Norwegian wood(s) in Asia

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music pun

“Once I had a girl, or should I say, she once had me” sang John Lennon in Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), the second track of the classic Beatles album Rubber Soul. Released in 1965, this innovative composition, widely considered a Rock and Roll canon heralding the maturation of the relatively young art form, immortalized John Lennon’s extramarital affair with an unidentified woman, popularized the use of the sitar in Western music, and unintentionally led to the creation of one of the most clichéd imageries in Asia.

In East Asian countries such as Taiwan, the word “Norway” and the word “wood” juxtapotized evoke the mysteries of the deep Scandinavian forests, where mighty conifers stand tall, shrouded in mists of the North Sea. In the early 1990’s, this sense of exotic serenity was exploited by Norwegian Woods, a coffeeshop opened in the vicinity of National Taiwan University — the Taiwanese equivalence of the parisienne Latin Quarter. At a time when coffee snobbery had yet become mainstream in the capital city Taipei, the cult establishment cultivated a new sense of urban hip, in a city which was quietly transforming itself into an international metropolis in the backdrop of economical growth and political progress. In the sleek Euro-ish decor of the coffeeshop — distinctive at the time, the elite NTU students gathered to talk independent music, European movies, French philosophy, politics, advant-garde art, and pretended that they were at rive gauche. This was not quite the decadent picture that John Lennon painted in his song, who used the phrase “Norwegian wood” to refer to the cheap furniture in his secret lover’s middle class apartment. The sarcastic final remark “Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?” betrays a subtle, but troubling misogyny.

The woods of Norway surfaced to the Taiwanese popular culture on a much larger scale in 1996, when the teary power ballad “挪威的森林” (literally “The Forests of Norway”) by musician Wu Bai became a hit single in Taiwan. Just like the Beatles, who brought the sitar to Rock and Roll, Wu Bai legitimized the use the electric guitar in the then burgeoning Taiwanese popular music market. The over-the-top sentimentalism expressed in the lyrics, again making vague sylvian references to Nordic lands, made the phrase a household term. Teenage would-be Don Juans started to pick up the guitar and learn the pentatonic scale, to sing about faraway lakes and tundras that they knew very little about.

The Asian romancing of Norway is further witnessed in the trailer of the 2010 Japanese film ノルウェイの森, which opens with a panning shot of what appears to an European forest, slowly dissolves into scenes of Tokyo in the late 60’s, when the the movie title (with “Norwegian Wood” in English positioned just underneath the Japanese title) makes an appearance with George Harrison’s clanky sitar intro sounding in the background. A romantic montage, fully drenched in cliché, flows by with no hints of irony in the presence of John Lennon’s cold and bitter cooing. It is, after all, a romantic song, if you don’t worry too much about the words.

The odd Asian obsession with Nordic vegetation can be traced back to the source material of the movie, a novel by Haruki Murakami, which immediately became a coming-of-age bible for Asian youth when it was first published in Japan in 1987. The orginal title of the novel, Noruwei no Mori (Norwegian Woods, with the S) was awkwardly translated into Norwegian Wood, without the S, in the English edition. Was Murakami referring to the forests or the furniture of Norway? It was, in fact, the Beatles song. The novel’s title was a reference to the standard Japanese translation of the Beatles song Noruwei no Mori. The mistranslation was hardly out of the ordinary, for even well into the 90’s, the western popular music business in Asian markets had been conducted by enthusiastic but very often amateurish cottage industries, where the insiders typically had very superficial knowledge about the cultures that they were importing into their countries. The new waves of Rock and Roll songs coming from the UK and the USA in the early 60’s, with the more refined lyrics by Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and others, were starting to outgrow the English sophistication of their Asian fans. It remains unclear if Murakami knowing exploited this cultural quirkiness, or if he was held spellbound, unsuspectedly, by the unintentional imagery of the deep forests of Norway.

There is a new chapter in the Norwegian forests/furniture saga. The Taiwanese musician Jutopi (which literally means “Pig Head Skin”) released a single in 2016 titled Norwegian Wood (without the S). The song, a parody of Wu Bai’s ballad, cuts up the guitar intro of Wu Bai’s Norwegian Woods (with the S) and blends it seamlessly with The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood (without the S). One scene of the music video depicts Murakami agonizing over the English title of his novel. Jutopi, a satirist with a keen eye on the absurd and the silly of the island nation’s society, has been Taiwan’s answer to Weird Al Yankovic and Frank Zappa. It is perhaps not surprising that the musician who filled the lyrics of a song about condoms with an endless supply of colorful euphemisms for sex, is also the person who devotes an entire song to the issue of appending S to the word “wood”.