One of the things I really love about living in Taiwan is being able to put some of my childhood memories and experiences in context. In this particular case, my memories are the karaoke nights my parents hosted at our house when I was in middle school. A lot of the songs that my Mom, Dad and their friends sang were Taiwanese Mandopop standards, and I still have their tunes stuck in my head after more than 15 years. But now I can put lyrics to the melodies.
“酒干倘賣無,” or “Any beer bottles for sale?,” by Taiwanese singer Julie Su (蘇芮) is one of these musical madeleines. The title is the refrain of the song and sung in Hoklo (commonly referred to as Taiwanese), while the rest of the song is in Mandarin. Last week, someone I was interviewing mentioned “酒干倘賣無” to me and as soon as I heard the title, the song came back to me even though I can’t understand Hoklo.
“酒干倘賣無” was part of the soundtrack for the 1983 film “Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing?” (搭錯車, dācuòchē, literal translation: took the wrong car). Here is its trailer:
“Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing?” is a tearjerker about a mute bottle collector who finds and brings up an abandoned baby. His daughter becomes a famous singer and becomes less attentive to him as her career takes off. I wanted to like the film, but I found it over the top, even by tearjerker standards. For example, when the bottle collector’s neighborhood on Xinyi Rd. is razed by the government to make room for new development, it doesn’t just result in a tightly knit community being broken apart — it results in an impalement. A love scene is not just moodily lit, but filmed reflected in a broken mirror with blood running down it.
On the other hand, the film touches on the generational culture gap created by Taiwan’s rapid economic development during the 1960s to the 1980s. It doesn’t do so in a very subtle or complex way, but that is still one of the reasons that “Papa, can you hear me sing?” (and “酒干倘賣無”) had such resonance among viewers. The title and refrain of “酒干倘賣無” is based on what bottle collectors cried out to let people know that they were making their rounds; Julie Su turns that simple chant into a modern power ballad complete with a electric guitar riff, thereby encapsulating and reconciling the theme of the film in four and a half minutes.
Here are “酒干倘賣無”‘s Chinese lyrics:
Here is an English translation (minus the refrain):
What a familiar voice Has kept me company through rain and wind for so many years
I never had to think about it I’ll also never forget it
If there is no sky, where is the earth?
If there is no earth, where is home?
If there is no home, where are you?
If there is no you, where am I?
If you didn’t bring me up Give me a warm life
If you didn’t protect me Then what would my life have been?
You were always with me From my very first word
You gave me a home You shared your life with me
Even though you couldn’t speak You truly understood what is black and white, what is right and wrong in this world
Even though you couldn’t express your feelings You lived a passionate life
From a distant place Comes your familiar voice
It reminds me of your loving soul
When will you come back to me?
Let me sing with you once more.