Wearing a white sleeveless cheongsam and her hair curled by hand into big waves and done in the style of decades past, the singer in the lime light is seemingly standing on a giant old vinyl record. As the melodies of old Mandarin songs stream out, Meimei takes you from the Silicon Valley, the hub of modern technologies, to Shanghai China of the 30’s and the 40’s.
The 30’s and 40’s in Shanghai was a star-lit era when the old Chinese doctrines blended perfectly with European and American cultural trends. Accomplished musicians with deep trainings came under the influence of western cultures. Together with the female vocals of that time, characterized by their uniquely rich and clean voices never to be heard thereafter, they created the flares of modern Chinese pop music.
Meimei was not yet born at that time. Her ancestors, grandparents, and parents lived on the Loess Plateau for generations. The Yellow River cut through their town, ravines and gullies crisscrossing the landscape. Their songs were the bold, unpolished, and long-drawn-out Shaanxi melodies called “Xintianyou”; their life was harsh, with roughage noodles as stable food and Aries abdomen towel on their heads as fashion.
It would be hard for them to imagine that a thousand miles away there was a metropolitan on the east coast, where gentle melodies were sung along with coffee and wine, blocking out the sound of wars and starvation and building a “Heaven on Earth” with the happiness and love in the songs.
Meimei is the oldest of the three sisters. Pale-skinned, gentle, and quiet, she was the sentimental one. Her character was out of tune with the stern political atmosphere of the time in which she was born and raised – a period called the Cultural Revolution. She inherited the good voice of her father who would only sing the “red songs” or songs from the “model Beijing operas”. These high-pitched and roused tunes did not appeal to her. While they could quickly arouse ones spirit, their messages were often confusing. It didn’t matter that some of them were copied from the familiar “Xintianyou” tunes.
During that period in Mainland China, the music scene was completely void of peaceful, easy, or tender tunes. The post-1949 era saw the banning and condemning of old Shanghai songs as “expressions of bourgeois sentiments and values.” “The Sound of Waste” was a term that referred to the music of the time when China was faced with foreign invasion and conquer. But this origin was rarely known. During the Cultural Revolution, this term gained popularity as a negative catch-all for “soft and luscious” music.
Meimei feels that strong emotions and fierce moods occur rarely in people. Our normal mood is calm and easy. Her dream, therefore, is to seek leisure and elegance in life through her singing.
When she was a little girl of around 4 and 5, China started an overarching economic reform and opened up to the world. Chinese people, who had been restrained to a strict doctrine, suddenly faced the impact of individualism. The wind of reform brought the songs of Teresa Teng, Tsai Chin, and Yu-Ching Fei, popular Taiwanese singers of the time. Referred to as “popular Hong Kong and Taiwan songs”, their songs quickly captured the heart and fancy of the population. Yet what people didn’t know was that these songs originated from old Shanghai pop songs, adopted by Hong Kong and Taiwan singers, and now imported back into Mainland China.
These songs promote freedom, stability, prosperity, and refinement in life. People fell in love with them. But the government rejected the lifestyle symbolized by them, so much so that when people listened to these songs at home, they made sure that their doors were closed. When the young and rebellious played this kind of music from their cassette players in the streets, they could be chased by government thugs and their bell-bottoms could be cut as a punishment.
Despite all of that, these songs that were originated from old Shanghai music persisted in their comeback, took root, and grew popular. After surviving an era full of political movements, people longed for a life that is normal and truthful.
At the age of 12, Meimei auditioned with a song called “A Small Boat” and was admitted into the local youth cultural center. She began to receive formal vocal trainings which built a solid foundation for her singing career. When she became a music major in college, Meimei put a lot of thought into which school of singing she would follow. And she chose popular music which was not given high expectation at the time. But for her, she could only be happy if she could express her true, natural emotions through singing.
At the age of 18, Meimei started her career as a professional singer. She was determined to make a living doing what she loved. Her footprints covered most of the clubs and lounges in her city. Her performances gave her confidence and faith in a bright future. Not long after that, she joined the youth “drifting” movement and moved south to Guangzhou, where Hong Kong and Taiwan music had the greatest acceptance by the population.
In Guangzhou, she lived the life of many young artists like her who were chasing the dream of fame in music. In their simple and low-quality rental housing, they stayed up late at night, slept in during the day, and paid no attention to what was in the papers or on the television. They rushed from one stage to another, riding on illegal motorcycle cabs. They sang the cheap, catchy tunes made popular by famous singers.
Pretty soon singing no longer felt like art for Meimei and she no longer enjoyed it. It became simply means to make a living. When she did song covers, she tended to add so many decorative sounds and flashy treatments that she no longer was singing from her heart. It felt shallow and fake. Her voice was hurt from this type of singing. Worse even, her heart was hurt.
She tried to get away from simply imitating the original singers perfectly. She studied these songs painstakingly, trying to find their soul between the lines of poetic lyrics and the notes of trendy Western melodies. She realized that her ideal might as well be hidden in another world—it was as impossible to reach as trying to restore the beautiful original sound of a vinyl record on a cassette tape. Old Shanghai songs to her were like a foregone love—unforgettable and unrepeatable. It was heartbreaking.
The Chinese pop music of that period, characterized by its lack of independent thinking, individual feelings, or normal feelings at all, created a quandary for Meimei. Fortunately she met someone who shared her ideals – Mr. Hong Hai and Mr. Gao Yisong. These two musicians created a song made just for her—“Green Mango”. She recorded her first single album.
The easy rhythm of “Green Mango” suited Meimei perfectly. The song portrayed a face of youth slightly beat down by reality. Her fame rose with this song and so did her fees. She became one of the well-recognized singers in Guangzhou. Later that year she even held a rather sensational personal concert in the famous Genting Resort in Malaysia. All the failures and frustrations finally led her to such success. She felt redeemed.
Yet the whole music scene in China still looked dismal. Singers went after commercial success only and put all the effort into showing off their vocal ranges and techniques, singing with meaningless passion. Some tried to be established as the new “red voice” or “official singers”. Seeing no future for the Chinese pop music, Meimei was again depressed.
After many twists and turns in life, just as Meimei was about to turn 40 and cross into what’s called “age of no confusion”, Destiny brought her to the Land of the Free. Culture shock and intense collision of the East with the West caused her to soul search and eventually transformed her. She finally found the real Shanghai old songs and came to understand them. In their velvety tunes she discovered a whole new world.
It is a world with a different earthly life—a life that celebrates naivety, savory, and elegance. It inherits the poetic romance of the ancient Chinese culture. It recognizes that “the highest goodness is like water; the sea opens itself up to all rivers” – a timeless openness that lasts through centuries and will always be there.
Meimei’s heart has since been filled with peace and joy. As she reset her understanding of music, she also began to approach life with the heart and mind of an artist and thus reveal its exquisiteness and tranquility. She came to the conclusion that music should not be the result of shallow and direct expression of ones feelings. Instead music should start from a place of control and sublimate from a rational mind. At its peak, music should be joyful without descending into ravishment and when it’s sad, the sadness should not turn into dejectedness. No matter what kind of mood it portrays, it should be balanced and meaningful and overdoing should be avoided.
Meimei has also changed her singing style. She has removed a lot of the decorative techniques and opted for singing in a straightforward manner. Combining classy grandeur with quaint and staying true to the deep meanings typical of Chinese ancient poetry, she developed her new singing style. “This has been a process where purity in beauty and kindness helped me cleanse my heart; it removed the shallowness and the vanity and grounded me,” she said. “It is a process where I returned to the true.”
In San Francisco Bay Area, Meimei has successfully held 5 Old Shanghai Music Solo Concert. The audience has responded with showers of flowers and applauses. Seeing how her audience got carried away in her songs and how they cheered her on, she realized that the old songs will never die. They will forever be enjoyed. Meimei will continue to sing old Shanghai songs. She believes that with her singing, she will be able to bring back the “Years Like Flowers” and “Spirit Like the Shining Moon” as if “Yesterday Once More.”
Attachments: Recordings of rehearsals in preparation for last year’s solo concert. No mixing effects have been used in these recordings. They are all Meimei’s original real voice. The song was originally sung by Zhou Xuan, entitled “A Lullaby in the Storm”.