By Hans Ebert
Believe me, we’re trying to change things around. The question is whether we’ve left it all a little too late and are happy to just coast, because it pays the rent. And as no one’s getting any younger, to many, that’s life’s main priority. Maybe we don’t want to change the world. That’s not our job. Maybe we just want to survive in our own little corner of the world and put on that happy face everyday and try to kid ourselves and everyone else that all is cool.
I might be writing about Hong Kong, but I could be writing about anywhere. I might be writing about music, but I could be writing about any of the arts or any business or even life itself. And music is entertainment and much about life, but it’s also a business. Those days of playing for free for “exposure” should have ended when playing with one’s first school band and performing at tea parties.
The ironical thing is that back then you at least got taxi fare and a little pocket money. These days, you’d be lucky to find a gig. And when there is one, you rehearse for it and perform, but where’s any of this leading? To that place called social media? And then what? As the old lady in those Burger King television commercials asked, “Where’s the beef?”
I’ve rued about all this before, and wondered where and how it all went pear shaped. I’ve been thinking about the same things again with a different mindset since meeting an American writer trying to piece together this jigsaw about what I coined “Canto Rock” when writing for Billboard, at the time, the world’s leading music trade publication and when a byline meant something.
She- the writer- seems to want to go down the path of Canto Pop being “the soundtrack to the city”. Maybe she’s right. If it is, it’s a pretty bland “soundtrack” with a “voice” with not much to say except to keep hitting the Repeat button.
It’s triggered an interesting question, however: What IS the soundtrack to Hong Kong other than the one that goes ka-ching ka-ching? Have we distanced ourselves so much from reality that we’re scared of facing some home truths? Have we lowered our standards just to belong? It’s a bit like confusing companionship for love to feel comfortably numb.
How and why “Canto Rock” became “Canto Pop” is something important to bear in mind. The former came about after hearing a rough mix of “Games Gamblers Play” by Sam Hui.That was in 1974. That’s a helluva long time ago. How much has been built on the back of what was a huge breakthrough for Chinese popular music?
I had known Sam Hui since his days with the relatively unknown group Bar Six. When in school, my best friend and I would sneak out to watch the group play at the Firecracker Bar of the Hyatt Regency. The next incarnation of Sam was seeing him with the popular local pop group called The Lotus. I even wrote a few songs for him after he went solo. One of them- “April Lady”- became a number one hit. In Hong Kong. The track was released in Europe under the name “Sam Hall” to make it more “acceptable” to international music fans, but nein, nothing happened. The production and harmonies were awful.
With the Lotus, Sam was the archetypal lead singer for those times- slightly foppish with his stage movements channeling Mick Jagger and Paul Jones from the Manfreds and singing covers by mainly British Beat Boom bands like the Searchers, the Hollies, the Animals etc in a passable voice. But who was listening? Girls just wanted to have fun…and scream. Some still do when they’re excited.
The Lotus and Sam were usually dressed like the American band the Beau Brummels- loose shirts with ruffles, skin tight pants, knee high boots etc- and like most bands in those days lasted for a nanu moment before one realised there was a need to get a real job. The very good copyist Filipino bands around with many born into music because of their musically influenced families picked up the baton, and until this day perform most of the covers of Top Forty songs and Rock classics heard in the clubs in Wanchai, Tsimshatsui and Lan Kwai Fong.
The parents of the Chinese kids who were in those pop bands in the Sixties made very sure their sons didn’t grow up to be what they called “band boys”. That would have been socially unacceptable. Sam Hui, however, stayed with his music and decided to record an album in Cantonese. “Games Gamblers Play” became the theme song for the movie of the same name that starred his brothers Michael and Ricky. Canto Rock was born.
As a music track, “Games Gamblers Play” was instantly catchy though hardly original. What made it the game changer that it and the follow up songs Sam recorded was the subject matter. With co-lyricist Peter Lai, these songs, sung in Cantonese, talked about daily Hong Kong life- playing mahjong, characters like Tsimshatsui Susie and Hong Kong’s preoccupation with making money. It was lighthearted and catchy pop music sung in very colloquial Cantonese and which often poked fun at the idiosyncrasies of Hong Kong life. It was “cartoon music”. Now there’s a good term for a new music genre.
Yes, all this subject matter were the games local gamblers played and Hong Kong audiences, especially those at a grass roots level, embraced “Canto Rock”. There were a few sweet sounding ballads in the mix with deceptively deep messages, but overall, they were upbeat songs with lyrics that were humorously honest. They were happy just as Hong Kong was happy at the time with the opening of the Lan Kwai Fong area, discos and new upmarket clubs like Disco Disco, Canton, Manhattan and Hot Gossip.
There was also a young advertising industry finding its feet and local ad agencies producing creative work that won awards in every major major awards show around the world. If Canto Rock was making changes, so was this advertising industry and the talent pushing the creative envelope- local talent like songwriter and all-round creative guru James Wong and Michael Chu, both pictured below. We lost the latter and his enthusiasm and inspiration and creativity much too early.
With all this newness going on, the city never thought about the dark clouds hanging over that day in 1997 when Hong Kong would be returned to Mainland China.
As for “Games Gamblers Play”, the movie and song made the Hui Brothers film stars and Sam Hui Hong Kong’s first Pop idol.
Thankfully, there were no copycat versions of Sam Hui. He remains an impossible act to follow. It’s something that makes him even more of an original and much more important to the history of Hong Kong than people already believe him to be. He really should be recognised for this by the Hong Kong government.
With no new Sam Huis anywhere, others, mainly singers were plucked from local amateur talent competitions were signed up by the major international music companies in Hong Kong to sing in Cantonese and create a different type of music. This gave birth to what is known today as Canto Pop. There was precious little “rock” to this music which was often very heavily laden with sentimentality and cheese.
Canto Pop very quickly became the McDonald’s of Chinese music. It was conveyor belt music. One knew what to expect- mainly formulaic ballads written by Hong Kong’s usual musical suspects. Never has Glenn Frey and Don Henley’s “Desperado” been used as much as an “inspiration” by these supposed songwriters to create a hundred different- but similar sounding- Canto Pop ballads. The chords and basic melody line has been worked over the years to “accommodate” Cantonese lyrics.
“Desperado” has become the Big Mac of Canto Pop. And just like the characters who populated McDonaldland, the music companies, led by PolyGram, went into overdrive to sign new talent who all sounded pretty much the same- singers who couldn’t write and so were handed over to a very small group of in-house producers to record albums comprised of songs picked for them.
What often happens when one has a group of newcomers dearly craving popularity is that they do what they’re told and record what’s given. And if you were a songwriter or session musician in the good books of this small group of record producers in Hong Kong, you became part of one factory whose job it was to churn out sausages- the same sausages over and over again.
These musicians weren’t exactly The Wrecking Crew, or all those fantastic players who built Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound or “The Sound Of Young America” for Motown. These were pretty average local musicians who knew how to copy tracks working with the usual arranger. The result was big chunks of more cheese.
Having said this, it really wasn’t that different to the white American pop idols of the Fifties who simply had to look good and sing in tune. They were puppets. Let’s also not forget that all this was happening in Hong Kong way before the arrival of MTV and music videos. The only outlet was television and one or two “variety” shows- also heavy on the corn and cheese.
Meanwhile, the local advertising industry went from strength to strength, but never came together with the local music industry. They were two different worlds- one wanting to be seen as being international and of world class quality, and the other seeing the money to be made by being very much a Hong Kong product and making this bigger. Not better. But bigger. Bigger has its problems.
Like the Trojan Horse wheeled in, from these new artist signings out popped those who built up large fan followings- not so much for their music, but mainly for their looks and styles. This created an important paradigm shift when it came to power and control.
Where was Sam Hui? He was mainly making movies, had married his childhood sweetheart, become a father for the first time, and was enjoying time off in California.
The door was open for new artists to walk in and gradually morph into businessmen with their own personal managers. This was the first sign that Canto Pop was becoming a generic term for Chinese celebrities who sang, danced, looked good and had the drawing power to headline concerts. Concerts were where the really big money was. It still is. It’s where audiences are willing to pay big bucks to see their “idols” in person. It’s very much a celebration of the past. It’s mass attacks of nostalgia, fat cats consuming cheeseburgers and refusing to leave the building with Elvis.
What was the music like? The usual formulaic stuff, but who cared? It was style over substance and the selling and buying into the personality. If one were to really think about it, there wasn’t much choice when it came to these Canto pop idols. And with not much choice, the music fan had to take what’s given even if it was lumpy gravy.
It’s often been said that the most important people in the success of these Canto Pop concerts that drag on for almost three hours with many many costume changes, chit chat, numerous celebrity friends and a few songs are the hair stylist and set designer.
Having been to more of these concerts than I care to admit, and actually having managed to sit through it all, it was like being on acid and drifting in and out of kitsch.
The major record labels, meanwhile, were having problems holding onto the most popular Canto Pop artists once their contracts had run out. New companies backed by big money had jumped the queue. Run by well-known Chinese businessmen with powerful connections, control and tentacles that reached far and wide, new acts were created and the management and ownership of Canto Pop became very big business.
Television stations, especially HKTVB’s Jade channel, and to a lesser extent, Commercial Radio, which for around three years basically locked out Western pop music as it had a vested interest in promoting the “localisation” of music, became willing “media partners”.
After all, TVB Jade had the advertisers and the viewing audience and could tailor make programming that would help promote especially new artists. It’s a key reason why the channel produced so many awards shows where everyone who appeared was a winner. If one refused to appear, well, it was their loss. It was also a career ending move.
Getting back to the music, especially during the Nineties and early 2000, there were a handful of Hong Kong artists who actually had musical talent- and dared to be different- Faye Wong, the band Beyond, the very theatrical Anita Mui, and singer-actor-heartthrob Leslie Cheung.
Though reaching iconic status, without any real A&R people helping with the musical direction, these artists were still Chinese versions of Western artists- Bjork, Madonna with the doomed tragic figure that was Leslie Cheung achieving cult status because of his pretty boy good looks, his breakthrough film roles and much discussed personal life. Leslie Cheung jumped to his death from the Mandarin Hotel on April 1, 2003 when Hong Kong was in lockdown mode after being engulfed by the SARS crisis. It made a dark time even darker.
There are and were more Canto Pop artists and stories about how they achieved quick success. These will die a silent death. Even if everything was finally made public, it won’t help resuscitate a music scene on life support.
Today, while fifty and sixty year old Canto Pop “idols” make more “farewell tours” and hold “nostalgia concerts” wherever the money trail leads them, and the advertising industry has largely been replaced by social media, what’s happening to music in Hong Kong? Who’s minding the store?
There are younger musicians who have returned to Hong Kong from overseas and looking at making music differently. Perhaps they’re trying to make up for lost time and interested in making music in English or else giving Chinese music- let’s not saddle it with that albatross called Canto Pop- a new sound, face and attitude.
But whatever it is it’s still missing the creativity of what’s happening in Taiwan with an artist like Julia Wu. She should be huge. It’s all up to the A&R and management.
In Hong Kong, perhaps there are glimpses of hope. But with Hong Kong having been deprived of Western music for so long, many are still living in the past and with no real understanding about the history of music. Maybe music doesn’t mean much to them? Maybe that’s why so many applaud many onstage who don’t have the right to be there. It’s embarrassing on all fronts.
At a recent open mic session in a small venue, it was more than surprising to hear my writer friend being told that a certain song performed onstage was a “big hit for Anita Hui”. The song was “Stand By Me”, a number one record for Ben E King.
The point here is that if audiences are not music fans and with no interest in knowing who recorded what and when, they accept anything and everything without knowing Jazz from Pop, originality from copycat rehashes and those singing completely out of tune.
It’s why mediocrity is accepted. If there’s any good news, it’s that more and more, the phoniness of social media “likes” and “views” are being revealed to be what they are: stupid and irrelevant.
As for Hong Kong, at least to me, Canto Pop is a collective term for creativity- all forms of creativity and which is sorely lacking here. Music today cannot be looked at in isolation. It must be part of the multi media world and be part of constant change.
There’s a reason why Hong Kong’s student leaders are angry. It stems from frustration. It stems from a lack of an outlet for their grievances.
With his version and vision for Canto Rock, Sam Hui tackled this subject with humour and clever sarcasm. Advertising was heading in this direction until derailed whereas Hong Kong’s nightlife has had its lights switched off due to crippling rents.
This city will always be home, but, it’s become home base- a nice place to visit, but no longer interesting enough a place with interesting enough people to keep me here and grounded.
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