Hong Kong’s 30-year relationship with Madonna: it’s complicated

Desperately seeking the material girl, we went deeper and deeper into the South China Morning Post archives in the 20th century to justify our love.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 February, 2016, 10:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 February, 2016, 12:43pm

It was 30 years ago, in January 1986, when Madonna first came to Hong Kong.

She arrived here to shoot the film Shanghai Surprise, and quickly found herself sought after by fans keen to get her autograph.

Married at the time to actor and Shanghai Surprise co-star Sean Penn, the couple refused all interviews and photograph requests, but intrepid SCMP photographer Sam Chan managed to snap shots of the pair dining in the legendary Godown restaurant in Central.

She may have rejected requests for the media’s attention, but Madonna was far more gracious to her fans, who dutifully staked our her hotel and film locations in their search for sightings and an elusive autograph from the material girl.

The photo, along with a framed signature from ‘Madonna Louise Ciccone’ were hung on the walls of the Godown for some years until thieves unceremoniously pinched them in 1990, never to be seen again, despite the posting of a HK$1,000 reward for their return by the venue’s owners.

It was the same year Madonna had indicated interest in performing at Hong Kong’s Freedom Festival concert at the Sha Tin race course as part of the global celebration to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany.

Who’s that girl: Madonna’s movie life

Dancing through the South China Morning Post archive, we find much mention of Madonna’s movie life and her embrace of cinema as an extension of her identity beyond the stage.

Madonna’s next major starring role was in Who’s That Girl, which arrived in Hong Kong in early 1988. In the movie she plays a tough, streetwise girl, just out of jail and bent on finding out who was responsible for framing her for murder. The SCMP’s Young Post wrote that although her last film Shanghai Surprise, filmed in Hong Kong and Macau, was something of a flop, fans would be keen to see if she could recapture the magic of her performance in Desperately Seeking Susan.

Madonna’s singing and performing ability has been unassailable; her acting ability has been argued about for years. In 1988, it had bought war between critics. The Daily News wrote “No, She Can’t Act.” in the headline and The Washington Post said “Can Madonna act? No, not particularly well.” WCBS-TV drama critic Dennis Cunningham said, “We could have got anyone out of the audience who could have read it better than she did.”

In contrast, New York Times critic Frank Rich liked Madonna’s performance in Speed the Plough. He described her performance as “intelligent, scrupulously disciplined comic acting”. But this made Cunningham furious and demanded Rich apologise to every actor he gave a bad review.

Madonna was reported to be considering quitting her acting career after her film Bloodhounds On Broadway was considered so bad it should not be released.

Nevertheless, the dawn of the Nineties found the superstar negotiating a deal to launch her career to even greater heights of stardom. She landed the role of Eva Peron in the film bio-pic Evita. She was backed by Disney Studios after playing the impressive Breathless Mahony in Dick Tracy. It was to be her most successful role, winning her a Golden Globe award.

In bed with Madonna: in trouble with the censors

Madonna aimed to show her “real” life in the documentary, In Bed with Madonna (Truth or Dare). It was shot behind the scenes of her 1990 “Blonde Ambition” world tour. From the SCMP archive in 1991, reviewer Fionnuala Halligan described it as ‘… a commercial product designed to separate punters from their hard-earned money, and perpetuate her position at the top of the headline league’. She also described it as “a strange experience… [of] outrage, shock and vulgarity.”

In the documentary, there are sexual scenes of faked masturbation on stage, simulated oral sex with a water bottle, gay dancers French-kissing, topless shots and coarse language, but also poignant scenes about her family and lover.

Halligan wrote “Despite all the shock-till-you-drop and blatant mugging, she’s still a riveting presence and it’s hard not to be impressed”.

Halligan then asked would Madonna have a life if the camera wasn’t switched on. To Halligan, it seems that the only buddies of Madonna are her largely gay dancers who receive her genuine feelings.

Though the documentary’s one major flaw is it’s slightly rambling, it’s enough to show that Madonna loved all attention rolled onto her and loves living under her fame. The review ends with a fairly spiky question about her longevity: “Cursed with a whiney little-girl speaking voice, Madonna minces her way through the piece, simply revelling in the attention. Here’s one star who will never complain about the price of fame. Madonna will happily carry on pushing those buttons as long as we allow her to do so. The real question is why?”

Into the groove: Madonna’s musical life

The South China Morning Post archives of the 1980s recall a decade when Madonna ruled the charts and her live shows commanded tremendous attention.

Despite beginning her relationship with Hong Kong some 30 years ago, it is only this year that she will perform live in the city; as part of her Rebel Heart world tour, Madonna will stage two concerts in Hong Kong on 17 and 18 February. It has been a long wait for her local fans, who for years have read reports of her previous world tours with envy.

During her Who’s That Girl World Tour in July 1987, fans were camping outside her hotels in Japan and the United Kingdom; banner headlines were seen in every country she visited, and her merchandise enjoyed rocketing sales. SCMP’s Young Post said it “demonstrates the unique position that she commands in the world of pop music.”

In 1987, Madonna Louise Ciccone had sold more records in the US than any female artist and was third in overall records for her latest film and album Who’s That Girl. She played to a total of 320,000 fans in Japan and 200,000 in England and hundreds of thousands more in Europe and the US. Although she did not stop in Hong Kong, her soundtrack album from the film was available and the video of Causing a Commotion had appeared on music TV shows.

Still producing energetic pop music, Madonna had changed drastically in her appearance from the buxom, curvaceous coquette of her Like a Virgin days to a lean and muscular shape. Because of the demands of all-action stage shows and her enthusiasm for keeping fit, she had undergone a strict regime in exercise.

Her daily routine in preparation for the concerts included a six-mile jog, a work out on an exercise bike, then 100 lengths of her swimming pool and three hours of aerobic exercises.

Young Post then wrote: “Apart from her obvious physical attraction, the key to her immense popularity boils down to a combination of her outrageousness and her appreciation of street values – the things that make the average man or woman in the street tick.”

She was quoted as saying “There are about a million opposites living inside me.”

This may be one of the reasons why she continues to fascinate her audience.

The sexual elements in Madonna’s music had always been controversial, but this time she managed to outrage even more people. Her music video Erotica was banned on the Asian satellite channel in 1992. The channel chief said: “When you’re dealing with a wide range of religions, cultures and beliefs, it’s hard to see this not offending someone and we’re very conscious of this.”

The decision was taken on the channel’s own standards and practices without an approach to Hong Kong censors, or the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority. People in Asia who wanted to see the music video could buy the book or the video itself. Though, another single Justify My Love was included in her book, Sex, released later in Hong Kong.

The saucy video for Justify My Love also sparked controversy in sexual content, suggesting bisexuality and oral sex. It was banned by US pop channel MTV. “This is my art”, Madonna said in a statement, “This is my interpretation of the song. I’m practising freedom of speech and expression.” Critic John Owen said Madonna has “put the knife into some deserving patriarchal values and morals…” Whilst, Critic Gloria Wu believed “Madonna is using her considerable talent to exploit the male-dominated entertainment industry for all it is worth.”

Madonna challenges people’s perception about themselves and sex, such as telling women not to be embarrassed being female. Her marketing skills and chameleon-like ability of changing image and have led to remarkable career success.