This is one of the most interesting articles I found during my research on Shanghai's music scene during the height of the Pacific War. It not only highlights the importance of Filipino bandleaders, profiling Jose Contreras, but also shows how the era was giving rise to popularity of Asian as opposed to Western musicians. In fact, most of the American musicians that had played in Shanghai in the 1930s had either left town before the war started, or else were locked up in Japanese-run concentration camps, or worse, being tortured in the Bridge House. Ironically, this situation as well as the ban on Hollywood film provided the conditions for the rise in popularity of Chinese musicians and pop music, which the Japanese were using to promote their own "pan-Asia" propaganda drive. The singer Li Xianglan (Yamaguchi Yoshiko, not mentioned in this article) is the most famous case of using Chinese pop music and film for pro-Japanese propaganda purposes. This article shows how musicians were being harnessed to the Japanese wartime propaganda machine in new and fascinating ways. One of my favorite quotes of the age comes from this article: "Syncopation is a universal instinct."
Times Week, March 21, 1943
Since the outbreak of the Greater East Asia War Shanghai has seen an awakening in oriental popular music, and this awakening should contribute greatly to the unification of the peoples of Asia. It is thus that Jose Contreras, one of the leading local Filipino band-leaders, views his career. He has good reason to. He and his band have done much in popularizing Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and other Asiatic music with the local masses, and every time opening chords of one of the popular songs are heard there is applause from his listeners.
Recently Bandleader Contreras conducted a Greater East Asia Concert at the Queen's Theatre, in which Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Filipino and other songs were blended in a sort of musical montage. He has plans for holding another one soon, and says that the Chinese songs will be sung by any oriental other than a Chinese. the Japanese sung by any Oriental other than a Japanese and so on. This will symbolize the interest each nation is taking in another's music.
Shanghai is a Chinese city, and it was natural that Chinese songs gained most in popularity since the war broke out. To tell the story of the rise of popular Chinese music in China would be to tell the story of the rise of popular Filipino music in the Philippines, and so on throughout the Greater East Asia Sphere.
That the introduction of Western popular music to China was responsible for the birth of Chinese popular music is indisputable, Bandleader Contreras declares. The Chinese people heard them in the movies, over the radio, requested them at dancehalls: it was not long before Chinese popular songs were composed, and this marked an important step in the development of Chinese music--the singers began singing in their natural voices, instead of in the sing-song falsetto which entertainers had been taught for centuries.
But popular Chinese music did not make the headway it should have made. It was only recently that real progress started. With the ban on Anglo-American movies, the Chinese began to see more Chinese movies, where they heard Chinese songs rendered by famous actresses or artistes. With the field open to them, Chinese composers were able to create strong contacts with recording studios: dance bands began to play the songs and popularize them still more with their style of rendition: popular singers began to feature them on their programmes. Never has Chinese music been so popular in Shanghai as today.; Contreras reports, and never has its future seemed so bright. The popularity of Japanese and Filipino music is also marked.
There are about 10 top-notch Chinese composers in Shanghai. The Chinese public is very constant in what it likes, and Autumn Souvenir (Chu Ti Wa Nieh), a lively song by Co S. Chen, has been popular for a long time. Another favourite is Roses Everywhere, more on the sentimental side. Chinese lyrics-like all Oriental art-prefer to infer emotions by the creation of a mood and the description of seemingly impersonal objects rather than come out bluntly and say "I love you.”
Regarded as the best singer in Shanghai today is Miss Yo Leh. Second place is given to Miss Lang Ling, for her beauty and modern style; third place to Miss Mei Bing for her versatility; and fourth to Miss Mei Ying for her cultured voice.
One high hurdle which any future serious Chinese symphonic music will have to leap does not exist for popular Chinese music. This problem is the development of instruments that can render the Chinese spirit. Existing Chinese native instruments can express it well enough in native songs, but for symphonies their tonal weakness makes them quite inadequate. Thus many years will have to pass before the craft of improving such instruments--or inventing new ones—will have been developed to a degree that would make them adequate for symphonic compositions. As for Western musical instruments-there is none among them that expresses the Chinese spirit in symphonic form well enough.
But, Bandleader Contreras has found, this difficulty does not exist in the case of popular Chinese music. This music for instance maintains Western rhythm as its foundation. The downbeat—the hook upon which Western swing hangs--plays the same role in Chinese dance-tunes. Syncopation is a universal instinct.
Secondly, existing jazz instruments are adequate for expressing Chinese sentiment in popular-song form. There is room for improvement, of course; no art-form is ever static. But the basis is there.
There is the flute, for instance. This instrument is admirably suited to Chinese songs. Then there is the clarinet, which is even more effective. The meandering melody of a Chinese song, which most of the time progresses in the way you least expect, is right up the clarinet's alley. This instrument plays a large role in the rendition of Chinese songs--and Bandleader Contreras has a special reason to be glad of that. He swings a mean clarinet himself.