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Cantopop is a colloquial abbreviation for Cantonese pop music, a form of popular music that is a subgenre of Cpop. Cantopop draws influence not only from other forms of Chinese music, but from a variety of international styles, including: jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, electronic music, Western pop music, and others. By definition, cantopop songs are almost invariably performed in Cantonese. Although Cantopop boasts a multinational fanbase, Hong Kong is almost certainly the most significant hub of the genre. In Hong Kong and around the world, the Cantopop music industry is dominated largely by record labels owned by such record industry giants as Sony, EMI, Polydor, and Philips.


Early development

Before the 1960s, Cantonese music in Hong Kong was available in limited forms, such as traditional Cantonese opera and Cantonese renditions of some Western music by several comedians. Tang Kee-chan (鄧寄塵), Cheng Kuan-min (鄭君綿), and Tam Ping-man (譚炳文) were among the singers who produced Cantonese records in Hong Kong. As the educated Hongkongers admired western cultures and the Taiwan music companies were better established, the young generation at that time preferred Western songs from the United Kingdom and United States of America or Mandarin songs from Taiwan. The audiences of Cantonese music were disregarded as old or uneducated.

In the 1960s, Cheng Kum-cheung and Chan Chai-chung (陳齊頌) were among the popular Cantonese singers who specifically targeted the younger generation. Nevertheless, popular opinion at the time regarded this early Cantopop as an inferior musical style.

Around 1971, Sindokla (仙度拉), a minor singer who had never sung Cantopop before, was invited to sing the first Cantonese TV theme song, "The Yuanfen of a Wedding that Cries and Laughs" or "Tai Siu Jan Jyuan" (啼笑姻緣). This song was the creation of the legendary songwriter Gu Gaa-fai (顧嘉輝) and the songwriter Yip Siu-dak (葉紹德). The beautiful music, the Classical Chinese lyrics, the increasing popularity of televisions, and the rising of Hongkonger's self-respect were the reasons that "The Yuanfen of a Wedding that Cries and Laughs" became a big hit. It had forever changed the status of cantopops.

From 1970s to 1990s, many popular Cantonese songs were TV theme songs. Usually the theme songs are written in classical Chinese for programmes with ancient background, and in colloquial Cantonese language for programmes based on modern life. One of the most well-known theme song stars was Roman Tam, he was respected for his perfect singing skills. TV theme songs are still important part of Hong Kong music.

Cantopop lyrics

It is interesting to note that Cantopop established a tradition of writing lyrics in Standard Modern Chinese (with standard Mandarin syntax) but pronounced in Cantonese. Fewer songs contain Classical Chinese (Wenyan) lyrics and yet fewer with truly colloquial (and usually comical) Cantonese lyrics. Cantopop maintains the Cantonese Opera tradition of matching the musical notes with tones in the Cantonese language. More singers since the 80s depart from traditional Cantonese Opera vocalization in favor of Western techniques (though big names like Roman stayed true to traditional techniques).

Samuel Hui (許冠傑) started out as a Western musician. Several of his box office hit (starting in 1974) brought the Cantonese movie and Cantopop to the next level of popularity. His songs, written in colloquial Cantonese language, mirrored the life of common Hongkongers. He was not the first one to do so, but he was the first one to do so in the way that his lyrics were acceptable to virtually all classes of Hong Kong people.

Wan-gwong (尹光), aka "Prince of Temple Street", is the representative of yet another class of Cantopop music. The lyrics of his songs are unusually coarse and vulgar, his target is mainly the not-so-educated and his songs seldom appear on TV or radio. Although he will never be counted as a Cantopop star, he surely has a place in the history of Cantopop music.

Although Hong Kong is highly populated, the "tastes" of Hong Kong youths are quite similar. As a result, most stars tend to sing songs with similar topics and hence most popular songs are "maudlin love ballads" similar to those of Madonna and Britney Spears in United States. But there are still many sideline musicians like Beyond and Tat Ming Pair (達明一派) whose songs reflect the dark side of society. In recent years, the presences of yea chi , the pancakes , LMF etc, have had a great impact on the Cantopop industry. Their songs voice out youth attitudes and beliefs. This kind of music is similar to Hip Hop cultures in the western society.

Golden age of Cantopop

During the mid-80s to the mid-90s, the Cantopop genre has scaled great heights with both artistes and producers teaming up to produce songs and films of outstanding quality such as not heard of in Hong Kong previously. Cantopop stars such as Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Alan Tam, Priscilla Chan and Danny Chan quickly became household names in the then British colony in the late 1980s with exciting talents such as Beyond, Jacky Cheung and Andy Lau soon to emerge as firm contenders in the early 1990s. The reason for the blooming of this creative era is the result of a healthy Hong Kong economical development where sponsors and record companies were able to sign composers as well as the artistes with lucrative contracts worth millions of Hong Kong dollars in addition to employing professional musicians to accompany the singers. Further, the emergence of Hong Kong as a Westernised country meant that the territory has to possess a tangible and positive image of its own to reflect its status as a prosperous city. There would be no better alternative than to project this into the entertainment industry where glitz and glamor complement each other well. The peak of this golden age could be said to have been the era when the "Four Heavenly Kings" (Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Aaron Kwok and Leon Lai) were first introduced to the adoring Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities. The ultimate effect was immediate as the quality of the songs from this interesting period of development could be said to be more memorable than those of the current crop. This golden age was not to last. Severe piracy issues in Southeast Asia as well as a lack of budding talents to take the helm of the Cantopop would result in a appalling drop in sales of music.

Cantopop market

Cantopop is not restricted to Hong Kong. Since the late 80s the entertainment industry in the Guangdong Province of Mainland also raised a sizable production team and market for "made-in-China" Cantopop, also known as Cpop. Rivalry and the involvement of the Underground in the entertainment industries on both sides prevented the Hong Kong and Guangdong Cantopop industries to merge, although a few Mainland singers made it on Hong Kong hitlists. From the early 90s and especially since the mid-90s Cantopop music has largely overwhelmed the small Mainland Chinese Rock movement centered in northern China. A number of Mainland-born entertainers, such as Faye Wong (Wang Fei) and Hins Cheung, have shot to success either by mimicking the Cantopop style or directly appealing to the Hong Kong audience. It is notable also that the Cantopop industry in Hong Kong attracted many stars raised in Overseas Chinese communities, such as Sammy Yip from Canada and Coco Lee from the United States. As a result Cantopop is no longer restricted to Hong Kong but has become part of a larger Pan-Chinese music movement.

Cantopop stars

Almost all modern Cantopop stars go into the movie business regardless of their ability to act. They immediately expand to the Mandarin market once their fame is established; hence pure Cantopop stars are almost nonexistent. Their successes can be gauged by their income from various sources. For example, according to some reports, Sammi Cheng earned HK$46M (around US$6M) from advertisement and merchandise endorsements in the month of January 2003 alone.

Some Cantopop superstars from the 1980s and early 2000s:

Recent Developments of Cantopop

Most recently due to the global widespread practice of downloading music from the Internet, the sales of Cantopop albums have been dramatically dropping which is also as a result of the lack of talented new-comers to the industry. The ability to share files online also contributes to this effect as well as the dreaded piracy issues that plagued the industry. Nonetheless, the Cantopop era has been given a new lease of life with the introduction of the 'New Four Heavenly Kings' under the approval of veteran singer Alan Tam and they are Hacken Lee, Andy Hui, Leo Ku and Edmond Leung with the primary aim of resuscitating the ailing industry.

Last updated: 02-08-2005 14:46:43
Last updated: 02-11-2005 17:47:38