Monday, May 1, 2017

SCMP article: A book about HK Cantopop history

Most of you probably know that I'm an avid reader, especially of books pertaining to the HK entertainment industry.  I guess you could say I'm a "collector" of sorts, as I'm always on the lookout for new books that come out pertaining to the industry and make sure I buy whatever I can before the books go out of print.  I've amassed a pretty large collection of entertainment industry-related books over the years and the intention is always to read them all as quickly as possible, but of course life and work get in the way and things kind of go downhill from there where "finding time to read" is concerned. 

Unlike the "regular" books I normally read – which are all in English – almost all of the entertainment books I have are written in Chinese.  This should come as no surprise, since almost all of the books were published in Hong Kong and written by people whose first language is not English.  Some of the books I had to order online but majority of them I picked up during my trips back to HK (I think I've written blog posts before about my habit of visiting bookstores whenever I return to HK to visit relatives).  Some books were only recently published while others were written several decades ago and were passed down to me from other family members (I am fortunate to be a part of a large family of HK entertainment fanatics!).

While I have no problems communicating  in Chinese due to being fluent in the language for many years already, I am admittedly a much slower reader when it comes to Chinese books.  The main reason is of course due to my first language being English, since my family immigrated here (to the U.S.) when I was a baby (most people don't believe me when I tell them that I'm an "OBC" – our conversation usually ends with people trying to force the "ABC" label on me, lol).  Not surprisingly, my brain is also wired to think in English so sometimes when I'm reading in Chinese, my brain will go into "auto-translate" mode and try to "default" itself back to English, lol (luckily this only happens when I read books, so I can get through Chinese newspapers and magazines pretty quickly).

This is why when I saw the below book review in SCMP about a book being released this year on the history of Hong Kong Cantopop written entirely in English, I was ecstatic and couldn't wait to get my hands on the book (finally, a book about the HK entertainment industry written in English by a native Hong Konger!).  I put in my order several weeks ago and the book finally arrived (via snail mail) yesterday!  Based on the SCMP review, it does sound like the book is more academic in nature (which isn't surprising given it's written by a University of Hong Kong professor as part of a research project) and I'm assuming that, while there is no doubt that the book will cover the entire timeline of Cantopop's history from its inception to current time, it looks like the tone will be more factual than anecdotal.  Regardless, I am still looking forward to reading this (I've got a few other books I need to finish up first though) and hopefully I can put a more personal spin to the content when I do my review of the book (which I will absolutely share on this blog).

For now though, fellow Cantopop fans can take a quick trip down memory lanel with the below article (note that I did not copy over the pictures that were in the article so if you're interested in them, please click on the Source link to read the article directly on SCMP's website).


Photo of the book's front cover that I took last night.


Article: Hong Kong Cantopop is a serious book on a genre that people don't take seriously

Source: SCMP

Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History
by Yiu-Wai Chu

Hong Kong University Press

There's a library of books about pop music's role in modern history and culture – from The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll to niche titles such as Mark James Russell's K-POP Now! The Korean Music Revolution. But until now there hasn't been a full documentation of Canto-pop – at least not in English.

Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History, by Yiu-Wai Chu, a professor at the University of Hong Kong's School of Modern Languages and Cultures, is a serious book about a topic most people don't take too seriously.

The Canto-pop stereotype is of stars who are prized more for their looks and acting chops than for their singing, while the songs themselves are cloying and formulaic. But Canto-pop is more than just a collection of catchy tunes sung by heartthrobs – it has been a unique soundtrack. As Hong Kong rapidly developed from a war-torn colony into an economic powerhouse, generations grew up with Canto-pop blasting from taxis and televisions.

Hong Kong Cantopop is an academic work that begins by citing the doctoral thesis on the genre by James Wong Jim aka "Uncle Jim". Wong was a lyricist who, along with composer Joseph Koo Ka-fai, created songs that helped define Hong Kong's identity, such as 1979's Below the Lion Rock.

Just a year earlier, Billboard magazine's Hans Ebert had coined the term "Canto-pop", giving a name to one of Asia's biggest music trends of the late 20th century. Chu traces the roots of Canto-pop back far further, however – to wartime anti-Japanese songs and local Chinese opera halls.

In the 1950s, singers started combining Hong Kong's dialect with Western pop melodies. A good example is Teddy Boy in the Gutter (1967), sung to the tune of Three Coins in the Fountain, which won the Academy Award for best original song in 1954.

By the 60s, local pop music had taken off, the discs being cut by EMI's Hong Kong subsidiary getting airplay on local radio stations. It was a revelation that modern pop or rock – like that produced by The Beatles, who performed in Hong Kong in 1964 – could be sung in the tongue used by 90 per cent of the population.

The 70s saw the rise of Sam Hui Koon-kit, the godfather of Canto-pop, and an explosion of TV shows and movies. By the 80s and 90s, Canto-pop was a trendsetting, multimillion-dollar industry. 

After it opened in 1983, the Hong Kong Coliseum frequently held sold-out shows by stars of the genre, who became the dominant pop-culture force across Chinese society, from Taiwan to the world's Chinatowns.

Fans were riveted by the rivalry between Alan Tam Wing-lun and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing. Anita Mui Yim-fong was crowned the "Madonna of Asia" for her outrageous costumes and stage shows while Beyond brought rock guitar to the mix.

This was the era of Canto-pop's Four Heavenly Kings – Jacky Cheung Hok-yau, Andy Lau Tak-wah, Aaron Kwok Fu-shing and Leon Lai Ming.Cheung's albums sold millions of copies worldwide and Kwok had a major advertising contract with Pepsi.

Then came a generation of starlets, such as Karen Mok Man-wai, Kelly Chen Wai-lam and Sammi Cheng Sau-man.

In the 2000s, up popped the Twins, the photogenic, teeny-bopper duo of Charlene Choi Cheuk-yin and Gillian Chung Yan-tung.

But Canto-pop was in decline by the mid-90s, writes Chu. Record sales fell from HK$17 billion in 1997 to HK$560 million in 2006. Billboard signalled the beginning of the end with a 1999 article, "The Cantopop Drop".

Much of Hong Kong's pop culture – from kung fu flicks to art-house movies – rose out of a vacuum, at a time when China was still largely poor and isolated. But as the mainland modernised and opened up, Hong Kong's role diminished. The 1997 handover and the Asian financial crisis that same year pushed Canto-pop into further decline. Mando-pop was in the ascendency before the cultural tsunami that was K-pop eclipsed them both.

And then came 2003, a devastating year for Canto-pop fans. On April Fool's Day, Leslie Cheung committed suicide by jumping from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, in Central. In December, Mui died of cervical cancer.

Hong Kong Cantopop is well written, well researched and fills an important gap in cultural studies, but it doesn't fully capture the essence of a genre that was funny, bawdy and tugged at the heartstrings. It mentions the deaths of Cheung and Mui but it doesn't convey the deep shock and heartbreak of a community that still mourns them. Nor does it adequately describe the sheer joy of the all-dancing, all-singing, strobe-lit extravaganza that is a Canto-pop concert.

Hong Kong Cantopop would have benefited from historical photographs, or musical clips on a CD, but perhaps this was beyond the scope of its academic publisher. It would be rewarding to see Chu's research made into an interactive exhibit, website or documentary film.

With former Canto-pop stars such as Denise Ho Wan-see having branched out into new styles, what does the future hold for the genre? As Chu writes at the end of the book, "Whether the sunset can be turned into a new dawn, only history will be able to tell."


  1. Hello,
    I do have a question about this book, will you write a review about this book? I want to know if it is worth to buy this book. I'm a student at the moment and it is a bit expensive to buy this book. Also my English is not good at all.

    I do have a lot of interest in Cantopop. I grew up listening to Cantopop and I still follow the Cantopop industry. The 80's-90's era of Cantopop is one of my favorite period. That's because of Tam/Cheung/Mui and Lai/Cheung/Lau/Kwok. I do know a lot of this era because of the internet fora and some blogs ( like yours ;) ). I'm afraid that when I buy this book, it will not give some new information. That will be a pity.

    Also, can you share a quick view about this book? Does this book contains pictures, or is it a classic book (with boring lettertypes)? How are the chapters divided (in era's or in artist)?


    1. Hi Leon! Thanks for commenting!

      Yes, I absolutely intend on writing a review on this book as soon as I am done reading it. No guarantees on when that will be though, since I’ve got a few other books I’m trying to finish up but I will do my best to prioritize it. Hopefully some time this month or next month.

      In terms of whether it is worth it to buy the book – it really depends. I would’ve bought it regardless mostly because I am a long time follower of the HK entertainment industry and so I tend to pick up everything I can find about the industry (be it books, magazines, newspapers, video content, etc.). I definitely understand the concern about the cost though – when I first saw the hardcover edition on Amazon, I was shocked, as the price was way too high for a book….but then they released the soft cover (paperback) edition and that was much more reasonably priced so that’s the version I bought.

      I did skim through the book when it arrived and can tell you that it is a very thorough and comprehensive account of the origins of Cantopop, starting from the 1950s all the way through the present. It covers every era that most music fans are probably most familiar with (Sam Hui in the 70s/80s, Anita, Alan, and Leslie from the golden 80s era, the Heavenly Kings from the 90s era, the decline of Cantopop in the late 90s and what the genre has become in the post 2000s era, etc.) but there is also A LOT of information that most regular music fans may not know (and depending on the type of fan, some may not care to know). There is also quite a bit of information about Hong Kong from a cultural perspective too, which I love, since I’m a history and culture fiend, lol.

      With all that said though, the book is written in a more academic, factual tone so it will likely come across as less personal and maybe even boring for some. When I do my review, I will try to add my personal touches to it, since I have been following Cantopop since the 80s and am familiar with the origins of it due to my family, so hopefully I can add some insight and emotional depth to the content.

      There are no pictures in the book (which I agree with the SCMP article that this would’ve been a nice touch). It is essentially page after page of “boring lettertype” except that it does divide into sections so should be relatively easy to follow format-wise (not sure about the English piece, since I haven’t read yet, so no clue whether it’s simple English or the “academic” kind like you’d find in university essays). I didn’t pay attention to how the chapters were divided when I skimmed it so can’t answer that part right now, but I can check and let you know. Oh, and the book is 200+ pages, with the last 20 pages or so (rough estimate) consisting of all the different references the author used in his research.

      Hope this gives more insight about the book. Feel free to leave more comments if you need more info! :-)

    2. Hi,

      First of all, thanks for giving a 'quick skim' of this book.

      I will wait for your review of this book!

      It's good to hear that the chapters is devided in sections, that makes it a lot easier to read.

      I think I will buy this book (before your review). I do have a coupon for books and I'm thinking to use it for this book. I am curious about the new information which fans doesn't know.

      Thanks for your reply,


    3. Hi Leon,

      You’re very welcome! :-)

      I also went back and looked at the table of contents. The book is separated into 7 main chapters, with each chapter devoted to a particular era in Cantopop history. The first chapter combines the 1950s to 1970s, the 1980s and 1990s each have their own chapters (makes sense), then it goes into post 2000s to today. It also has a chapter on the future of Cantopop in the context of HK’s return to China. Separated out this way, definitely makes the information easier to digest.

      Glad to hear that you are thinking of getting this book! Are you planning on getting the hardcover or softcover version? I would recommend getting the softcover version mostly because the hardcover one is way too expensive and even with coupons or discounts, it is not worth the price. Also, one thing to note is that there is no guarantee that all the information in the book will be accurate, since I’m not familiar with the author nor his qualifications for writing about the HK music industry. But then again, that’s one of the reasons why I’m so curious to read the book, so I can offer my perspective from the other side (as a fan who has followed the HK music scene for several decades) and see if the information matches up.

      If you end up reading the book, please feel free to come back and share your thoughts here. I would love to hear your take on it!

    4. Hi again,

      Of course I will buy the softcover version ( it's the cheapest ;) )
      So this book is separated in periods, I like it!

      In my country this book will be available at the end of the month, so I have to wait.