Sound Sculpting in East Asia & the American South

Sounding History

Dec 8 2021 • 37 mins

Grace Chang (Ge Lan, 葛蘭/葛兰), (born 1933) was a breakthrough star in one of several  Golden Ages of Hong Cinema, this one around around 1960. For a comparatively short time between the mid fifties and sixties, Chang was one of the most popular screen stars in the Chinese-speaking world outside of the People’s Republic.

She encapsulated a new female ideal for aspirational audiences on the Western side of the divide in Cold War East Asia: a woman who was young, mobile, pleasure-seeking, and most importantly empowered to play the main role in her own life’s dramas. Her films, comic and dramatic alike, explored themes such as youth culture, urbanization, family breakdown, and sexual emancipation.

And man could she sing.

This episode’s first postcard explores Chang’s 1960 film Wild, Wild Rose (野玫瑰之戀/野玫瑰之恋) directed by Wong Tin-Lam with music by Ryōichi Hattori. We open in an upscale Hong Kong nightclub. Chang, the tragic heroine, is singing a Latin jazz version of the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen. Yet the fact that she’s singing Bizet – this is a retelling of the Carmen story after all – is not even the most unexpected thing about the performance: what’s even more interesting is how she sings it.

In this version, Chang gets through a wide range through what Chris calls “a spontaneous combustion of dance music,” in a jazz idiom that “refracts” styles from Latin (one of her previous films was Mambo Girl, 1957) to boogie-woogie, all delivered in a one-off vocal growl that actually echoes sounds from Chinese spoken theater.

You’ll have to listen to the episode to hear more of our take on what this brilliant mixture means, but as Tom says, the scene has a “double bottom.” If you look–and listen–underneath its surface, you find layers of context that echo 1920s Japan, wartime Shanghai under Japanese occupation, and 1950s Hong Kong, that last a distant outpost of the collapsing British Empire, now beginning a rapid transformation from poverty towards, outwardly at least, shiny capitalist prosperity.

We finish the first part of the episode by dwelling on Chang’s guitar, a chrome-plated resonator that looks an awful lot like the kind that Hawaiian players like Sol Hoopii and bluesmen like Tampa Red had made famous three decades earlier. They are in fact very similar: as objects of music technology, these unique guitars tie Chang and the “American” players together like nodes in a network.

Unlike Chang, who faded into unjustifiable obscurity after she retired suddenly in 1964, Robert Johnson (1911-1938) lived on after hisuntimely death as a central figure in the collective mythography of the Delta Blues. But memories can deceive.

Our argument in the second half of the episode is that Johnson’s reputation as a brilliant, naive genius (a “memory” backed up by Son House’s suggestions that he somehow sold his soul to the Devil in return for musical secrets, as implied in Walter Hill’s problematic 1987 film Crossroads) flies in the face of what actually happened. If you peel back the layers of the mythographic onion, in place of a tortured and doomed musical superman, we find a brilliant and intentional musical synthesist with a special genius at making new technologies resonate together.

Visual evidence is key to what we are claiming. It’s easy, Chris explains, to read the famous cover painting of the iconic Columbia Records two-LP gatefold album (see website), which depicts Johnson playing and singing directly into the corner of a San Antonio hotel room, as evidence of man so self-consciously shy, so removed from functional social skills, that he literally could only play to the wall.

But what Johnson was really doing was sculpting sound, using the corner of the room to “corner load” the acoustics of the recording, intentionally and artfully compressing his acoustic Gibson L1’s sound and boosting its signal as Jimi Hendrix would later do via effects pedals with his electric Stratocasters. In pulling everything he could out of new microphone technology and the unique acoustical demands of his art form, Johnson, in other words, was a conscious, expert, and intentional artist: a master engineer of the Delta Blues.

Key Points

  • Despite the proliferation of oversimplified expectations, presumptions, and definitions, jazz is not a fixed thing. Like any musical style, jazz–in its sounds, practices, and expressive goals– is what people who make it say it is. The spread of “jazz”  to East Asia before and after World War II is a usefully complicated example.
  • The 1960 Hong Kong film Wild, Wild, Rose, starring the breakout star Grace Chang, demonstrates how jazz sounds and associations traveled, and how listening in new ways can deepen understanding of global processes of commerce, politics, and technology.
  • Objects such as musical instruments–in our example Chang’s resonator guitar, which looks an awful lot like those made famous by 1930s Hawaiian and blues players, are like nodes in a network. Although they are “only” objects, those objects–and their meaning to users–can help us make new links and tell new stories.
  • The story of Robert Johnson shows how tempting it is for popular histories to turn into mythical figures. In Johnson’s case his reputation as a tortured, untamed genius has obscured his role as a brilliant and intentional technological and stylistic innovator.


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