Thu, Apr 24, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Taking a look back over musical history

A new program to be aired on PTS takes a look back to the 1930s when Taiwanese popular music experienced an all-too-brief golden age

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

The clock is turned back to 1933. It is a time of big bands, ragtime jazz and ballroom dancing. The phonograph is all the rage. Even as China was caught in the grip of civil unrest, a new middle-class lifestyle was emerging in Taiwan. Fashionable people would sit along the boulevards drinking coffee, dancing the waltz and the fox trot and singing the new hit songs of a period.

Today, Grandma Ai-ai (愛愛) sits in Taipei's venerable Bolero restaurant with old colleagues from Columbia Records, recalling the golden years some 70 years ago.

"It was a new world for us. Young people began to enjoy the freedom to meet and dance [instead of being confined by the family]," she said. "Men and women dubbed themselves `black cats' and `black dogs,' the equivalent of the `la-mei' [hot chicks] and `shuai-ke' [cool guys] who frequent Taipei's chic bars and restaurants today."

The life of these youngsters, so similar yet so different from youth culture today, is the subject of a new PTS documentary, A Dance Era (跳舞時代), exploring the pop music scene of the 1930s and 1940s.

"We wanted to present a Taiwan music history, complete with the atmosphere of that time, so that young people could come to grips with that period," said Lee Kun-cheng (李坤城), the music director and script writer of the program, who was the driving force behind the project.

Seven years ago, Lee was working at the now-defunct Taipei Radio Station (台北電台). The company was undergoing renovation to digitize all the equipment. Quantities of old equipment, including phonographs, were being thrown out. "I asked them to give me two phonographs for my collection. And soon after, I started my travels around Taiwan collecting old vinyl records.

A Dance Era is basically the result of Lee's seven years collecting old records. In total, he has gathered more than 20,000 vinyl records dating back to the early 1900s, more than 100 antique phonographs.

"I was almost a mad man running around 200 towns in Taiwan, searching for old records. If an old house was to be demolished, I would rush down, driving through the night, to see what I could find there. I have developed a network of more than 200 informants, people in moving companies, interior design firms and antique buyers," said Lee.

In addition to collecting, Lee also learned how to wash, dry and preserve the records. He also learned from different experts how to fix the antique phonographs.

"I've become a traveler of Taiwan's past. A wanderer through its old memories," he said.

What he has called A Dance Era, is the period in which Taiwan's popular music flourished during the tail-end of the Japanese occupation period. It is the time between 1929 and 1940 when Taiwan had its own flourishing popular music industry.

A Dance Era was shot in 16mm film, directed by Jian Wei-si (簡偉斯) and Kuo Jen-ti (郭珍弟), edited by Chen Po-wen (陳博文) and with sound editing by Tu Duu-chih (杜篤之). The narration, in Taiwanese, which drips with nostalgia, is done by Chen Li-kuei (陳麗貴).

The turn of the century was a time of rapid modernization in which Taiwan began to enjoy the advantages of railways, electricity and running water. Men cut their queues and women stopped binding their feet. Cities like Taipei were eager for new types of entertainment. It was against this background that Japan's Columbia Records was established in Taiwan. From 1929, the company began to hire local songwriters and to publish local singers.

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