In tune with Can­topop

With the en­thu­si­asm of a fan and dili­gence of an aca­demic, Yiu-Wai Chu traces the highs and lows of this of­ten-glossed-over hy­brid Chi­nese pop-mu­sic genre. James McNair is im­pressed

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‘Some peo­ple want to fill the world with silly love songs – and what’s wrong with that?”, sang Paul McCart­ney and Wings in Silly Love Songs in 1976. On the face of it, it’s a sen­ti­ment that chimes with the ethos of Can­topop, a hy­brid Chi­nese pop­u­lar­mu­sic form renowned – and some­times ma­ligned – for its fix­a­tion with sac­cha­rine chan­sons d’amour.

In Hong Kong Can­topop: A Con­cise His­tory, life­long Can­topop fan and Univer­sity of Hong Kong pro­fes­sor Yiu-Wai Chu shows that there’s more to the genre than boy-meets-girl. In 1984, when lead­ing Can­topop lyri­cist Lin Xi won a “Non-love lyrics writ­ing con­test”, it paved the way for him to ex­plore Tao­ism and Bud­dhism on Juno Mak songs such as Three Thou­sand Fath­oms of Weak Wa­ter, while Kay Tse, one of Can­topop’s so-called “Heav­enly Queens”, re­leased 2005’s Happy Read­ing, “a pierc­ing mock­ery of tabloid cul­ture”, which showed Can­topop had fangs.

Even if much of clas­sic Can­topop did rely on slickly pro­duced bal­ladry and heart­tug­ging lyrics, one only has to leaf through Chu’s dense, fact-filled study to see how of­ten the genre’s song ti­tles waged war against clichés. Joey Yung’s Do­ing Aer­o­bics with Jane Fonda; Sam Hui’s po­lit­i­cal al­le­gory Eif­fel Tower Above the Clouds; Ed­die Lau’s Mon­ster Girl – such Can­topop song ti­tles were de­li­ciously ar­rest­ing, invit­ing the lis­tener in. Though the book’s ap­pen­dix in­cludes a chronol­ogy of ma­jor Can­topop-re­lated events be­tween 1935 to 2015, Chu says that the genre has no de­fin­i­tive year zero. In­flu­enced by a va­ri­ety of in­ter­na­tional mu­sic styles, syn­ony­mous with Hong Kong, and of­ten hold­ing up a mir­ror to cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal up­heaval in the ter­ri­tory, Can­topop brought a sense of iden­tity and com­fort to Hong Kong’s pop­u­la­tion.

Over the course of 240 pages (no pic­tures, alas, so the book re­tains a cer­tain aca­demic stiff­ness), Chu goes on to show how 1950s Can­topop slipped its work­ing-class moor­ings, Can­tonese opera-roots and rep­u­ta­tion as a some­what tawdry and in­fe­rior form to be­come a mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar con­cern. By the mid-1990s it was Hong Kong and China’s most cel­e­brated pop-mu­sic genre. He also ex­plains why Can­topop was ul­ti­mately eclipsed by Man­dapop – Man­darin-lan­guage pop mu­sic – when Hong Kong re­turned to Chi­nese sovereignty in 1997 af­ter 156 years as a British colony. In essence, the ter­ri­tory lost much of its cul­tural au­ton­omy and Can­topop was slow to re­act to Man­darin re­plac­ing Can­tonese as the lin­gua franca of Hong Kong’s film and tele­vi­sion in­dus­tries, both of which had been in­te­gral to the rise of Can­topop and a unique Hong Kong cul­ture from the mid 1970s on­wards.

By 1974, Chu notes, 780,000 out of 850,000 house­holds in Hong Kong had a TV set, and fam­i­lies would tune-in to a free ser­vice to watch to­gether around din­ner time. That same year, the drama Ro­mance in the Rain, with its Can­topop theme song of the same name, be­gan the all-per­va­sive and ul­ti­mately hugely lu­cra­tive trend of mar­ry­ing Can­topop songs to TV pro­grammes.

The “theme tune craze” that caught hold was also ex­ploited by the grow­ing Can­tonese strand of Hong Kong’s film in­dus­try, and when the Hui broth­ers opted to have Sam Hui, later dubbed “the God of Can­topop” sing songs in their 1974 martial-arts com­edy, Games Gam­blers Play, the film broke Hong Kong box-of­fice records. “[It] set a Can­topop for­mula for Hui broth­ers’ pro­duc­tions”, writes Chu. “[They] used theme songs with dif­fer­ent styles for plot de­vel­op­ment, as well as pro­mo­tional strat­egy.”

The au­thor is also good on how the pro­lif­er­a­tion of small-scale karaoke venues in Hong Kong in the late 1980s / early 1990s had an ad­verse ef­fect on Can­topop’s qual­ity. “If you can’t sing it in karaoke, it won’t be a hit,” de­clared Asia’s re­gional manag­ing direc­tor of EMI mu­sic, and the in­dus­try be­gan pro­duc­ing aes­thet­i­cally com­pro­mised songs that were not just easy to lis­ten to, but also very easy to sing. The record com­pa­nies made a killing from sell­ing copy­right on these tai­lor-made “k-songs” to dif­fer­ent karaoke chains, but with their song­writ­ing teams os­ten­si­bly writ­ing for ran­dom am­a­teurs rather than charis­matic, cherry-picked pro­fes­sion­als, things went ter­ri­bly wrong.

This sense of blind com­mer­cial­ism be­ing Can­topop’s Achilles heel deep­ens when Chu writes about Char­lene Choi and Gillian Chung, also known as Twins, “the most suc­cess­ful pop mu­sic duo in China’s his­tory” (and one of Can­topop’s last stands as Man­dapop gained as­cen­dancy in the new mil­len­nium).

Re­leased to tar­get the teen mar­ket in summer 2001, their epony­mous de­but EP in­cluded hits such as Boy Stu­dent in a Girl School and came bun­dled with gift coupons for skin­care prod­ucts, sushi and danc­ing lessons. Twins and their au­di­ence would soon out­grow each other, how­ever, and once again, Can­topop had fallen foul of what Chu de­scribes as “a lack of ef­fec­tive suc­ces­sion plan­ning”. As the book’s who’s who of Can­topop rolls on, we learn of other fas­ci­nat­ing stars: Anita Mui, the 1980s diva dubbed “the Madonna of the East”; Aaron Kwok, the singer who found fame through an ap­pear­ance in a 1990 Tai­wanese mo­tor­cy­cle ad­ver­tise­ment and later be­came known as “the Hong Kong Michael Jack­son”; and Sammi Cheng, the mid-1990s singer whose song Gentle­men, You’re So Fine To­day mocked pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety and whose Nike swoosh-like eye­brows “be­came one of the most iconic looks in Can­topop his­tory”. By 2003, Can­topop was very much on the back foot, how­ever, and when clas­sic-era Can­topop star Les­lie Cheung jumped to his death from the 24th floor of the Man­darin Ori­en­tal Ho­tel on April 1, it seemed sym­bolic. The by-then vet­eran singer Sam Hui kick-started a wave of Can­topop nos­tal­gia when he re­turned with 2004’s Keep on Smil­ing – his at­tempt to cheer-up Hong Kong in the wake of its many losses to the Sars virus – but the die was cast.

Chu’s book is a lit­tle guilty of mak­ing the same points over and over, but as the first ma­jor English-lan­guage study of Can­topop, it has in­trin­sic value. Thought­ful, dili­gently re­searched and clearly a labour of love, it shines new light on a cul­tur­ally spe­cific genre hith­erto glossed over in books about Man­dapop, K-Pop and J-Pop.

James McNair is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Re­view.

AP Photo

Sam Hui, of the Hui broth­ers, made theme songs a stan­dard fare in films af­ter their first at­tempt proved a huge suc­cess.

Reuters; Getty Im­ages

Fa­mous faces of Can­topop, from left, Anita Mui, Aaron Kwok, and Sammi Cheng.

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