On 4 January 1991,  renowned Taiwanese writer, San Mao 三毛, was found dead in Rongmin General Hospital. She had hanged herself. It was still a mystery why she committed suicide – some said she was despondent for not receiving any Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Awards for her film Red Dust; others even thought it was because she was ignored by Wang Luobin.

I was serving the national service then and had been greatly drawn to her travelogues and her adventures in the Sahara Desert. Her life had every twist and turn that one would admire but probably never hope for. It was about that time I bought a Chinese music album named Echoes《三毛作品第15号 – 回声》. It has since became my favourite album in my collections. 

Echoes relates the life story of San Mao. She was born in Chongqing, Southwest China on March 26, 1943 but her family moved to Taiwan in 1948. San Mao was deeply drawn into the literary masterpieces at a young age and her school results was very bad affected as she devoted too much time reading these great literary works. Once, her maths teacher embarrassed San Mao in front of her classmates by drawing two big black circles around her eyes (signifying her zero score for maths test) and then made her parade around the school compound. This incident upsets San Mao so much that she became so indrawn and had to discontinue her schooling. For several years, she was taught at home by her lawyer father and hired piano teacher and painters. At the age of 20, she enrolled in the University of Madrid, Spain and got aquaintance with a Spanish boy called He Xi. He Xi loved San Mao, but she kept a distance from him as she thought the boy was too much younger than herself. After returning to Taiwan, she fell in love with a 45-year-old German teacher and they planned for marriage. However, her fiancé suffered a heart attack and died.

San Mao dreamed to be the first female explorer to cross the Sahara Desert. He Xi supported her and gave up being a professional diver to travel with San Mao. It was in Africa that San Mao kept a journal of her experience in the desert and witnessed an era of turmoil where they were forced to relocate to a coastal area. On 30 September 1979 (incidentally the Mid-autumn Festival), He Xi died in a diving accident. There is a song in this album that vividly relates He Xi’s death.  This Life《今世》was written by San Mao, composed by 李泰祥 (Li) and performed by 齐豫 (Chyi). 

This cassette album played a big part of my army days. Journey back to the army camp on every Sunday nights had always been dark, gloomy and lonely. My sole constant companion was a red Sony Walkman and worn-down novels borrowed from the National Library. As the bus whirled through the dark winding roads and thick forest, I was deported back to the deserted and bleak piece of land in the western Singapore. As always, I would sit at the last row in the bus. Leaving the window slightly ajar, I allowed the wind gently slapped by my face with a tinge of chillness. 

With my eyes closed, the song began with a majestic orchestra overture. Chyi’s angelic voice filled the ears and painted vivid scenes of He Xi (San Mao’s husband) who drowned at the sea. A mourning San Mao sat by the sea, wiping off his blood with a handkerchief soaked with her tears. 

Chyi stretched her repertoire to deliver this heart-breaking song. In the third stanza, she simply spilled the pain all over:  

“Did I not tell you thrice? I am your angel.
You should not leave me to fight eternity alone!
 
“Have you forgotten the lady by the sea, waiting for your return?
The sun has set, the tide has subsided and the moon has risen
You finally returned…silently with the waves
Unable to look or speak to me again…”

 

Nothing can broadcast my admiration for the trio (San, Li & Chyi) or my personal affection for this song. Maybe the best expression is to share it around… Enjoy!

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