As Beijing Cracks Down, Can Hong Kong's Cantopop Business Be Saved?

The Lotus
Post Staff Photographer/South China Morning Post/Getty Images

Hui (third from right) with The Lotus in 1969.

HONG KONG — Jolland Chan is one of the most prolific songwriters in the history of Cantonese pop music, with over 1,000 titles to his name, including two of the most popular karaoke songs of 2018, "Can Never Say Goodbye" and "Half Moon Serenade." In all, six of the top 10 karaoke songs in China are Cantopop, most from the Hong Kong-based genre's golden age of the 1980s and '90s. It's an era that Chan and other music industry executives in Hong Kong long to resurrect, but fear may be too late.

Since the British handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the fate of the once-prominent form of Chinese pop music has become inextricably linked with efforts by the government in Beijing to marginalize Cantonese in favor of Mandarin, mainland China's official language -- and in the process elevate Cantopop's musical counterpart, Mandopop. That has had a significant effect: Cantopop record sales, worth $1.6 billion Hong Kong in 1998, had dropped to HK$200 million by 2017.

Cantopop's language "will [disappear] someday," says Chan, 60. "So it is important that we use Cantonese to create more pop songs, or any kind of cultural product, to keep Cantonese alive."

The decline of Cantopop has taken on new urgency this year: With the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprisings running from April to June, Beijing recently ordered a number of Cantonese songs that the Chinese Communist Party considers too sensitive be removed from online stores in China.

The genre's formation in the '70s dovetailed with the spread of TV and Hong Kong movies. Cantonese repertoire, much of it inspired by British and American bands, became theme songs for the soap operas that filled televised airtime. Samuel Hui, lead singer of '60s band The Lotus, became famous for the theme to the 1974 comedy film Games Gamblers Play.

It was a more innocent time, when performers-turned-executives like Ricky Fung -- who shot photos of new artists for album covers with his own cameras -- ended up essentially running the Hong Kong music industry for a time. "They formed a very strong cohesive force," recalls Chan, who later became head of A&R at PolyGram. "They didn't ask, 'How much can you pay me?'"

Cantopop peaked in popularity during the '80s and '90s. A resurgence of Beatlemania inspired new bands. Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng, one of the best-known Chinese recording artists, crossed over from Mandarin to Cantonese and Japanese. Billboard named Cantopop artist Jacky Cheung the most popular singer in Asia at its 1994 Music Awards.

But the 1993 death of Wong Ka Kui, lead singer of experimental group Beyond, in a stage collapse ended the band's chances of becoming international superstars. Some of Cantopop's better-known artists had already begun leaving the country after the 1989 uprisings, a trend that continued as the 1997 handover of Hong Kong loomed closer.

Still, nostalgia persists. The karaoke songs, tracked by Boosoo Information Technology, show that Cantopop fare released over 30 years ago still resonates with a wide audience. In 2014, student protesters in Hong Kong adopted as their anthem Beyond's "Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies," a 1993 song about the pursuit of freedom. Last year, Cantonese pop from the '90s represented 25% of all Cantopop being streamed in China, according to Andy Ng, group vp of Tencent Music Entertainment.

Chan worries that artists on the mainland have more problems collecting royalties than those in Hong Kong. Publishing performance royalties in Hong Kong totaled $27 million in 2016, compared with about $34 million in mainland China, according to Chan, citing figures from the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong. "Royalties should be 20 times that, at least" in mainland China, he says.

Cantopop productions are often more elaborate than those for pop music in other languages because Cantonese is a tonal language where words carry distinct meanings when sung differently. So Cantopop producers sometimes do up to six months of "experiments" before deciding on the final lyrics for a song, says Chan.

Despite that painstaking process, Chan says that "the simpler your song is, the easier it is to break through to a global audience." That helps explain the success of K-pop, which is more tailored to Western tastes. At a recent Pan-Asian song contest in Hong Kong, most fans came to see the K-pop boy band NCT 127, which was challenged by artists from Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and mainland China.

The recent hand-wringing over Cantopop's decline comes as such K-pop acts as BTS, which in 2018 became the first South Korean band to top the Billboard 200, have struggled to get permits to perform in China. The political effort to reduce the influence of K-pop could create opportunities for Cantopop.

"The music producers in mainland China will churn out new music, but it fades quickly," said Ng at a recent business forum about Cantopop. "We see great potential for Cantopop in mainland China."

Shen Lihui, CEO of Modern Sky Entertainment, stresses the need for "disruptive thinking" to create breakthroughs for new artists: "The Cantonese songs are long-lasting, but [our approach] cannot be outdated."

This article originally appeared in the April 20 issue of Billboard.

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