in the 1970s and 1980s, popular musics in “local” languages, including taiwanese hoklo and taiwanese indigenous languages, shared several features. first, they were produced primarily for cassette tape and featured a kind of treble heavy mix of snare drum with high hat cymbals, synths, and relatively dry guitar. women singing background vocals generally repeated the hook line or title before the beginning of the song and filled space between phrases with aahs and doo dee doos, if not repeating the lyrics. overall, the feeling was a little plush, but without some of the requisite gestures of 1970s american pop, such as heavy use of strings. the saxophone, an instrument whose world production center was in houli in central taiwan, frequently made appearances in the arrangements, too. those familiar with the sound of much popular music in local taiwanese languages will no doubt associate this sound with specific places: intercity buses and taxis are certainly the most resonant locations for most people; but if you are like me, you probably think of coin operated karaokes, too

throughout this period, hoklo language popular music continued its dialogue with enka. although some observers have thought of this dialogue as a transcultural one, i beg to disagree. taiwanese language popular musics emerged in the japanese colonial matrix, and by 1970 had been in communication with enka–not to mention taiwanese folk musics and shanghai popular music of the 1930s and 1940s–for around fifty years. enka is part of the cultural context of taiwanese language popular musics. one of the assumptions that we make about the sound of the “local” is that it will be inflected with enka. but we might wonder a bit about production and arrangement and how these compose what we recognize as the “taiwan taxi sound”

one of the classic instances of this sound–something the likes of which you’d expect to hear in a taxi and on any episode of chu ke-liang’s widely popular variety show (which also first appeared in 1980)–can be found in the early work of Shen Wen-Cheng, a taiwanese indigenous singer (rukai) best known for singing hoklo language songs. his version of “who knows my mind (sim su siaNlang chai) displays all of the qualities of 1980s taiwan local pop i’ve described above

what a surprise it is, then, to hear sim su siaNlang cai performed a cappella by its author, tsai chen-man, a songwriter best known for his film (acting) performances in “a borrowed life” and “city of sadness”

in the tsai performance, the loose tempo and ornamentation let the song dilate and breathe, giving the lyrics, which recount a life wasted as a gangster and tears that “men dare not let flow,” extra poignancy

interestingly, the tsai performance of this song, published in 1986, accompanied the cloudgate dance troupe’s “my nostalgia, my songs.”

this cloudgate piece also worked with the epic songs of folk singer chen da. as such, the tsai version and the shen version capture sonically a kind of turning point and opposition in taiwanese local language popular musics in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the cassette pop sound would increasingly be considered among those beginning to indulge their taiwaneseness by consuming chen da and tsai chen-nan as overproduced. a kind of neo-traditional work, perhaps best exemplified by chen ming-chang , would become more influential.

it found its audience both in concerts and in film. the new taiwanese language pop of the 1990s and 2000s would fold this neotraditional impulse with a kind of postmodern willingness to join taiwanese folk musics with a broad set of genres including blues, hip hop, and rock

nonetheless, one can still hear the production values of the 1980s cassette taiwanese pop showing up here and there. it’s still what you are likely to hear in a taxi or bus as you speed past betelnut stands on a rainy night