Xinyao is one of the few music genres that Singaporeans can legitimately call their own. With its distinctive styles and relatable lyrics, xinyao songs are proof that Singaporeans are a creative bunch. Xinyao, written as 新谣 in Chinese, is actually the first and last characters of the term “新加坡歌谣,” (pronounced xin jia po ge yao). It literally means Singapore songs, even though they’re mostly in Chinese.

But The Songs We Sang, a documentary about the history of xinyao, features an instance of xinyao in Malay, which shows that the tradition transcended cultures! It started in the 80’s, which is why xinyao is most associated with the era. If you grew up in that generation, chances are you’ll find The Songs We Sang a fond return to that decade, as music legends Eric Moo and Liang Wern Fook reminisce about the rise of the xinyao movement in that era.

Are you a xinyao kid? Then see if you can make it through these six memories from The Songs We Sang without getting the feels.

1. The transition from Nantah to NUS

The old Nantah. Credit: Good Morning Singapore

The old Nantah. Credit: Good Morning Singapore

One of the factors contributing to the rise of xinyao was the merging of Nantah (Nanyang University, which was where Nanyang Technological University currently is) with the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore. As with any merger, the students had strong emotions about the impending dilution of their identity, and this led to them expressing their feelings through xinyao. In fact, after watching The Songs We Sang, you’ll realise that the passage of time has done nothing to dampen those emotions.

2. “Kopi-O” was a xinyao song

The Coffee Shop. Credit: Remember Singapore

The Coffee Shop. Credit: Remember Singapore

Remember the SBC drama, “The Coffee Shop?” It was a heartlander series about the eponymous coffee shop, and it had one of the most memorable opening theme songs, with its chorus of “Kopi-O! Kopi-O!” It was actually a xinyao song performed by Eric Moo. Despite it being a Mandarin song, its most famous lines were not in Mandarin – ever wondered why? Eric Moo explains in The Songs We Sang, and talks about his struggle for its inclusion.

3. 80’s variety shows had a huge xinyao segment

Liang Wern Fook in The Songs We Sang. Credit: Golden Village Cinemas

Liang Wern Fook, a pioneer of xinyao, in The Songs We Sang. Credit: Golden Village Cinemas

An 80’s television producer reveals that the rise of xinyao also contributed to an increasingly large xinyao segment in variety shows of that time, giving xinyao performers a chance to strut their stuff on national television. Compared to today’s variety shows, which are mostly interview segments or game shows, the programmes of that time were glitzier affairs that held the promise of unearthing the next big Singapore star.

4. The vibrant arts scene

Eric Moo sings old favourites in The Songs We Sang. Credit: Golden Village Cinemas

Eric Moo sings old favourites in The Songs We Sang. Credit: Golden Village Cinemas

While the Western world was reverberating with the engineered beats of Madonna, Michael Jackson and Def Leppard, Singapore’s arts scene was brimming with something more organic. Students spent their recess time strumming guitars and singing along, with xinyao groups forming everywhere and competitions popping up all over the island. That’s why the sound of xinyao is so folksy – much of it was probably first composed in the schoolyard and sung to a simple melody which could be strummed on acoustic guitar. There definitely weren’t as many arts grants as there are now, but still, we Singaporeans managed to exercise our creative talents.

5. Xinyao was a representation of the kampung spirit

Kampung spirit in action. Credit: Singapore Kindness Movement

Kampung spirit in action. Credit: Singapore Kindness Movement

In an era without the Internet (or at least, a very primitive version of it), how did people form xinyao groups? There definitely weren’t Facebook groups or hashtags to find like-minded folk. They had to go out and meet people, share ideas, and become a community, which are the very traits of the kampung spirit that the government keeps wanting us to foster. It was a simpler time, when Singaporeans were less materialistic and much, much friendlier.

6. Bras Basah Complex, the xinyao hub

Bras Basah Complex. Credit: Trip Advisor

Bras Basah Complex. Credit: Trip Advisor

Bras Basah Complex has gone through many transformations, from comics mecca to stationery world these days. But back in xinyao‘s heyday, it was a thriving hub of song and music, where xinyao lovers would gather to perform and mingle. And it’s apparent that its connection to xinyao is fondly remembered – some 1,000 fans reunited for a two-hour concert featuring Dawn Gan, Eric Moo and Li Feihui in July 2014 in spite of the pouring rain.

Poster for The Songs We Sang. Credit: Golden Village Cinemas

Poster for The Songs We Sang. Credit: Golden Village Cinemas

The Songs We Sang revisits these memories with the loving tenderness that can only come from a person who loves xinyao. Catch it in cinemas to see how different Singapore was 30 years ago!

Credits: Good Morning Singapore, Remember Singapore, Singapore Kindness Movement, Trip Advisor, Golden Village Cinemas, insing.com