BORDER scene, take one: 5.55 am, July 1, 1997. The checkpoint at Lowu is about to open. On the Hong Kong side, music retailers with lorryloads of compact discs and cassettes prepare to surge into what they hope will be the world's largest consumer base opening up. On the Chinese side, bands and singers, microphones in one hand and Hero fountain pens in the other, wait to rush through the checkpoint and grab multimillion-dollar recording contracts that will make them rich, famous and glamorous. Five to 10 years ago, this could well have been the scenario many in the music industry had in mind for the day the British finally relinquished their rule on the territory. Pessimistic Hong Kong singers - already facing fierce competition from new local singers, a saturated market and piracy problems - were understandably worried that, once the floodgates opened, their northern cousins would pounce on dwindling opportunities. The more optimistic, however, looked forward to being able to do a road tour of every big city in the motherland and return home with trainloads of yuan. Now the big day has arrived, there has been little substance to support the optimists' hopes or the pessimists' fears. There has been no great influx of mainland singers, although several have established a name for themselves here, such as rockers Cui Jian and Dao 'Mr Faye Wong' Wei. Nor have local singers been able to rock from city to city in the mainland and come back with enough to retire on. But in the past few years there has been an undoubted shift in musical tastes and trends in Hong Kong, with Putonghua releases gaining a foothold and more Putonghua releases by local and Taiwanese singers. Hong Kong's plethora of annual music awards have also moved to recognise the language by dedicating at least one award to songs from the genre. Many have seen this as Hong Kong's way of gearing up for the return to China, with more people becoming fluent in the language. According to figures released by the International Federation of Phonographic Industry (Asia) (IFPI) at the Midem Asia '97 fair in May, the market share for Putonghua products in Hong Kong and the region rose by 5 per cent to 70 per cent over the past five years. IFPI's Asia regional director, Giouw Jui-chian, has put it down to 'people in Hong Kong having to speak Putonghua since it will be the mother language'. 'Companies are producing more albums suitable for both Hong Kong and China, and you are seeing a shift in the local recording scene to this,' he said. At Tower Records, manager Ambrose Aw Chi-fai said Putonghua album sales had been doing better than Cantonese releases in recent months. 'Our sales figures from the same period of last year showed Canto-pop albums outselling Mandarin albums by two-to-one. This year, however, we are seeing an equal number of Mandarin and Canto-pop albums being sold,' he said. 'Singers such as [Singaporean] Mavis Hee and [Taiwanese] A-mei Zhang have done very well. It's not only the Mandarin releases from other countries that have done well, however; we have seen better sales of Mandarin albums of local singers such as Gigi Leung [Wing-kei], compared with their Cantonese ones.' More pragmatic considerations than adjusting to the handover may underpin the trend: with no more than 1.5 billion Chinese all over the world, the most common dialect in use is undoubtedly Putonghua. Compared with this potential market, the Cantonese-speaking audience is a drop in the ocean. One local music critic said: 'The trend towards Mandarin is a natural progression. Part of the reason is because of the impending handover but another important reason is also the expansion of Hong Kong into a regional music market.' But, Mr Aw said, the change in sovereignty had brought a greater curiosity about what musical talent lay to the north. Tower had received an increase in customer inquiries and requests concerning mainland artists and was thinking of setting up a section dedicated to the genre. 'However, we have not really seen much aggressive marketing by mainland record labels to push their products here,' he said. Although insiders believe the trend is still likely to grow, many are just as confident - contrary to fears from singers - that Hong Kong audiences are not going to be packing the Coliseum or the Hong Kong Stadium for 30-show concerts by mainland singers. 'I don't foresee much of a change in the industry after the handover. There will be more importance placed on Putonghua albums, but that does not mean that Chinese artists will be rushing down to Hong Kong. Even if they do, it does not mean they will be accepted by the public. 'It all depends on the songs and the artists,' said Kenny Lau Yuk-wah, managing director of PolyGram's domestic division, which represents such local names as Jacky Cheung Hok-yau, Leon Lai Ming, Alan Tam Wing-lun and Priscilla Chan Wai-han. 'Naturally, if there are more artists there will be more competition and I believe that, for music, more competition will mean a greater chance of improvement,' Mr Lau said. 'Hong Kong music has a culture of its own. And local singers such as Jacky Cheung have succeeded in placing this culture on the world podium and gaining international recognition.' Indeed, for the past two years both the prestigious World Music Awards and the Billboard Music Awards have included categories for Chinese singers. The former has named Cheung the world's best-selling Chinese artist for the second consecutive year, while Billboard has honoured him and Andy Lau Tak-wah for similar achievements. Cheung also spearheaded Hong Kong's full-fledged Canto-pop stage musical earlier this year with the 43-show run of Snow.Wolf.Lake. Kenny Lau believes Hong Kong artists should not have to worry about their livelihood because they can usually sing in both Cantonese and Putonghua, and have always proved more popular in other Asian countries. Patrick Wong Tsz-tin, chief secretary of IFPI (HK), also believes Putonghua songs will not eclipse Canto-pop in Hong Kong but does not discount the possibility that record labels will look north for new creative talent. 'Hong Kong will probably be using more songwriters from the mainland, as there is a lack of creative talent here. Some of the songs from the mainland are quite good,' Mr Wong said. He did not see such a trend as likely to produce conflict between local talent and mainland talent: 'As far as I understand, the mainlanders are not quite used to the way Hong Kong people operate. They might come down and see how things work, but they have not really caught on. They are still quite behind in things like promotion and packaging. Also, their radio and television culture is not as competitive.' Certainly, recording companies seem to be putting their money on Hong Kong. Unlike some film companies and other media companies that have shifted to other cities in the region, in particular Singapore, the main recording companies are staying put. Locally owned labels, such as Flying Colour, Interstar and Media Bank, have been stepping up business here. So far, only Taiwan-based Rock Records has pulled out, citing financial reasons and an inability to adapt to Hong Kong's promotional culture - not the handover - as the main reason prompting its relocation. With Canto-pop often labelled bland and soppy, the possibility of censorship has not unduly worried the mainstream Canto-pop industry, compared with the worry in indie band circles and the film-making world. '[Canto-pop] music is not something political, so there won't be much of a problem with censorship. The only problems might be with packaging and image,' Mr Lau predicted. Most industry observers believe the greatest problems the resumption of sovereignty will produce are those touching piracy and copyright issues. IFPI's Mr Wong and Mr Giouw both foresee a continuing piracy threat, especially as the consumer base grows. Mr Giouw was confident there would be better enforcement at the border, but said the prospect of more CD plants opening up to cope with demand increased the piracy risk. PolyGram's Mr Lau also feels that if China handles the piracy and copyright issues successfully, it will make a lasting contribution to the regional industry. 'If they can control that, it would affect the whole Asian market, and not only Hong Kong,' he said. Mr Wong did not think such a move would occur immediately. 'Piracy will continue to be a problem,' he forecast. 'It cannot be solved very quickly, especially since we haven't really reached a consensus in the way we [China and Hong Kong] view the problem. 'Admittedly, in the past few years they have put in a lot of effort to reduce piracy, but this is purely on the strength of administrative orders, unlike Hong Kong which has a mechanism in place to fight piracy.' Mr Lau said: 'When China opens and there is enough protection for creative talent, you are looking at this tremendous market. When that time comes, maybe Jacky Cheung will be selling not five million, but 25 million copies, and be equal to any international singer. Maybe by then even Michael Jackson would have to consider recording a Putonghua album.'