China: History of Holo pop songs censorship

22 November 2007

Music, Interrupted

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.”

Minister Shieh sings with recording artists Huang Lian-yu (left), Li Kun-cheng (second from left), and Poki (far right) as well as 72-year-old Lyu Jin-shou (center), a prolific composer of Hakka and Holo songs – many of which were banned by Taiwan’s government censors.      

Starting on the Wrong Note
This style of Holo music is just one effect government censorship has had on the pop music scene in Taiwan. The Kuomintang (KMT) government lost the civil war to Chinese communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949, four years after its takeover of the island from Japan. As a part of decades of KMT authoritarian rule, the restrictions on release, sale and broadcast of popular songs cut a wide swath across Taiwan’s pop music industry. “Both the KMT and Chinese communists liked to associate pop songs with political causes, such as the promotion of a standard language,” Li says. “Coming from a China torn by internal struggle among political forces that stretched over decades, the KMT newcomers to the former Japanese colony found themselves in a relatively developed, urban society full of modern forms of entertainment, such as commercial pop music.” Concerned by the Japanese and Holo languages that prevailed in the pop scene, the new Mandarin-speaking authorities decided to exert a tight grip on pop songs.

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
During Japanese rule, the introduction of musical notation methods and the phonograph led to the emergence of a local record industry that heralded the first golden age of Holo ballads, in the 1930s. In fact, the Japanese government, in an effort to subdue its subjects’ pride in their local cultural identity, banned some Holo songs in Taiwan. Control of local music, however, was soon relaxed thanks to the colonial regime’s greater interest in promoting a profitable business.



Bun Ha’s banned album Mom, Please Take Care of Yourself

After the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Holo songwriters and composers continued to produce original compositions and borrowed Japanese or Western melodies, contributing to a flourishing entertainment form. For example, Bun Ha, who recorded a total of about 1,200 songs, rose to stardom as a singer and actor in movies designed mainly as vehicles for his Holo pop songs in the 1950s and 1960s. “At that time, you could tune in to just about any radio station across the country to hear my songs,” he recalls.

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
The increasing number of forbidden songs – well over 1,000 in total – triggered a decline in creativity and popularity of Holo songs in the 1970s. This downturn coincided with the demise of two major vehicles for Holo songs. In 1970, Holo movies came to a sudden crash after 15 years of prosperity. A couple years later, the government banned immensely popular Holo-language budaisi (glove puppetry) television shows, explaining that they interfered with the daily work of citizens. Few Taiwanese bought the explanation. They saw the ban as part of a government policy of promoting Mandarin as the one and only “tasteful” national language.



The Government Information Office put banned albums on display to shed light on its history of overzealous censorship.

Taiwan Television Enterprise was established in 1962 as Taiwan’s first television station. It was joined by two others within a decade. The three stations, which were run by the government and the KMT, quickly came to dominate the pop entertainment scene, a domination that was to continue for nearly two more decades. Among the guidelines that governed television programming in Taiwan was a limit of one 30-minute non-Mandarin program per night for each TV channel. And only two non-Mandarin songs could be played on television per day – for all three stations combined.

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
Holo pop music did not rise again until the 1980s. One of the Holo songs that was released underground and distributed by trucks at night markets, “Who Knows My Heart” (1982), managed to outlive government censorship. Chiang Huei recorded this popular song as her career began to take off. Depicting the inexpressible suffering of a man who “has tears but dares not cry,” this song was a spectacular underground success. Along with Chiang’s albums You Must Go On (1983) and Farewell Coast (1984), “Who Knows My Heart” helped Holo songs recover their former popularity.

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

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:
‘Music, Interrupted’

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