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Hong Kong in Five Songs

 2017-10-01    ThomasIronmonk    Entertainment    Hong Kong    1672  

The territory’s unique blend of Western music styles with Chinese traditional music and Hong Kong’s home-grown notions of popular culture has produced the soundtrack to the lives of young people in East Asia for generations. The musical form generally known as Cantopop – as it is invariably performed in Cantonese – misleads, as rock, soul, folk, and opera all contribute to this eclectic Southern soup.

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Before 1949 Hong Kong’s domestic music market was almost exclusively comprised of Cantonese opera. But in the 50s, Shanghai migrants who’d been exposed to Western music like jazz arrived in Hong Kong, sowing the seeds for Hong Kong to grow into a contemporary music hub par excellence.

It took awhile. As the popularity of television dramas rose in the 1970s so to did the stars that performed the soundtracks. It was the birth of an industry. And this neatly brings us to our first star and song.

Ban Jin Ba Liang (Theme From The Private Eyes)

Samuel Hui is considered by some to be the first major Cantopop superstar, known locally as the God of Song. His example would define many qualities of the Canto-star, bridging acting with music and performance. Hui is credited with popularising what would become known as “Cantopop” by blending Western-styles of music with vernacular Cantonese. His songs often addressed contemporary problems that Hongkongers were concerned about, thus paving the path for more political acts in the following decades. Ban Jin Ba Liang was the theme song from The Private Eyes, a 1976 comedy film that humorously addressed social issues in Hong Kong. Hui also starred in the film with his brother Ricky Hui and the soundtrack was Hui’s third album.

Boundless Skies, Endless Seas

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The 1980s saw an explosion in Cantopop artists with the likes of Leslie Cheung, Sandy Lam and Danny Chan producing hit after hit. The genre moved into Southeast Asia and newly opened Mainland China where it inspired future generations of musicians. But there was one group of Canto-kids whose pioneering Cantorock sound would catapult them to the top of the charts with songs that still resonate in the karaoke halls to this day. They would come to dominate the decade until the untimely death of frontman Wong Ka Kui in 1993. They were Beyond – an English name etched on the heart of every Chinese teenager. Despite their Anglo-branding, the band championed Cantonese language music with a heavier guitar-driven sound than their contemporaries. Their lyrics often dealt with subjects beyond the “lost love” formula, notably the epic Boundless Skies, Endless Seas released in 1993.


The genre generally sees a maturing period during the 1990s, both visually and musically. As the 1997 handover to Mainland China looms, a certain post-modern angst sets in, as if the end of history is fast approaching. This tension is best captured in Wong Kar-wai’s fabulous film Chungking Mansions, where lost and lonely lovers fail to commit to one another as they navigate the concrete jungle and contradictions that haunt the city at night. The film stars Faye Wong as an eccentric snack bar worker courted by a policeman played by Tong Leung. Beijing-born Wong also contributed a song to the soundtrack, the quirky Cantonese version of Dreams by the Cranberries, rebranded as Dreamlover.    

Lianai Daguo Tian


Photo Source: Wallcoo

It would be unfair to overlook the essential bubble-gum character of much of Cantopop, which, particularly in the 2000s moved towards commercial pop as well as RnB influences. Of this Girl Power-era Twins were a defining force for teenyboppers throughout the Sinosphere. Comprising ex-models Gillian Chung and Charlene Choi, the group produced countless hits. Despite the Edison Chan photo scandal, break-up, solo careers, a reformed Twins still managed to sell-out arenas in Beijing and Hong Kong in 2015. Hold your lighter to the air and enjoy.

Raise the Umbrellas

Finally, Cantopop’s long dormant political subconscious resurfaced during the Occupy Protests. Wherever you stand on this political fault-line, you cannot question that the umbrella-branding protestors sang loud to make their voices heard. Beyond’s Boundless Skies, Endless Seas resonated throughout the territory as did Can you Hear the People Sing from the musical Les Miserables. But it was songwriter “Pan” Lo Hiu-pan and singers Denise Ho, Anthony Wong and Deanie Yip that produced the big hit, 2014’s song-of-the-year, Raise the Umbrellas


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