The first English language recordings by Hong Kong artists were made in the late 1950s. Before that, Hong Kong pop was recorded either in Mandarin or Cantonese. But the roots of English recordings go back to Shanghai where a unique style of music, fusing Chinese melodies and vocal performance with North American jazz and art song, had taken hold in the 1930s. Composers and lyricists were Chinese and mostly male, while singers were Chinese and mostly female. The house band that appears on many of the surviving EMI-Pathé 百代唱片 recordings of the time was mostly made up of Russian emigrés and expatriate North American jazz bands sometimes played in Shanghai nightclubs. But many of the bandleaders and musicians were Filipino. Lobing Samson 洛平 , who led the house band at Ciro’s for many years, later made his way to Hong Kong as did Fred Carpio, Vic Cristobal 葛士培 and many more well known HK musicians of the 1960s and 1970s. It was also in 1930s Shanghai that production of Chinese-language versions of American hits began in the 1930s, although only a few recorded examples, such as Martha Soo’s 穌馬大 San Francisco, have survived.
The Shanghai popular music of the 1930s was spread through radio, movies and recordings, with the French-owned EMI-Pathé label playing the leading role. Records were expensive and often heard at street corner stalls rather than in the home. Shanghai was also was also the centre of popular music production for China and Southeast Asia. At the time, Hong Kong did not have its own record production facilities, but Mandarin and Cantonese songs were composed and recorded locally, then sent to Shanghai for production and distribution. Not much is known about these songs, but at least one example of a song with mixed Cantonese and English lyrics has survived from a 1930s songsheet published by New Moon 新月 .
The Shanghai popular music industry continued to flourish through the Japanese occupation, but came to an abrupt end with the 1949 Communist takeover. Musicians, composers and producers moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong en masse, recording first with the Great Wall 長城唱片 label and later rejoining EMI-Pathé when it re-established operations in Hong Kong in 1952. Although Cantonese opera and folk songs were produced on smaller labels, EMI-Pathé's Mandarin recordings dominated local production through the 1950s. At first, Hong Kong-based Shanghai songs, known locally as shi dai qu , 時代曲 looked nostalgically backwards rather than forwards. But by the late 1950s a newer, livelier style of shi dai qu had emerged.
The new style incorporated Cantonese folk melodies, on the one hand, and American mambo and rock and roll styles, on the other. Chinese-language versions of North American hits also played an important role in EMI-Pathé's output at this time. The popular Shanghai-born singer and movie star Grace Chang 葛蘭 symbolized the youth and energy of the new music. She was also responsible for the first English-language popular music recording produced in Hong Kong – a version of Georgia Gibbs’ I Want You To Be My Baby . Recorded under the Chinese title 我要你的愛 , the song begins and ends in Mandarin, but also includes the entire English lyric.
The first English-language recordings of shi dai qu songs were made overseas. In 1951, Frankie Laine recorded Rose, Rose, I Love You, an English version of a Chen Ge-xin 陳歌辛 composition, 玫瑰玫瑰我愛你 , first recorded in Shanghai by Yao Lee 姚莉 in the 1940s. With lyrics written by a British DJ, Wilfred Thomas, Frankie Laine's Columbia recording reached No. 3 on the Billboard chart, and remains the only US hit by song by a Chinese composer. And in 1959, Tsai Chin 周采芹 recorded an English version of Yao Ming’s 姚敏 The Second Spring 第二春 , which featured in the London stage musical The World of Suzie Wong . With lyrics by Lionel Bart, The Ding Dong Song was released as a single on Decca backed by the original Mandarin version. The daughter of a Peking opera singer, Tsai Chin was educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, played the heroine in The World of Suzie Wong , and enjoyed some success with ‘oriental’ flavoured English songs, including a Decca album The Western World of Tsai Chin. Although they were not made with Hong Kong audiences in mind, Rose, Rose, I Love You and The Ding Dong Song became popular local nightclub songs and are well-remembered in Hong Kong today. In the late 1950s, EMI-Pathé also began to market shi dai qu internationally through the ‘Capitol of the World’ series released by its US affiliate Capitol and on the Columbia label, acquired in 1959. These albums were typically packaged in English, with English synopses of songs printed on the back cover, but recorded in Mandarin. They also included instrumental albums of shi dai qu performed in upbeat western styles.
Although influenced by the internationalization of Mandarin song, English-language popular music took off in Hong Kong independently of the recording industry in the burgeoning early 1960s cabaret scene. Based in hotels and ballrooms, Hong Kong nightclubs featured both Filipino and Chinese dance bands often fronted by local female singers. At the upper end of the market, Rebecca Pan 潘迪華 , Mona Fong 方逸華 and Kong Ling 江玲 became well-known for their mixed Mandarin and English repertoires. Recording on Diamond Records 鑽石唱片, an independent Hong Kong label established in 1960, they issued a series of albums made up of Mandarin and English originals, Mandarin versions of English songs, English versions of Mandarin songs, and ‘bilingual’ songs mixing English and Mandarin. EMI-Pathé followed suit in the 1960s with a series of albums on the Columbia and Pathé labels by Chang Loo 張露, Betty Chung 鐘玲玲 , Billie Tam 蓓蕾, Judy Jim 詹小屏 and Irene Ryder 黎愛蓮. And in 1968, Paul Leung 梁寶耳 produced one of the more remarkable bilingual albums of the 1960s, Hong Kong Song, consisting of his own English and Mandarin compositions, sung by his sister Mary Leung 梁月玲, and recorded on his own AMO Recording Co. 愛美唱片公司 label.
Among these artists, Rebecca Pan has enjoyed the longest and most successful career, which now spans five decades. She has also been the most versatile interpreter of the bilingual song, beginning with her 1961 version of Rose, Rose I Love You, set to a sophisticated big-band jazz arrangement and sung first in English and then in Mandarin. Rebecca Pan enjoyed a successful career as an international cabaret artist and recorded several English singles and an album , under the name Ching, on the UK Parlophone label in the 1960s. She has continued to record sporadically since the 1970s, producing two classic albums, Rebecca Live In The Eagle's Nest (Hong Kong's first live album, recorded during a 3-week residency at the Hilton Hotel) and Pai Niang Niang 白孃孃 (Hong Kong's first Mandarin musical, composed by Joseph Koo 顧嘉煇). Her most recent CD/DVD, Shanghai , A Sentimental Journey, recorded in 2004 with a pick-up veteran Filipino big band is one of her best.
The cabaret-style recordings of the 1960s are of mixed quality and are, perhaps, symptomatic of the dilution and decline of shi dai qu in an era of modernization and westernization. For some critics, it was the poor quality of local shi dai qu that led to growing popularity of Taiwanese-style Mandarin song in late 1960s and early 1970s Hong Kong. But there is a good deal of creativity in these recordings, most evident in those on the Diamond label, in the mixing of Mandarin and English lyrics (and in Rebecca Pan's case several other languages besides), in innovative vocal interpretations, and in sophisticated and often surprising ‘East-West’ arrangements.
The early 1960s were the golden years of Hong Kong’s night life scene, with the upper end nightclubs and ballrooms presenting dance bands and cabaret singers for adult audiences and a host of smaller venues presenting ‘combos’ to younger audiences. Among the acts that left a recorded legacy were Giancarlo and his Italian Combo, The Corsairs, D’Topnotes, The Reynettes (who composed and first recorded the local classic, Kowloon Hong Kong) and The Fabulous Echoes. Many of these combos were made up of the offspring of Filipino musicians who had come to Hong Kong from Shanghai a decade earlier. Lobing Samson’s five children, for example, made up D’Topnotes. The Fabulous Echoes – three Filipinos, a Scotsman and Sri Lankan lead singer Cliff Foenander – were the most successful of these early sixties bands, appearing on two Diamond albums behind Kong Ling and on four more albums showcasing their talents as a rock’n’roll show band.
Meanwhile, in school halls and at afternoon tea dances in restaurants and nightclubs a new generation of teenage Hong Kong musicians was preparing to take the Hong Kong music scene by storm. In 1964, The Beatles played at the Princess Theatre 樂宮戲院 in Tsim Tsa Tsui and, according to popular memory, it was from there that the local guitar band scene took off. In 1965, Anders Nelsson and the Kontinentals recorded Hong Kong’s first guitar band singles on Orbit Records: I Think Of Her and I Still Love You. Around the same period Diamond Records began signing up young guitar bands and releasing singles. Philip Chan and the Astronotes, Danny Diaz and the Checkmates, Teddy Robin and the Playboys, and The Anders Nelsson group were among the first to record. Later names to appear on Diamond were The Lotus 蓮花樂隊 (led by Sam Hui 許冠傑), The Mystics (who introduced Hong Kong to soul music), The Zoundcrackers, D’Topnotes, The Downbeats, Joe Jr. and the Side Effects, Mod East, Sons of Han, and The Menace. In addition to singles and compilations, Diamond released five albums by Teddy Robin and The Playboys, four by Joe Junior, two for the Mystics, and one each for Anders Nelsson and the Inspirations, The Menace, and Joe Chen (originally of The Menace). Although Diamond’s releases were commercially more successful, EMI also released pop singles by The Black Jack (Lesson To The Saints) and the Singapore band, The Quests (Mr. Rainbow) as well as folk songs by artists including Buddy Wong, The Willows, The Nautics, The Swinging Monstrels, and The Gabriels.
Radio also played its part, especially Ray Cordeiro’s ‘Lucky Dip’ show on Radio Hong Kong, which broke many of the new bands. English was the language of choice of the new pop music scene, which had its strongest fan base in local English-medium elite schools. Many bands relied on covers of UK and North American hit songs, but there were a number of significant local pop compositions:, My Baby Treated Me Cruel (The Astronotes), Strawberry Sundae (The Menace), Lesson To The Saints (The Black Jack), Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind (Anders Nelsson). Anders Nelsson composed a number of songs for his various bands and his Inspirations album must rival Paul Leung’s Hong Kong Song as the first Hong Kong album to consist mostly of English songs by a local composer. And at least one cover attained heights in Hong Kong than its original had achieved in the UK, when Joe Jr. and the Side Effects turned the ballad Here’s A Heart, the b-side of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, and Tich’s 1966 single Hideaway, into one of the biggest Hong Kong hits of the sixties.
The guitar band scene of the sixties was significant in the history of Hong Kong popular music for several reasons. Hong Kong had never quite taken to rock’n’roll in the way it took to pop, so it was not until the sixties that Hong Kong discovered the teenager through the tea dance, Diamond 45’s, band competitions and concerts at Mongkok Stadium and the newly built City Hall, radio shows such as ‘Lucky Dip’ and Sam Hui’s TV ‘Star Show 雙星報喜’. The band scene also signalled a decisive shift from Mandarin to English, and from female to male lead singers. But with a much smaller fan base, the Hong Kong band scene turned out to be more fragile than its counterparts overseas. Many of the more popular bands traced their origins to elite schools and, as their members grew older, they could often find more lucrative employment in business, the law, government and, in some cases, the commercial music industry. In sixties Hong Kong, as it is today, band music was more of an adventure than a career. By the end of the decade many of the bands had broken up. Teddy Robin 泰迪羅賓 left Hong Kong to pursue musical interests in the US, while Norman Cheng 鄭東漢 and William Kwan 關維麟 of the now-defunct Playboys joined the international label Polydor 寶麗多唱片, on the business side, after it had acquired Diamond Records in 1970. Sam Hui was signed up as one of Polydor’s first artists and a new chapter in the history of Hong Kong pop had begun.
In spite of the demise of many of the popular bands of the 1960, English songs were still in the ascendancy as Hong Kong moved into the 1970s. The Chopsticks 筷子姊妹花 (aka Sandra Lang 仙杜拉 and Amina 阿美娜 ) were probably the most popular, and certainly the most spectacular, local act around the turn of the decade, singing mostly English songs with a sprinkling of Mandarin, Japanese, Brazilian and Spanish songs thrown in for good luck. The Chopsticks recorded four albums on the local Crown label with Joseph Koo 顧嘉煇 and Nonoy Ocampo 奧金寶 before they split up in 1973. All are excellent, but the most interesting is probably Some Day, with three songs written by the local ‘jurist-cum-composer’ Desmond Mayne: Some Day, A Man Like You, and The Chopstick (co-written with Joseph Koo). Artists visiting Hong Kong in 1973 included The Platters, Jose Feliciano, Tom Jones, Santana, Don MacLean, The Supremes, The Temptations, and the Bee Gees. On the local music front, a Midsummer Night Festival concert at City Hall featured a mixed line-up of English and Mandarin acts, with tickets ranging from HK$10-20 (Mike Remedios, The Ripples, Chin Wai 秦淮 , Joe Chen 陳任 , William Chan 陳威廉 , Peter Chan 陳浩德 , Ko Siu-Hung 高小 紅 , Paula Tsui 徐小鳳 , Elaine Sun 孫泳恩 , Stella Chee 奚秀蘭 , Fung Wai-tong 馮偉棠 , Shu Ya Chung 舒雅頌 , Derek Cheng 張 皓暉 , Pau Lap 鮑立 , Annie Chung 鍾安妮 , Jennie Chung 鍾珍妮 - all accompanied by Celso Cristobal and His Jacks).
When Polydor entered the market in 1970, merging with Phillips to form Polygram in 1972, it was mainly to market imported and local English language music – a strategy later adopted by EMI and its Columbia subsidiary around the same time. Sam Hui, for example, who would later produce the three best-selling albums of the 1970s for Polygram in Cantonese, was signed on the strength of his reputation as a singer of English songs. He had already released singles with the Lotus 蓮花樂隊 on Diamond and two ‘pop-folk’ albums released on Life label and his first big hit with Polydor in 1971 was April Lady, written by Hans Ebert who worked for Polydor at the time. Sam went on to make four albums of English songs between 1971 and 1976. Polygram enjoyed their next big English success with The Wynners 溫拿 album Under The Lion Rock, which was followed by Chelsia Chan’s 陳秋霞 Dark Side Of Your Mind (1975). Unusually for the time, Chelsia wrote the music for the title song (with lyrics by Pato Leung 梁柏濤 ), sang and played piano. The Wynners and Chelsia Chan became the biggest stars of the mid-1970s – The Wynners recorded six English albums and Chelsia four. Polygram also released English albums by Amina, Albert Au 區瑞強 , Patricia Chan 陳美玲 , Joe Jr., Louie Castro 賈斯樂 , and, in 1977, Leslie Cheung’s 張國榮 first and last album in English, Daydreaming.
Polygram’s biggest rival in the 1970s was EMI, who also released a string of English albums in the second half of the decade by artists including Teresa Carpio 杜麗莎 , Esther Chan 陳懿德 , Rowena Cortes 露雲娜 , Felicia (Wong) 王愛明 , (George) Lam 林子祥 , The New Topnotes 新特樂樂隊 , Gracie Rivera, Tracy (Huang) 黃露儀 , The Western Union Band and Frances Yip 葉麗儀 . Two independent labels also released English albums in the 1970s: House, with four albums by Jade 玉石 樂隊 , three by Rowena Cortes 露雲娜 , and three singles compilations, and Life 麗風 , with nine albums by Frances Yip and three by Agnes Chan 陳美齡 .
With so many English albums being released, especially in the second half of the decade, quality inevitably suffered. Many albums were simply collections of recently released UK and American hits, covered in rather bland styles. And, in some cases, local versions of overseas hits were issued before the originals reached Hong Kong, with the intention of maximising company profits. But the 1970s also produced many Hong Kong originals, including: Desmond Mayne’s compositions for the Chopsticks; Joseph Koo’s The Con Game and Fate (sung by Amina), and I’ll Follow You and Your Heart Upon Mine (sung by Louie Castro); Andy Bautista’s No One Ever Gets The Blame, Let’s Sing Forever and There’s Gotta Be A Way and Anders Nelsson’s Not A Little Baby Any More (sung by Rowena Cortes 露雲娜 ); Hans Ebert’s April Lady, Start All Over Again and Roll Over (sung by Sam Hui); Chelsia Chan and Pato Leung’s Dark Side Of Your Mind, Graduation Tears and One Summer Night; Joseph Chow’s (Looking Ahead) All For The Sake Of A Dream (sung by Patricia Chan); Danny Diaz’s How’s Your Side Of The World and City Of Dreams; compositions for the Wynners by Kenny Bee 鍾鎮濤 and Pato Leung (Lion Rock, Gonna Get You), The Wynners and James Wong 黃霑 , (I’ll Give You) L-O-V-E Love, Ricky Fung 馮添枝 & Hans Ebert (Same King of Magic) and B. Pang & Hans Ebert (Making It); George Lam’s Three Wishes, Up-Down, Boring Lover; Robert Lee’s 李振輝 The Boat Song ; Noel Quinlan’s Beaches And The Sun (sung by Jade). Somewhat against the grain of the times, EMI also released three albums of original songs written and sung by Anders Nelsson 聶安達 as the leader of Ming 盟 - Anders had not at first intended to sing with the band, but EMI insisted. Alongside Paul Leung’s 梁寶耳 Hong Kong Song , Anders Nelsson’s Diamond album Inspiration, and the 1980 Ramband album (with songs by drummer Don Ashley), these were among the few Hong Kong albums of the 1960s and 1970s to consist mostly of locally-composed English songs.
If the contents of local English language albums are any guide to the styles of European and North American music that were popular in 1970s Hong Kong, it is clear that, in the main, Hong Kong listeners oriented towards softer and more melodic styles. The majority of Hong Kong listeners seem to have preferred disco and, especially, soft rock - styles that frequently alternate on albums of the period by, for example, The New Topnotes and Teresa Carpio. The style known in Hong Kong as ‘pop-folk’ was also popular both among general listeners and among university students, and continues to attract a strong following today. But above all, 1970s English albums evidence Hong Kong listeners’ preference for singers, melodies and songs. Anders Nelsson’s Ming and Don Ashley’s Ramband went against the grain, then, not only by writing their own material, but also by adopting harder guitar-based styles and emphasising instrumentation over singing.
The 1970s was a complex decade in the history of Hong Kong popular music – with English, Mandarin, and Cantonese song all playing significant parts. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mandarin song enjoyed a revival as Taiwanese singers such as Theresa Teng 鄧麗君, Au Yeung Fei Fei 歐陽菲菲, Tsing Shan 青山, You Ya 尤雅 and Yiu So Yung 姚蘇蓉 became popular in Hong Kong and across East Asia. Local singers, influenced by the new Taiwanese style, also continued to sing in Mandarin. These included Pancy Lau 劉鳳屏, Stella Chee 奚秀蘭, and Paula Tsui 徐小鳳, who released more than 20 Mandarin albums during the 1970s. But by the end of the decade, production of Mandarin recordings had diminished considerably and English had virtually disappeared from the scene, to be replaced by Cantonese.
Hong Kong is now overwhelmingly Cantonese-speaking, but this was not always the case. In the 1950s, immigrants came in from different regions of China, and many were more familiar with Mandarin than with Cantonese. For this reason, Mandarin shi dai qu was not exactly an imported style, but one that was historically part of the culture of a significant part of the post-war population. Shanghai music had also been popular in pre-wear Hong Kong, which did not develop any comparable modern popular music tradition. In the 1950s, Cantonese opera and Cantonese folk melodies were popular among the Cantonese-speaking community and recordings, which have not been well documented to date, appeared on numerous independent labels. Cantonese folk melodies are also said to have influenced the shi dai qu performance of local singers in the late 1950s. In the early 1960s, new styles of Cantonese song developed, but again these are not well documented, in part because contemporary commentators tend to draw a line between the ‘poor quality’ music of the 1960s and that of the 1970s and 1980s. One style that many prefer to forget consisted of Cantonese versions of popular English hits appearing in Cantonese ‘teenager’ movies and sung by young actresses such as Connie Chan Po Chu 陳寶珠 , (Jospehine) Siao Fong Fong 蕭芳芳, Nancy Sit Ka Yin 薜家燕, and Fung Po Po 馮寶寶 (Siu Fong Fong and Fung Po Po also recorded English pop EPs and Nancy Sit recorded an English album on the Squirrel label in Singapore). Another style consisted of jazzed-up opera tunes and folk melodies, again appearing mainly in movies.
In spite of these precursors, it is generally thought that there was no Cantonese pop music of any note until the early 1970s. The origins of the genre are now often traced back to two songs. Sam Hui’s Tower Ballad 鐵塔凌雲 was composed with his brother Michael 許冠文 and performed on their TVB show in 1970, but not released on record until 1974. A Marriage Of Laughter And Tears 啼笑因 緣 was written by Joseph Koo and sung by Sandra of the Chopsticks as the theme song of a popular TVB drama in 1973. Then, in 1974, Polygram released Sam Hui’s soundtrack album for the film 鬼馬雙星 ( Games Gamblers Play ), in which Sam and Michael starred. The title song was a big hit and the album sold 150,000 copies. The success was repeated in 1975 with the soundtrack to 天才與白痴 (The Last Message), which sold 200,000 and in 1976 with 半斤八兩 ( The Private Eyes ), which sold 350,000. Album sales figures of this kind were unprecedented in Hong Kong and they no doubt contributed to the demise of English pop as record industry executives began to realise the potential market for songs with Cantonese lyrics.
In 1978, Hans Ebert, who worked at Polygram and wrote for Billboard in the US, coined the English word Cantopop (which has no Cantonese equivalent). But in 1974 he had used the word Cantorock, evidently with Sam Hui’s 鬼馬雙星 ( Games Gamblers Play ) in mind. This term accurately describes the title song with its heavy beat and fuzz guitar, but is less applicable to other songs on the album, which drew on a variety of sources (including the Beau Brummels’ Just A Little, which he had earlier recorded with The Lotus). Although Cantopop later came to have its own distinctive sound, at first it was less a musical style, than a variety of styles to which Cantonese lyrics had been applied. Sam Hui’s distinctive contribution to Cantopop in the 1970s was also mainly lyrical: he is best remembered for incorporating ‘street’ Cantonese into pop arrangements and for matching Cantonese words to the melody. The latter is no easy feat, because Cantonese words carry level, rising and falling tones that are related to their meaning. Sam’s lyricist Peter Lai 黎彼得 and his contemporary James Wong 黃霑 are highly regarded for this ability, which many contemporary lyric writers lack.
The perception that it was particularly difficult to write and perform good quality popular music in Cantonese partly explains why Cantopop developed, at first, in tandem with English Pop. For some time, Sam, Chelsia and The Wynners released English albums alongside Cantonese albums. Sam Hui’s last English album, Came Travelling, for example, was released in 1977 after his first three successful Cantonese albums. In 1979, Radio Hong Kong presented its first ‘Top Ten Chinese Gold Hits Awards’. These awards were seen as an affirmation of the status of Cantopop, but its significance was also that 1979 was the first year in which there were a sufficient number of quality Cantonese songs for awards to be presented. By this time, also, Cantopop had moved away from the guitar-based rock sound of Sam Hui’s 鬼馬雙星 ( Games Gamblers Play ) to a softer, more orchestral ballad sound.
The 1970s was a complex decade in the history of Hong Kong popular music and the key to understanding it may be the overall expansion of the media in Hong Kong in the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially the rapid growth in the TV-viewing, record-buying public. In Hong Kong, as elsewhere in the world, there were far more opportunities to listen to music in the 1970s than there were in the 1960s, and far more people able to afford the price of a recorded album. This led to greater diversity in the types of music available, and a market that could accommodate locally produced English, Mandarin and Cantonese song in a variety of styles.
At the same time, the commercial imperatives of the music industry encouraged convergence towards the styles that sold best and, ultimately, towards the dominance of ‘middle-of-the-road’ styles in all three languages. Leslie Cheung’s 張國榮 debut album Daydreamin’ (1977) is an interesting example of this convergence. Recorded in English, the album consists entirely of cover versions of ‘soft’ rock and pop imports (the opening track Day Dreamer, for example, was first recorded by David Cassidy). In terms of its overall sound and instrumentation, however, the album is very similar to early 1980s Cantopop. Mainstream Hong Kong pop music had, in other words, developed a sound that was relatively independent of the language of songs. But following the waves of immigration of 1950s and 1960s, by the late 1970s Hong Kong had become a predominantly young, Cantonese-speaking society. Tie-ins between music, film and TV dramas were also an important factor as a number of singers established careers as Cantopop singers through theme songs: including Sam Hui, Roman Tam 羅文, Michael Kwan 關正傑 and Susanna Kwan 關菊英. As the language with the widest appeal, Cantonese was pushed by the big record companies and by the early 1980s it had emerged as the clear winner in market terms.
In the early 1980s, Cantopop took a decisive hold over Hong Kong’s radio stations, TV channels and concert halls. Many of the first generation of Cantopop stars had already established reputations in English or Mandarin. Polygram artists Sam Hui, The Wynners, and Chelsia Chan had released both English and Cantonese albums through the 1970s. Others made the switch from English to Cantonese towards the end of the decade (Teresa Carpio, Patricia Chan, Agnes Chan, Leslie Cheung, Rowena Cortes, George Lam, Frances Yip) and Paula Tsui switched from Mandarin to Cantonese around the same time. The effect of this was that, although Hong Kong people continued to listen to imported English and Mandarin song, local production of recordings in English and Mandarin virtually ceased.
At the same time, the music industry began to consolidate around star Cantopop singers and large venue concerts. The 12,500 seat Hong Kong Coliseum was opened in 1983 and was soon filled night after night for increasingly spectacular Cantopop concerts. Alan Tam, Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui 梅艷芳 and Paula Tsui, the most popular singers of the 1980s, all had runs of 25 nights or more, with Alan Tam setting the record for the 1980s with 38 consecutive concerts (broken in 1992 by Paula Tsui’s run of 43 shows). In 1989, the Coliseum held 129 nights of concerts by local artists, selling 1.35 million tickets. Towards the end of the decade the industry was producing more than 300 Cantopop albums a year and locally produced albums outsold imported albums by around 2 to 1. The rate of production of albums inevitably led to a deterioration of quality and a growing reliance of covers. During the 1980s, several artists had hits with Cantonese versions of English songs, most notably Anita Mui with 夢幻的擁抱 (Embracing Your Dream: Wham’s Careless Whispers) in 1984 and 壞女孩 (Bad Girl: Sheena Easton’s Strut). But Taiwanese and Japanese pop songs were more influential as sources for 1980s. Cantonese versions of Japanese songs were used to fill up albums, but they sometimes became popular in their own right, leading to interest in the original versions. The effect of these borrowings was that Cantopop became a highly internationalized musical style that was defined mainly by the use of Cantonese lyrics.
The rise of Cantopop, with its emphasis on solo singers backed by anonymous (and non-Cantonese) arrangers and musicians, also led to the temporary demise of the local band scene. Conscious of the lack of diversity in early 1980s Cantopop, record companies sought to revive the 1960s band scene somewhat artificially through competitions and recording contracts. This produced a number of popular Cantopop bands, including Beyond, Tat Ming Pair 達明一派, Tai Chi 太極樂隊, and Raidas, but no real grassroots band scene. The 1980s was also the decade in which the English language would have disappeared from the Hong Kong music scene, but for several exceptions to the rule.
The first was Don Ashley 唐龍, who appeared as a session musician on several 1970s albums. Don formed the Ramband with guitarist Peter Ng and released the Ramband album in 1980 - Hong Kong’s first and last progressive rock album. The Ramband acquired a reputation as the bad boys of Hong Kong popular music, when Peter Ng threw his guitar into the audience at a 1981 concert at Shatin Town Hall. The audience went crazy and the band finished the evening in the local police station. The Ramband were banned from performing in Urban Council venues and broke up in 1982. In 1983, Don Ashley formed a new band, Chyna, and released an album of mostly self-composed English songs, There's Rock & Roll in Chyna. Although they inherited Ramband’s bad-boy reputation, Chyna were a more commercially oriented band. Don Ashley’s composition Within You’ll Remain, a ballad, was a hit in Singapore for Tokyo Square and a Cantonese version was included on Paula Tsui’s first Polygram album. In 1986, Chyna released Back 2Gether, which was released in the US and became the first record by a Hong Kong band to make the Billboard Top Ten.
The second exception was City Beat 城市節拍, a Christian soft rock band who released four albums in Hong Kong in the late 1980s. Their repertoire included English songs, but they were best known as the first foreign band to record in Cantonese. Then, we have a genuine oddity, Alan Tam’s Thunder Arm, a 1986 Polydor collection of English versions of popular Japanese hits produced for the Japanese market. And finally at the other end of market, came Blackbird 黑鳥, a politically radical and highly experimental group who released several tapes and record in the 1980s. Lenny Kwok 郭達年, the core member of Blackbird, wrote and sang in Cantonese and English and peppered his pieces with English spoken word samples. Their first album East is Red / Generation 97 東方紅 / 給九七代, for example, included dual language versions of the two title songs and Open Invitation 公開的邀請, with one song in English (Polish Workers) and one in Cantonese, 南音 : 香港史話 (Nanyin: The History Of Hongkong).
The end of the 1980s was marked by the Beijing student protests in April and May 1989 and the June 4 th massacre in Tiananmen Square. The protests inspired the people of Hong Kong and drew a significant response from the Cantopop industry. ?? All For Freedom, an all-star recording composed by Lowell Lo 盧冠廷 and Susan Tang topped the HK radio charts for three weeks in May and June and was performed at the free Concert for Democracy in China 民主歌聲獻中華 at Happy Valley Racecourse on May 27 th in front of audience estimated at 200,000. On the following day, approximately 1.5 million marched in support of the Beijing students. This led to the release of a number of political songs in 1989 and 1990 by artists including Danny Summer 夏韶聲, Lowell Lo 盧冠廷, Tat Ming Pair 達明一派, Fundamental, James Wong 黃霑 and Douglas Li.
But the promise of a more socially-relevant Cantopop was short-lived as the industry promoted a new generation of stars and, in particular, the Four Heavenly Kings: Jacky Cheung 張學友, Aaron Kwok 郭富城, Leon Lai 黎明, and Andy Lau 劉德華. The popularity of karaoke, which reached frenzy point in 1989, had an influence as more and more recordings (known as ‘K-songs’) were oriented toward the karaoke market. Recordings were also influenced by the internationalisation of the industry, with a growing number of concert performances in China and overseas. In 1995, Jacky Cheung’s compilation album became the most successful Cantopop album of all time, selling more than a million copies worldwide. As in the 1980s, there was concern about the quality of Cantopop, and in 1995 Commercial Radio’s CR2 station launched an ‘all original Cantopop’ campaign against the recording of cover versions. Nevertheless, there was also some variety in local popular music during the 1990s. Early in the decade, Wan Kwong 尹光 , a old-style Cantonese singer, whose songs were banned on radio but played on the streets, became popular and performed four shows at the Hong Kong Coliseum in 1991. In 1994, the Softhard released a successful ‘Canto-rap’ album and later in the decade LMF’s 大懶堂 Cantonese hip-hop enjoyed popularity. Several mainstream Cantopop artists also released critically-acclaimed albums during the 1990s, including Sandy Lam 林憶蓮, Anthony Wong 黃 耀明, Shirley Kwan 關淑怡, Eason Chan 陳奕迅 and Faye Wong 王菲.
Cantopop also became more multilingual in the 1990s. The more established artists, such as Faye Wong, Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Kelly Chen 陳慧琳 and Gigi Leung 梁詠琪 regularly released Mandarin albums for overseas markets, or included Mandarin tracks on Cantonese albums. Cantopop artists also began to include one or two English songs on their albums: these included Jacky Cheung, Faye Wong, Sandy Lam, Karen Mok 莫文蔚, Priscilla Chan 陳慧嫻, Vivian Chow 周慧敏, Winnie Lau 劉小慧, and Amanda Lee 李蕙敏. Faye Wong’s reputation as an alternative Cantopop artist was partly achieved through recordings of Cantonese versions of songs by alternative western artists such as Tori Amos, The Cranberries and the Cocteau Twins. Faye Wong also included a remarkable live version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody on her 1999 concert album. Most English songs recorded by Cantopop artists were covers. Karen Mok, however, was unusual in this respect, recording several English songs with her own lyrics.
The local band scene of the late 1980s also turned out to be a short-lived affair. Tat Ming Pair disbanded in 1991 and Beyond were increasingly working overseas. For many rock fans, the accidental death of Beyond lead singer Wong Ka Kui 黃家駒 at a Japanese TV studio in 1993 symbolized the end of this era. In the early 1990s, however, an alternative performance-based band scene was also beginning to develop around bands such as Adam Met Karl (later AMK), The Martyrs, and Anodize. In 1992, Wong Chi Chung, a great promoter and documenter of 1990s local alternative music, helped form the Music Union, a small meeting and performance space in Tsim Tsa Tsui. And in 1994, he began broadcasting Quote Zone on CR2 and publishing the magazine Quotables. Through initiatives of this kind, the alternative scene kept going through the 1990s, reaching a high point with concerts at Shatin Town and the Coliseum in 1995. Most alternative bands performed in Cantonese, but there were also several English recordings. ….Huh!? made four English CDs in the early 1990s, and later in the decade Sisters of Sharon made three. Black and Blue, The Black Box, Multiplexe and blues harmonica player William Tang also issued English language albums during the decade.
Although Cantopop continues to dominate the Hong Kong music scene in the early years of the 21 st century, imported music has outsold Cantopop on the Hong Kong market since the mid-1990s. Cantopop album sales and concert audience figures are significantly lower than they were in the early 1990s. There is also a strong perception that the quality of Cantopop has fallen as recording companies focus more on the image of their stars, rather than singing or songwriting. Somewhat ironically, English-language singers of the sixties and seventies, such as Teresa Carpio, Christine Samson and Mary Leung, are now engaged as singing coaches for up-and-coming Cantopop starlets. The decline of Cantopop has also coincided with a broadening of musical options and tastes among Hong Kong popular music fans. The growing range of imported styles of music available in Hong Kong – from North America and Europe, Taiwan, mainland China and Singapore, Japan and Korea, has contributed much to this broadening of taste and has also led to greater diversity of styles within Cantopop.
The trend towards multilingualism in locally-produced popular music has also continued. Cantopop artists continue to release albums in Mandarin for the Taiwanese, mainland China and overseas Chinese markets. Twins, Nicholas Tse 謝霆鋒, Jade Kwan 關心妍, Justin Lo 側田, Janice Vidal 衛蘭, Jolie Chan 陳琬琪, Jaycee Fong 房祖名, Edison Chen 陳冠希 and Fiona Sit 薛凱琪 are among the younger artists who have included English songs on their albums, while several artists from the older generation have released albums of English songs, including Jacky Cheung 張學友, Danny Summer 夏韶聲, Albert Au 區瑞強, Anthony Lun 倫永亮, Alan Tam 譚詠麟, and Candy Lo 盧巧音.
Another important development in the first decade of the 21 st century has been the reissue of vinyl albums on CD, including compilations of EMI-Pathé Mandarin singers of the 1950s and 1960s, a 4-CD compilation of 1960s Diamond singles. Polygram’s 1970s back catalogue of English language albums has also now been reissued on CD. The changing age demographics of the CD market have also created opportunities for seventies stars such as Rebecca Pan, Teresa Carpio, George Lam and Frances Yip to hold concerts and put out concert CDs. Audiophile is another market for English-language singers, notably for smooth jazz singer Susan Wong 黃翠珊, who has now recorded six albums of English covers. The audiophile market has also tempted Anders Nelsson and Andrew Oh (formerly saxophonist for the New Topnotes) back into recording, with their Spirit Of Respect album, consisting of English versions of popular Chinese songs with lyrics by Anders.
Alternative music has also taken off in Hong Kong since the turn of century, with English being the language of choice for many artists and bands, especially those who get to record CDs. The more successful alternative artists straddle the alternative and Cantopop scenes. At 17, Pixel Toy and Chet Lam 林一峰 mostly record in Cantonese, but they have also recorded interesting interpretations of songs such as Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (At17) and Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart (Pixel Toy), while Chet Lam’s recent Camping album is without doubt the most interesting cover album ever to be released in Hong Kong. Pancakes (aka Dejay) has been the most successful English-language alternative artist. With seven albums to date, she is both the most prolific and probably the best English-language songwriter that Hong Kong has produced to date. Other artists on the alternative scene who have recorded in English include King Lychee, Ketchup, Site Access, Ghost Style, My Little Airport, 22 Cats, False Alarm, Wilson Tsang 曾永曦 , Stealstealground, Spermatic Chord, The Darlings, The Pliable, Oliver, Fruitpunch, Dzap Dau Dau 拾豆豆, Innisfallen, Hard Candy, and Very Ape. While most of the alternative bands who record, do so in English, Gayamyan 假音人 and Qiu Hong 秋紅 have both been successful with Cantonese songs. One of the most notable characteristics of all of these bands and artists is the fact that they write their own music and lyrics, only rarely performing covers.
Since the 1980s, Hong Kong popular music has been very much identified with Cantopop – for many people Cantopop and Hong Kong pop are more or less the same thing. This brief history has tried to present a different picture, emphasising that Hong Kong popular music has always – except perhaps for a brief period in the 1980s – been a multilingual affair. And when we look at Hong Kong pop from a multilingual perspective, we can see that, despite concern over falling sales for Cantopop, the state of health of the Hong Kong music scene is really quite good. At present, Hong Kong popular music is more multilingual than ever for several reasons: the increasing internationalization of markets for popular music, greater sophistication among local listeners and producers of music, and the fact that the Mandarin and English music of the old days is being given a new lease of life as record companies are increasingly looking beyond youth markets. The diversity of languages in Hong Kong popular music that this has produced goes together with a diversity of styles, images, and meanings for popular music and it is in this diversity that the future health of the Hong Kong pop scene lies.