Transnationalism and Transformation in the Songs of Crazy Rich Asians

Talk by J. Lawrence Witzleben, University of Maryland

Crazy Rich Asians has been simultaneously acclaimed as the first Hollywood film with an all Asian/Asian American cast in over two decades and criticized for its exclusion of characters of Indian and Malay descent in Singapore and the use of non-Chinese actors to play Chinese Singaporeans. The songs in the film, however, have been almost universally praised—imaginative Chinese-language reworkings of hits from Elvis Presley, Motown, Madonna, and Coldplay and the prominent presence of classic recordings by Grace Chang (Ge Lan) and Yao Li and cover versions of other shidaiqu—Chinese "oldies." Some reviewers make reference to the popular music of Shanghai in the 1930s, but in fact only the original Zhou Xuan version of "Waiting for Your Return,“ heard in a contemporary cover version by Jasmine Chen during the opening credits, and a snippet of Li Laixiang's "Fragrance of the Night" (Ye Lai Xiang) actually date from that period. The oldest recordings on the soundtrack—two by Ge Lan and one by Yao Li—were actually recorded in 1957-60 in Hong Kong, but the associations with old Shanghai are not wrong: a sizable diaspora relocated to Hong Kong after 1949, and the "song and dance" film (gewu pian) and Mandarin-language popular song continued to develop in their new home (and later in Taiwan as well), while revolutionary changed reshaped the arts in the new China. This paper explores these transnational transformations and the nature and aesthetics of the Chinese-language "cover version," which in many ways subverts the exploitation and unequal power relations so often associated with its English-language counterpart in popular music.

Before joining the University of Maryland School of Music in 2007, J. Lawrence Witzleben taught ethnomusicology and Chinese music at the Chinese University of Hong Kong for nearly two decades, where he also directed the Chinese ensemble and Javanese gamelan. He earned degrees from the University of California, Santa Barbara (B.A.), the University of Hawaii (M.A.), and the University of Pittsburgh (Ph.D.) and a Certificate of Postgraduate Study from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He has studied Chinese music theory and performance in Taipei, Honolulu, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, and is the author of Silk and Bamboo Music in Shanghai: The Jiangnan Sizhu Instrumental Ensemble Tradition (Kent State, 1995), the recipient of the Society for Ethnomusicology's 1996 Alan Merriam Prize for the best scholarly monograph in the field of ethnomusicology. He is also co-editor of the East Asia volume of the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (2002) and (with Xiao Mei) Plucked Lutes of the Silk Road: The Interaction of Theory and Practice from Antiquity to Contemporary Performance (Shanghai Conservatory Press, 2019). His current research centers around long-term changes in Chinese instrumental performance, including presentation, repertoire, gender issues, popularization, and cross-cultural and intercultural fusion. His other interests include music of Southeast Asia, music and film, popular music and jazz, and the reception and transformation of ethnomusicology in Asia and elsewhere.

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