from Taiwan, Part I: Day Market and Nakashi Cassette Culture

This is part one of a series of field notes of my project on nakashi, a postcolonial itinerant music-culture in Taiwan. I will publish the “Fieldnotes from Taiwan” series in parts.

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TWO MONTHS!! It’s been taken me more than two months to unpack from my trip to Taiwan. I finally got around to look at the last unpacked item: a dozen of nakashi cassette tapes enwrapped inside two pink-and-white-striped plastic bags. I haven’t listened to these tapes; and frankly, I haven’t had any desires to unwrap this bag of goodies.

Bag of Tapes on Shelves Tapes inside a plastic bag

The plastic bags themselves remind me of the field encounters I had this summer. The plastic bags not only represent a kind of Taiwanese local street culture that is sometimes associated with the working-class; but they also provide a clue for my quest for the meaning of nakashi in contemporary Taiwan. Here how it all unfolds.

I spent a quite bit of time wandering in the Wuxing Day Market (吳興市場, a great photo series). This is partly because my dad’s dental office is located literally inside the day market that runs from daybreak until about noon. Day markets in Taiwan are a kind of street-based “traditional markets” (傳統市場) that are set up in an semi-ad-hoc manner. Day markets are where mobile produce and meat vendors set up their stands. These vendors transport their goods in vans and oftentimes in blue pick-up trucks from one location to another based on the day of the week. Butchers hang their meats; vegetables come in crates; poultry sometimes come as live animals. Occasionally you would find dried goods, cooked food, and other living essentials like socks, underwear, and leisurely goods like music and movies. The vendor stands usually have no refrigeration; but are generator-powered to run electricity for lighting and background music. Music and recorded sales pitches project from boomboxes and loudspeakers. The day market is a great example of the Chinese notion of renao (熱鬧), liveliness, hustling, or bustling.

Wuxing Day Market

Bargaining is a common practice at the day market. The social and economic structure of the day market is complex and it seems quite distinct from the rest of rationalized system in Taiwan that is either state-sanctioned or corporatized. A more visible counterpart to the day market is the night market, which appeals to young people and has become an emblematic symbol of Taiwan in the overseas communities. In contrast to convenience stores and super markets, both associated with the urban elites, the majority of the clientele of the day market are the economically underprivileged, notably lower-middle-class housewives and the elderly. I got a glimpse of the day market because of an incidental interaction I had with a music vendor.

On a sultry early afternoon, I wandered downed Wuxing Street as the vendors at the day market were packing up. I spotted a music stand. From an empty storefront, this vendor stand extended via a line of adjacent folding tables. What caught my eyes was a box of cassette tapes, a medium rather uncommon in contemporary Taipei. I exclaimed, internally and loudly while trying to maintain my coolness so as to not appear as a visitor, “These are the nakashi tapes that I’ve been looking for!” These tapes contain mostly instrumental tracks of popular songs from the repressed genre of Taiyuge, meaning “Taiwanese language songs.” These songs are sung in Taiwanese Hokkien dialect that originated in southern China. While a large part of this repertoire consisted of Taiwanese reinterpretation of Japanese enka songs, a subset of these songs came out of the 1930s recording industry during the Japanese Occupation era. While most of these tapes contain instrumental tracks, some of them are “greatest hits” compilations of full (vocals included) tracks of the same repertory.

I was surprised to see that these tapes were not covered in dust. I asked the woman vendor, who appeared to be in her 40s, “Do people still listen to these tapes?”

“Of course! Taxi and truck drivers listen to these because many of the commercial vehicles are equipped with cassette decks still. And of course, baba and mama (“dads” and “moms”) listen to tapes because they haven’t switched over to CDs. But we sell everything and we have something for everyone here,” she explained.

“Oh, I didn’t know that! But that makes a lot of sense. I like these tapes because of the music.” I looked in the box and picked out 8 or so tapes.

“Yea, we carry a lot of things that are hard to find these days. Here, go ahead and pick out a couple more tapes. I’ll give you a discount. Buy ten get one free!”

I thanked her profusely and she put the tapes inside a pink-and-white-striped plastic bag. These bags are the generic plastic shopping bag in Taiwan. They are often used by market vendors probably because they are inexpensive and sturdy. I remember them from my grandparents’ grocery story inside the Nanmen Day Market (南門市場) near Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial.

I paid the lady and scurried away. It was 1:30pm in the afternoon. The pacific heat wave on a small island near the tropics was brutal. I had a plan to cool off inside Taipei 101, Taiwan’s architectural pride, also a symbol of its financial power. The subtropical heat and island humidity got to me. By the time I walked to the Starbucks inside the upscale, super-air-conditioned mall that’s attached to Taipei 101, my head was spinning. I sat down to work on a conference paper. Afterwards, I trotted over to the Eslite Bookstore, an elite mega book seller in Taiwan, seeking a relieve from the heat and got dinner. I eventually made it through the hottest time of day and got back to my dad’s apartment only to discover that my bag of tapes was missing.

I subsequently spent the next day tracing my steps through the day market and the upscale Xinyi district near Taipei 101 looking for my nakashi tapes. At the day market, I saw no traces of the music vendor. Their spot was occupied by a vegetable stand.

Hilarity ensued when I approached the staff members at Starbucks, Taipei 101, and Eslite to inquire about my lost nakashi tapes. The attendant that I talked to at Taipei 101 asked what kind of “shopping bag” my nakashi tapes were in. I told her that it was a just ordinary pink-and-white-striped kind. She seemed mystified that such an ordinary item would appear inside this fancy shopping mall. The contrast between a kind of underclass localism, associated with the ordinary plastic bag, and an acclaimed architectural symbol of transnational financial power, seemed ludicrous.

The sales representative at the Eslite Bookstore was similarly perplexed by my request to find cassette tapes, which seemed so out of her framework of a multilingual mega book and music store, with a massive online store, that carries titles ranging from imported arts magazines from the United Kingdom to Chinese-language academic books on prewar music in Taiwan. The ostensibly comprehensive music section inside the Eslite building didn’t have any music recordings that would fall into the genre of nakashi. There were, in fact, no analog cassettes in stock. Instead, I encountered was a giant glowing hipster-y display constructed out of cassette tapes. Hipsters in Taipei are apparently not vinyl- or cassette-crazy. [Not yet, at least.] Needless to say, I didn’t find my tapes that day; but I learned much about the physical and symbolic separation between these two worlds.

I had a faint memory of the music vendor’s fluid schedule – every Tuesday or Wednesday, or “sometimes every other week.” We went back to the day market the following week. The stand was there, as if it never moved. The tapes were still there, the same sales staff, one woman and a man, working diligently.

The woman said to me, “I was worried that you weren’t coming back. I saved your tapes, but left them in the van. Go ahead and pick out eleven tapes. Here, we do ethical business. We sold you some things, and now they belong to you. We will not scam you.” Rest assured, I found more tapes and got a bag more goodies (including nakashi instrumental CD sets that feature shamisen and instrumental music for square dancing).

Now that I’m done speculating about the meaning of the plastic bags, I think I’m ready to listen to the tapes that are inside the bags. There is much to be unfolded about the Wuxing Day Market. There is a bit of nakashi magic — quiet but lively — happening in the area. An old-school music store run by a nakashi musician [that I blogged about from my last trip] is right down the street. Through acquiring and losing these tapes, I witnessed a social intimacy between this analog music-culture, the hustling and bustling and the fluid economy at the day market, and the dynamics of the elderly generation and the cab-and truck-driving working-class in Taiwan. I look forward to finally listening to these tapes. Perhaps it will help me unwind this cluster of meanings regarding place, music, and economy.

pop culture & media

A Brief Note on Luo Dayou & Chang Chen-Yue: From Folk Music, Taike to Superband in Taiwan

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.

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N98Q6Cm6B3I

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.

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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.

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjlrJl1OlfY

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.

pop culture & media research

Searching for a Hakka Sound – Wu Sheng-Zhi of the Sunshine Band

In the last few years, I’ve been on a quest for music by Hakka people in Taiwan. My dad’s family is of Hakka descent. The Hakka people are known as migrants living in diaspora in East and Southeast Asia, more specifically, in various parts of Taiwan and China. Growing up, I always sensed and was fascinated by the Hakka ethnicity coming from my paternal grandparents. Both my grandparents (my grandpa=Ah-gung and grandma=Ah-ma) grew up during the Japanese occupation in rural northern Taiwan (south of the capital city Taipei). They would speak Hakka to each other only when they needed to communicate in privacy or intimacy. My father speaks very little Hakka as his siblings. I speak next to nothing in Hakka – knowing only simple phrases like “eating” and “rice.” My grandparents’ Hakka identification seems to me private whereas their Japanese acculturation seemed more exterior and public. Perhaps they associate their Hakka identity with their past, their early childhood and family.

This summer I attended conference for the International Association for the Study of Popular (IASPM) Music in Liverpool, UK. Serendipitously, I met and befriends a number of dear and friendly scholars associated with the Inter-Asia group of IASPM. They invited me in treating me as a junior colleague or young cousin/sibling. It was a fortuitous meeting of wonderful people and scholars of incredible resources and knowledge.

Among these scholars was 何東洪, H0 Tung-Hong. Yet another serendipitous turn – Tung-Hong lives in the town where both my grandparents were born and raised in. His wife is related to my Ah-ma’s classmate who later became a well-known writer. He introduced me to a number of musicians and groups that I hadn’t heard of. I bugged him with questions about the roots and historical practices of Nakashi. With patience, he told me a brief account of the history and iconic figures of Nakashi in Taiwan. He even wrote down names for me (because writing in Chinese has become more challenging over the years).

I was especially intrigued by early Hakka musicians. The name 吳盛智, Wu Sheng-Zhi came up. He was the leader, singer, and guitarist of the well-known rock group Sunshine Band (陽光合唱團). His band performed lots of “Western” songs (from British and American records) all over the island of Taiwan. He was also hired as a session musician for one of the three television broadcast companies. Wearing his hair long while playing his electric guitar, “like a hippie Hakka,” W sang lots of Hakka tunes in the style of rock music, combining the Hakka mountain songs (Sheng ge) with rock music. Through his access to mainstream media, Hakka music was transmitted and distributed widely. He released the first Hakka album Not Fated in 1981. Wu passed at the age of 39 in a car accident in 1983.

Googling him, I found a short youtube video about Wu. The voice-over is in Hakka. Thankfully, this video has English and Mandarin Chinese subtitles. Zealously, I hereby announce the beginning for my discovery of Hakka music. [UPDATE: These videos have since been taken down from Youtube…] These are videos left:

Lyrical ballad:

late 70s pop-rock:

on the more disco side:

Short TV documentary about Wu, narrated in Hakka, with English subtitles]:

And I found a few resources articles on Wu:
http://www.hakka.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=26338&ctNode=1561&mp=278
http://www.hakkaonline.com/xspace/viewnews-2155.html

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This entry was originally posted on Yellowbuzz on December 7, 2009.