Jan. 11 to Jan. 17
Cheng Jih-ching (鄭日清) tried hard to keep a low profile at his regular job, but that was impossible for a person who had already won three national singing contests, recorded two acclaimed albums and was in high demand for Taiwan’s then-burgeoning live variety show scene.
The popular “Baritone King” (中音歌王) worked quietly as a draftsman at the Directorate General of Highways during the day, and rushed off on his bicycle after work to entertain fans in his energetic “dance-move-sing” (跳動唱) signature style.
Photo : Hu Shun-hsiang, Taipei Times
His supervisors and colleagues turned a blind eye to his moonlighting at first, but Cheng began taking days off to partake in variety shows in central and southern Taiwan in the early 1970s. He was constantly worried that this would affect his day job, since government workers were discouraged from frequenting these venues as they did not have the best reputation.
“The venues would advertise the show in the newspapers, and they would list my real name,” Cheng says in an episode of Taiwan History (台灣演義) on Formosa TV. “When I returned to work, I made sure I treated my coworkers to meals and brought them souvenirs.”
However, what really caused problems was him appearing on television to judge singing contests — which was not allowed, and his coworkers often reported the behavior to the higher ups. Cheng ended taking an early retirement at the age of 56, upon which his career really began as he completely delved into the scene.
Photo courtesy of Taiwan Film Institute
Cheng was born in 1924 in today’s Guting (古亭) area in Taipei. At the time, the area was mostly inhabited by Japanese, while most Taiwanese lived in Wanhua (萬華) and Dadaocheng (大稻埕). The Cheng family enjoyed such privilege because his father worked for the Japanese government. In this environment, Cheng was frequently exposed to Japanese enka, often singing along to the radio.
“When I heard the music, my musical senses began tingling,” he says. “If I was headed to the bathroom, my sister would ask if she could go before me, because sometimes I would stay in there singing for over 20 minutes.”
Photo courtesy of Taiwan Film Institute
In school, Cheng was known for his constant crooning, but he didn’t realize how talented he was until his junior high school classmates egged him on to perform at the school’s anniversary celebration. At the age of 16, he followed his father’s footsteps and began working at the governor-general’s office while attending night school, launching his lifelong career as a civil servant.
Cheng started off doing odd jobs such as pouring tea and cleaning, and was later offered a position at the civil engineering department. When the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) took over Taiwan, he kept his job and was moved to the highway department.
After work, he would frequent the many open-air performance venues along the Tamsui River — there were at least 30 such establishments in the area after World War II. Cheng befriended future stars like Hung Yi-feng (洪一峰) and began singing with them on stage after they noticed his talent.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
These establishments waned due to government restrictions on public gatherings after martial law was declared, but Cheng and Hung rented a house in Wanhua and taught music while singing together on the radio as Tiansheng Music Group (天聲音樂團). The two also collaborated on inexpensive “song booklets” (歌仔簿) — which contained the lyrics and melodies of popular radio songs with illustrations.
The group disbanded in the early 1950s, but Cheng continued to sing at home every night to the great annoyance of his neighbors. In 1957, three major radio stations launched national singing contests, and his wife put his name in each one.
Cheng bagged first place in all three, enjoying his first taste of fame at the age of 35. The next year, the newly formed Asia Recording Co (亞洲唱片) released his first record That Day of Heavy Rain (落大雨彼一日), consisting of Japanese enka with Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) lyrics. Yeh Chun-lin (葉俊麟), one of Taiwan’s most prolific Hoklo pop lyricists, penned the words for the title track.
As his fame grew, he also earned the nickname “Singing Cyclist” (鐵馬歌王) because he rode his bicycle everywhere. If he had to perform in the south, he would take the bike on the train — and once he rode from Taipei to a show in Taoyuan just to see if he could.
Cheng released his second record in 1959, which also included collaborations with Yeh. However, that would be the last record released under his name, and his songs from then on were included in compilations with bigger-name stars.
In 1962, Cheng acted in his first movie, Green Island NIghts (綠島之夜). He only had 10 minutes of screen time, but his name appeared on the film poster.
The easy-going, even-tempered Cheng was known for never jostling for performance order during a show, and it’s said that rival stars who despised each other would remain civil in Cheng’s presence since they all liked him.
Cheng continued to perform well into his 80s, never shedding his animated style until he died on Jan. 11, 2014.
When asked on stage in 2012 if he ever planned to retire, he replied: “Life begins when you’re 70. At 60, you’re a small child, at 50, you’re a baby, at 40, you’re an infant in a carriage and at 30, you’re a newborn. Never feel that you’re old.”
Taiwan in Time, a column about Taiwan’s history that is published every Sunday, spotlights important or interesting events around the nation that either have anniversaries this week or are tied to current events.
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