Bringing back the xinyao songs they sang

Finishing high school should herald a time of hope and excitement as an array of possibilities glitter and beckon.

But Jo Heng, 55, graduated from then Thomson Secondary School in 1978, just when the use of Chinese as a language of instruction was being phased out, and she felt lost.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Mandarin, she says: "You really didn't know where the road ahead was. And most of us could not afford to go overseas for further studies (taught in Chinese)."

It was a dark time for the award- winning lyricist better known as Xing Zenghua, one of the musicians featured in the xinyao documentary The Songs We Sang, which opens in cinemas tomorrow.

"I wasn't very happy. I worked in factories, including a long-gone Rothmans tobacco factory. I did packaging, quality control, essentially production line jobs," she says.

Things took a turn for the better when she met a bunch of song- writers through a friend. "I got to know Billy Koh, Liang Wern Fook, Eric Moo and we would just hang out together."

At first, she helped out with the liner notes and hand-writing the album titles for the covers, including for the seminal xinyao collection Hai Die Zhu Ri (Ocean Butterflies Chasing After The Sun, 1984).

Thanks to the encouragement of Koh, Liang and Moo, she tried her hand at songwriting around 1986. The first set of lyrics she turned in was for a song recorded by Moo, Ye Ban De Lu Dian (Midnight Hotel).

She recalls: "I was quite nervous because I'd never written lyrics before, but Moo was very encouraging."

What made things easier for her was that the lyrics came first, followed by the melody, as opposed to having to come up with the words to an existing tune.

The collaboration with Moo was fruitful, leading to one of his, and her, biggest hits - You Are My Only One. At the now-defunct local Sing Music Awards in 1989, which were originally part of a xinyao festival, it won Best Lyrics and Best Lyricist for Heng, while Moo took home the awards for Best Male Vocalist, Best Composer and Most Highly Acclaimed Composition.

"It could be said to be his first big overseas hit and it ushered in an era of Moo love ballads," says Heng, who went on to pen tracks for top stars Jacky Cheung (One Thousand Reasons To Be Sad) and Andy Lau (Things Have Taken A New Turn). "I didn't feel too much pressure, but of course, I wanted to do well given these lyrics would be handed to important singers."

Musicians (from far left) Kelly Loo, Eric Moo and Low Swee Chen of the group Di Xia Tie (Mandarin for Underground Express) in the xinyao documentary The Songs We Sang.

At the same time, she was active in the Chinese media industry, writing and designing and co-founding the influential magazine Bohemia (1989-1990), feted for its ahead-of- the-curve content and artwork.

She continues to work in media and pen lyrics and her recent works include Looking At You Quietly, from the xinyao television drama Crescendo (2015), as well as Do You Remember, the theme for The Songs We Sang.

On what it takes to be a lyricist, Heng, who is single, says: "You need a rich imagination, a strong foundation in language, and to be meticulous and sensitive so that you can empathise with others and also imagine what the listener is feeling."

When she is writing a song, she has a good idea of what is likely to find its way into people's hearts. The key words in You Are The Only One are "It takes courage both to love and to not love".

She notes: "It's a phrase that pierces people because we often say that love takes courage, but it turns out that not to love requires bravery as well. You need these phrases which resonate with people emotionally."

This article was first published on March 23, 2016.
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