Yè Lái Xiāng: Fragrance of the night

This is a song that I remember from my childhood, probably from watching Hong Kong TV mini-serials on dodgy videos. It immediately conjures up the smoky blue of a lonely evening in 1940s Shanghai.

While yè lái xiāng usually means a flower that gives off its scent at night – the tuberose – it was also a phrase used in Hong Kong during the 1950s and 60s to humorously describe the night stench of open sewers and emptied chamber pots.

It makes me think of a decadent passion conducted in the dark and dirty alleyways of Shanghai, now long past. Of the full moon lighting up a white flower in the gutter.

“Yè Lái Xiāng” was famously recorded by Lǐ Xīanglán, one of the Seven Great Singing Stars of Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

Lǐ Xīanglán was in fact Japanese, born and raised in China. Originally called Yoshiko Ōtaka, she was given the stage name Lǐ Xīanglán for political reasons.

Her ambiguous nationality and involvement as a singer and actor in pro-Japanese nationalist films led to her arrest for treason at the end of World War II. She escaped execution by fleeing to Japan, and later to Hong Kong and Hollywood.

The song was also a hit for Teresa Teng and, as a star in Taiwan, China and Japan, she recorded and performed “Yè Lái Xiāng” in both Japanese and Chinese too.

For me, though, this version is definitely the most haunting.

夜来香 (Yè Lái Xiāng)
Fragrance of the Night

(nà nán fēng chuī lái qīng liáng)
The southern wind’s freshness and coolness

(nà yè yīng tí shēng qī chuàng)
Nightingale’s mournful cry

(yuè xià de huā er dōu rù mèng)
Under the Moon the flowers dreaming,

(zhǐ yǒu nà yè lái xiāng)
Except for the fragrance of the night,

(tǔ lù zhe fēn fāng)
Whose perfume fills the air,

(wǒ ài zhè yè sè máng máng)
I love this boundlessly picturesque night

(yě ài zhe yè yīng gē chàng)
And the nightingale’s melody.

(gèng ài nà huā yī bān de mèng)
Most of all I love a flowery dream,

(yōng bào zhè yè lái xiāng)
Embracing this fragrance of the night,

(wěn zhè yè lái xiāng)
Kissing it.

(yè lái xiāng)
Fragrance of the night

(wǒ wèi nǐ gē chàng)
I serenade you.

(yè lái xiāng)
Fragrance of the night,

(wǒ wèi nǐ sī liáng)
I think of you.

(ah … wǒ wèi nǐ gē chàng)
Ah.. I serenade you.

(wǒ wèi nǐ sī liáng)
I think of you,

(yè lái xiāng…)
Fragrance of the night…

[Translation and pinyin from hkship and Christopher]


12 thoughts on “Yè Lái Xiāng: Fragrance of the night

  1. N.B. Going by the name of Shirley Yamaguchi, Lǐ Xīanglán/Yoshiko Ōtaka gave a wonderfully naturalistic and moving performance in Samuel Fuller’s very interesting film House Of Bamboo. She certainly got about, and what’s more, she’s still going strong aged90!

  2. Thanks for the post — especially the lyrics.

    I love this song, but I’m afraid that I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to these Shanghai oldies: Teresa Teng’s version is a little too la-la-la karaoke; and Peter Chan sounds like he’s singing in a bathroom on LSD. ;p

    BTW, I love that second YouTube video. A digital capture that preserves the analog experience!

  3. Whoa! The first couple of lines (after the intro) of Roy Orbison’s 1964 hit “It’s Over” sound almost exactly like this song! (I’m not into Roy, but my wife is. It’s at http://www.myspace.com/royorbison/music/albums/super-hits-8119536, among other places.) I guess it’s unlikely that he or any of his buddies would’ve heard it, eh wot? I like Teresa Teng’s version the most. You guys’d better not cover this song, or people will think you’re ripping off Roy O! ;p

    • Wow, that really does sound similar! Great song too. Would be cool to imagine that the Big O was influenced by ’40s Chinese music, but as you say, it’s probably just a coincidence unfortunately!

  4. Great post. The Peter Chan video is a bit serial killer. Zooming in and out and then the dog picture in the corner! It is rather sinister, what else was going on in that room?
    Is it possible that Roy O once crossed paths with Shirley Yamaguchi whilst she was in the US? Come on, it could have happened? Sam Fuller was having a wrap party for ‘House of Bamboo’ in 1955 and Roy O was booked to entertain, Shirley got up and sang too……

    • Wow, hadn’t thought of that possibility at all, but now you come to mention it, seems perfectly conceivable! I’m going to go out on a limb and say that *all* of Roy Orbison’s music is in fact just a thinly disguised take-off of Shanghai pop classics!

      As for Peter Chan, perhaps it’s best not to think too much what else might be going on in that spooky, spooky room!

  5. Do you know if there is any way to get the original accompaniment on a CD or DVD so that I can sing along with it? I perform alot in NYC’s Chinatown and could use this. I don’t really like the Teresa Teng version.

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