Holo pop songs were banned by government censors during the rule of Kuomintang, and underground albums were sold in night markets in Taiwan. On the occasion of a series of ‘forbidden songs concerts’ sponsored by the Taiwanese Government Information Office in 2007, information officer Pat Gao wrote this article about the country’s censorship history from the 1930s up to 2000.
By Pat Gao, Taiwan’s Government Information Office
A harsh crackdown on songs sung in the affective Holo style cut a wide swath across Taiwan’s developing pop music history.
Before Chiang Huei and Huang Yi-ling emerged as top Taiwanese-language singers, they would shuttle from hotel to hotel in Taipei’s Beitou District to perform in Japanese for tourists from Japan, who flocked to the hot-spring area for hot baths, to visit legal brothels and for other forms of entertainment. Even after prostitution was declared illegal in Beitou and Chiang and Huang became famous recording stars, they remained on the move in the 1980s, performing as members of their respective nakasi trios in hotels, dance parlors and restaurants.
Nakasi is derived from a Japanese word meaning “flow,” so it should not be surprising that nakasi performers were highly mobile. Indeed, this itinerant lifestyle was shared by many now-established Holo, or Taiwanese, singers in their early careers and typified the entire Holo music production environment at the time. While a hectic tour schedule might be seen as a lifestyle choice, more often than not it was a resigned response to government censorship of entertainment enterprises.
Li Kun-cheng, a music critic and songwriter, points out that because of a rigorous ban on “improper” songs, many songwriters and music producers chose not to subject their works to the screening procedure required for public circulation. Instead, trucks were loaded with underground albums that were sold in local night markets rather than in regular record stores. “Such musicians tend to display a complex sense of social struggle in their compositions,” Li says, “hence the affected, worldly or melancholy style that is still evident today in quite a few Holo songs.”
Starting on the Wrong Note
In 2007, the Government Information Office (GIO), which took over the role of censorship from the Ministry of the Interior in the early 1970s, organized a series of “forbidden song” concerts to mark the 20th anniversary of the lifting of martial law. “It’s like a ceremony to cure a mental disease caused by the terrifying rule of martial law,” says GIO Minister Shieh Jhy-wey. “The censorship of music affected grassroots culture and, because of its non-political nature, represented the most intimidating – even though it was not always explicitly felt – impact of an authoritarian regime on people’s mentality and everyday life.”
In 1973, the GIO announced a set of criteria for songs. The compositions to be prohibited from release included those that exhibited socialist or communist tendencies or were depressing in tone, such that they might affect people’s morale. Also slated for prohibition, according to the GIO’s criteria, were songs that contained absurdity, weirdness, obscenity, violence, rudeness, frivolity, sarcasm, melancholy, decadence or unclear motifs. “Among the natural human emotions, anger and sorrow were not acceptable, while only happiness or delight were allowed in songs,” Li Kun-cheng says. “Even happiness had to be expressed with considerable reserve to escape the crackdown.”
Although the censorship was aimed at songs in general, including those sung in Holo, Hakka and Mandarin, most of the banned songs were written in Holo – the language of Taiwan’s largest ethnic group – since the output of Holo songs was much higher than that of songs in other languages.
A Burgeoning Pop Industry
Since nearly all censorship standards were vaguely formulated, they were open to interpretation and manipulation. At a time when the KMT government sought to recast Taiwanese people from the Japanese cultural mold to a Chinese one without the impurities of local culture and languages, the huge popularity of Holo pop stars like Bun Ha became a primary target for censorship. “Often, a song would be banned after it had gotten hot and gathered social momentum,” Li says. “Censors would not bother to ban a song that didn’t attract fans.”
A noted example was the banned song “Mom, Please Take Care of Yourself.” Written and sung by Bun Ha, this Holo song became a favorite among soldiers who left home for military service. “Apparently soldiers were supposed to devote themselves fully to defending the country and should not be distracted by thinking about their mothers,” Bun Ha says. “Predominantly Mandarin-speaking reviewers usually had absurd reasons for censoring songs they didn’t like or simply didn’t understand.” Thanks to the pervasive censorship system, Bun Ha had no choice but to go to Japan to perform. “So a Taiwanese like me couldn’t sing Taiwanese songs for Taiwanese people to enjoy,” he recalls, “but had to sing Taiwanese songs for Japanese people who didn’t understand a single Taiwanese word.”
Crackdown and Decline
A significant development on Taiwan’s pop scene during the 1970s was the release Modern Chinese Folk Songs, an album that competed against syrupy Mandarin pop music albums that borrowed shamelessly from foreign melodies of the day. Folk Songs prompted numerous young people, mostly university students, to start writing songs they could play on their guitars. Their compositions, known as folk or campus songs, had gained a strong following by the late 1970s. This “folk” music, however, did not have much of a connection with folk traditions in Taiwan. In fact, very few folk songs of the 1970s and 1980s were composed in the Holo language, which is considered to be the language of the “folk” in Taiwan. “This label is weird because folk songs are supposed to come from grassroots society rather than from schools,” Shieh says. “The strange nomenclature – folkless folk songs – was derived from the sad fact that under the terror of censorship, people were not allowed to express their feelings using their own languages.”
Ci Syuan, a DJ on Taiwan’s Police Radio Station, says banned Mandarin songs are just as much a part of Taiwanese people’s collective memory as their Holo counterparts. He says it is understandable that during a specific period, under particular circumstances, restrictions might be placed on the distribution of some pop songs, but in Taiwan the judgments of censors often became too arbitrary. “Even now each radio station has a list of songs it considers likely to annoy its audience and that it won’t air,” he says. “The thing is, true creativity or appeal cannot be suppressed by any form of censorship; a song often became even more famous after being banned.”
Holo Pop Revival
In the 1990s, as the censorship system was gradually being dismantled, musicians started to explore the full potential of Holo songs once again. Many new Holo pop songs broke free of the typically slow, sad style that had hitherto characterized the genre. Lim Giong’s bestselling rock album Marching Forward (1990) is an early example. Meanwhile, the melancholic vein of traditional Holo songs was refined by creative talent crossing over from Mandarin pop in albums such as Chiang Huei’s Drunken Confession (1992), which sold more than 1 million copies. By this time, the resurgence of Holo pop music in Taiwan’s mainstream music scene was complete.
Invigorated by the injection of new and revived Holo works, pop music has become the most dynamic sector of Taiwan’s entertainment industry. Meanwhile, released from the shackles of censorship, Taiwanese songwriters and singers have come to dominate pop charts throughout the Chinese-speaking world. Li Kun-cheng says that this surge would have occurred long ago if it were not for censorship’s interruptive influence. “Now we Taiwanese people can confidently sing our own Taiwanese-flavored songs without feeling any possible shame,” says Poki, the young lead singer of Chairman Band, a recent Golden Melody Award-winning rock group. Together with Bun Ha and other performers, young and old, Chairman Band performed in the Forbidden Songs concert series staged by the GIO. Whether they are melancholy or upbeat, the revived strains of formerly banned songs are bridging a big gap in Taiwan’s pop history and pointing to a brighter future for creators and appreciators of popular music.
Republished with permission from the author.
The government official Pat Gao can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Freemuse would be interested if readers know of current cases of censorship in Taiwan, as this article focuses on the past solely. Contact Freemuse
Taiwan Review – 1 November 2007: