The Golden Age of Hong Kong’s Music
Weaving its way through bustling streets and honking cars, a fresh melody carried itself through the streets of 1970s Hong Kong. Unlike the usual tunes threading down the road of rushing Fords and jam-packed buses, this tune didn’t match the sharp voices of Cantonese opera, nor did it have the rounded syllables of English pop. This song carried a soft, guitar-based front accompanied by the distinct words of a male Cantonese singer. This man was actor and musician Sam Hui, the founder of one of Hong Kong’s most prolific musical eras: Cantopop of the 1980s and 90s.
What is Cantopop?
A classic fusion of Eastern and Western-style music, Cantopop is often characterized by a descending baseline and lyrical piano melodies accompanied by guitar and synthesizer. Unlike English lyrics, whose words hold the same meaning no matter what pitch they are sung in, Cantonese lines must be altered to fit the tone of each word. For example, 搬 (bun1, meaning to move, to shift) is read in a high, flat tone, whereas 半 (bun6, meaning half, incomplete) is voiced low and clipped. Nonetheless, early Cantopop artists such as Sam Hui and James Wong have coined “stock phrases” that future singers depend on to structure their melodies.
Rise to fame after Hui
As Sam Hui’s ‘70s era drew to a close, the 1980s rolled in with a fresh cut of Cantopop musicians who drew from international influences to create the genre’s iconic sound. The next two decades are regarded as the “Golden Era” of Cantonese pop. Cantopop during this time was a solace to the everyday young college student or a comfort to a working parent—most songs covered the mundane yet beautiful elements of urban life in Hong Kong. Romantic ballads, sorrowful numbers, and sentimental tunes dominated the genre. Hacken Lee’s “高妹”, literally translated as “Tall Girl,” is a humorous, upbeat track where Lee confesses his love for his partner and now-wife Emily Lo: one line translates to “I’m not six feet tall, but I will treat you well.” Vivian Chow’s “最愛” (Most Beloved) combined reverb and backing violin with Chow’s wistful vocals to create a dramatic serenade full of dashing lyrics: “I met you for the first time, who has no reverie / Sunset like poetry, sunset like wine…”
Cantopop runs the gamut of well-known stars, but one circle has been dubbed “the Three Kings and One Queen” (三王一后) for ruling Hong Kong’s music scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Danny Chan Pak-Keung (陳百強), Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing (張發宗), Alan Tam Wing-lun (譚詠麟), and Anita Mui Yim-fong (梅艷芳) were revered as pioneers in the Cantopop world for their work in the movie and music industry.
Actor, musician, and songwriter Danny Chan is renowned for his deeply sentimental romantic tracks. Gripping titles such as “Misty Rain,” “Tears Dropping for You,” and “Loving You Alone” would earn him numerous accolades. Chan’s iconic voice and impressive vocal range were a token of the early stages of Cantopop’s heydays, and he is regarded as Cantopop’s first true idol. Chan’s notable tracks include “念亲恩” (Remembrance of a Parent’s Love,) “漣漪” (Ripples,) and “一生何求” (Life Expectations).
Leslie Cheung was one of the most prolific artists of the time, releasing a string of hit albums in the late ‘80s alongside being an internationally acclaimed actor. He was instrumental in bringing LGBTQ+ representation to the big screen in a then-largely conservative Hong Kong: gay relationships were criminalized until 1991. He starred in the 1997 drama “Happy Together”, a film monumental in Hong Kong for explicitly depicting two gay men in a relationship. Cheung’s well-known songs include “沉默是金” (Silence is Golden), “當年情” (Past Love), and “我” (Myself).
Alan Tam’s successful career stretches more than 30 years, and he is still producing music today, having sold over 35 million records and published more than 115 albums. In the late 1980s, Tam received four consecutive IFPI Awards for Most Popular Male Artist. Active on the music scene even prior to his solo career, Tam was part of the Cantonese boyband, The Wynners, whose songs were mostly in English.
Anita Mui touched the hearts of many with the story of her harsh upbringing, eventually being given the sobriquet “Mui Jie” (sister Mui). Known for her deep vocal range and flamboyant stage presence, she gained additional international recognition as an actress after starring alongside Jackie Chan in two films. One of the most iconic figures of the Cantopop scene, her career lasted over 21 years until her untimely death due to illness in 2003.
Fall out of popularity
In a tragic string of events that would leave Hong Kong shaken, three of the aforementioned celebrities would die young due to either illness or suicide. Alan Tam is the only remaining member of the circle, with Mui, Cheung, and Chan becoming nearly deified in their status in Cantonese pop culture. With the deaths of two of its kings and one of its queens, Cantopop slowly fell out of the frenzied height of its popularity. A deficit of new content combined with increasing competition from other Asian pop subgenres—such as K-Pop—led to a steep decline in Cantopop album releases and sales. By the early 2010s, Cantopop’s fanbase had largely receded into an enclave of older residents and some of the Cantonese diaspora.
Resurgence amid political turmoil
Today, Cantopop has experienced a resurgence after years of fallow production. The Cantonese boyband MIRROR has been credited for reviving the genre, being known as “the new kings of Cantopop” following the deaths of Cheung and Chan. In recent years, thousands of fans have found unity and comfort in MIRROR’s songs amidst months of political turmoil and the COVID-19 pandemic.
With such a long-stretching history and numerous popular idols, Cantopop was and continues to be a source of cultural celebration and national unity among Hong Kong’s citizens and its diaspora. Cantopop’s legacy will stretch far into the future, as long as its artists continue to produce music.
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