Cantopop: Wikis


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Cantopop (Chinese: 粵語流行音樂) is a colloquialism for "Cantonese popular music". It is sometimes referred to as HK-pop, short for "Hong Kong popular music". It is categorized as a subgenre of Chinese popular music within C-pop. Cantopop draws its 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. Cantopop songs are almost invariably performed in Cantonese. Boasting a multinational fanbase especially in Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, and in Guangdong province of mainland China Hong Kong remains the most significant hub of the genre.[1]



1920s: Shanghai origins

Western-influenced music first came to the Republic of China in the 1920s, specifically to Shanghai.[2] Artists like Zhou Xuan (周璇) acted in films and recorded popular songs, and was possibly the first Chinese pop star.

In 1949 when the People's Republic of China was established by the communist party, one of the first actions taken by the government was to denounce pop music as pornography.[2] Beginning in the 1950s, massive waves of immigrants fled Shanghai to destinations like North Point in Hong Kong.[3] As a result, many first generation Cantopop artists and composers hail from Shanghai.[2]

1960s: Cultural acceptance

By the 1960s, Cantonese music in Hong Kong was still limited largely to traditional Cantonese opera and comic renditions of western music. Tang Kee-chan (鄧寄塵), Cheng Kuan-min (鄭君綿), and Tam Ping-man (譚炳文) were among the earliest artists releasing Cantonese records.

The baby boomer generation at the time preferred British and American exports, as well as Mandarin music. Western culture was at the time equated with education and sophistication,[4] and Elvis, Johnny Mathis and Beatles were popular.[2]

Conversely, those who preferred Cantonese music were considered old-fashioned or uneducated. Cheng Kum-cheung and Chan Chai-chung (陳齊頌) were two popular Cantonese singers who specifically targeted the younger generation. Connie Chan Po-chu is generally considered to be Hong Kong's first teen idol, mostly due to her career longevity. Josephine Siao is also another artist of the era.

1970s: Rise of television and the modern industry

Roman Tam, the godfather of Cantopop[5]

The previous decade laid the ground for the creation of Hong Kong's new pop music. Many local bands mimicked British and American bands. Two types of local Cantonese music appeared in the market nearly concurrently in 1973: one type cashed in on the popularity of TVB's drama series based on the more traditional lyrical styles. The other was more western style music largely from Polydor Hong Kong. Notable singers from the era include Liza Wang and Paula Tsui.

Television was a new technological marvel, available mostly to the rich, and on-air content was highly valued and respected. Soap operas were needed to fill air time, and many popular Cantonese songs became TV theme songs.[2] Around 1971, Sandra Lang, 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" (啼笑姻緣). This song was a collaboration between songwriters Yip Siu-dak (葉紹德) and the legendary Joseph Koo. It was ground-breaking and topped local charts.[2] Other groups that profited from TV promotion included the Four Golden Flowers.

Samuel Hui, the lead singer of the band Lotus formed in the late 1960s, signed onto Polydor in 1972. The song that made him famous was the theme song to the movie Games Gamblers Play, also starring Hui.

The star of TV theme tunes was Roman Tam, whose singing earned much praise. Three of the most famous TV soap opera singers were Jenny Tseng, Liza Wang and Adam Cheng.[2] The Wynners and George Lam also amassed a big fan base with their new style. Samuel Hui continued to dominate the charts and won the Centennial Best Sales Award in the first and second IFPI Gold Disc Presentations twice in a row in 1977 and 1978. Polydor became PolyGram in 1978.

1980s: Beginning of the Golden age

During the 1980s, Cantopop soared to great heights with artists, producers and record companies working in harmony. Cantopop stars such as Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Alan Tam, Sally Yeh, Priscilla Chan and Danny Chan quickly became household names. The industry effectively used Cantopop songs in TV dramas and movies, with some of the biggest soundtracks coming from timeless film such as A Better Tomorrow. In part, the success came from progressive economical development. Sponsors and record companies became comfortable with the idea of lucrative contracts and million-dollar signings.

The most successful Chinese female recording artist, "Queen of Mandarin songs" Teresa Teng also crossed over to Cantopop. She achieved in both artistic strides and great commercial success by her original Cantonese Hits under the Polygram Label in the early '80s. Jenny Tseng was also a notable addition from Macau.

As Cantopop gained large followings in Chinese communities worldwide, Hong Kong entrepreneurs' ingenious use of the then new Laserdisc technology prompted yet another explosion in the market.

The Four Heavenly Kings in a tribute to Leslie Cheung (2003)

1990s: Four Heavenly Kings era

In the early 90s, the Cantopop stars Alan Tam, Leslie Cheung, Samuel Hui, Priscilla Chan, the songwriter Joseph Koo, and others either retired or lessened their activity. Priscilla Chan left Hong Kong to pursue her studies at Syracuse University; the rest of the five just named here emigrated amid the uncertainty surrounding the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Among the performers finding new prominence, critics identified "Four Heavenly Kings" (四大天王), namely Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok and Leon Lai. They dominated[citation needed] music, and coverage in magazines, TV, and cinema.

New talents such as Beyond also emerged as contenders.

The tension and economic instability from the 1997 sovereignty handover also created a culturally challenging atmosphere for the industry. Establishment of Basic Law and language ordinances made the adoption of Mandarin official.[6]

Twins at the height of the group's popularity


At the turn of the century, Cantonese was still dominant in the domain of C-pop.[7] The deaths of stars Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui in 2003 rocked the industry. A transitional phase also took place with many overseas-raised Chinese artists such as Nicholas Tse and Coco Lee gaining recognition. As a result Cantopop is no longer restricted to Hong Kong, but has become part of a larger Pan-Chinese music movement.

In 2005 Cantopop began a new upswing. Major companies that drove much of the HK segment included Gold Typhoon Music Entertainment (EMI, Gold Label), Universal Music Group, East Asia Entertainment & Amusic and Emperor Entertainment Group. Some of the most successful performers of the era include Joey Yung, Twins, Eason Chan, Miriam Yeung, Leo Ku, Janice Vidal, Kay Tse. The new era also saw an explosion of groups such as at17, Soler, Sunboy'z, Hotcha. In a new trend in promoting groups, many artists later end up going solo such as Stephy Tang, Kary Ng or Kenny Kwan. The decade have also been dubbed a People's singer era (親民歌星), as most performers promote frequently in public and are highly approachable. This is as opposed to the 90s and previous era Big-card singers (大牌歌星), who were impossible to approach.[8]

A number of media-buzz incidents also took place. The largest was the Edison Chen photo scandal involving Edison Chen and a number of high-profile female celebrities like Gillian Chung, Bobo Chan and Cecilia Cheung caught in sexual acts with explicit photos uploaded online. The scandal garnered the attention of international media including CNN[9] and MSNBC.[10] and The Guardian.[11] The scandal raised a number of questions regarding legal issues and netizen's online rights that went far beyond the usual music discussion. Other events include the street fight between Gary Chaw and Justin Lo.[12] As well as Jill Vidal and Kelvin Kwan drug-trafficking to Japan.[13]


The first major award of the decade 09 JSG award was a highly controversial one with the on-going HKRIA tax case.


Instruments and setups

Early Cantopop was developed from cantonese opera music hybridized with western pop. The musicians soon gave up traditional Chinese musical instruments like zheng and erhu fiddle in favor of western style arrangements. Cantopop songs are usually sung by one singer, sometimes with a band, accompanied by piano, synthesizer, drum set, guitar, and bass guitar. They are composed under verse-chorus form and are generally monophonic. Practically all early Cantopop songs feature a descending bassline.


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Cantonese is a pitch sensitive tonal language. The word carries a different meaning when sung in a different relative pitch. Matching Cantonese lyrics to Western music was particularly difficult because the Western musical scale has 12 semi-tones. Through the work of pioneers like Sam Hui, James Wong and Lo Kwok Jim, those that followed have more stock phrases for reference. Cantonese lyricists play a great part in advancing Canto Pop.

Classical Chinese lyrics

The first type is the poetic lyrics written in literary or classical Wenyan Chinese. In the past, Cantopop maintained the Cantonese Opera tradition of matching the musical notes with tones of the language. Relatively few Cantopop songs use truly colloquial Cantonese terms, and fewer songs contain lyrics. Songs written in this style are usually reserved for TV shows about ancient China. Since the 1980s, increasing numbers of singers have departed from this traditional, though some big names like Roman Tam stayed true to traditional techniques.

Modern Chinese lyrics

The second type is less formal. The lyrics written in colloquial Cantonese make up the majority with compositions done in modern written Chinese. TV shows filmed under modern contexts will utilize songs written with these lyrics. Most songs share an overriding characteristic, in which every last word of a phrase is rhymed.

The following is an example from the song "Impression" (印象) by Samuel Hui. The last word of every phrase ends with '–oeng'.

Chinese Original lyrics Lyrics Romanized in Jyutping
  1. 誰令我當晚舉止失常
  2. 難自禁望君你能見諒
  3. 但覺萬分緊張 皆因跟你遇上
  4. 誰令我突然充滿幻想
  1. seoi4 ling6 ngo5 dong1 maan5 geoi2 zi2 sat1 soeng4
  2. naan4 zi6 gam1 mong6 gwan1 nei5 nang4 gin3 loeng6
  3. daan6 gok3 maan6 fan1 gan2 zoeng1 gaai1 jan1 gan1 nei5 jyu6 soeng5
  4. seoi4 ling6 ngo5 dat6 jin4 cung1 mun5 waan6 soeng2

Foreign compositions

Since the 1970s, many Western music and Japanese traditional and pop compositions have been translated to Chinese. Historically the practice is done for business reasons of filling up albums and re-capitalizing on songs with a proven record. By definition hybrids are still considered Cantonese songs due to Cantonese lyrics, though the rights borrowed varies country to country. Songs like "Tomorrow sounds like today" (明日話今天) by Jenny Tseng, "Life to seek" (一生何求) by Danny Chan, "Snowing" (飄雪) by Priscilla Chan, and "Can't afford" (負擔不起) by Jade Kwan were originally composed outside of Hong Kong.


Cantopop stars

From the inception of Cantopop to the late '80s, Hong Kong had seen many original talents develop into super stars, each with a unique singing style and an easily recognisable voice. Usually talent is secondary to the success of a Cantopop singer in Hong Kong. Most of the time, the image sells the albums, as it is one of the characteristic of mainstream music similarly mirrored in the US and Japan. Publicity is vital to an idol's career, as one piece of news could make or break one's future. 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. Outside of the music sales, their success can also 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 one month alone.[14] Many artists however begin with financial hardships. For example Yumiko Cheng owed her company thousands of dollars. Others include Elanne Kong crying in public with only HK$58 left.[15]


PolyGram, EMI, Sony, Warner and BMG were established in Hong Kong since the 1970s. Local record companies such as Crown Records (娛樂唱片), Wing Hang Records (永恆), Manchi Records (文志) and Capital Artists in the past have each invested heavily and became successful local labels that competed well in the market. As TV drama themes lost favor in the mid-80s, market power soon drifted to the multi-national labels. Sales are tracked at the IFPI HK Annual Sales Chart.[16]



Cantopop has been criticised as being bland and unoriginal, since most stars tend to sing songs with similar topics with emphasis on "maudlin love ballads". Even in its early form, Cantopop featured many songs edited or inspired by English or Cantonese opera songs, which persisted during the 1980s golden era.

In the late 1990s, there was a shortage of creative talent due to the rising demand for Chinese songs; meanwhile, China and Taiwan had nurtured their own local industries posing serious competition to Cantopop. Renowned local lyricist Wong Jim wrote his 2003 thesis on the subject.[17]

One critic portrays the Cantopop industry in this period as "favoring smiling saccharine pap over actual substance"[18].

However, there are still many sideline musicians like Beyond (who emerged from the "band fever" of the 1960s) and Tat Ming Pair whose songs reflect the darker, less-expressed side of society.





Major awards

Award Year started Origin
IFPI Gold Disc Presentation 1977 Hong Kong
RTHK Top 10 Gold Songs Awards 1978 Hong Kong
Jade Solid Gold Top 10 Awards 1983 Hong Kong
Ultimate Songs Awards 1988 Hong Kong
Metro Hit Music Awards 1994 Hong Kong

Cantopop radio stations

Station Location Frequencies and Platform
CRHK Radio 2 Hong Kong 90.3 FM
RTHK Radio 2 Hong Kong 94.8 FM, 95.3 FM, 95.6 FM, 96.0 FM, 96.3 FM, 96.4 FM, 96.9 FM, and Internet live streaming (channel 2)
Chinese Radio New York New York 1480AM
WNWR Philadelphia when it is not doing the news and talkshows
KMRB Los Angeles 1430 AM
CHMB Vancouver 1320 AM
Fairchild Radio Vancouver 1470 AM, 96.1 FM
Fairchild Radio Toronto 1430 AM, 88.9 FM
Fairchild Radio Calgary 94.7 FM
Music FM Radio Guangdong Guangdong 93.9 FM, 99.3 FM and internet stream media
SYN FM Melbourne 90.7 FM - Cantopop show as part of Asian Pop Night.

See also


  1. ^ China Briefing Media. [2004] (2004) Business Guide to the Greater Pearl River Delta. China Briefing Media Ltd. ISBN 9889867311
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Broughton, Simon. Ellingham, Mark. Trillo, Richard. [2000] (2000) World Music: The Rough Guide. Rough Guides Publishing Company. ISBN 1858286360
  3. ^ Wordie, Jason. [2002] (2002) Streets: Exploring Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 962-2095631
  4. ^ Wiltshire, Trea. [First published 1987] (republished & reduced 2003). Old Hong Kong - Volume One. Central, Hong Kong: Text Form Asia books Ltd. ISBN Volume One 962-7283-59-2
  5. ^ HKVPradio. "HKVPradio." Roman Tam, the Godfather of Cantopop. Retrieved on 2007-04-07.
  6. ^ "Action Plan to Raise Language Standards in Hong Kong", Standing Committee on Language Education and Research. Retrieved on 2007-02-25.
  7. ^ Donald, Stephanie. Keane, Michael. Hong, Yin. [2002] (2002). Media in China: Consumption, Content and Crisis. Routledge Mass media policy. ISBN 0700716149. pg 113
  8. ^ 星星同學會 episode 3
  9. ^ "Celebrity Sex Scandal". CNN. 2008-02-05. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  10. ^ "Sex scandal rocks Hong Kong". Msnbc. 2008-02-14. Retrieved 2008-02-15. 
  11. ^ "China riveted by stolen sex photos of Hong Kong stars". The Guardian. 2008-02-13. Retrieved 2008-02-15. 
  12. ^ "" 側田曹格肉搏街頭. Retrieved on 2010-01-02.
  13. ^ "Prison break as Wei Si admits heroin charge". The Standard. 24 April 2009. 
  14. ^ Anhui "Anhui" 是星就不愁沒錢 鄭秀文一個月賺1022萬. Retrieved on 2010-01-02.
  15. ^ "" 鄭希怡:江若琳得$58不慘. Retrieved on 2010-01-03.
  16. ^ IFPI HK Annual Sales Chart. "IFPIHK." International Federation of Phonographic Industry. Retrieved on 2007-04-07.
  17. ^ Wong, James. The rise and decline of Cantopop : a study of Hong Kong popular music (1949-1997)/粵語流行曲的發展與興衰 : 香港流行音樂研究 (1949-1997)
  18. ^'s review of Heavenly Kings, a satire of the industry starring Daniel Wu

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