Hong Kong Canto-pop duo Tat Ming Pair making headlines ahead of 30th anniversary shows

The beloved and influential outfit are playing three shows at the Coliseum this month to mark their 30 years together – and their fans want people to look past recent controversies and focus on the music

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 March, 2017, 11:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 March, 2017, 11:00am

Influential Hong Kong duo Tat Ming Pair have been making headlines as they prepare for their upcoming 30th-anniversary series of live shows, but for reasons that have had little to do with their music.

Ever since the group’s singer, Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, became something of a freedom fighter by speaking up on behalf of sexual minorities and supporting students during Occupy Central in 2014, he has fallen out of favour with the mainland authorities, losing all job opportunities across the border. And his reunion shows with bandmate Tats Lau Yee-tat, which start on March 23, have also been affected.

First, the pair failed to find a commercial sponsor for the three shows at the Hong Kong Coliseum. Then the MTR removed the concert poster, which was inspired by The Beatles’ classic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, featuring 80 figures the pair believe have influenced the city’s affairs during the past three decades. Wong expressed concern over an “invisible hand” behind the move as well as looming self-censorship.

While many praised the group’s outspokenness – a breath of fresh air in the local entertainment industry which prefers not to rock the boat – music critics want to remind the city that Tat Ming Pair are not just about politics: they have also created a unique sound that sets them apart from other Canto-pop acts.

Removal of concert poster is censorship, outspoken Hong Kong singer claims

“A lot of people have said that they envy the prosperous music scenes of Taiwan or even the mainland,” says music critic Fung Lai-chi. “But if you look around the greater China region, none of these places have produced musicians that can match Tat Ming Pair. Hong Kong, however, was ahead of times as the group was formed some 30 years ago. Their music is a record of our times.”

Tat Ming Pair emerged in the mid-1980s when uncertainty surrounding the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration hit Hong Kong just as it was enjoying its first taste of economic prosperity. The then radio DJ Wong answered an ad posted by guitarist and composer Lau, who was seeking a singer. Drawing inspiration from their Chinese names, a pop duo called Tat Ming Pair was born and released their debut EP in March 1986. William Chang Suk-ping, who later became film director Wong Kar-wai’s favourite artistic director and costume designer, took charge of the duo’s artistic direction.

It was the golden era of Canto-pop. Although the scene was dominated by stars such as Anita Mui Yim-fong and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, and bands such as Beyond and Tai Chi, Tat Ming Pair stood out. It wasn’t just because of their distinctive image and aesthetics (it was considered rebellious for Wong to wear long hair back in the days). It was also because they were the first local band to display influences from the New Wave synth-pop scene.

The pair released a full-length album in September 1986, but it wasn’t until the 1987 release of their critically acclaimed second studio album, Stone Age, that the duo became household names. The album paints a vivid portrait of young people’s anxiety over the future of Hong Kong, as reflected by hits such as Angels of the Road and Beautiful New World.

Wong Chi-chung, radio DJ and educator, has been playing Tat Ming Pair’s music on the radio since the release of their debut EP. He recalls that while most Canto-pop bands such as Beyond played rock ’n’ roll at that time, Tat Ming Pair’s melodic electronic sound set them apart. He says the duo’s music displayed influences from the likes of David Bowie and Pet Shop Boys, and the stories they told captured the hearts of the youth.

“Tat Ming Pair’s music is a mirror of our times. Their music is critical of the contemporary situation,” Wong says.

The pair went on to release songs that made strong comments on the city’s sociopolitical situation. Roller-Skating Group is another song about young people’s helplessness, while Forbidden Colours is about the struggle of gay people and I Should Be Very Happy Today tells the story of Hong Kong people emigrating abroad in fear of the 1997 handover. The Ten Young Firemen and Ask the Sky drew inspiration from the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Fung describes Tat Ming Pair as musical geniuses. He says because the Cantonese language contains nine tones, making the lyrics work in music influenced by the British New Romantic movement was never going to be easy. And compared to most Canto-pop ballads, which have a basic five-note structure, Fung says the music written by Lau is much more complex and has a distinctive groove, which is uncommon in Canto-pop.

“Lau is at the forefront of Hong Kong’s pop music. A lot of musicians and bands in mainland China have high respect for Tat Ming Pair’s musicianship, because they can’t produce such music themselves,” Fung says.

Since the turn of the millennium, Wong has mainly focused on his solo career, but Tat Ming Pair reunite on a regular basis. In recent weeks the pair have been busy rehearsing for the upcoming shows and declined to be interview, but they have released the single 1+4=14, which comments on the absurdity of our current world saturated with “alternative facts”.

“Tat Ming Pair live in the present. They wouldn’t have survived on the mainland with the kind of music they make. We are very lucky to have them in Hong Kong and we must treasure what we have here,” Wong says.

Tat Ming Pair, March 23-25, 8.15pm, Hong Kong Coliseum, Hung Hom, HK$380-HK$900, available from Urbtix.