The Tao of Stephen Cheng: How a ‘Taiwanese’ folk song became a rocksteady classic

In this photo that was kindly provided by Stephen Cheng’s daughter Danielle Cheng, the singer is seen performing with the Dragon Seeds at New York’s Public Theater, probably in the 1970s.

 

First recorded in 1949, shortly after the Nationalist (KMT) government took power in Taiwan, Alishan Maiden (阿里山的姑娘 ) is among the best-known of Chinese songs. It’s a lyrically simple ode to a beautiful indigenous girl and her strapping beau, presumably members of the Tsou people, the traditional inhabitants of Alishan. However, this is never made clear, which is unsurprising, given the song’s muddled conception.

Assumed by many to derive from an indigenous melody, the song was actually the theme to a film called Storm Clouds Over Alishan. Composition is attributed movie’s director, Zhejiang-born Zhang Che (張徹) under its original title Green is the High Mountain.

The maiden’s beauty, we are told, is as pure as the mountain creeks’ blue waters, her lover’s physique as sturdy as the rocks around which they flow. Stream clasps her craggy paramour in a fluvial embrace; the two entwine, impervious to even the harshest elements, never to be rent asunder.

Barely had the KMT assumed power than it was co-opting native motifs. Yet, as Shzr Ee Tan observes in Beyond ‘Innocence’ – a study of indigenous Taiwanese music – the song’s protagonists belonged to a culture about which Zhang (and his fellow Chinese refugees) knew nothing. “In Zhang’s depiction of faux aboriginal song here, the cultural variety of Taiwan’s indigenous populations has been fictionalised into an exoticised and non-existent Other,” Tan writes.

Still, Chinese everywhere lapped it up. Of the multiple versions over the years, a 1971 cover by a 17-year-old Teresa Teng (鄧麗君) is among the most beloved. For Chinese worldwide, the song is a folk standard.

Yet, the most fascinating rendition was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica in 1967. Produced by Calypso pioneer Byron Lee and long-time collaborator Ronnie Nasralla under the title Always Together, it was performed by a Shanghai-born singer named Stephen Cheng (程俊濤) . With the offbeat staccato of its piano chords and plucked guitar, this unmistakably belongs to the rocksteady genre – a transitional stage in Jamaican music between ska and reggae. But overlayed with Cheng’s plaintive warbling, it becomes something entirely different: one of the most unlikely fusions ever committed to wax. There is no way it should work, but somehow it does and quite brilliantly, the electric guitar eventually mimicking Cheng’s refrain in surely one of the earliest pop uses of the instrument on a “traditional” Chinese melody.

For decades Always Together was confined to rare groove radio shows and the playlists of reggae afficionados. Indeed, it was so obscure that even those closest to Cheng were oblivious to its existence until a reissue on Tokyo-based label in 2018 earned it renewed attention.

We had no idea until about a year-and-a-half ago,” says Pascal Cheng, son of the late singer. I was showing my brother videos from dad’s songs on YouTube and then suddenly I saw this video called Always Together. Although I had some familiarity with the music my father was doing when I was growing up during the 1960’s, I didn’t really pay close attention to the direction his career was going in. I was more interested in the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and classic rock bands.”

Pascal had an outline of his father’s life and career. Stephen Chun-Tao Cheng had been born to a wealthy family in Shanghai in 1923 before emigrating to the US in 1948, where he studied voice at Julliard and Columbia. At the latter institution, he met his soon-to-be wife. “She was a French-Canadian trying to get away from her sheltered life in Quebec,” Cheng says of his mother. The first of five children, Pascal was born in 1953, a year after his father graduated. “Growing up in the ’60s, Ihave recollections of my father traveling for different performances,” says Cheng. “Even that song, I heard him practice a million times.”

Yet, there were gaps in the biography, and it wasn’t until Pascal perused his dad’s personal effects that he made some startling discoveries. “One thing we found was his address in Shanghai,” says Pascal. “My brother Googled it and discovered it was in the French concession. I think his father was a well-known photographer and when the Communists came they lost everything, including the family home. There was a big exodus of educated Chinese. So, he left for a combination of reasons.”

In fact, Cheng discovered, following graduation in 1944 with a degree in from St John’s University – China’s most prestigious college until it was broken up by the Communists in 1952 – his father had trained as a journalist, working in Shanghai and southern China from 1945 to 1948. It may have been during this period that he picked up Cantonese, which he was to use in song and broadcast drama throughout his career.

Despite WWII and the War of Resistance against Japan drawing to a close, the Chinese Civil War was still raging, and – while it is not clear what events Cheng, Snr. was assigned to cover – it seems he was a reporter in the field, a position that must have been fraught with danger. Thanks, though, to an arrangement of 1905 that enabled St. John’s to be registered as a domestic university in the US, graduates of the school gained direct admission to American colleges. However, thus far, Pascal has been unable to ascertain what spurred his father’s change of direction and how he earned a scholarship at one of the world’s most prestigious performing arts schools. “I’m trying to learn where he got the passion for music because there isn’t anything in his background.”

Post-graduation, life in the US was no cakewalk. “He didn’t do the typical Chinese immigrant thing, like open a restaurant or a laundromat,” says Pascal. “He went into the arts, which was very challenging for a Chinese immigrant. He was trying to break into entertainment and got small parts in Broadway productions of plays like The World of Suzie Wong.”

Playing the role of hotel manager Ah Tong, in the stage version of Richard Mason’s novel, Stephen C. Cheng, as he was billed, trod the boards alongside William Shatner and France Nuyen (cast alongside William Holden as the title character in the Hollywood movie the following year, before being replaced by Nancy Kwan). Cheng held his own in the production, which ran from 1958-1959, with top critics such as Walter Kerr calling him the “standout” performer. It was the pinnacle of his stage career, yet he wasn’t quite able to capitalize.

You need to have more than one talent to make it in the theatre [sic],” Cheng told the Jamaica Gleaner, during the visit to Kingston that yielded the recording of Always Together. “It is a difficult profession, and the beginner has to be prepared to keep on and on till he makes it.”

By the time of that interview – eight years after hitting the heights on Broadway – Cheng was no longer a beginner. But he was still taking whatever came his way.

Commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Pascal recalls. “Occasionally he did interpreting; then in the ‘60s, he did summer stock. It took a lot of persistence.”

Few avenues were unexplored. During his career, Cheng sang in at least 10 different languages and, having studied under renowned Ukrainian-American operatic bass Alexander Kipnis, his proficiency in Russian landed him a soloist role with the Don Kossack choir in 1964. (Cheng also sang in Yiddish, again probably thanks to Kipnis, a Jew who gained attention as a young synagogue soprano.) It is interesting that Cheng, himself an itinerant soul, joined a choir formed by refugees in WWII internment camps. Pascal speculates that his father may have played up his Asiatic appearance to suggest connections to the Russian Far East.

Cheng’s background came with its own problems. “He graduated during the McCarthy era, and anyone who was Chinese was questioned about whether they were a Communist,” says Pascal. “At the time, he was doing stuff for Voice of America and some Cantonese dramas – radio stuff. So there’s this letter from Voice of America attesting to his character and that he wasn’t a Communist.”

Evidence of political affiliations is scant. “I think he was basically apolitical,” says Pascal. “He never wanted to talk much about the ‘30s and ‘40s. It think it was pretty traumatic.” Yet, having lost everything to the Communists, Pascal agrees his father would more likely have harbored Nationalist sympathies.

And there are other indications of this. A 1972 New York Times article on Chinese emigre entertainment for which Cheng was interviewed makes it clear that most performers and film studios were firmly in the Nationalist fold. Some film executives reported experiencing pressure to eschew productions from China, but in general there was no need as the Communists had “yet to make major cultural overtures.” There were also some tenuous family ties. “Some of his family went to Taiwan,” says Pascal. “He had a sister there, but we never really had contact.”

The peaks in Cheng’s career outnumbered the troughs, with work on the Ed Sullivan Show and other programs among the many gigs on his resume. The pinnacle of Cheng’s career, in his own eyes, was the 1967 release of his LP Drum Flower Song, a collection of Chinese folk songs in a range of themes and styles – drinking ditties to ballads. “Along with a book that he wrote called the Tao of Voice, he considered this album his greatest musical accomplishment,” says Pascal.

Cheng singing at the studio of WNYC, the “most-listened to public radio station in America” probably in the early 1950s. Thanks again to Danielle and Pascal Cheng for digging these exclusive snaps out from the family archive.

Yet, it is the fruit of a chance meeting during a tour of Latin America and the Caribbean that same year that has, if not in his own lifetime, then at least posthumously, come to define Stephen Cheng. In fact, Jamaica was not even initially in the itinerary. “He was in Trinidad and Tobago in the months before, and was invited by the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) to do these concerts,” says Pascal.

How he ended up at Byron Lee’s studio remains unclear, but Lee was one of several Chinese-Jamaican pioneers to leave an indelible mark on popular music in the Caribbean (producer Leslie Kong – whose stream of hits included Bob Marley’s debut single in 1962 – and the Chin family being some of the other prominent players). It seems likely Lee met Cheng through intermediaries at the CBA.

I’m guessing my father was introduced to him, and Byron Lee invited him to the studio,” says Pascal. “They did this one recording, and it’s amazing because it was not planned, he probably did minimal rehearsal, and just nailed the vocal.”

In the late 1960s, Stephen Cheng increasingly focused on the blending of East and West in his music and its potential for reconciliation and peace. The Tao of Voice had been the first step in this direction. During the 1970s, he fronted a group called the Dragon Seeds, which played vNew York venues, including the Broadway theater The Town Hall and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

The band comprised 12 musicians on traditional Chinese instruments, supported by noted jazz musician Stan Free and his quartet. Free, a pianist and composer, who began his career as a musical director for TV, worked extensively as a session musician in the 1960s, recording with the Mamas and the Papas and the Monkees. A year older than Cheng, Free had also attended Julliard, and though it is unclear whether they had earlier crossed paths, the shared background in television makes it a possibility.

In a press release for the 1971 MOMA performance, Cheng said the Dragon Seeds had been formed in a spirit of “unity and world peace.” The release further declared, “A new Sino-Western accord has been reached with the fusion of Chinese folk with Western rock,” with the performance representing “the public signing of the pact.” Among other experiments, Cheng performed Simon and Garfunkel in Mandarin “to a rock beat.”

Noting the recurrence of the dragon motif in the two key collaborations of his father’s career, Pascal Cheng says of the Seeds, “They also did something at the United Nations. This was the early 7’0s and I think a lot of the music was around the theme of peace, with the end of the Vietnam War.”

In fact, these early UN gigs were the start of a long association with the organization. In 1995, Cheng headlined the International Concert for Peace at the YWCA in New York in honor of United Nations Day. A preview in New York Magazine cheekily expressed optimism that the concert would not “include a stirring rendition of It’s a Small World After All.”

Cheng continued performing through the 1990s before focusing on teaching in his later years. “A lot of his students were at music school or on the road to performance and would come to him to get up to speed,” says Pascal. “The last five years of his life, his health really declined, but he was close to 90 when he passed away [in 2012]. There was some confusion about his birth date but we eventually found out.”

There are gaps in Stephen Cheng’s biography that may never be filled, but which make his story all the more intriguing. The missing details are in keeping with the unique music he created and the mixed-up roots of the song that is his legacy. “On some reggae sites, he’s referred to as ‘the mysterious Stephen Cheng’ because he was there in Kingston just for a few weeks, in ‘67,” says Pascal. “People in the reggae community didn’t know him, hen he disappeared, so he was just this mysterious person. ‘Where did he go?’”

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As for Alishan Maiden, the song has completed something of a satisfying full circle, with Taiwan’s indigenous performers “reclaiming” it as their own, most notably through Amis singer Lu Jing-zi’s (盧靜子) version in her native tongue. Singing under both her Chinese name and the Amis name Ceko, Lu found fame in the 1950s singing Japanese songs, which she learned by ear from radio, without understanding them. She subsequently performed in Mandarin and, in the 1970s, penned her own simple lyrics to the tune of Alishan Maiden in Amis, reverting to the song’s original title Green is the High Mountain.

For decades, the music and culture of Taiwan’s indigenous people had been co-opted, watered down and repackaged for mainstream consumption in a manner not dissimilar to the way juke joint blues and the rawer brands of deep soul were made more palatable to white American audiences from the 1950s onward. Like the African-American progenitors, the indigenous Taiwanese gradually began not just to reclaim their own music, but react to and reverse the imagined, sanitized iterations thereof.

In performing Alishan Maiden Lu Jing-zi was conscious of this, though she did not politicize the issue. “It’s obviously not an Amis tune or aboriginal,” Lu told Shzr Ee Tan, in the aforementioned study of indigenous song. “It’s written by Han people for Han people to sing. But it’s a popular tune, a nice melody, and I think it’s fun to sing it back in the Amis tongue.”

It’s hard to imagine what Stephen Cheng might have made of it all, but undeniable that, in re-imagining this immigrant song, he created one of the most fascinating hybrids in 20th century pop music.

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