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Wednesday, November 24, 2004
News agencies in Hong Kong have reported that talented songwriter-lyricist James Wong has died of cancer-related complications. He was 64.
This news probably means nothing to most of you who read this blog, given that it's written in English. But Uncle Tsim, as he was popularly known, was a highly accomplished songwriter and lyricist in both Mandarin and Cantonese music. Together with Joseph Koo Ka Fai, he was considered a central figure in the Hong Kong music scene in the '80s and '90s, with numerous works spanning television, film, pop music and even advertising.
I'm not very old, but I grew up during that period when Cantopop was on the rise and all. I had barely missed the period of rivalry between George Lam and Sam Hui (whose music I did get to listen to a little later on), so that kind of dates me. Now that I look back, what strikes me much about James Wong's work is that, when it came to writing music for period shows (his songs for various presentations of martial arts novelist Jin Yong's works are particularly memorable), he demonstrated great talent in penning solid lyrics that illustrated how much culture he had in him.
In this age where singers borrow tunes from each other (Lemon Tree by Fool's Garden is an infamous example), and pop music is defined by idol performers and hardly remembered for its composers, arrangers and lyricists, it gives me little honour to write that Chinese pop has been suffering from a serious shortage of younger talent who have that richness in Chinese cultural knowledge and literary upbringing, who could write lyrics that look like a decent piece of literary work worthy of a careful read. No, instead we get things like Jay Chou lyrics that can get mumbled away and nobody will notice. Or we get rap stuff that nobody can properly catch. Sure, some of it is emotive and nice and all, but there's no cultural depth.
In the Chinese language, the term for poetry and the term for song often went hand in hand. Indeed, the Chinese character that is used to describe poetry in the Song Dynasty period is the same character for the word 'lyric'. Word has it that Liu Yong, among others, had written lyrics that were meant to go with melodious tunes that courtesans sang in the company of scholars and noblemen. The equivalent of today's brothels actually housed many women who were learned in singing and playing a number of musical instruments. While people who visit brothels today probably aren't interested in the musical talents of the prostitutes they have sex with, courtesans who could sing or play the qin well often commanded much higher prices. The story of legendary courtesan Li Shi Shi, who lived in the latter years of the Northern Song Dynasty, is particularly noteworthy - the Emperor Hui Zong was apparently her most famous admirer (and that was not considered a state secret).
The point of all this is that song was then seen as a musical presentation of lyrics, so in a way there was a cultural and literary aspect to the whole thing. Lyrics could thus be considered a form of literary work, if they lived up to a certain standard. The sad truth is that, if we go by the popular music we have today, we may have lots of lyricists who could go on and on about love and all that, or occasionally have some really nice and emotive work, but on a literary level there's just no depth. The closest example of a younger-generation Chinese lyricist who has literary and cultural depth is a Singaporean man by the name of Liang Wern Fook, an icon of the sadly short-lived xinyao or "new wave music" period. There aren't many more who are anywhere near that level. They may be great with language, but I wouldn't expect them to produce any work that has any artistic or literary flavour.
Which makes it all the more upsetting for me to hear of James Wong's death. To me it further signifies an end of an era when people could write good music and lyrics with a strong literary flavour. Instead we'll now be stuck with the crass, low-brow lyrics sung by our favourite pop stars, who are full of packaged, manufactured personality. Kind of like saccharine, if you're familiar with food science.
Meanwhile, I was clearing this morning's papers when I came across this piece of feedback by a television viewer. To translate and paraphrase (obviously the original was not written in English), here's what the reader said:
"I would like to request that our terrestrial channels please stop showing golf tournament telecasts. Those who like to watch golf are all rich people, and surely they can afford to watch it on cable TV."
Ahem, I happen to be a bit of a golf-watcher, and I don't consider myself to be particularly wealthy. I don't even own a single golf ball or club, unlike some of my friends, who actually take time to put in some practice. It's extremely discriminatory and there's even a risk of stereotype when one says that golf is a sport that only the rich people follow. That's just not good logic. I watch golf because there is pleasure in seeing a good player sink a putt from 25 yards out, and the sigh when a player narrowly misses is part and parcel of watching. Why, I still remember the way my heart briefly sank when Adam Scott sent his shot into the water in the last hole at The Players' Championship this year. You don't have to be wealthy to feel for him when it happened.
Secondly, most of the golf that gets shown here in Asia is actually action from the PGA tour over in the US. Golf is played in the daytime, and the courses are all open weather. Basically that means no night golf for the pros, no floodlights, no nothing. Due to time zone differences, it means that here in Asia, much of the footage we see is shown in relatively ungodly hours like 2am or 3am, and coverage usually ends around 6am or 7am. Given the way TV programming works here where I'm based, that time period is not exactly considered prime time.
Perhaps the instance mentioned by this reader was the recent World Cup competition, which wasn't held in America, but somewhere on the British Isles. Now I do remember seeing snippets of the live broadcast over the weekend, during more normal hours. But even if that were the case, I'd then ask what the big deal really was. It is the World Cup, not some event that recurs every week. So what's the problem? We get endless coverage of the Olympics real-time, when it happened, ad nauseam, and I didn't see nearly as much complaining back then, when there was perhaps greater cause to do so.
As for the whole thing about wealthy people who could afford cable TV having more choice, well, that is true but only to an extent. A quirk with the way things work over here is that, ironically, it is easier for people who live in public housing (who are not usually considered particularly rich) to get cable TV access than it is for people who live on landed property. I don't know about condominium apartments, but I think we can conveniently afford to leave them out of this discussion for the sake of it. The further quirk that private satellite dishes are actually banned here (the local government, being the morally conservative group it is (not that that has to be bad) decided to prevent people from accessing Playboy-ish channels by making these dishes illegal) means that getting connected to cable TV is not as straightforward for the rich people as you might think. People who live in Government-built apartments actually have as good a chance of getting it.
I will admit that there is not much of a professional, competitive golf following here, in part because people believe that golf is a rich man's sport to play and they're therefore not rich enough to enjoy watching it. However, in so saying I am also admitting that getting access to golf on cable TV would mean lots of money. The main cable TV service provider over here does not have sports as part of its standard basic package - you'd have to pay even more if you want the sports channels. And it gets worse if you're, say, a cricket fan - you'd have to subscribe to a special service to get your cricket fix! All of this makes it very expensive to watch anything on cable TV - one of the reasons why, to this day, I am still not a paid-up subscriber to the service.
There was a time when English Premiership football was available on terrestrial television over here. It meant that Saturday evenings and nights would be spent at home watching the latest big match on display. I vividly remember watching the live telecast of Manchester United vs Liverpool in 1995 - the game when Eric Cantona returned from his infamous kung-fu kick ban. And it was shown live, on terrestrial television. This was in an age before cable television hit us big-time. Nowadays, if I wanted live Premiership football, I would have to subscribe to cable TV, or wait for a big match when several friends would gather and watch it at the home of one of the lucky guys who does subscribe. Or, on some nights, I might resort to going out to a coffee place (many of whom subscribe to cable TV as a way to attract customers).
But I digress.
To go back to the point, I find it terribly flawed to argue that, since cable television provides choice (at a price), terrestrial TV operators should leave it to their cable counterparts to broadcast shows that may or may not be popular to the general, possibly non-cable masses. It is particularly worse when one starts saying that "show X is for rich people, so make them pay to watch it".
Broadcasters have a right to decide what they want to put on show, based on any number of factors that may come into play. They care about ratings, bottomlines and sponsorships, so let that be their problem. They have a right to show whatever they want to show, and we as viewers are within our rights to express our disinterest in a show simply by not watching it. Yet, when we switch off the TV, we implicitly accept in a backhanded manner that TV operators have a right to choose what to put on, just as we have a right to choose what we want to watch. If a TV operator consistently makes bad decisions, viewers will vote with their remotes. Terrestrial operators, by the way, can be put out of business due to falling viewership.
In any event, if they didn't show golf on TV on that Saturday night, what would you want to watch instead? Did the reader have any strong reason for not wanting to see the golf? Was it replacing his or her favourite show? Or did it prevent the channel from showing a TV broadcast of some movie that he or she might have wanted to watch? And even if it did, so what?
My dad was moved to comment in recent weeks that television viewers can be terribly fussy and incredibly self-centred. I tend to agree. People ask for certain shows to go off or come on for what can sometimes be really petty reasons. I honestly think people like these should just grow up.
In an ideal world I would like my local TV operators to air a number of Japanese dramas I haven't seen aired yet - although some of them are about a decade old - or have a re-run of the first three seasons of The West Wing. I'd also want them to bring back English Premiership football on top of Champions League action on horrible Wednesday nights (the games are great, but weekday nights in Europe translate to bad hours here in Asia). I'd also want them to bring in a whole lot of other great shows from around the world to replace some of that insipid stuff being passed off as local productions starring actors who, truth be told, can't act. But I know the world is not ideal, and I learn to live with it.
That's why I have to accept that some weekday nights, there would be shows on TV I would never want to watch. I'm not a fan of The OC or CSI, but when either show comes on I accept that there are other people who want to watch it. Me? I just switch the TV set off and give it a deserved rest. It's not my grandfather's TV station, and in all likelihood, it's not your grandfather's either.
So just shut up and switch your TV off too. And maybe go read a book or something. gambitch [