SINGAPORE - The unsung hero of the xinyao scene, concert and events organiser Cai Yiren has been building up a fan base for the music for over 15 years.
The local Chinese-language music movement blossomed in the 1980s as singer-songwriters such as Liang Wern Fook and Eric Moo gave voice to their generation in earnest song. From time to time, interest has flowered in the genre, most recently with the release of the nostalgia movie That Girl In Pinafore last year.
Without the efforts of people behind the scenes such as Cai though, xinyao might not have been rooted deeply enough for these periodic blooms. In the parched years of the noughties, the boss of TCR Music Station nurtured audiences through the annual Chong Feng concerts, persevering through failed live music ventures and loss-making gigs.
Organising the first Chong Feng concert in 2002 was like taking a leap of faith, says the 49-year-old. "It was the first time combining xinyao and Taiwan's campus folk songs and I had no idea what the demand would be like.
"It's not like you can take a course and you can't ask someone to teach you because there weren't that many people organising concerts. You just have to learn from experience."
The first two editions were held at National University of Singapore's University Cultural Centre and ticket sales were "not good". As a neophyte organiser, he would miss out on various costs and miscalculate his budget and "when your sales are poor, you lose even more".
Fast forward to last year's sell-out Chong Feng, which saw 4,800 paying fans pack the Esplanade Concert Hall for three nights. What turned the tide for him in the industry over the years, he says, is that "people could see that we were serious about what we did".
Slowly, sponsors began to come on board. Singers who came from Taiwan and elsewhere to perform for him were also impressed by his professionalism and helped spread the word abroad.
This year's 12th edition of Chong Feng is the biggest yet. It takes place on May 17 at The Star Theatre, which has a capacity of 5,000, and features prominent Taiwanese veteran singers such as Chyi Yu and Pan Yue-yun.
Music is now a stable source of income for the A-level holder, who has not looked back since falling in love with xinyao as a Jurong Junior College student and now runs TCR with his wife, Huang Guixia, 48. Together, they produce shows all year round for the Esplanade, clan associations and government departments.
Xinyao's leading light Liang, 50, says of Cai's contribution: "Xinyao is a culture unique to us and something to be cherished by all Singaporeans and not just by those in xinyao circles. Yiren and the concerts have helped to consolidate xinyao and pass it on to a new generation, to constantly remind us of this culture and to carry it forward."
Starting from 2012, there was enough of a demand for Cai to split Singapore's xinyao and the overseas campus folk song components of Chong Feng into two separate concerts. This year's xinyao-themed Tomorrow 32 will be held at The Star Theatre in August, featuring singers such as Moo, Roy Loi, Pan Ying and Dawn Gan.
Liang says: "This proves that xinyao can stand on its own as it has a big enough audience to sustain a separate show and that is meaningful as well."
While xinyao is a big part of what TCR does, Cai's company also handles other kinds of music acts. Reflecting his own interests, they tend to be associated with the 1980s and earlier.
This year, TCR is putting on around 20 shows. This is the most number of gigs it has done in a year since it was set up in 1998. Major ones to come include veteran Taiwanese composer-singer Liu Chia- chang at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Sept 20 and Moo at The Star Theatre on Nov 8.
With a capacity of 8,000, Liu's show is the largest ticketed performance that Cai has done. And it was quite a coup getting the 71-year- old to perform here as he is no longer staging shows even in his native Taiwan.
Cai believes that he was won over by their sincerity. "The first time we met, we talked for three hours. And any song he mentioned, my wife and I could immediately hum it. It's not something you can just brush up on a few days beforehand."
Two months after meeting the couple last September, Liu agreed to do the show.
Cai has been a fan since his teens when he heard Liu's Where Is My Home. The impresario explains: "It had a beautiful melody and it was the first time I realised that a song could evoke a sense of place." He sings a snatch of it and adds: "It was the first song of his I heard and I loved it and there have been countless others by him since."
The passion that Cai has for music easily comes through in his lively chatter at TCR'S office-cum-studio at WCEGA Tower in Bukit Batok. It has been a powerful driving force in his life and career, one that has guided him even when the chips were down.
Liang, who has known him since the 1980s, observes of Cai: "Be it towards xinyao, life or friends, he is very passionate and willing to make sacrifices."
At the lowest point of his career in the early 2000s, Cai had to sell the family's five-room Housing Board flat in Pasir Ris to pay off his debts. He, Huang and their two daughters, now 16 and 10, moved to a resale HDB five-room unit in Pandan Gardens where they still live today.
His wife has been instrumental in encouraging Cai to pursue his dreams after their marriage in 1994.
Says Huang: "I knew his character very well and since he loved music so much, and we were still young, why not give it a shot? I loved music as well and doing something that we both loved was a happy thing."
Cai's earliest memories of music are when he was around five or six. From an uncle's vinyl collection and Rediffusion radio, he imbibed Hokkien folk songs and pop hits of the early 1970s. This was during his idyllic kampung childhood in Alexandra Village, spent with his late forklift-driver father, housewife mother and two younger sisters.
By the time he was in his first year at Hua Yi Secondary School, like everyone else, he was crazy over Taiwanese singing superstar Liu Wen-cheng. He even did dangerous welding work at a shipyard during the school holidays and blew all of his princely $15-a-day pay on cassettes.
Eventually, he stepped on stage himself in Secondary 4 at a Teachers' Day singing contest. He says: "We caused quite a sensation as no one thought a bunch of basketball players could sing."
At Jurong Junior College, he came into contact with xinyao. Moo's first group, Subway Band, was started there and they even held performances. "I had entered a school which was the birthplace of xinyao and there was a very strong culture of it," says Cai. The two years were a blast as he played ball, sang songs and wrote lyrics.
And while he was still doing national service in 1986, he rounded up his former schoolmates to take part in the first national xinyao songwriting and singing competition. The nine-man strong Tiaodonglv Xiaozu came in ninth that year and got placed first the second time they took part in 1988.
It was at this competition that he met his wife-to-be, Huang, who took part with another group. When she went to Taiwan to be a singer in 1989, he hopped on a plane for the first time to visit her.
Returning to Singapore, he brought back with him the idea of starting a minge canting (folk music pub). He found a venue in Chinatown, paid the deposit and was going to name the place Wooden Guitar, after a Taiwanese band he liked.
"And after all that, my application for a licence was rejected in 1990. And my first such dream was shattered."
When Mu Chuan (The Ark) music cafe was successfully opened in 1993 by another operator Dong Jingluan, Cai admits that he had mixed feelings. "I was happy that someone had done it but I should have been the first to open a folk music pub here."
After that setback, he drifted into sales in the 1990s and his wife joked that he could have set up a department store with the things he hawked, which ranged from water heaters, household appliances and furniture to hardware.
Still, he views that period as training for what was to come. "When you do sales, you learn a lot about interpersonal relations and how to deal with others."
Huang's two-year stint in Taiwan also sowed the seeds for their concert-organising future. She says that while her laidback temperament was not suited for entertainment, she got to know singers such as Tseng Shu-chin. It was a network they would later tap into.
So in 1998, the couple decided to go for it. They borrowed $100,000 from relatives and friends to start Tan Chang Ren (which means person who plays the guitar and sings), a folk music pub, in Liang Seah Street. A week later, the elder of his two daughters was born prematurely at seven months.
"That was my toughest time," he admits. The couple had to juggle looking after a sickly newborn and managing a new business, one which turned out to be economically unviable.
He recalls with pride that when doctor-singer Alex Su sang, the entire venue would listen intently. But a small crowd of 60 nursing one $12 drink the entire night was not enough to pay the bills. "We were packed on Friday and Saturday nights, but we were making a loss every month."
After two years, he decided to call it quits. He repeated the process at Radin Mas Community Club, Shenton Way's Bestway Building and Maxwell Road, eventually winding up the pub business in 2007.
With the concerts, their perseverance paid off. In 2004, Chong Feng shifted to the Esplanade Concert Hall and sold out for the first time - and not just one session, but two.
Asked what kept him going despite the continual setbacks and he says: "A lot of it was buganxin (unsatisfied). I had put in so much and so many have helped, yet why wasn't I getting the returns that I should be getting?
"Only with persistence can you get support. People give up but success could come at the next moment, you don't know what could happen next."
The equally determined Huang gave up a sales executive job to join him full-time in 2000 at the helm of TCR.
You get the sense that they are happy doing what they love and while they needed their business to be economically viable, it was never about the monetary rewards. They approach the singers they like for their concerts, form friendships with them and often, Cai would go up on stage during Chong Feng to sing.
And because of music, the world is a brighter place for them.
Cai recalls how, many times on the streets, strangers would smile as if they know him and then just say two words, "Chong Feng". He adds: "We would then smile at each other and it's such a heartening encounter. It's such a happy feeling that we know each other because of music and Chong Feng."
This article was published on April 28 in The Straits Times.
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