Xin nian hao! Gong xi fa cai! Gimme the loot!
As we prepare to barrel headlong into the Lunar New Year, let’s zoom out and take a moment to appreciate the canon of tunes that define the Spring Festival period across much of China — ranging from orchestral overtures, to Mandopop classics, to a trap track from Higher Brothers.
These are the Chinese New Year bangers you’ll need to soundtrack your Spring Festival rager, wherever you may be.
This is like the white rice of Spring Festival music: you never specifically crave it, but you also can’t avoid it, and it performs the needed palate cleanse for the other, richer fare you’re about to consume throughout the holiday.
Fun fact time: “The Spring Festival Suite (Chūnjié Zǔqǔ) is a Chinese orchestral work composed by Li Huanzhi between 1955 and 1956, depicting a Spring Festival celebration scene in Shaanxi Province. The tune is well known in China, where it appears frequently in school music textbooks, as well as being played during various festive occasions. In 2007, the overture of the piece was selected to be broadcast into space on China’s first lunar probe, Chang’e-1.”
“Dance of the Golden Snake” is a lit CNY anthem by early 20th century composer Nie Er. Best known for composing “March of Volunteers” — national anthem of the People’s Republic of China — Nie penned “Dance of the Golden Snake” in 1934. (Ironically, he composed “March of the Volunteers” in Japan the following year, passing away there not long after.)
My wife says that “Dance of the Golden Snake” is “what you hear in every mall while dodging unleashed toddlers during CNY, and in every local network’s (questionable) health care product seasonal sales ads, and at every school’s end-of-year talent show if you grew up in the ’90s-early 2000s.” Above is an epic, full-pit rendition of the classic by Taipei’s Zhonghua Chinese Orchestra that includes both a battalion of pipas and an incongruous drum solo.
This one, which takes its title from the common congratulatory greeting you give to friends and family on special occasions as well as on the auspicious beginning of a new Lunar Year, is a tune you are 1000% guaranteed to hear on loop in any one of the 3,300 Starbucks locations in Mainland China, for the entire month of February. Here it is being performed as part of a New Year medley by the Malaysian group M-Girls, who have, no shit, released 17 Spring Festival-themed albums since 2001.
And here’s a 2021 spin on repeating 恭喜恭喜, with guitar girl Miu Miu — six years old when this video was made — capitalizing on her fame from appearing on reality show The Big Band with an excruciatingly cute Spring Festival number:
Xin nian hao — literally “good new year” — is another common greeting, and another virtually inescapable tune come Jan/Feb in China. Here’s a classy version by the always in style Teresa Teng that begins with a bit of crosstalk action.
This one isn’t exactly a classic, but it is a classy little number from the heyday of swingin’ ’70s Mandopop, and it’s called “Happy New Year,” so why not? Tsui Ping got her start in 1950, and after briefly flirting with a career in the Shaw Brothers film dynasty, eventually chose singing over acting and belted out a few regionally charting hits in the ’60s and ’70s, including sultry Shanghai jazz standard “The Lamp on a Rainy Night”.
Fei Xiang — the OG little fresh meat — absolutely crushed his 1987 CCTV Spring Festival Gala appearance with the one-two punch of “Clouds in My Hometown”, a rousing tearjerker with subtle “One China” undertones, and “A Fire in Winter”, which became an overnight Chinese New Year sensation. My father-in-law says (I’m paraphrasing) that after the 1987 Gala aired, all the hipster dudes on the street had the Fei Xiang haircut. Boys and girls, young and old — all went in for “A Fire in Winter”, because “no one back then ever saw a hot guy singing and dancing like that.” (When asked if he himself rocked the look, my father-in-law replies, “NO, BECAUSE THAT’S DUMB.”) Incidentally, Fei Xiang went on to some success on Broadway, starring in the original cast of Miss Saigon and still looking pretty damn handsome well into his 50s.
Originally shot around Spring Festival 2018, this ad in which noted Higher Brother Masiwei shills for Sprite wasn’t cleared to air at the time. It’s pretty rad though. As my colleague Adan Kohnhorst summarized in an earlier roundup of rappers cashing in on China’s hip hop boom via advertising spots, this one sees Masiwei “visiting home for the holidays, where only an ice cold Sprite and flaming hot rap bars could save him from his family’s questions about his girlfriend and salary.” As far as advertising raps go, this one rates well above the efforts of both other fast food brands and the Chinese government.
Interestingly, although Masiwei’s spot didn’t air initially, it did make it onto TV screens later on and Sprite elected to go with a similar concept for their Year of the Pig ad in 2019. This time, it was Rap of China season 2 contestant Li Jialong (JelloRio) on a classic slow train home:
* my translation. Here’s another new-school CNY jam, and another to capitalize on the relatively young popularity of rap in China. This instant classic (?) from 2010, composed, arranged and produced by someone called DJ Tommy, samples fireworks and gongs before cutting to the chase of what young people in China value most about this special holiday: red envelopes full of cash, or hongbao. Can’t really argue with this hook:
新的一年來 (來) 對去年說拜拜 (bye) 恭喜你發財 (小齊) 快把紅包拿來 (來來來)
A new year has come (come) time to say bye to the old year (bye) Gong xi ni fa cai [may you come into a fortune] Gimme that hongbao (gimme gimme gimme)
This song literally came out as I was writing this article, lol. Another common CNY greeting, gong xi fa cai roughly translates to “I wish great fortune upon you,” and is probably what the Higher Brothers say to themselves in the mirror every morning. (Side note: ageless Hong Kong actor Andy Lau, best known for his role in Infernal Affairs, also has a totally sweet 2005 CNY jam entitled “Gong Xi Fa Cai”).
Like a lot of the Chengdu trap group’s more recent output, this track is about personal wealth:
Oh she got me cheesing, she really got cheesing I can make you freezing cus I’m a f**king living legend I’m driving foreign car, I got a lot guap I buy me designer s**t I don’t worry about the charge
In 2016 and 2017, Beijing-based label Do Hits gifted their followers fresh, CNY-themed compilations from the network of producers and DJs in their orbit. The two excellent compilations, released for 2016’s Year of the Monkey and the following Year of the Rooster, aimed to break away from “shitty TV shows and CNY-themed supermarket music” — in other words, the tinny, mass-market versions of many of the songs listed here thus far.
These two albums are chock full of free-floating references to Spring Festival classics, KTV bops, ubiquitous ad jingles, and #TraditionalChineseElements gleefully reworked, remixed, and re-sampled into a medley of bizarro-world club anthems that “even your Chinese aunties would love.”
This tune isn’t exactly a “Spring Festival Classic” but you can tell from this highly touted 2013 Gala appearance that the ‘Boys are still on top of their game. Haven’t lost an inch off their high notes if you ask me. I mean, what is Nsync up to these day? LFO clearly failed to anticipate the future pull of the market out here when declaring in 1998 that “Chinese food makes me sick,” and who else was there even, 98 Degrees? Whatever. The BSB are still going strong.
I admittedly did not grow up with the CNY Gala but I was floored when I saw this in 2013 and learned that the Backstreet Boys both still exist and still got it. The kicker here is that they didn’t even appear on the main, nationally televised Spring Festival Gala, but rather on the (much less viewed) Gala that aired only on the local TV network in barren northeastern Jilin province. That’s called hustle.
“Everybody” is on tap in like every KTV I’ve ever been to in China, and is always welcome on my stereo around this time of year.
Ok, that was a bit of a digression, I admit. Let’s end on another certified, bona fide CNY Gala classic: the timeless pairing of Faye Wong and Na Ying. Both rank at top-tier diva status in the world of Mandarin-language pop music.
Wong was born in Beijing but moved to Hong Kong as a teenager and rose to fame there before returning to conquer her home turf; Na, two years older than Wong, cut her teeth in Hong Kong and Taiwan but ultimately found more success on the Mainland, becoming a regular Gala performer throughout the ’90s. In 1998, Na invited Wong to duet on the Gala, and the resulting tune (“Meet in 1998” — watch above) was an overnight addition to the 天后 (tianhou; “heavenly queen” or diva) canon.
Na Ying and Faye Wong actually reprised their on-stage duo at 2018’s CCTV Gala, proving that they — not unlike a certain Orlando, FL pop sensation — still have it where it counts. Fingers crossed for a Leah Dou remix before another 20 years pass.
Those are the standouts, but this list is far from all there is. You can find about five and a half more hours of chunjie tunes to sate your holiday fervor right here if interested. Happy New Year and gong xi fa cai to you + yours.
Cover photo: Higher Brothers flash a red envelope.
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