Through the introduction of Mr. Edwin Loui, a friend of mine and a vinyl record collector, I had the good fortune to have met a renowned pop idol back in the old Shanghai days—Ms. Liang Ping. She is the original singer of a famous Chinese folk song “Wang Zhaojun”. Now ninety years old, Ms. Liang has made home in the U.S., together with her two daughters and four grandchildren. Because of her helpful and charitable nature, friends in the Bay Area respectfully call her “Mother Liang”.
Mother Liang not only taught me how to sing, how to train my vocals, and how to interpret Shanghai old songs, she also shared many stories of celebrities of her time, like Yao Li, Yoshiko Yamaguchi, Chen Gexin, and Yao Min. In the stories, their bliss and sorrows in life were so vivid that I felt as though these characters came alive around me. I could see what they saw and feel what they felt.
In my conversations with Mother Liang, I learned that she was born into a family of intellectuals. Her grandfather was Liang Qin Xuan and her father was Liang Yan Yu, (both famous intellectuals of the time.) She herself was top of the class in school, especially in the singing department. At the age of merely fifteen, she signed with EMI Record Company, having been placed No. 1 in the audition. In that period of time, she benefitted greatly from learning about all aspects of pop songs with Yan Hua, Yao Li, Yao Min and Li Jin Guang–(all famous musicians of the time). “Wang Zhaojun”, a very popular song which is widely known even today was composed by Li Jin Guang and tailored to suit her voice. It brought Liang Ping overnight fame. Her other popular songs include “The Adolescent Me”, music and lyrics also by Li Jin Guang, “Spring is here but Where are You”, music by Liu Ru Zeng, “My Forever Young Dad”, music by Liang Ping and rearranged by Li Jin Guang, “Awaiting my Soulmate”, also music by Liang Ping and rearranged by Li Jin Guang, and more. Mother Liang more than once told me as well as her other friends, that her happiest moment in life was when she got into EMI Record Company, and her biggest regret was having been admitted into a college in UK as a music major but not being able to go because she couldn’t afford it.
Yoshiko Yamaguchi’s passing was a big blow to Mother Liang. They were like sisters. Over the years many of her friends have passed away. Out of the seven biggest stars of the time, only Yao Li, nicknamed “Silver Tongue”, is still alive.
In the past few years, I have kept up with my study on old Shanghai music with help from Mother Liang as well as Mr. Edwin Loui. I have acquired some new singing methods. I’ve often heard that “the essence of the internationally-oriented art form is that it is all-encompassing and all-welcoming.” In my opinion, old Shanghai music is similar. It can be the meandering tender tunes of Jiangnan folk songs, the uplifting patriotic songs of Japanese Resistance during WWII, or the elegant classical songs. What are old Shanghai pop songs? Mainly by that we refer to popular songs before 1949, especially throughout the pop culture renaissance period of the 40’s, as a result of much hard work of a generation of outstanding artists, who created the first thriving period of Chinese Pop Music. Shanghai old songs are known for their emotionally rich melodies that express sorrows without agony or heartfelt joys without outward madness. They nourish a balanced state of the mind and the body. They are the manifest of the truthfulness, kindness and beauty of the ordinary people. Copying Teresa Teng’s singing was my first step into the realm of music; the birth of “Green Mango”, my first album, represents my first step in coming out with my own unique vocal style. My next album “Happy Feeling”, published in Malaysia, was a result of me going with the trends in pop of the time. However, rediscovering the tradition of old Shanghai music allowed me to go against the trends and back to the basics.
When I first heard the singing of Zhou Xuan, known as the “Golden Tongue”, I didn’t quite appreciate it. It was only after I started my singing lessons with Mother Liang that I gradually realized how previous that voice was. The pureness, truthfulness, and the youthful elegance in her voice completely captivated me. Today I adore and idolize her. This process in which I reset my knowledge of music and relearned my skills is a journey of the heart where I cleansed my system of shallowness and vanity, and discovered the beauty of simplicity and pureness, where I feel grounded and calm. Unfortunately today old Shanghai songs are not very well received because the digitization of old records is a flawed process and much of the quality has been lost. Zhou Xuan’s voice was rich and velvety like swan feathers, but the digital version is flat and fake.
In recent years, besides learning old Shanghai songs from Mother Liang, I have held quite a few old Shanghai pop concerts. I deeply feel that my road to maturity and perfection is still long. There is much more to learn and practice. I used to sing because I loved singing. Singing gave me pleasure. For the first time, my singing has become a mission. I’m not afraid of hard work because I am devoted to this form of music. I want to introduce some modern and Western elements into Shanghai old pop songs to make them more appealing to today’s audience while preserve the essence of this style.
The old Shanghai melodies are filled with the unique characteristics of traditional Chinese cultural elements and the sentiments of ancient Chinese. They fill my heart with peace and joy. They enlighten me and give me wisdom. Recently I compose my own songs as well. I look to the poetries of the Tang and verses of the Song dynasties for lyric inspirations as they are rich in beautiful images and deep emotions. In Miss Teresa Teng’s album entitled “Subtle Secret Feelings”, she established a good path to follow. My music inspiration comes from my study and appreciation of ancient Chinese poetries. Rhythms and melodies naturally flow out of my reading of the verses. I hope to see more Chinese, no matter if they were born here or back in China, to learn and memorize these traditional verses through singing. While I myself still have a long way to go to learn them all, I work hard and make progress every day.
Sometimes I get carried away while sitting in Mother Liang’s living room. On her walls are so many photos of famous singers and celebrities of the old Shanghai days. These are all black and white pictures. But I can see on everyone’s face their easiness and confidence. Most of these pictures were taken during club activities, parties, award ceremonies, and public events. Staring at the beautiful youthful face of Mother Liang, I couldn’t help but thought of a film directed by Wang Jia Wei called “Years Like Flowers” and at the same time began to hum Zhou Xuan’s song “Years Like Flowers”.
My friendship with Mother Liang is inseparable from old Shanghai pop songs. I admire the perseverance of her generation in pursuing music and their hard work. Mother Liang’s life has spanned several eras and is full of joys, sorrows, ups, and downs. As time goes by, these have become remote memories. The pains have faded; what couldn’t be let go has been let go. But this forever remains: Years Like Flowers, spirit like the moon that shines upon the dark night, wisdom that gives clarity to life–that is her beautiful life, with her tender affections and her happy family.