Rose, Rose I Love You: The Story Of One Of China’s Greatest Hits

The Guinness Book of World Records once awarded Wilfrid Thomas’ radio show with the title of longest running broadcast in radio history (though someone else may have that honor now). Born in Britain and raised in Australia, Wilfrid began his international music career as a teenager singing baritone and touring the world with The Westminster Glee Singers in the 1930s.

He moved on to a gig with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s New York bureau where he gained experience  singing, acting, announcing, writing and radio broadcasting. In 1940 the ABC commissioned him to go on a singing tour to entertain Allied troops stationed all around the world. During his travels he began a lifelong hobby of collecting strange and obscure records everywhere he went.

In 1946, his touring took him to Hong Kong where they were to put on a show for the Australian Navy. “Wow! Isn’t it just great?” He beamed. “C’mon fellas, we just got in and we don’t have to set up ’til tomorrow, who’s wants to take a stroll with Willy? …Yeah, I know it’s hotter than hell, not much worse than back home in Oz is it? Just look at this place! ….All right you sticks in the mud, I’ll go out myself.”

HK

Wilfrid stepped out of his hotel door and was hit by a wall of sound, smell and heat. “Hong Kong: The Pearl of the Orient.” He marveled. “Well, I don’t know if I’d call this a pearl…Say, how many ‘Pearls of the Orient’ are there anyway?” He worked his way into the traffic, dodging people and bikes left and right. He saw chickens hanging in windows. A million fruits, vegetables, shoes, belts, hats and things being peddled on the street. All those squiggly wiggly characters floating and flapping on banners and hanging on signs, “aren’t they something!” Wilfrid thought to himself.

He zigged and zagged and took a sudden hard right down a random backstreet. “Wait a minute…what was that?” He took a few steps back while trying not to run into the people coming past him. Yes, that was a record in the window. “Well, well, well. Let’s have a look-see shall we?” He ducked into the shop and the noise from outside became muffled. The shop was cramped with records and books. An old man was sleeping on a chair in between two of the piles. Wilfrid smiled. He began to dig. Dust rose into his nose as he flipped along. He sneezed. He couldn’t read most of the titles, so anything with a cool cover he put under his arm. He came across one with a vaguely familiar name. “Yao Lee…Yao Lee…Hm, yeah I know her.” He put it under his arm. He left money on the counter next to the sleeping man and walked back to his hotel. There was no time or way to listen to the records now, so he forgot about them until he went back to London.

***

Ok, even if I invented the details, that really is how Wilfrid Thomas found Yao Lee’s Rose, Rose I Love You (she also became known in the West as Hue Lee). He just picked it up by chance. He got the tune broadcast in Britain and something about it caught people’s attention. Maybe it was the way it seamlessly slides from jaunty, chin up, optimistic theme song for some leftenant arriving in one of Her Majesty’s far-flung colonies, to a minor-key dip of the toes into the Oriental bazaar. That, and the fact that it came from the farthest colony of all must have made it irresistible to British ears of that time. And who can blame them?

The radio station began receiving numerous inquiries (enquiries?) into the name and origin of the song, about which no one seemed to know – it was just a cool thing that Wilfrid brought back. Thus, Columbia Records set out on an epic crate-digging mission across Asia to find a master copy of the record to reproduce. It was discovered in India, who knows why or how (perhaps because the guy who wrote the music had a grandfather from India, more on him later), and the master was brought to London.

Naturally, the song had to be translated into English and recorded by the big stars, and Wilfrid was commissioned to do just that. The first order of business was to translate the Chinese to get a feel for what the song meant:

Rose, rose, the most dainty. Rose, rose, the most brightly colored and gorgeous.

Ever blooming summer on a branch. Rose, rose I love you.

Rose, rose with heavy affections. Rose, rose with thick/condensed/strong affections.

Ever blooming in the thistles and thorns. Rose, rose I love you.

The heart’s vow’s, the heart’s affections, holy and pure radiance illuminate the Earth.

Rose, rose, with your thin branches. Rose, rose, with your sharp thorns.

The present wind and rain/trials/hardships come to wreck the injured, tender branches and lovely pistils.

Rose, rose, with your solid heart. Rose, rose, with your pointed thorns.

The coming wind and rain comes to destroy the indestructible trees with branches interlocked.

“Well, that’s a bit boring,” Wilfrid must’ve thought, so he got busy jazzing it up. In the translation process, two versions came to be. Both were released in 1951. The one released in the UK was the rather cartoonish and cheesy version sung by Petula Clark (John Turner and Chris Langdon also got writing credit on this one). It reached #16 on the UK songbook charts:

In the US it was sung by Frankie Laine and the Norman Luboff Choir. It was much closer to the spirit of the original and, in my opinion, it’s the better arrangement (also with Chris Langdon). He worked in a clever tribute to the original Chinese lyrics. Verse 2 begins “Make way, oh make way for my eastern rose…” “Make way” sounds like the Chinese word for rose, “mei gui.” The setting of Petula Clark’s version stays in China (note the title May Kway), but in Frankie’s our wayward lover finds himself further south in Malaya. (For those not familiar, these two were among the biggest names of the day.) It peaked at #3 on the US Billboard charts:

There are many more recordings by many more artists, but these three are the important ones. It was always a beloved hit in China, and Wilfrid’s versions made it a classic in the West. It makes sense why a more direct translation doesn’t work: the meter is off, it doesn’t rhyme and the words are admittedly a bit dull. But, a Western audience would be missing all the context – and thus wouldn’t know that the original words are not dull at all.

Nor did the original words or music come from Hong Kong. It was a Shanghai anthem, and Shanghai was having a hell of time when this song came out in 1940. A newfangled music from America called “jazz” kept the clubs pulsing through the night. Just 3 years earlier, in 1937, Japan had launched a full-scale invasion of China and Shanghai was one of the main battlegrounds. The year of the invasion, about a hundred miles away in what was then the capital, Japanese troops committed the Rape of Nanking in which some 300,000 civilians were tortured and massacred.

For the next decade, China was at war all over: with the Japanese on multiple fronts, the Russians in Xinjiang and a civil war between the Nationalists and Communists. Against that backdrop, it seems impossible that a song like Rose, Rose I Love You could have come out of all that. But, in Shanghai, there was what is known as the “isolated island period” (孤岛时期). When the Japanese invaded Shanghai, they left the foreign concessions somewhat untouched. Thus, a semblance of freedom could continue in the midst of the occupation, and that part of town remained unusually prosperous. (The concessions would end up falling to the Japanese later.)

Many people fled from Shanghai to Hong Kong to get away from the Japanese, but the British colony fell in 1941 to Japan, too, and life became extremely hard. A rationing system led to starvation. Currency devaluation wiped out people’s savings. Martial law was enacted as the Japanese took over all the hospitals, factories and airports. An education campaign attempted to make Japanese the official language. Streets and buildings were given Japanese names. Wilfrid Thomas passed through on his tour and picked up Yao Lee’s record only one year after the Japanese had surrendered at the end of World War II – and just as Hong Kong began to recover. He visited the same summer that the general who led the invasion of Hong Kong, General Takashi Sakai, was tried and executed by firing squad as a war criminal.

There was another arrival to Hong Kong that year. None other than the man who wrote the music to Rose – Chen Gexin. Chen was born in 1914 in the Nanhui district of Shanghai. His family, which included an Indian grandfather, was well-to-do and from an early age he studied music. His biggest early influences were German-Jewish composers, some of whom probably ended up in Shanghai as refugees as they fled Nazi persecution in Europe. His early career was similar to Wilfrid Thomas’. He wrote music for productions here and there and began to make a name for himself when he formed the Experimental Music Society. He married Jin Jiaoli, against her family’s wishes, at 20. He was 23 when Japan invaded and occupied Shanghai, and like any pissed off 23 year old whose country has just been invaded would, he used his organization to rehearse and perform revolutionary Soviet songs, and he began writing his own anti-Japanese resistance anthems. The most well known being 1939’s “Through This Cold Winter.” Like Rose, it doesn’t look like much at first glance, but its meaning would have been clear to listeners at the time:

Through this cold winter,

Spring will come again to the world.

Don’t despair because of those withered branches,

Spring flowers will open.

Through this cold winter,

Spring will come again to the world.

Don’t have any doubts,

Spring is ours.

The next year, spring did seem to come with the release of Rose which brought him not a small amount of fame. But, things got cold yet again just a year after that. On December 16, 1941 – a week after Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Hong Kong (which both happened on the same day) – Chen was imprisoned by the Japanese occupational forces for his songs. That fame had turned against him. He was brought to “Number 76,” a detention center run by collaborator and Shanghai gangster Li Shiqun.

While Rose was an instant hit and remains a classic favorite, Chen Gexin’s reputation is not so clear. After 3 years in No. 76, he was given an opportunity for release by declaring his allegiance to Japan and support for the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere – a Japanese led initiative to create an East Asian economic and military bloc. Life in No. 76 was brutal. He took the offer. He was made to organize a show where he sang tributes to Japan and a group of kamikaze pilots called the Condors. For this, the Left in China calls him a traitor. However, this is somewhat of a fringe opinion. He is still widely loved and most people see it as him doing what he had to do to get free from the occupying Japanese. After his release, he took a job as a songwriter at the Lianhua Film Company – one of the biggest and most important studios in Chinese cinema.

But Chen needed a change. The civil war was still on and his surroundings brought on bad memories of his recent experiences. So, not long after the Japanese surrender in 1945, Chen and his wife Jin Jiaoli made plans to head to Hong Kong, where they arrived in 1946. Chen continued to write music for movies, including the song Shanghai Nights. They stayed until 1950. Persuaded by Xia Yan, a co-founder of the League of Left-Wing Writers and the Left-Wing Dramatists League and eventual Deputy Minister of Culture of China, they decided to return to the mainland. With the wars ended, the country consolidated and the People’s Republic founded, Xia Yan had convinced Chen that it was a “New China” and he could rebuild his life in Shanghai. A lot of other Lianhua talent had also fled Shanghai for Hong Kong and other cities, and many of them were also returning. The Lianhua Film Company had since become the Kunlun Film Company and was enjoying a renaissance, and Chen continued his songwriting there upon his return.

Back in his hometown, a new set of troubles awaited him. When the Communists “liberated” Shanghai, they were not pleased with what they found going on in the clubs. The music and dress were degenerate and politically incorrect. Anyone involved in that scene was ideologically suspect. The Communists knew very well who Chen was and they kept their eyes on him. In an attempt to demonstrate his revolutionary devotion, Chen is reputed to have said “if the Americans call me over so I can collect my royalties, I’ll donate them to the homeland to make airplanes!” (Publishers in the US and UK had set aside royalties for him and Yao Lee because in 1951 China was closing itself off to the world and no one knew their status or whereabouts.)

He was able to keep up appearances for almost a decade. In 1956 Chairman Mao Zedong launched the “Hundred Flowers Campaign” during which people were encouraged to speak openly about the Communist Party. It was a bait-and-switch move that was followed by the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” which sought to purge society of anyone who was not in with the Party line. Chen got swept up in it all and was labeled a “rightist.” In August 1957 he was arrested and sent to Baimaoling Farm – a re-education-through-labor camp a little over 100 miles from Shanghai in neighboring Anhui Province.

The second to last line in Rose is:

来日风雨来摧毁 毁不了并蒂枝连理.
Lái rì fēngyǔ lái cuīhuǐ huǐ bùliǎo bìng dì zhī liánlǐ.

It’s hard to know if it was intentional, and it’s admittedly a stretch, but there is some double entendre here:
连理 liánlǐ means “two trees that grow together as one” or “a conjugal union.”
连理枝 liánlǐzhī means “two trees with branches interlocked”, or, “a loving couple.”
并蒂莲 bìngdìlián means “twin lotus flowers on one stalk,” or, “a devoted married couple.”
枝 zhī has the same pronunciation as 之 zhī – the more poetic version of the possessive article 的de.

So, the direct translation is “the coming wind and rain comes to destroy the indestructible trees with branches interlocked.” But, if we write the homophonous sentence …毁不了并蒂之连理, it can be heard as “the coming trials and tribulations are coming to destroy the union/bonds of the indestructible devoted couple.” Or, “风雨摧不毁并蒂连理.” If we want to really read deep into it, 来日风雨来摧毁 could be read as “ever since the troubles under the Japanese came and destroyed…” But that’s probably stretching it too far.

In any case, those troubled times did not break apart Chen Gexin and Jin Jiaoli. Nor did his imprisonment under the Communists. Jiaoli took trips out to Baimaoling Farm when she could. Each time she did she saw a more and more frail, malnourished and ill Gexin. His arrest did do damage to the relationship with his children. It was dangerous to associate with him, so they became estranged. They did, however, continue to send small food gifts with Jiaoli. Gexin’s oldest son, Chen Gang, had entered the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1955 and had to distance himself from his father to stay out of trouble. This gave him great pain as his father was also his first music teacher and lifelong mentor.

In 1958, a year into Chen Gexin’s incarceration, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao released the magnificent violin concerto The Butterfly Lovers (梁祝 liangzhu) – a musical interpretation of the classical Chinese drama about star-crossed lovers, commonly known as the Romeo and Juliet of China.

Sometime in 1959, Chen Gexin managed to hear a recording of The Butterfly Lovers and that the composer was Chen Gang. “Could it be? Is that my son?” former fellow inmates say he asked, suddenly alive with excitement. He sent off a letter to Jiaoli in Shanghai telling her to bring him a copy of the score signed by Chen Gang. Gexin said he also wanted to give some advice to his successful son. Jiaoli brought the score, but she couldn’t bring herself to pass along the advice, knowing that any contact between the two could jeopardize Chen Gang’s career. The Butterfly Lovers brought Chen Gang worldwide acclaim. Knowing that Chen Gang was writing the concerto while suffering with the thought of his father wasting away in the labor camp makes the music shine even brighter.

Upon his arrival at Baimaoling, Chen Gexin became friends with writer and journalist Ai Yi who had also been labeled a “rightist” and would end up spending 21 years at the Farm. In a 2010 essay titled “The Last Years of Musician Chen Gexin” Ai Yi wrote,

By 1961, farm rations dropped…a strange disease was prevalent on the farm, no obvious symptoms at the outset, just a feeling of weakness and slow, daily wasting away. This quickly led to pernicious anemia, and near the time of death, a sudden swelling of the entire body and the skin became shiny. Incidence of the disease, and the mortality rate, was high.

At the farm, all of us “sinners” lived in thatched huts, slept side by side in the tens, sometimes hundreds. Indeed, it had become our home. We would eat, sleep, rest, study and labor outdoors all day long together…One morning we all got up, right on time, but no sign of activity was coming from Mr. Chen. One of the “students” in a neighboring bed called on him to get up, but there was no reaction. The student pushed him, still no reaction.

There was an anxious moment. The student lifted the cover. Something was wrong. I only saw his pale face. He wasn’t breathing. I don’t know what time he passed away. That day was January 25, 1961. The celebrated musician of a whole generation, Mr. Chen Gexin, left his mortal frame without a sound or word.

***

Through this cold winter,

Spring will come again to the world.

Don’t have any doubts,

Spring is ours.

***

Ever blooming summer on a branch. Rose, rose I love you.

Rose, rose with heavy affections. Rose, rose with strong affections.

Ever blooming in the thistles and thorns. Rose, rose I love you.

China was going through the Great Famine when Chen Gexin died at 46 years old in Baimaoling. Some 40-70 million people are estimated to have perished. Ai Yi writes that Chen was buried in a mass grave in the hills by the farm. According to Ai Yi, Jin Jiaoli brought a box to Baimaoling and searched through piles of bones in a vain effort to collect Gexin’s remains.

The star-crossed butterfly lovers. 毁不了并蒂之连理 – the indestructible bonds of the devoted pair.

Chen Gexin and Jin Jiaoli


It’s tempting to imagine that Wilfrid and Chen bumped into each other on the street in Hong Kong in 1946. Or that Chen came to watch Wilfrid’s show and approached him after to talk shop. I would believe it. (In Hong Kong I once ran into a guy who lived in my building in Beijing. We hadn’t spoken for a while, and we had no idea the other was going to be in town. We were two guys from different continents who moved to another continent into the same building. Then we met by chance in a speck of an island a thousand miles away…and I was on a 6 hour layover! It could happen.) Chen was just entering a kind of exile when Wilfrid found his record in a backstreet shop, later to be made into a huge hit in the UK and America. Both men had a huge impact on the life of the other, yet they never met or spoke. They devoted their lives to their passion for music, and they would and should have been great friends.

In the early 1980s when Chen Dong – Chen Gexin’s youngest son who, like Wilfrid Thomas, was a travelling baritone singer – was performing in the US he got to meet Frankie Laine and introduce himself as the son of the man who wrote Rose, Rose I Love You. Laine was overjoyed at this, and from then until 2004 he sent Chen Dong a Christmas card every year.

***

Wilfrid Thomas found Rose, Rose I Love You by chance. I did, too. I was having dinner one night after work at California Beef Noodle King USA near my apartment in Beijing. A song came on and I couldn’t help but pay attention to the bright, happy sound coming out of the small speaker above me. I asked the waiter what the song was. He didn’t know. He disappeared into the kitchen to ask around. He came back out and wrote the name down on a napkin. I looked it up later, and this version by Taipei-born, LA-raised Joanna Wang remains my favorite. Don’t get me wrong, I love the old ones, but this one carries with it some very good memories.

 ***

玫瑰玫瑰我爱你 – méiguī méiguī wǒ ài nǐ – Rose, Rose I Love You

玫瑰玫瑰最娇美 玫瑰玫瑰最艳丽
Méiguī méiguī zuì jiāo měi méiguī méiguī zuì yànlì
Rose, rose, the most dainty. Rose, rose, the most brightly colored and gorgeous.

常夏开在枝头上 玫瑰玫瑰我爱你
Chángxià kāi zài zhī tóu shàng méiguī méiguī wǒ ài nǐ
Ever blooming summer on a branch. Rose, rose I love you.

玫瑰玫瑰情意重 玫瑰玫瑰情意浓
Méiguī méiguī qíngyì zhòng méiguī méiguī qíngyì nóng
Rose, rose with heavy affections. Rose, rose with thick/condensed/strong affections.

常夏开在荆棘里 玫瑰玫瑰我爱你
Chángxià kāi zài jīngjí lǐ méiguī méiguī wǒ ài nǐ
Ever blooming in the thistles and thorns. Rose, rose I love you.

心的誓约新的情意圣洁的光辉照大地
Xīn de shìyuē xīn de qíngyì shèngjié de guānghuī zhào dàdì
The heart’s vow’s, the heart’s affections, holy and pure radiance illuminate the Earth.

心的誓约 心的情意 圣洁的光辉照大地
Xīn de shìyuē xīn de qíngyì shèngjié de guānghuī zhào dàdì
The heart’s vow’s, the heart’s affections, holy and pure radiance illuminate the Earth.

玫瑰玫瑰枝儿细 玫瑰玫瑰刺儿锐
Méiguī méiguī zhī er xì méiguī méiguī cì er ruì
Rose, rose, with your thin branches. Rose, rose, with your sharp thorns.

今朝风雨来摧残 伤了嫩枝和娇蕊
Jīnzhāo fēngyǔ lái cuīcán shāngle nèn zhī hé jiāo ruǐ
The present wind and rain/trials/hardships come to wreck the injured, tender branches and lovely pistils.

玫瑰玫瑰心儿坚 玫瑰玫瑰刺儿尖
Méiguī méiguī xin er jiān méiguī méiguī cì er jiān
Rose, rose, with your solid heart. Rose, rose, with your pointed thorns.

来日风雨来摧毁 毁不了并蒂枝连理
Lái rì fēngyǔ lái cuīhuǐ huǐ bùliǎo bìng dì zhī liánlǐ
The wind and rain/trials/hardships of the coming days come to destroy the indestructible trees with branches interlocked.

玫瑰玫瑰我爱你
méiguī méiguī wǒ ài nǐ
Rose, rose I love you.

One thought on “Rose, Rose I Love You: The Story Of One Of China’s Greatest Hits

  1. What an amazing story – I just happened to play the Violin Concerto as I read the passages relating to his imprisonment and wept…very moving. Thank you for bringing the life behind the charming music to our time…and thanks for the language interpretations, so interesting!

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