The term shídàiqǔ literally means "songs of the era" in Mandarin. When sung in Cantonese, it is referred to as (粵語時代曲), when sung in Amoy Hokkien, it is referred to as (廈語時代曲). The term shidaiqu is thought to have been coined in Hong Kong to describe popular Chinese music that first emerged in Shanghai.
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In Shanghai shidaiqu was regarded as Chinese popular music beginning in the 1920s. Its heyday was in the 1940s, then it died out in 1952 in China when the Communists banned nightclubs and pop music production. The tradition then moved to Hong Kong and reached its height from the 1950s to the late 1960s, when it was replaced by Taiwanese pop (sung in Mandarin) and later cantopop. While it is considered a prototype, music enthusiasts may see it as an early version of mandopop. Li Jinhui is the founder of shidaiqu, along with Chinese popular music. The western jazz influences were shaped by American jazz musician Buck Clayton. Nowadays, shidaiqu has inspired Gary Lucas for his album The Edge of Heaven and DJs such as Ian Widgery and his Shanghai Lounge Divas project. On the other hand, if cinema was the origin of many songs, Wong Kar-wai used them again for illustrating his movie "In the Mood for Love"; Rebecca Pan, one of the actresses in this film, was also one of those famous shidaiqu singers.
Shidaiqu is a kind of fusion music. The use of jazz musical instruments (e.g., castanets, maracas) is unprecedented in Chinese musical history. The ABA form or ABCA form, which are still used by modern composers, were new to Chinese. This is also why it is called shidaiqu. The melodies are easy to remember and some of them are still sung today, such as "Wishing You Happiness and Prosperity" (恭喜恭喜) performed by Yao Lee and Yao Min.
Shanghai shidaiqu reflects feelings of 1930's Shanghainese citizens. Shanghai was divided into the International Concession and the French Concession in the '30s and early '40s. Owing to the protection of foreign nations (e.g., Britain and France), Shanghai was a prosperous and a rather politically stable city. Some songs reflected the extravagant lives of the bourgeoisie and rich merchants. At the same time, some leftist songs also showed the poverty of commoners in the city. Some shidaiqu songs are related to particular historical events (e.g., Second Sino-Japanese War). The lyrics are graceful and expressive. This is closely related to the composers' profound knowledge of literature. The euphemism of presenting love, which was always found in old Chinese novels, is kept in shidaiqu, thus making shidaiqu artistic.
In terms of scientific significance, the recording methods of songs on 78rpm gramophone shellac records marked a new age in Chinese musical history. Usually the recording would be done in one take only. Therefore, sound engineers had to be extremely careful when making records. Steel stylus records (鋼針唱片), which were an important recording medium, have now been abandoned due to the development in digital recording. This is also accompanied by the disappearance of this precious sound recording technology.
Shanghai shidaiqu songs are sung in Mandarin. It was regarded as a symbol of fashion and progressive culture in the old days. Although many people did not necessarily know how to speak Mandarin, they were enchanted by the songs.
Shanghai dominated the Chinese movie industry in the 1930s. Song of the Fishermen, a famous movie in the 1930s, marked the beginning of song films or musicals (歌舞片). Pop singers (e.g., Zhou Xuan, Bai Guang, Gong Qiuxia) also participated in these films. Their beautiful voices guaranteed best-selling, hit records.
With the popularity of Cantopop, Mandopop and Taiwanese pop, shidaiqu faces a decline in listeners.