By Cheong Pak Yean
Soon Chinese New Year (CNY) ditties would fill the air in shopping malls and supermarkets. Many such ditties feature flourishes of cymbals, drums and familiar couplets of good wishes to usher in spring. One more profound and often lost in the cacophony, is Congratulations, Congratulations, Gōngxǐ gōngxi (恭喜恭喜).
This song was written by Chen Gexin (陳歌辛) (1914-61), native of Shanghai and one of the most accomplished songwriters and composers at the time. He also wrote other classics like, ‘Shanghai Nights'(夜上海), ‘Rose, Rose I Love You’ (玫瑰玫瑰我愛你) and ‘Eternal Smile’ (永远的微笑). The last pledging eternal love when he married Jin Jiaoli in 1935. He was 21 years old and she was 18 and with child when her parents agreed to the marriage.
Gōngxǐ gōngxǐ (恭喜恭喜) was first recorded by Yao Li & Yao Min (姚莉 姚敏) to popular acclaim in China in 1946 to celebrate the defeat of Japan. A recent you-tube version by Jessica Fichot and Ewan Chung with accordion accompaniment captures the ambience of old Shanghai. Listen to it.
Follow the lyrics reproduced at the end of this article to feel this bitter-sweet song celebrating the end of the great suffering of the Chinese people from the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army. Though written in the minor key which portends sadness, the lyrics infuse hope and optimism that the great earth returns to spring once again.
Chen Gexin suffered greatly in his short creative life. He was imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese Imperial Army for three months in 1941 for writing popular anti-Japanese songs to rouse the Chinese masses. Ironically, with the Communist seizure of power in China in 1949, popular music was considered ideologically suspect. Chen was labelled a rightist. He was once again incarcerated in a laogai (劳改) in 1957 to “reform through labour” at Baimiaoling farm, Anhui. Chen died in his sleep on January 25, 1961 at the age of 47, during the ‘Great Chinese Famine’ of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ (1958 to 1962). He was buried in a mass grave at a hill near the farm.
A year later, Chen’s widow Jin Jiaoli, went there with a box to search in vain for his remains*. In the still of the Anhui mountain-side the poignant Chen Gexin’s tune and words of ‘Eternal Smile’ (永远的微笑), must have reverberated as she rummaged through the unmarked graves for her eternal love. Listen to this sung by Zhou Xuan.
Yet with his song of ‘Congratulations, Congratulations, Gōngxǐ gōngxi (恭喜恭’, now part of the CNY canon, his spirit celebrates every year. Despite the suffering and injustice meted to him, life, Chen Gexin proclaims, would return to spring. Let us hope that when we hear this song again next CNY, the COVID-19 pandemic would have truly ended to usher in spring for all of us.
Dr Cheong Pak Yean is a family and internal medicine physician who is also a psychotherapist in private practice. He teaches undergraduates and has an interest in medical humanism and communication, and is a past president of the College of Family Physicians as well as the Singapore Medical Association.
* Information from Wikipedia. Additional information obtained from research in the Chinese Internet by Vincent Chong.