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The Triumphant Return of the Shanghai Lounge Divas

Ian Widgery remixed Chinese pop music 70 years old, and created an Asian smash hit.

By Claudia Cornwall 25 Mar 2005 |
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“I wish I could beam myself back to experience it first hand,” Ian Widgery sighs. He is talking about Shanghai in the thirties and forties when it was “Paris of the east,” a city like no other, cosmopolitan, decadent, sophisticated.

Widgery did the next best thing by recreating some of the sound of the era, the golden age of Shanghai pop. He found original songs, remixed them, and issued them on an album called Shanghai Lounge Divas. The result: music as unique as the city in its golden era, a mixture of Eastern and Western influences, blues, jazz, traditional Chinese opera and folk music.

Since its launch in January 2004, Shanghai Lounge Divas soared to the top of the charts in Asia and has been released in 18 different countries. Although Widgery always felt confident about the material, he has been little bowled over by the success. “I didn’t expect this,” he told The Tyee.

School of Bowie and U2

Widgery who is from the UK and now lives in North Vancouver, was always passionate about music. By his last year in high school, he had decided on a musical career, although the counselors at his school advised against it. “They told me it was really hard, that I shouldn’t bother and that I’d be better off working on an oil rig.” Widgery ignored them and applied to the University of Newcastle on Tyne where he was the youngest of 50 students accepted into a program that taught him all about music production. “I knew I wanted to go into the record side of it.”

After graduating in 1993, Widgery worked as a producer/mixer on commercial albums for more than 60 sixty groups including David Bowie and U2. “It’s not as glamourous as people think. I didn’t get to meet Bono. But I did get feedback. David Bowie said my remixes were the best he’s ever had. They were very interesting.”

Then Widgery did two singles for an Irish pop group called Bewitched, just to see where it would lead. When the singles hit number 1, “that opened a lot of doorways really fast.” One of the doorways was an offer from Morton Wilson who owned Schtung Music in Hong Kong. Widgery was happy to move out of the UK. “I wanted to expand my horizons musically. I thought that Asia would be the place to go.”

Rescuing doomed 78s

Cut to 2003, Mumbai, India where the global music company EMI was clearing out an old warehouse in preparation for its demolition. EMI had been there since the 1920s when it manufactured and distributed records under the Pathe label. In the warehouse, workmen unearthed a trunk with Chinese writing on it and inside were the mother shells of about 800 songs from the thirties and forties. These were the reels used to press the stamper that produced the old vinyl 78s. Recognizing the historical value of what they had, EMI decided to preserve this musical heritage by recording it on CDs. The trunk was shipped to Hong Kong. That’s where Widgery came in. When Morton Wilson had him listen to the songs, he thought, “Wow this stuff is brilliant.” He was haunted by the melodies. “Because some of the songs had been out of circulation for seventy years, I felt I had something really special.”

Just for the love of it, Widgery decided to produce a couple of demo tracks, re-mixing the songs for a contemporary audience. One of the things that helped Widgery was the old technology of the original. “They recorded live with one microphone in the middle of a room. When the vocalist started singing, she’d go closer to the microphone. She would get louder. Then if there was a coronet solo, the singer would back away and the musician would walk up to the microphone.” This made it easy to extract what he wanted.

Because EMI liked Widgery’s two-track experiment, he was commissioned to produce an entire album. He listened to 500 songs and out of that, remixed 12 by six different divas. Widgery sees an irony in the track listing. “This is Chinese music listened to by western ears. Somebody from Shanghai would probably pick a different selection of songs.”

Persecuted divas

EMI Hong Kong first put out a five-disc set of the original material and then distributed Widgery’s album in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. “They also released one with a jazz slant on it but mine was the one that charted.” The CD includes brief histories of the divas whose lives spun out in very different directions after their moment of glory in Shanghai.

Bai Hong was despised by the Communists for her American style of singing and persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

Chang Loo, on the other hand, escaped to Hong Kong and continued her career there for many years.

Li Xiang La who was born and raised in Japanese-occupied Manchuria by Japanese parents was a mega-watt star in both Japan and China during the war. But afterwards, she was arrested as a collaborator, and forced to leave China.

For Widgery, one of the many odd twists that this story took was discovering that four of of the six divas were still alive. “I thought they would all be dead,” he said. Chang Loo apparently liked his album. “It makes me feel young again,” she said.

First Nations project next

Widgery recently moved to North Vancouver because his wife who is Canadian wanted to open up a dance studio here. His current project, called Nomad Voices, involves working with songs by the Orochen, a traditional people from Northern China.

Next Widgery would really like to do something with First Nations. “That would reflect where I am now.” Hey said he’s had difficulty connecting with any First Nations musicians, however, and he’s hoping that Tyee readers may help him to forge a link. “I like the whole fusion thing. I think world music has so much to offer. We’re about to discover what it’s all about.”

Shanghai Lounge Divas can be sampled on several web sites, but EMI’s German site seemed easiest to use. You can find it here (with English track listings).

Claudia Cornwall is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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