17 October 2008
Rose, Rose, I Love You
I have been digging around in lost corners of the web today to see what I can find out about Rose, Rose, I Love You, one of the most popular Hong Kong songs over the last 50 or 60 years. The original was written by Chen Gexin and recorded by Yao Lee in Mandarin on EMI-Pathe in 1941. In pinyin the title is Méigui méigui wǒ ài nǐ, which translates accurately as Rose, Rose, I Love You. The story behind the English version, published in Time, starts in 1951 with an Australian DJ, Wilfrid Thomas, picking up a copy of Yao Lee's disc in a back street in Hong Kong and bringing it to London, where it caused such a stir that Chappell Music asked him to write English lyrics to it. Thomas gave the song a topical twist, turning it into a departing British soldier's lament for the girl he must leave behind in Malaya. There is also a clever twist on the Chinese title in the line Make way, oh make way for this Eastern rose.
In 1951, it was common for new songs to be recorded by several artists and hit the charts at the same time. Frankie Laine's version won the race for Rose, Rose, I Love You, reaching #3 on Billboard, although it may well have been intended as the B-side to Jezebel, which got to #2. There also versions by Billy Morrow (#8) on RCA and Gordon Jenkins on Decca (#21). The vocal on the latter was by Cisco Houston and I found a download at www.ciscohouston.com. With all this fuss, Columbia even decided to release the Yao Lee version, although for some reason they changed her name to Hue Lee.
Back in London, a different English version with the title May Kway (lyrics by John Turner) came out as a Petula Clark songsheet and reached #16 on the British songsheet charts. (Record charts didn't start until 1952). Petula Clark also recorded May Kway on Polygon, as did Billy Cotton on Fontana.
The Time article finished up by saying that Chappell were holding on to royalties for Miss Hue Lee "the song's unknown writers, now presumably somewhere in Red China". Well, Yao Lee and Chen Gexin were not exactly unknown, although Chen had used his pen name, Lin Mei, on the Shanghai recording. By 1951, they were both working in Hong Kong with Great Wall records along with many other musicians from pre-revolution Shanghai. But two years after the 1949 revolution, these were confusing times. Hong Kong audiences, it seems, were better informed about Western music and it wasn't long before they had taken both the Mandarin and English versions of the song to their hearts.
Frankie Laine, Yao Lee and Hue Lee scans from Wong Kee Chee's The Age of Shanghainese Pops. Gordon Jenkins from www.ciscohouston.com. Petula Clark from www.petulaclark.net.