Admire the calligraphy

Hearing the traditional music of China is like admiring a piece of calligraphy hanging in a temple. It is beautiful, no question. Clearly, great skill is required in its execution. But it can’t be escaped that this is a minute fragment of a rich and complex culture. The daunting truth: without a lifetime’s study and a gift for languages, you never will fully understand.

512px-Wang_Xianzi_Imitation_by_Tang_Dynasty

Image: Taito Ward Calligraphy Museum, public domain

But still, we can admire.

I visited China with my wife nearly 20 years ago. I remember once, on a street in Xian, stopping and listening to a busker, a young man playing traditional tunes on an instrument, the name of which I do not know, but it’s a distant cousin to the violin. The melodies and rhythms were unfamiliar, but the man played with passion, and there was no denying the beauty of it. Another Chinese man, listening beside me, gave me a nod and a smile. It was one of those wordless moments: he was proud of his people’s culture and pleased that a stranger was appreciating small part of it. If he had been Australian, he might have said: “Not bad, eh?”

This track is similar in style, though with a small orchestra. It from a compilation of folk tunes by various artists. As is often true of Chinese products, the English translation on the sleeve is a bit wobbly. This tune is “10 Miles Fragrant Of Blooming Olea”.

I do not pretend to Chinese scholarship, but I can help a bit. A “Chinese mile”, the li, is only about one-third of the English mile, and is now standardized as equal to 500 metres. “Olea” refers to Sweet Osmanthus, a small tree which grows widely in Asia. As its name suggests, this tree has fragrant flowers. Literally the tune should be called “five kilometers of nice-smelling Osmanthus trees”, which is worse than the original.

So, ignore the name. Close your eyes. It is spring, in the Chinese countryside, and the trees are in blossom. Just listen.

  • Artist: Unknown
  • Album title: Kweilin Scenery | Famous Chinese Light Music (Various artists)
  • Track: A4 “10 Miles Fragrant Of Blooming Olea”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Fung Hang Record Ltd
  • Made in: Hong Kong
  • Catalogue: FHLP 201
  • Year: Unknown (1970s?)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

The Inn of Six Degrees of Separation

Six degrees of separation between Dr Barnardo and John Travolta.

  1. Thomas John Barnardo was an Irish philanthropist. DrbarnardoWhile training as a doctor in London in the 1860s, he became aware of the miserable plight of the many homeless children in the city’s slums. He established the first of “Dr Barnardo’s Homes” for children in that city in 1867. Providing housing and education for poor and disadvantaged children became Barnardo’s life’s work, and he gave up his original ambition to be a missionary in China.
  2. Someone who did go to China as a missionary was Gladys Aylward, who was an Englishwoman of strong Christian faith. She was in China in the chaotic Inn_Of_Sixth_Happyears leading up to the Second World War, where she did a lot of brave and humane things. Her experiences were the basis for a novel by Alan Burgess, called The Small Woman. In 1958, this novel was turned into a film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman. The film, which was a huge success, ends with Aylward leading a group of dozens of Chinese children to safety, evading Japanese soldiers. While they march, the children sing “This Old Man” …
  3. Which was a children’s counting song with a nonsense chorus, the first written version of which dates from 1870, but which is certainly much older than that. The chorus goes:

With a knick-knack paddywhack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home

The song is now universally known, but had been relatively obscure until used in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the soundtrack to which was a huge hit.

  1. Taking advantage of this popularity, Dr Barnardo’s Homes – by this time the most important charity caring for children in the United Kingdom and many other parts of the former British Empire, released a fundraising record, with some Barnardo’s children singing, and an orchestral backing provided by …0076 label
  2. Bill Shepherd, who was a well-known British bandleader and arranger. As you will hear, he was good: he takes a playground chant and using rich instrumentation and what was, for 1958, complex mixing creates something exciting. Bill Shepherd later spent a few years living in Australia, where he became a director of Festival Records and throughBGs that company met a young band called the Bee Gees. Shepherd liked the Gibb brothers’ work, and became their orchestral arranger. Throughout the late sixties, his arrangements were an integral part in the Bee Gees becoming an international success. His association with them ended in 1972, which meant that he missed out on being involved in producing the staggeringly successful 1977 soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever
  3. Starring John Travolta.SNF

 

  • Artist: Dr Barnardo’s Children and the Bill Shepherd Orchestra
  • Single Title: This Old Man (Nick Nack Paddy Whack) / The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness
  • Track: Side A “This Old Man (Nick Nack Paddy Whack)”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Pye Nixa 7N.15180
  • Manufactured in: England
  • Year: 1958

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Beware of the pricks

There is a peculiar excitement in dropping the stylus onto a record which is a complete mystery. The label is blank, or illegible, or in a foreign language. Not Italian or German: an English speaker can puzzle those out, more or less. I’m talking seriously challenging languages: Russian, or Hebrew, or (as in this case) Chinese. What, you wonder, as you start the turntable, what on earth am I going to hear?

It can be a disappointment. A Taiwanese pirate pressing of Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits? Whoop-de-do. 7024 Label A

But this EP – from the 1960s, you would guess – fully lives up to the mystery promised by its exotic-looking label. Rose Chan was a Chinese-born woman who lived in what is now Malaysia. In the 1950s she became a star cabaret dancer and acrobat, known as the Queen of Striptease. Her shows were breathtakingly daring for the day. A contemporary report of a Rose Chan show:

When Chan comes on stage, she moves subtly, gently swaying in a slow dance, all by herself. As she removes one piece of clothing after another, the tempo gradually picks up. When she reaches the point of removing her brassiere, she holds back. That is when her stagehands bring in the pythons, and she dances with the snakes wrapped all around her. Next, she removes her brassiere, and dances bare-breasted.

It didn’t stop there, but this is a family-friendly blog. Let’s just say that later in the show, bananas and coke bottles were involved.

Married many times, often in trouble with the law, especially as Malaysia came under the influence of conservative Islam in the 1970s, Rose Chan was flamboyant, unapologetic, brave. Not necessarily someone to trust with your life savings …  but nobody’s perfect. And she could sing. Just listen to this – I don’t know what it is called, because I can’t read Chinese. I don’t understand the lyrics either, though you kinda pick up the general vibe. Not gospel, shall we say.

But the whole thing is an amazing creation – Marlene Dietrich meets Chinese opera with a hint of Marilyn Monroe singing cabaret while wrestling with a python in a Bornean swamp.

Question. How did this naughty record get to Australia, a country which long banned the importation of the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

There are two possibilities.

A: Rose Chan did tour Australia in 1970, though she had an unhappy time of it, being prosecuted in Perth for indecent behaviour (the Lady Chatterley effect). Maybe someone saw her show before it was closed down, and bought the record.

B: Quite a few Australian servicemen served in Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s, involved in the conflicts which accompanied the de-colonisation of British Malaya. Rose Chan was, no surprise, enormously popular with troops stationed there. An Aussie Digger, farewelling the nightclubs of KL, could well have snuck Rose Chan record into his kitbag.

My money is on Option B.

  • Artist: Rose Chan
  • EP Title: Unknown
  • Side 1, Track 1: Unknown
  • Format: 7” LP 45 rpm
  • Label: Unknown
  • Manufactured in: Unknown
  • Year: Unknown