Njo Kong Kie 楊光奇 and Chinese Music of Social Justice
January 24, 2022
The fact that music can be a vehicle for imparting ideas is as old as music. From Gregorian chants of self abnegation, to nationalism promoted by anthems, The Association for Psychological Science explains, “The experience of listening to music can potentially shape an individual’s values, actions, and worldview”. Because humans are naturally drawn to harmonious sounds and rhythmic beats, this often gives music special power. “Pairing an important message with enjoyable music can lead someone to listen to those ideas over and over, not because they have to, but because they actually want to.” Composers from all over the world harness this power, and in China, there is a notable and growing movement of popular artists expressing discontent through music.
The basis of I swallowed a Moon Made of Iron is the poetry of 24-year-old Xu Lizhi 許立志, a factory worker who was known as one of the most promising young members of the worker-poet literary movement.
In 2020, Tán Wéiwéi 谭维维, a Chinese singer who is known for her outspokenness on social justice issues, released her latest single, “Xiao Juan.” On the SupChina website, journalist Jiayun Feng describes the song: “A powerful, heartbreaking anthem, the song explicitly highlights the pervasive problem of violence against women in China. Singing from the perspective of Xiao Juan, a common pseudonym used in Chinese media for unidentified or anonymous survivors of domestic abuse, Tán reckons with the unfair treatment of the victims and the lack of repercussions for their perpetrators, all while telling specific tales of women being assaulted by ‘fists, gasoline, and sulfuric acid’.”
Composer Njo Kong Kie 楊光奇 was born in Indonesia and grew up in Macau, and has pursued many themes in his work that are centred around social justice: marriage equality, organ transplant ethics, gender identity, and now, in I swallowed a moon made of iron 我咽下一枚铁做的月亮 , how the capitalist machine crushes the spirits of the individuals caught up in it. Yet his music is unrelentingly beautiful.
The basis of I swallowed a Moon Made of Iron is the poetry of 24-year-old Xu Lizhi 許立志, a factory worker who was known as one of the most promising young members of the worker-poet literary movement. Xu toiled at the Shenzhen factory of Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronics for many of our popular digital devices, which became infamous in 2010 when 10 workers committed suicide at the factory. In 2014, Xu also ended his life there. He left behind his words, which affected Njo to the point where he felt he had to amplify them through music to reach a wider audience.
Njo tells journalist James Strecker, in an interview on his website, that Xu was “Writing very plainly in a way, but with astounding imagination, [Xu] gives us a vivid glimpse of life on the assembly line and gives voice to millions of workers worldwide. What he describes is not just the story of one factory, but of many factories and not only in China but all over the world. And the hopelessness and purposelessness he speaks of in his poetry is not limited to the experience of only factory workers either, workers in white-collar jobs experience it too”.
His own life experiences and influences strongly inform the work as well. “When writing this work, I am mindful of the song cycle tradition of Schubert and Schumann, but of course of Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde set music to a German translation of Tang Dynasty poems that speak of life, solitude and melancholy, and yes, death,” Njo explains. “And the moon figures as prominently in Xu Lizhi’s poems as in the Tang poetry, except now it takes on a completely different poetic association. In my mind are also songs of Jacques Brel and Chinese traditional music as well. This work certainly embodies different aspects of the cultures that I have lived.”
The result is I swallowed a moon made of iron 我咽下一枚铁做的月亮, which definitely qualifies as enjoyable music that people will want to hear over and over, carrying a poignant and humane message sent to us from a sensitive and talented young man. Njo himself was changed by the experience of making this work. “Working on this piece reminds me constantly of the innumerous people, near and far, whose struggles, often unseen, unheard and forgotten, provide the amenities for our modern-day life. It is easy to get complacent in the relative comforts of our day-to-day. The work made me ponder the role, however small we think it is, each of us plays in this world”. I swallowed a moon made of iron 我咽下一枚铁做的月亮 will be performed February 4-6 at the Waterfront Theatre. Find tickets here.