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Songs of the Local Landscape: Xinyao

Xinyao is a nostalgic genre of songs that has seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years, with even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong singing a line during his 2014 National Day Rally.

Find out more about this facet of Singapore culture, which pays tribute to a simpler, gentler time.

A Brief History of Xinyao

Shorthand for xin jia po nian qing ren chuang zhao de ge yao 新加坡年轻人创造的歌谣 or ‘songs created by Singapore youth’, xinyao began in the 70s when Chinese students, influenced by Taiwanese folk songs, began writing their own. The genre hit its heyday in the 80s, and found commercial success not only in Singapore but around the region as well.

Xinyao songs are characterised by their melodies and lyrics. The melody lines were simple yet catchy, with one or two guitars providing the rhythm, sometimes with supplementary piano, flute or violin accompaniment. They were simple for a reason – many of the composers had no prior musical training. The lyrics would centre upon the hopes and aspirations of local youth, set specifically to a Singaporean context. Uplifting and full of hope, this genre of songs skyrocketed in popularity in the 80s, which spawned concerts, talent competitions and features in local media.

Notable Figures

As with any movement, there were forerunners of xinyao. One of the indisputable pioneer figures of the genre is Dr Liang Wern Fook, who was awarded the Singapore Cultural Medallion (Singapore’s most prestigious arts award) in 2010 for achieving artistic excellence. Two of his best loved compositions are Xi Shui Chang Liu细水长流 and Yi Bu Yi Bu Lao 一步一步來 . The former is a nostalgic look back on lasting friendships, and the song Prime Minister Lee sang the opening line of during the 2014 National Day Rally. The latter, on the other hand, chronicles the life of an everyman and paints the reality of being one of the masses.

Other popular figures include Eric Moo, Billy Koh and Wu Jiaming. Moo and Koh are now music producers, with Koh’s label Ocean Butterfly releasing music videos of xinyao classics on their YouTube channel. Wu Jiaming is best known in Singapore for singing Xiao Ren Wu De Xin Sheng 小人物的心声 and Wo De Shen Huo Zai Zhe Li 我的生活在这里.

Of course, women were not exempt from the popularity of the xinyao scene. Huang Huizhen sang a duet with Eric Moo, while Dawn Gan brought her energy to youthful songs about school.

Resurgence and Legacy

The emergence of a dialogue on what it means to be Singaporean and what Singaporean culture is has once again shone the spotlight on xinyao. This has exposed a new generation of Singaporeans to the genre, and jogged memories and renewed interest in xinyao. In fact, romantic comedy That Girl in Pinafore was released in 2013 to critical acclaim. A coming-of-age tale about young love, the film also served as a tribute to xinyao with some classics reworked to include electronic elements. The blu-ray and soundtrack are available for purchase with local and international shipping at

A documentary about xinyao, The Songs We Sang, has also been produced and was shown at the Singapore International Film Festival 2015. A wider release is being slated for 24 March this year, at selected Golden Village cinemas so be sure to get your tickets when ticket sales start for a poignant insight into the xinyao music scene. Tickets can be booked on from 17 March.

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