After the Taiwanese star’s sterling performance as part of the Singapore F1 Grand Prix, we look at the rise of the Mandarin pop scene
Is Jay Chou the artist to take Mandopop global?
It is easy to think that K-Pop is the most popular type of music emanating from Asia.
With artists like Exo and BTS topping the US charts and selling out hallowed venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden, there is no doubt that K-Pop bands are the flavour of the month right now – simply ask their once popular Japanese contemporaries who are presently cooling their heels after being consigned to the "uncool" basket.
But it would be naive to assume that K-Pop is the only form universally adored across the region.
I found this out the hard way last night when chatting to group of young Singaporean students heading towards the Padang - the large makeshift grass stage which hosts the Singapore F1 Grand Prix's pre and after-race concerts.
Our destination was the first after-race concert to be performed by Taiwanese music sensation Jay Chou, 39.
“K-Pop is OK,” said Airah Malik, 21, a university student.
“I like K-Pop. It is nice and some of the songs are OK but it is all to polished and squeaky clean, you know? You can’t even tell who is singing sometimes in their concerts. With Mandopop I feel it is more authentic. Well, as much that kind of music is.”
This was the first time I came across the term "Mandopop", which refers to pop music sung in the Mandarin language.
“You haven’t heard of Mandopop?” Malik said, somewhat scandalised. “Where have you been?”
A subgenre of C-Pop (Chinese pop), Mandopop encompasses a large collection of artists from China and Taiwan to Singapore, Thailand and even Indonesia.
Mandopop’s appeal has even begun to expand to western countries. Chou’s Singapore stop, for example, is part of a two-year world tour that includes arena gigs in the US as well as a show at London’s Wembley Arena.
The music has a storied past. It was initially denounced by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 – like most non-patriotic music – as a form of pornography.
Mandarin pop music was suppressed on the mainland with producers and singers moving to British-ruled Hong Kong in the mid-1950s where the genre began to take shape.
But due to a lack of solid songwriters at the time, most of the music churned out was Mandarin covers of foreign songs by artists from Indonesia to South America – the latter includes a rather catchy mid-1960s take on Historia De Un Amor by Panamanian singer Carlos Almaran.
Mandopop’s commercial appeal
The quality arrived when, in the mid-1970s, the Taiwanese entertainment industry was going through its golden era.
Its film industry was a raging success, powered by stars such as Tsai Chin and Fong Fei Fei, who as well as being solid actors were also singers in their own right.
But it was the late Taiwanese diva Teresa Teng who is credited with ushering in the return of Mandopop to mainland China.
With reformist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping loosening restrictions on cultural products coming from Hong Kong and Taiwan, Teng's blend of jazzy and admittedly soppy ballads – formerly viewed on the mainland as "bourgeois music” – were at last appreciated. Songs like The Moon Represents My Heart and Wishing We Last Forever became hits in China.
Following Teng came generations of Taiwanese singers such as Chyi Yu with her 1979 hit The Olive Tree and Lo Ta-yu's 1985 smash Tomorrow Will Be Better. The latter is basically a loose cover of the American charity single We Are the World which was released months earlier.
Sensing a commercial opportunity, some Cantonese pop singers (Canto-pop) also crossed over to release Mandopop tunes. The combined effect of their existing fan base and the curiosity of new listeners resulted in artists like Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung finding great success - with over six million copies sold, his 1993 album The Goodbye Kiss remains a classic of the genre.
Such works laid the groundwork for Mandopop to become a mainstay in China. With Taiwan’s entertainment industry suffering from piracy and the Chinese market growing, Taiwanese stars and producers began focusing on the mainland.
In what has been called the "Taiwanese Wave", everyone was a winner.
The Chinese market helped Taiwanese singers such as the aforementioned Jay Chou and Jolin Tsai to sell more than 20 million albums each while Mandopop producers sold their compositions to a new generation of Chinese pop stars and television dramas.
Can Mandopop go global?
That’s the question on the lips of artists, promoters and record labels. And the answer is: it’s well on its way.
K-Pop's global rise was attributed to factors including savvy South Korean cultural diplomacy (its songs featured heavily in the country's 2018 Winter Olympic Games) and shrewd marketing, with Exo's multi-lingual members able to perform in Mandarin and Japanese as well as Korean.
Mandopop singers have proven to be adept at various languages - from Cantonese and Bahasa to English - and with China’s growing embrace of soft power, the stage is set for the genre to flourish.
But all that enthusiasm wouldn’t account for much if the performances were not up to scratch.
And on that score, the new generation of Mandopop singers like Jay Chou are delivering the goods.
Like his K-Pop counterparts, Chou’s material is tailor made for the attention-deficit social media generation. His tracks like the rock-rap hybrid Nunchucks (performed with neon nunchucks) and the RnB jam of Turkish Ice Cream crackle with energy and earworm hooks.
More impressively, as his show at the Singapore Grand Prix last night proved, it all sounded and looked glorious live.
The concert was nothing short of a spectacle. There were pyrotechnics, cutting-edge lighting and a backing band featuring a trio of boy-band singers wearing school uniforms.
Chou himself was a visual highlight. He changed costume every couple of songs – from a glow-in-the-dark vest to a black silk jacket with dragon embroidery as well as a rather garish pink jacket and what looked like velvet green trousers.
It was bonkers but Chou was totally committed. His smooth tenor delivered the big hooks and his solid barn dancing skills were put to good use in the country-music- meets-disco stomp of Cowboy is Busy.
And with Chou’s guest performer being the exciting young Singaporean singer Joanna Dong, his mentee as part of the Chinese television talent competition Sing! China, it all points to the future of Mandopop going global.