"The Moon Represents My Heart" conjures smoke-filled lounge rooms, family and karaoke

Emotional Resonance is a safe place where we can go deep on what a single song means to us. Happy times and sad, good news and bad, we explore the soundtrack to our lives.

I’m stuck to the vinyl of the couch. Every time I shift positions I have to peel my skin off the surface, and it makes a noise like separating Velcro bits. The ceiling fan whizzing on its highest speed above me does little to alleviate the tropical mugginess; I’m used to it by now, you just sweat it out. My poh-poh (maternal grandmother) sits at the other end of the couch, puffing away on a cigarette. Between us is my little sister. We’re watching my mother and her sisters, swaying about and singing into microphones – sometimes their cheeks plump from grinning, other times their eyes closed and hands slicing the air, palms skywards.

Aunty Ruby, the eldest of my poh-poh’s eight children, has a killer karaoke set-up in her lounge room. She’s got all the Chinese classics from when she and her siblings were growing up. About four of the sisters hog the mic as much as possible; my mum’s one of them. There’s a song they all love, that gets sung the most: Taiwanese Chinese pop singer Teresa Teng’s late-70s version of “The Moon Represents My Heart” (“Yuèliàng Dàibiǎo Wǒde Xīn”). I love hearing them sing it, and am even more pleased when the karaoke video has the pinyin (English phonetics) spelled out so I can make the sounds, too -- even if I don’t understand the Mandarin lyrics.

That was a memory from maybe 1996 in Malaysia, but it probably also happened in ’94, ’98, 2002; whenever my family flew those eight hours across the ocean to visit our relatives for a few weeks, there would no doubt be at least one karaoke session at Aunty Ruby’s. They did it a lot more when I was younger – or rather, when they were younger. “I used to be so good at singing! Everyone used to say so,” my mum said to me more recently. “But now that I’m old, my voice is gone. I don’t sound so good any more.”

The only exposure I’ve had to Chinese music is through my mum and her sisters, and my female cousins on that side of the family, who recommended their favourite pop stars to me. I’d only be able to recognise a handful, but “The Moon Represents My Heart” is as embedded in me as any childhood lullaby was – probably even more so. There’s a middle-aged lady who busks in Melbourne’s Chinatown sometimes, who stands in front of the restaurants or the Target Centre entrance – a box for coins and some homemade CDs displayed at her feet – and sings along beautifully to backing tracks. Once I walked past her while she was performing “The Moon...” and, especially when combined with all the food smells wafting out on Little Bourke Street, it instantly transported me back to Aunt Ruby’s sticky, smoke-filled lounge room.

I didn’t know anything about Teresa Teng, but looking into her career, it appears that she was one of the first artists to introduce love songs to China. Even within “The Moon...”, her voice is vulnerable yet insistent, gentle but firm, sweet and controlled, but ultimately moving; this voice captured the attention of a nation.

“You ask me how deep my love for you is / How much I really love you / My affection does not waver / My love will not change / The moon represents my heart.” In the song, Teng seems to be reassuring a lover, explaining the extent, strength and longevity of her love; it’ll always be there, like the moon, no matter what happens. In my eyes, “The Moon...” signifies familial love, and anchors me to my cultural heritage. The scene that plays whenever I hear that waltzing melody is one that portrays the closeness between sisters, the contentedness of a mother observing her daughters, and a daughter’s happiness over watching her mother doing something she truly enjoys while surrounded by the people she loves.

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