Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History
by Yiu-Wai Chu
Hong Kong University Press

There’s a library of books about pop music’s role in modern history and culture – from The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll to niche titles such as Mark James Russell’s K-POP Now! The Korean Music Revolution. But until now there hasn’t been a full documentation of Canto-pop – at least not in English.

Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History, by Yiu-Wai Chu, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures, is a serious book about a topic most people don’t take too seriously.

The Canto-pop stereotype is of stars who are prized more for their looks and acting chops than for their singing, while the songs themselves are cloying and formulaic. But Canto-pop is more than just a collection of catchy tunes sung by heartthrobs – it has been a unique sound­track. As Hong Kong rapidly developed from a war-torn colony into an economic powerhouse, generations grew up with Canto-pop blasting from taxis and televisions.

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Hong Kong Cantopop is an academic work that begins by citing the doctoral thesis on the genre by James Wong Jim aka “Uncle Jim”. Wong was a lyricist who, along with composer Joseph Koo Ka-fai, created songs that helped define Hong Kong’s identity, such as 1979’s Below the Lion Rock.

Just a year earlier, Billboard magazine’s Hans Ebert had coined the term “Canto-pop”, giving a name to one of Asia’s biggest music trends of the late 20th century. Chu traces the roots of Canto-pop back far further, however – to wartime anti-Japanese songs and local Chinese opera halls.

In the 1950s, singers started combining Hong Kong’s dialect with Western pop melodies. A good example is Teddy Boy in the Gutter (1967), sung to the tune of Three Coins in the Fountain, which won the Academy Award for best original song in 1954.

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By the 60s, local pop music had taken off, the discs being cut by EMI’s Hong Kong subsidiary getting airplay on local radio stations. It was a revelation that modern pop or rock – like that produced by The Beatles, who performed in Hong Kong in 1964 – could be sung in the tongue used by 90 per cent of the population.

The 70s saw the rise of Sam Hui Koon-kit, the godfather of Canto-pop, and an explosion of TV shows and movies. By the 80s and 90s, Canto-pop was a trendsetting, multimillion-dollar industry. After it opened in 1983, the Hong Kong Coliseum frequently held sold-out shows by stars of the genre, who became the dominant pop-culture force across Chinese society, from Taiwan to the world’s Chinatowns.

Fans were riveted by the rivalry between Alan Tam Wing-lun and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing. Anita Mui Yim-fong was crowned the “Madonna of Asia” for her outrageous costumes and stage shows while Beyond brought rock guitar to the mix.

This was the era of Canto-pop’s Four Heavenly Kings – Jacky Cheung Hok-yau, Andy Lau Tak-wah, Aaron Kwok Fu-shing and Leon Lai Ming.Cheung’s albums sold millions of copies worldwide and Kwok had a major advertising contract with Pepsi.

Then came a generation of starlets, such as Karen Mok Man-wai, Kelly Chen Wai-lam and Sammi Cheng Sau-man.

In the 2000s, up popped the Twins, the photogenic, teeny-bopper duo of Charlene Choi Cheuk-yin and Gillian Chung Yan-tung.

But Canto-pop was in decline by the mid-90s, writes Chu. Record sales fell from HK$17 billion in 1997 to HK$560 million in 2006. Billboard signalled the beginning of the end with a 1999 article, “The Cantopop Drop”.

Much of Hong Kong’s pop culture – from kung fu flicks to art-house movies – rose out of a vacuum, at a time when China was still largely poor and isolated. But as the mainland modernised and opened up, Hong Kong’s role diminished. The 1997 handover and the Asian financial crisis that same year pushed Canto-pop into further decline. Mando-pop was in the ascendency before the cultural tsunami that was K-pop eclipsed them both.

And then came 2003, a devastating year for Canto-pop fans. On April Fool’s Day, Leslie Cheung committed suicide by jumping from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, in Central. In December, Mui died of cervical cancer.

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Hong Kong Cantopop is well written, well researched and fills an important gap in cultural studies, but it doesn’t fully capture the essence of a genre that was funny, bawdy and tugged at the heartstrings. It mentions the deaths of Cheung and Mui but it doesn’t convey the deep shock and heartbreak of a community that still mourns them. Nor does it adequately describe the sheer joy of the all-dancing, all-singing, strobe-lit extravaganza that is a Canto-pop concert.

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Hong Kong Cantopop would have benefited from historical photographs, or musical clips on a CD, but perhaps this was beyond the scope of its academic publisher. It would be rewarding to see Chu’s research made into an interactive exhibit, website or documentary film.

With former Canto-pop stars such as Denise Ho Wan-see having branched out into new styles, what does the future hold for the genre? As Chu writes at the end of the book, “Whether the sunset can be turned into a new dawn, only history will be able to tell.”