Dialectical materialism: Canto-pop as counterculture?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 November, 2004, 12:00am

Who would have thought the late lyricist James Wong Jim was a closet Marxist intellectual?

The man who drank, smoked and partied to excess - and was famous for not only telling dirty jokes but also publishing extensive collections of them - turned out to be heavily influenced by such 20th-century Marxist luminaries as Theodor Adorno, Max Harkheimer, Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse.

His PhD thesis on the 'rise and decline of Canto-pop', approved last year by the University of Hong Kong, was in part an elaboration of this so-called Frankfurt School of Marxism. These philosophers argue that popular culture is best understood as a late-capitalist industry that generates profits by homogenising cultural taste and products. This in turn leads to the consumer's loss of autonomy and false sense of consciousness and identity.

But Wong argued this Marxist model was not entirely applicable to Canto-pop in Hong Kong because it was also a subculture or even counterculture which was 'a site of ideological struggle'. This means different interests and viewpoints fight for dominance.

Through this struggle, Canto-pop, at least in its initial 1970s and 80s phases, succeeded in giving an authentic voice to Hong Kong people. But he would say that, wouldn't he, since he spearheaded this golden age of Canto-pop?