The rise and fall of Canto-pop and, with it, Hong Kong’s cultural identity

Vivienne Chow says the Ultimate Song Chart Awards reminded her of how Canto-pop once brought a thriving Hong Kong together. But, with its glory days long gone, she wonders if the uniquely Hong Kong genre can once again find that power to unite

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 1:52pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 11:30pm

On the first day of 2018, Hongkongers were delightfully surprised by Nicholas Tse Ting-fung’s appearance at the 30th annual Commercial ­Radio music awards show. Dressed in a black top and armed with an electric guitar, Tse joined local bands Supper Moment and Chochukmo on stage as a guest performer, driving the crowd wild, singing Jade Butterfly and Living Viva, two of his most memorable hits from the early 2000s, and a brand new Canto-pop song, (I) Have Fire. The last time he ­released a Cantonese full length album was in 2005.

It’s been a long time since any of the year-end music awards shows was the talk of the town. Not only were those watching Commercial Radio’s Ultimate Song Chart Awards presentation at the Convention and Exhibition Centre enjoying themselves, many who had long given up watching such awards shows found themselves tuning into the mini showcase online. The video clip appearing across various media platforms, including the official account of Commercial Radio and popular entertainment gossip page King Jer Entertainment Channel, has ­already garnered nearly a million views.

Adding to the Canto-pop memories of the night was Eason Chan Yik-shun’s performance of his old favourites and Hacken Lee Hak-han, a veteran of 30 years, bagging the gold male singer award for the first time. It was a nostalgic kick-start to the new year.

The return of Tse to the Canto-pop stage was ­unexpected, largely because, like many established Hong Kong stars, he shifted his focus to mainland China many years ago. Long gone was his Canto-pop bad boy image, as Tse reinvented himself as a successful entrepreneur and the most talked about TV chef. The glory days of Canto-pop seem to be the past life of not only Tse, but of Hong Kong as well.

Nicholas Tse: from Canto-pop bad boy to popular TV chef

Leon Lai, Joey Yung among Hong Kong stars in show marking eve of 20th anniversary of handover

Canto-pop is an integral part of Hong Kong’s cultural identity. It all started in the mid-1970s when Sam Hui Koon-kit began singing pop in Cantonese. It was a time when most people were still playing pop music in English. Hui’s songs were like a fresh breeze that stirred the souls of many Hongkongers whose mother tongue was Cantonese. This coincided with Hong Kong’s growing economic prosperity and rising public demand for leisure and entertainment.

Hong Kong localism, and nostalgia, behind revival of interest in Canto-pop

The intense rivalry among TVB, Rediffusion Television (which became ATV in the 80s) and the short-lived Commercial Television set the stage for the Canto-pop boom. Not only did they produce a number of hit TV series that captured the hearts of an audience seeking emotional refuge after a long day at work, the Cantonese theme songs of these TV series gained wild popularity, particularly title songs from wuxia martial arts epics, such as those adapted from Louis Cha Leung-yung’s novels.

Along with the kung fu cinema made popular by Bruce Lee in the early 70s, it was the beginning of the golden era of Hong Kong, which produced a unique brand of pop culture that was not borrowed from the West – an array of songs, TV shows and movies that made Hongkongers proud.

The rise of Canto-pop led to the launch of annual music awards shows in the 80s. TVB, Commercial Radio and public broadcaster RTHK each produced its own year-end shows, joined later by Metro Radio. These shows have played a vital role in promoting not only the music industry but also the melodies and sentiments that Hong Kong people identify with.

Chinese slang and famous Canto-pop song feature in Xi Jinping’s speech at Hong Kong banquet

Canto-pop brought Hongkongers together. During the heyday of the local music industry in the 1980s and 90s, watching live broadcasts of the year-end awards shows was a must. Those were the only occasions when not just fans but also general TV viewers had the chance to experience the live performances of the biggest and brightest stars, from the comfort of their homes.

The awards could easily cause heated debates among friends and family: arguments over whether Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing would be able to beat Alan Tam Wing-lun in the best male singer category could trigger a war of words among siblings at the dinner table in the 80s. And in the 90s, arguments over who was the best of the “Four Heavenly Kings” – Jacky Cheung How-yau, Andy Lau Tak-wah, Leon Lai Ming and Aaron Kwok Fu-shing – could easily end a friendship. But no matter who was most popular at the time, people could sing along to most of the hits.

Leslie Leung live in concert 1997

With no kings or queens, can Canto-pop find its star again?

As the top stars retired from these music awards shows, a younger generation of Canto-pop stars, like Eason Chan Yik-shun, Miriam Yeung Chin-wah, Nicholas Tse and Joey Yung Cho-yee in the 2000s, was given the ­opportunity to shine. The dramatic rivalries were gone but the music awards shows still managed to capture many people’s attention.

But all of that is now history: Canto-pop is struggling. In 2008, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (Hong Kong Group), the ­industry association, slashed requirements for ­album sales awards, from the original benchmark of 25,000 for gold and 50,000 for platinum – down to 15,000 for gold and 30,000 for platinum.

There is also a serious lack of new Canto-pop ­forces with the power to bring people together. While many of the established stars have either retired or shifted their focus to mainland China, appearing in reality shows such as I Am A Singer, the decline of ­traditional media and the rise of digital media, particularly the algorithm-based social media, has fragmented the audience base.

Even political groups have trouble finding new songs that can unite people at protests

The gap between reality and what is perceived as reality has never been so wide. Some traditional Chinese entertainment media expressed bewilderment at the result of the “favourite song of the year” category at the Ultimate Song Chart Awards, which went to local band ToNick’s Cheung Seung See Sau (“Stay Together Forever”), a song they claimed many had never heard of. But, in reality, the music video has had nearly 7.7 million views on YouTube, more than most other songs from 2017.

The truth is that Hong Kong is still living in the past. Even political groups have trouble finding new songs that can unite people at protests: the song that was sung probably the most at protests over the past five years was Beyond’s Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies, and that was released in 1993.

Occupy protesters hold up mobile phones as makeshift candles in a mass singalong

Over two decades on from the handover, the rise and fall of Canto-pop mirrors Hong Kong’s struggles with its cultural identity. And as long as Hong Kong is still caught up in its internal battles, the chance of getting people to sing along together to new Canto-pop tunes seems to be slim.

Vivienne Chow is a journalist, cultural critic and founder of Cultural Journalism Campus