Thursday, March 04, 2004

If I Were a Carpenter....
....I'd be bigger than the Beatles in China. Way bigger. As I've noted before, rarely a day goes by that I don't hear some version of Yesterday Once More, or as most Chinese call it "Sha-la-la" in reference to the chorus.
Yesterday I heard it once more three times - the original version on a bus and in a restaurant and again as a clarinet instrumental in a piano bar.
I hear it in my sleep. I used to find a guilty pleasure in occasionally singing along to Karen's throaty croon, now there are moments where I think I'd kill her if she weren't already dead.
Karen died in 1983 and Yesterday Once More hasn't been on the U.S. or U.K. charts since 1973, but there's no putting a stake through the heart of this song that refuses to roll over and stalks relentlentlessly through China like a zombie troubador army of the living dead.
Meanwhile, I've grown used to not being startled when a Beatles or Elvis mention elicits a uncomprehending stare and politely shrugging off the helpful CD store clerks who shove a Carpenters compliation under my long nose as I'm obviously thumbing through genres like metal, jazz or the odd Canto-pop accordion hip-hop fusion section.
Karen and Richard's continued popularity and particularly Sha-la-la's was a mystery I was determined to unravel. Let other China watchers scrutinize behind-the-scenes power struggles in the National People's Congress, or debate the Taiwan issue, I wanted to get to the bottom of why every shing-a-ling-ling still shines for young and old alike in the world's most populated nation.
In a completely unscientific survey conducted over a matter of months and usually after several beers and polite requests to "please turn that damn Sha-la-la off!" I'd only learned from about 15 English-speaking Chinese ages 22-50 that it was the first Western song they'd learned and grown to love.
But why? They looked at me as if I had questioned breathing, sunrise or Deng Xiaopeng Theory. How could I not understand? How could I not know? Aren't the Carpenters equally revered in their homeland?
So I finally e-mailed Kaiser Kuo in Beijing. He's a Chinese-American musician, writer and reporter who has lived in China for many years and rates at least a long footnote in the history of 20th century Chinese popular culture as a founding member of one of the country's first heavy metal bands, Tang Dynasty, in 1988. (He also has a kickass recipe for making pico de gallo salsa and chili verde chicken from scratch using Chinese ingredients. For the recipe and more about him, check out his blog, the Unbearble Lightness of Beijing:
Kaiser graciously replied and shed some light on the mystery. It turns out that the Carpenters were one of the first western groups to penetrate China legally. In other words, I should just be glad it that it wasn't the Osmonds.
"You're absolutely right," Kaiser wrote. "(The Carpenters) dwarf the Beatles in popularity. Part of it is simply that The Carpenters' Greatest Hits was about all there was back then. Before piracy really became an issue--I'm talking the mid-80s to early 90s--the major Chinese music distributors ... really only had that cassette -- that, Richard Clayderman and some old John Denver (Country Roads rivals Yesterday Once More as best-known English song) -- that they could legally distribute.
"Yesterday Once More is the first tune on that compilation, and while connosieurs might prefer Rainy Days and Mondays or Superstar that was the tune that really stuck with people.
"That aside, people in China uniformly love Karen's deep, sultry voice: It stood out then and stands out now as something totally unlike the vocal stylings of any Chinese singer. The very simple melodies are also appealing. My very cool, very hip friends who listen to metal, to hardcore hip-hop, to whatever still profess a love for the Carpenters and can't imagine that they're sort of a joke to most young westerners."

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