Book review: Hong Kong Cantopop puts us in tune with the lesser-known Chinese pop-music genre

With the enthusiasm of a fan and diligence of an academic, Yiu-Wai Chu traces the highs and lows of this often-glossed-over hybrid Chinese pop-music genre.

Hong Kong singer and actress Anita Mui. Getty images
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'Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs – and what's wrong with that?", sang Paul McCartney and Wings in Silly Love Songs in 1976. On the face of it, it's a sentiment that chimes with the ethos of Cantopop, a hybrid Chinese popular-­music form renowned – and sometimes maligned – for its fixation with saccharine chansons d'amour.

In Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History, lifelong Cantopop fan and University of Hong Kong professor Yiu-Wai Chu shows that there's more to the genre than boy-meets-girl. In 1984, when leading Cantopop lyricist Lin Xi won a "Non-love lyrics writing contest", it paved the way for him to explore Taoism and Buddhism on Juno Mak songs such as Three Thousand Fathoms of Weak Water, while Kay Tse, one of Cantopop's so-called "Heavenly Queens", released 2005's Happy Reading, "a piercing mockery of tabloid culture", which showed Cantopop had fangs.

Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History by

Yiu-Wai Chu

Even if much of classic Cantopop did rely on slickly produced balladry and heart-­tugging lyrics, one only has to leaf through Chu's dense, fact-filled study to see how often the genre's song titles waged war against clichés. Joey Yung's Doing Aerobics with Jane Fonda; Sam Hui's political allegory Eiffel Tower Above the Clouds; Eddie Lau's Monster Girl – such Cantopop song titles were deliciously arresting, inviting the listener in.

Though the book’s appendix includes a chronology of major Cantopop-related events between 1935 to 2015, Chu says that the genre has no definitive year zero. Influenced by a variety of international music styles, synonymous with Hong Kong, and often holding up a mirror to cultural and political upheaval in the territory, Cantopop brought a sense of identity and comfort to Hong Kong’s population.

Over the course of 240 pages (no pictures, alas, so the book retains a certain academic stiffness), Chu goes on to show how 1950s Cantopop slipped its working-class moorings, Cantonese opera-roots and reputation as a somewhat tawdry and inferior form to become a multi­million dollar concern. By the mid-1990s it was Hong Kong and China’s most celebrated pop-music genre.

Sam Hui, of the Hui brothers, made theme songs a standard fare in films after their first attempt proved a huge success. AP Photo

He also explains why Cantopop was ultimately eclipsed by Mandapop – Mandarin-language pop music – when Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 after 156 years as a British colony. In essence, the territory lost much of its cultural autonomy and Cantopop was slow to react to Mandarin replacing Cantonese as the lingua franca of Hong Kong’s film and television industries, both of which had been integral to the rise of Cantopop and a unique Hong Kong culture from the mid 1970s onwards.

By 1974, Chu notes, 780,000 out of 850,000 households in Hong Kong had a TV set, and families would tune-in to a free service to watch together around dinner time. That same year, the drama Romance in the Rain, with its Cantopop theme song of the same name, began the all-pervasive and ultimately hugely lucrative trend of marrying Cantopop songs to TV programmes.

The "theme tune craze" that caught hold was also exploited by the growing Cantonese strand of Hong Kong's film industry, and when the Hui brothers opted to have Sam Hui, later dubbed "the God of Cantopop" sing songs in their 1974 martial-­arts comedy, Games Gamblers Play, the film broke Hong Kong box-office records. "[It] set a Cantopop formula for Hui brothers' productions", writes Chu. "[They] used theme songs with different styles for plot development, as well as promotional strategy."

The author is also good on how the proliferation of small-scale karaoke venues in Hong Kong in the late 1980s / early 1990s had an adverse effect on Cantopop’s quality. “If you can’t sing it in karaoke, it won’t be a hit,” declared Asia’s regional managing director of EMI music, and the industry began producing aesthetically compromised songs that were not just easy to listen to, but also very easy to sing.

The record companies made a killing from selling copyright on these tailor-made “k-songs” to different karaoke chains, but with their songwriting teams ostensibly writing for random amateurs rather than charismatic, cherry-picked professionals, things went terribly wrong.

This sense of blind commercialism being Cantopop’s Achilles heel deepens when Chu writes about Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung, also known as Twins, “the most successful pop music duo in China’s history” (and one of Cantopop’s last stands as Mandapop gained ascendancy in the new millennium).

Released to target the teen market in summer 2001, their eponymous debut EP included hits such as Boy Student in a Girl School and came bundled with gift coupons for skincare products, sushi and dancing lessons. Twins and their audience would soon outgrow each other, however, and once again, Cantopop had fallen foul of what Chu describes as "a lack of effective succession planning".

As the book's who's who of Cantopop rolls on, we learn of other fascinating stars: Anita Mui, the 1980s diva dubbed "the Madonna of the East"; Aaron Kwok, the singer who found fame through an appearance in a 1990 Taiwanese motorcycle advertisement and later became known as "the Hong Kong Michael Jackson"; and Sammi Cheng, the mid-1990s singer whose song Gentlemen, You're So Fine Today mocked patriarchal society and whose Nike swoosh-like eyebrows "became one of the most iconic looks in Cantopop history".

A famous faces of Cantopop includes Aaron Kwok. Getty images

By 2003, Cantopop was very much on the back foot, however, and when classic-era Cantopop star Leslie Cheung jumped to his death from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on April 1, it seemed symbolic. The by-then veteran singer Sam Hui kick-started a wave of Cantopop nostalgia when he returned with 2004's Keep on Smiling – his attempt to cheer-up Hong Kong in the wake of its many losses to the Sars virus – but the die was cast.

Chu’s book is a little guilty of making the same points over and over, but as the first major English-language study of Cantopop, it has intrinsic value. Thoughtful, diligently researched and clearly a labour of love, it shines new light on a culturally specific genre hitherto glossed over in books about Mandapop, K-Pop and J-Pop.

James McNair is a regular contributor to The Review.