Q&A

10 Questions for Eva Tang
the director of documentary feature film “The Songs We Sang”

1. Why Xinyao?

I think there’s a point when one starts to question: Do we have songs of our own (besides National Day songs)? Do we have common memories and shared inspirations about a place and an era? My editor Amelia told me when she studied in Australia, she began to listen to Xinyao when she missed Singapore. It triggered me to think deeper into the meaning of recognizing our local compositions.

Xinyao is our only music movement that was led by the students and originated from the campuses. It tells the stories of youths, about idealism, about an age of innocence. These “faces” and “articulations” are disappearing, which make it more imperative to present this history with sensitivity and authenticity. Currently Xinyao has become a brand name that is being commercialized and fictionalized, that makes it more important to understand its true spirit. And when one understands the success of this unique movement, one will understand that it is not about any individual, it is a collective movement of a generation that knows how to come together.

Living in Singapore, I find that the society is changing too fast at an inhuman speed. It is so menacing that we have become numb to the values of history. The gaps between different generations, different classes and different language groups are widening. We hope to bridge one of these many gaps.

2. How much did you know about Xinyao before you began this documentary?

When I was a student, like my peers, we were attracted to literature, drama, music, etc. We showed support for local works that were available to us. I had bought some of the early Xinyao cassettes. I did not know much about Xinyao then, but some of the songs will stick with me forever, because I listened to them at a tender age when I was most sensitive to the arts. When you were an adolescent, you were trying to grasp those indescribable fleeting feelings. Like many others, I learned Chinese from those beautifully written lyrics.

After working on this documentary, I realized that many Xinyao pioneers had gone through the major transitions in our educational system. Almost happening overnight, they were forced to change from a Chinese educational system to an English one. They were frequently checking their English dictionaries when they were studying. Ironically, when the younger Singaporeans are reading their Chinese lyrics, we have to look up the Chinese dictionaries. It is evident that our Chinese language standard has dropped steeply, and the façade of our languages has rapidly changed.

3. From where did you get the funding? Was it enough? Did it come at the right time? Did you at any moment have to stop production due to lack of funds?

We sent in our proposal and applied for a grant from the National Heritage Board. NHB was our first choice because we want to recognize Xinyao as a cultural heritage on a national level. However we did not know that there is a rigid practice across our government sectors, such that once you have gotten support from one government body, you are not qualified for second support from another government body. Our project is also rejected by the SG50 celebration fund.

The grant is of course insufficient. Because NHB only supports 30% of what the production needs, and the grant comes in staggered stages, we actually have only 40% of that 30% to work with during the production. The next 40% will be disbursed after the film is done. After meeting all the KPIs and 6 months after the film is launched, the final 20% will be disbursed.

I don’t think one funding scheme can fit all applications. I hope our government can be more flexible in recognizing what different projects need. Real support comes from real risk taking too. Hopefully, our government and funders will have a more daring vision on how to support projects that will have a significant and lasting impact on our cultural scene.

“The Songs We Sang” is also thankfully made possible from the generous support of kind-hearted friends, private companies and many organizations.

4. What is the greatest challenge in making this documentary?

How am I going to piece so many interviews together and make sense out of it? How to be “brutal” with the many interesting interviews which can’t fit into the flow of the final edit? And how am I going to be answerable for it?

5. What motivated you to carry on?

What motivated me is simply knowing that I can’t just give up.

I use “endangered species” to describe this generation of Singaporeans who can speak and write well in Chinese. They are disappearing amongst us. I’m afraid one day, this lost generation will be all but forgotten. Hence, despite the difficulties to go back in time, I want to “document” something that is personally and collectively heartfelt and genuine.

It is not easy to be an independent filmmaker; I can testify that it is even harder to make an independent feature documentary about history in Singapore. We do not have a well-stocked, transparent and affordable archival system compared to other first world countries. Singapore keeps changing for the pursuit of economics, many places and things have quickly vanished. Sometimes it is through rare personal collection that the fragility of memory is preserved.

I do not have a team of assistants whom I can get help from. My small team and I have to do everything ourselves. Sometimes after receiving phone calls of rejection, I cannot control but cry silently while walking on the street. I press on because I believe when there’s hopelessness, there is also hope somewhere.

For more than 2 years, I suspect no one knows exactly what I am doing or trying to do. I hope they will get to understand after they see the completed documentary. It is probably and precisely this unknown that has made me work harder. If I have known the outcome beforehand, there’s no reason for me to take such risk anymore.

6. The phenomenal turnout at the Xinyao Reunion at Bras Basah Complex on 6 July 2014 – how did it happen and what did it mean?

To do what I do, I want to have faith in the audience. In this case, it is simply a brilliant idea. Good original idea draws people. I believe the audience can see and feel for themselves. The event was genuinely executed by a team of people who know why and what they were doing, and they asked for nothing in return. We also reached out to the right audience via social media, in addition to the tremendous support we received from the local media. We made headlines without hiring any PR agency or having any marketing budget.

7. What is the relevance of this documentary for young Singaporeans who were born in the 1990s and after?

No matter when you were born, if one day you were asked this question: Is there anything interesting about Singapore? I hope these Xinyao stories can inspire you to look deeper into our past, our languages, and our roots. Richness does not accumulate only in monetary terms.

The relevance can be as simple as helping our youngsters to understand what their parents have been through, and to understand why they listen to those songs when they were young. It is important to create this kind of bridge or medium to promote conversations between generations.

8. Would non-Chinese or non-Chinese speakers find any resonance in this documentary?

Yes. It is about our struggles and dreams, about friendship, about courage, about following one’s passion. These are universal themes of life.

9. At the end of the day, is this documentary about Xinyao really about Xinyao or something bigger?

It’s about Xinyao and something bigger. It’s the same question for rock ’n roll, isn’t it something bigger than just rock ’n roll?

10. Will your next film be a documentary? Will it be about something related?

After I finish this project, I am dying to go back to fiction! I am developing a feature film set in Singapore of the 80s. This is an era that I am familiar with. So in terms of the look, the characters’ diction, etc. – I have done enough research by working on this feature-length documentary!