Canto Pop stars do Beijing boogie

THE pouting pop stars were there of course, along with the whistle-blowing teen masses, but the Hongkong Coliseum also played host to some unlikely guests this week when Commercial Radio staged its annual pop awards.

Lining up alongside Aaron Kwok and Ronnie Yip at the Ultimate Song Chart Show 92 were Zhang Jun-sheng, vice-director of the Hongkong branch of the New China News Agency, and the head of China's biggest radio broadcaster, the Central People's BroadcastingStation in Beijing, Mr Yang Zhengquan.

The reason, pop-pickers? Well, it seems that at least one Hongkong broadcaster has cottoned on to the massive potential of the mainland audience when it comes to locally-produced Canto Pop.

''The China market is actually becoming more and more important to the local record industry,'' declared Carl Chang, head of programming at CRII channel. ''Actually I think the future of the Hongkong record industry depends on China.'' Hence the presence of the mainland officials at the Ultimate show, and also the introduction this year of a new award category.

The snappily-titled ''Professional Recommendation of All China's Radio Stations'' award came about when Commercial invited more than 30 mainland radio stations to select the best three of 12 Hongkong songs which enjoyed the most airplay in China over thepast 12 months.

They came up with Sally Yeh's Lighthearted Journey, Lui Fong's Crescent Moon and Vulnerable Woman by Faye Wong. The three duly collected their awards but the speeches were almost drowned out by the sound of Hongkong record executives salivating at the prospect of a renminbi frenzy.

Commercial's initiative at warming up the links between local and mainland broadcasters can only have one possible effect: a windfall for local labels which have traditionally faced major obstacles in trying to get their records into China.

''This is an attempt to indicate to the record industry what kind of music the Chinese people like,'' Chang explained.

''We would like to have had statistics from all the audiences but it is impossible so the first step is to listen to what the radio people say.

''They are very hungry for all kinds of information from Hongkong. It is very difficult to get records in China - in fact we have to provide some records for them because they don't have the money to buy CDs.'' There are also strict limits on the number of records imported into China each year. Following a central government directive, only 150 new titles are allowed into the country each year. Any record company which hopes to get its album among those 150 titles has to go through a central corporation for approval.

Diplomacy thus becomes crucial and Hongkong's leading labels like Polygram and Warner Music have set up China trade departments which specialise in developing relationships with those in China who have the power to select artists.

Then there is the added complication of China's sensitivity when it comes to anything other than mainstream material. Hongkong music could hardly be accused of radical political tendencies but even Canto Pop sometimes finds itself banned.

''Even after the Open Door policy they still can't accept all Hongkong music,'' said Chang.

''There are restrictions, not necessarily in written words, but there is always some scepticism about Hongkong music.

''On the street level people love it, but radio is still the main kind of communication in China and it goes to all these rural areas where old men may listen, hear something they don't approve of, and call in to complain.

''I think they are still two years behind us in the music they play. They are listening to melodic, gentle music and they still can't even appreciate hip-hop sounds.'' But try telling that to someone who has visited any of the special economic zones in the south of the country. Hongkong pop music and karaoke is rampant. But that is due in part to rife piracy.

That is acting as another obstacle to a more free market for record releases and Chang said it's a problem that won't go away in a hurry. If it should, though, the local cash registers will be ringing.

''If the Chinese Government can solve the piracy problem then we have access to the biggest market in the world,'' he said. ''And also Chinese music can become compatible with Western music - because of the exposure, you will be able to hear all kinds of Chinese music, blues, rock, etc.

''Our taking this step with the awards is hopefully the first step towards Hongkong becoming the music capital of South-east Asia.''