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Taiwan Panorama / Editor’s Picks / Article:The Haishan Records Story
Editor’s Picks
The Haishan Records Story
Chang Meng-jui/photos courtesy of Chang Meng-jui and by Chi Chiu-chi/tr. by Scott Gregory
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In June of this year, singer Feng Fei Fei--the "Queen of Hats"--made her stage comeback. More than 10,000 people turned out to hear her perform her hits like "Maple Leaf Love" and "Wishing You Happiness." Most date from the era when Haishan Records ruled the charts--a time to which middle-aged music lovers look back fondly.

There are many record companies in Taiwan with long histories, and some of them are still around. They aren't putting out new records, but you can still buy copies of the oldies. The companies are putting them together in new packages for re-release to catch the eye of nostalgic music lovers. Some of these record companies' names have already become history, disappearing from sight like a kite with the string cut. The story of the rise and fall of Haishan Records, once a dominating force in Taiwanese pop, encapsulates the history of the record business in Taiwan.

Haishan Records was founded in 1962. It dominated the charts at the time, and sparked the golden age of Taiwan's record industry. It recorded many locally produced Mandarin pop songs and launched many of the top artists of the 1960s through the 1990s, such as Liang Hung-chih, Tsai Chin, and Fei Yu-ching. Those artists all hit the big time after releasing records on Haishan.

Although Haishan is already far from the mainstream, its former glory as a leader in the record industry hasn't faded. Those hits from yesteryear are still on record store shelves.

Shellac singles

Before looking at Haishan, let us take a look at conditions in the early days of Taiwan's record industry.

Records and record players arrived in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial era. Taiwan became capable of manufacturing records after its handover to the Republic of China in 1945, but true mass-production of records of locally written songs did not come about until the 1960s. That was when the economy began to soar, and as incomes rose, the record industry had a better chance to sell its entertainment-related products.

In the 1950s, several small mom-and-pop record pressing plants appeared in Taiwan, such as Beautiful Song, Asia, Queen, Crying Phoenix, and Globe. Those early pioneers lacked much of the basic equipment they needed, not to mention business planning or marketing. At the time, the recording device was turned by crank, and a sensor containing mercury cut grooves into wax. The records were made from shellac discs. Not only were they of poor quality and easily broken, but they could only contain three minutes of recording--"singles" in the true sense of the word.

Records from that era were all re-pressings of overseas records, mostly of classical music and early Shanghai and Hong Kong pop songs by top artists of the day such as Zhou Xuan, Bai Guang, Li Xianglan, Yao Li, and Wu Yingyin. In addition, records of Peking Opera stars like Mei Lanfang and Cheng Yanqiu and music from Japan were also popular.

Record players were still too expensive for most people in those days, so the record-buying public was of limited number. Most people listened to the radio to hear their favorite music. To cut costs, record companies used the same cover for all records they put out. The colors and illustrations used were basic, to say nothing of the design.

Taiwan's first record

Though Taiwan gained the capacity to manufacture its own records in 1952, it wasn't until 1954 that the first disk recorded in Taiwan came out--that was the Great China Record Company's recording of the Ministry of National Defense Model Band's rendition of the national anthem. The pressing equipment had been brought over from China. Former employees of the pressing plant have said that before that, they'd never been involved in such a job before. They relied on their imaginations and figured it out as they went along.

After that, all the record companies attempted recording, but the records they put out were still mostly the same oldies and music from abroad. Not only were there few record buyers, but there were few writers or accomplished singers of Mandarin or Taiwanese songs in Taiwan at the time.

It wasn't until the early 1960s that the situation gradually started to change. Then record companies such as Four Seas, Asia, International, United, Beautiful Song, and Crying Phoenix began to produce Mandarin pop records. What was called "pop" at the time was re-arranged versions of the old Shanghai and Hong Kong standards sung by famous singers. The commercial reaction was warm, encouraging the record companies to continue. Gradually, to these re-arranged standards were added a handful of new, locally written songs, though still only in limited numbers.

Sweat and tears in the studio

In those days, recording studios didn't have air conditioning, and there weren't even electric fans for fear they'd make too much noise. It was tough work recording in those closed-in studios. During recording sessions, studio employees would place large blocks of ice in the corners of the studio to try to keep the temperatures down, but only with limited success. When the recording started, musicians couldn't help but take off their jackets and even their shirts, sweating away as they played backup for the singer. When the recording would finish, everyone would dart outside, shouting, "It's so hot!"

Yeh Ho-ming, an 82-year-old former recording engineer, was there in that era of sweaty sessions. He says that in those days before multi-track stereo recording, if there was any sound at all they felt they were doing pretty well. "Because it was all recorded live, everybody--the band and the singer--rehearsed beforehand until they knew the song back and forth. If anybody at all made a mistake during recording, everybody would have to start all over again, and don't think they wouldn't catch heat from the others!"

Because the job was so demanding, more than one singer broke down in tears in the studio. Yeh reveals that it took "Queen of Tears" Yao Su-jung from two in the morning until dawn to get the word "home" right in her song "Not Going Home Today," much to the anger of the others on the session. She broke down and cried her eyes out the moment she left the studio. She may have gotten a hard time, but it was worth it--the song was her breakout hit.

Musical television

In 1963, the film The Love Eterne, which was based on the Huangmei Opera Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, became a sensation in the Chinese world, and both Taiwan and Hong Kong began churning out Huangmei Opera movies. To garner publicity, the Shaw Brothers film studios of Hong Kong allowed Taiwanese record companies to go into theaters to record the films' soundtracks for sale. For a time the record companies rushed to put out Shaw Brothers Huangmei Opera soundtracks, and the public snapped them up.

Huang Mu-shan, owner of the record store Gold Sounds, has been in the business for nearly 50 years. He remembers the Shaw Brothers soundtrack craze as if it were yesterday. He says countless customers--male and female, young and old--would buy the Huangmei Opera soundtracks, filling the store from opening time at 8 a.m to closing time at 10 p.m.

At the time The Love Eterne was popular, Taiwan Television had just come on the air. Producers Kuan Hua-shih and Shen Chih started a show called A Group of Stars, on which stars like Chang Chi, Hsieh Lei, Jan Hsiao-ling, Yu Tien, Ching Shan, and Wan Chu got their starts. Soon after that, a show called Sounds of Formosa featuring primarily Taiwanese-language songs came on the air. The appearance of these musical shows brought the Taiwanese record industry into maturity.

According to record industry statistics, record companies registered with the Ministry of the Interior went from under ten in 1949 to 72 in 1965, half of which had their own pressing plants. Though their plants were basic, they were the driving force in the development of the local record industry and they produced countless stars. Haishan Records was one of the most notable of them.

Southeast Asian invasion

At first pop records were mainly marketed to domestic audiences, but later they expanded into foreign markets. In 1965, Haishan head Cheng Chen-kun went to Southeast Asia on business, only to discover that the overseas Chinese communities there had a strong appetite for Chinese culture. They strove to pass on their language, music and culture to the younger generations, and pop music was one of the most lively and pervasive formats by which to do so.

After realizing the situation, Cheng immediately upon his return to Taiwan began planning large-scale expansion into Southeast Asia as well as concerts and nightclub performances there by popular stars of the day. Soon, Southeast Asia became a major market for Taiwanese records, importing as many as 800,000 a year--around the same number as were sold in Taiwan.

Recalling those days, Cheng says, "Most people don't understand why Taiwanese singers were so popular in Southeast Asia in the early days, why every time they'd perform to sold-out houses. The main reason is that records produced in Taiwan were the first to get a foothold in the markets there, and the stars followed up quickly. How could they not be popular?"

Way back in 1936, Taiwanese songwriter Yao Tsan-fu and lyricist Chen Ta-ju cooperated in writing the Taiwanese-language song "Wine Cup of Sorrow." It didn't attract much interest at the time, but in 1967 Haishan produced a Mandarin version called "Full Cup of Bitter Wine." With new lyrics by Shen Chih sung by Hsieh Lei, the new version was a big hit in Taiwan. Just as it was flying off the shelves, the authorities banned the singing of this "decadent" song. That just brought more attention to the song and it sold even more.

Taking Hong Kong

It's hard to picture the success of "Full Cup of Bitter Wine" now. Hsieh Lei says that in those days he had a record shop called A-Go-Go near the Taipei train station, and at the height of the song's popularity, the store would sell 400 copies a day. They were so busy there was no time to rest. They'd drive a truck out to Tucheng to restock, and as soon as they got back to the store, the truck would be surrounded by fans who'd want to buy the record right then and there. The employees didn't even need to bring the records into the store--they'd sell out right off the truck!

Immediately following that, Haishan put out Yao Su-jung's "Heartless Person," a Japanese tune given Mandarin lyrics. It, too, was a smash hit, but the one that really cemented Haishan's position at the top was 1969's "Not Going Home Today" by Yao.

To the Taiwanese music world, "Not Coming Home Today" had another special significance. In 1963, as the mania for the Hong Kong-made The Love Eterne swept Taiwan, who would have thought that six years later, a Taiwanese song--Yen's "Not Coming Home Today"--would strike back and conquer Hong Kong? Before that, Taiwan-made content, whether movies or music, never found an audience in Hong Kong. "Not Coming Home Today" wasn't picked up for the Hong Kong market at first, but later a Hong Kong businessman from outside the industry bought up the rights. It immediately became a surprise hit, breaking the conventional wisdom that said Hong Kongers wouldn't listen to Taiwanese pop.

When Yao Su-jung went to Hong Kong to perform her hit, not only was the concert a record-breaking success, but the record sold even more copies. In tiny Hong Kong, it sold nearly 400,000 copies. Yao became an even bigger star, and her concert intakes broke records, too. More Taiwanese artists rode this wave of popularity and made successful tours of Hong Kong.

Stable of stars

In the 1970s, Taiwanese-made films gained popularity. That was the age of "the two Chins and the two Lins"--Charlie Chin, Chin Han, Lin Fung-chiao, and Brigitte Lin. Haishan once again worked with the film industry, putting out song after song from hit movies. They included Jenny Tseng's "Promise" and "Rain in the Sun," Feng Fei Fei's "Maple Leaf Love" and "The Early Spring," and Fei Yu-ching's "Song of the Republic of China," which was a hit with ethnic Chinese all over.

Chen Ho-ping, who was in charge of promotion for Haishan in those days, says those were the company's golden years. Many artists signed to other labels made the jump over to Haishan at that time, and the company ended up with more than 80% of the famous singers of the day.

That Haishan was able to outpace the other record companies and take the top position in Taiwan's music world was due to its unique vision. Soon after it was formed, Haishan began to capture songwriters and lyricists. It managed to assemble a large team of all the big names in the business, including songwriters Tso Hung-yuan, Luo Ming-tao, Liu Chia-chang, Lin Chia-ching, Weng Ching-hsi, and Huang Min, as well as lyricists Shen Chih, Chuang Nu, Sun Yi, and Lin Huang-kun.

As the records were selling well, the writers and lyricists had more and more work to do. Experienced lyricist Chuang Nu says that when he and writer Tso Hung-yuan worked together, Haishan was always after them to produce songs, and even working all their waking hours they couldn't fulfill the market demand.

"To get away from the record company Tso Hung-yuan and I would hide out in a hotel in Hsimenting. Nobody besides our families knew where we were! We ended up staying there for a couple weeks before we forced ourselves to squeeze out a couple songs," Chuang recalls. He says that those glory days were tough, but something to be proud of.

In 1975, "campus folk music" took Taiwan by storm. New Style Records organized the Golden Melody Song Contest, which attracted many singers. Haishan also jumped on the bandwagon, organizing its own folk song contest which also drew submissions from a number of outstanding folk artists and songwriters. Entries that proved to be classics of the campus folk genre included "Just Like Your Tenderness" by Tsai Chin, "Little Country Road" by Yeh Chia-hsiu, "Dream of Red Mansions" by Chen Shu-hua, "Orchid Grass" by Yin Hsia, and "Grandmother's Penghu Bay" by Peng An-pang. Even today, those songs will strike a note of nostalgia in the hearts of Taiwanese born in the 1950s and 1960s.

Haishan's legacy

The mighty Haishan was hit by a series of blows in the early 1980s. It had invested too much of its assets, leading to cash flow difficulties. In December of 1983 it sought financial help from a trust company, and this led to a dispute over ownership of its stock. The dispute went to court, and the effort of the litigation sapped the company's drive. Piracy was also hurting the company--as Haishan was the biggest and best-selling record company, it was naturally the most widely pirated.

Before the stock dispute broke out, Haishan was already tied up in legal problems over copyrights and was unable to operate normally. Many employees left to do business on their own--later record companies like Dieng Jung and HKG were started by former Haishan employees.

As Haishan was fading, new companies like Rock, UFO, and Feeling sprouted up. A good number of promising private recording studios also opened, like Shen Guang-yuan and Huang Yun-ling's Friendly Dog, Tan Chien-chang's Music Studio, Li Shou-chuan's Li Yue Studio, Chyi Chin's Rainbow Studio, Weng Hsiao-liang's Top Production Company, and Yao Feng-kang's Music Field Company. The common point among all these private studios is that they were all started up by famed songwriters or singers. Each studio carved out a piece of territory for itself, and the competition heated up.

Many people think of Haishan as a company whose time has come and gone, but in actuality it never went away. It just no longer puts out new records. Owner Cheng Chen-kun, who's close to 70 now, knows well that the company's glory days are gone, and that it must now rely on its wealth of accumulated classics for its existence. That's been especially so over the last couple years, when a wave of musical nostalgia has been sweeping over Taiwan. As stars of yesteryear return to the limelight, Haishan puts out newly packaged CD versions of their catalogues that always find a place in the market.

Over the years, Haishan made a great contribution to Taiwan's record industry that will never be forgotten. Its role as a pioneer in the discovery and development of local talent has earned it a place in Taiwan's musical history.

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