Where and when the Hong Kong music scene lost its way…

By Hans Ebert
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Hong Kong has been Canto Popped and Jazzified. When it comes to music and something remotely approaching a music scene, there’s no middle ground. One is in one camp or the other. Rock was forced to roll over and disappear. There’s a sad story to why that happened.

As for where music in this city is today, and though loathe to bring ageism into this subject, what comes out in the wash is a very tired ‘look’ with the usual suspects going round and round in circles.

Let’s stop with the Lack Of Venues mantra. Why not think about the lack of musicians? Especially very good musicians. How many are there in Hong Kong? Twenty? Ten? Less? And musicians playing what?

Most will say “Jazz” as Jazz seems to give a musician a certain credibility and respectability. A certain image of being better and more experienced- and more mature- than the rest.

It’s strange to think that the original Jazz musicians, and those from the Bebop School of music were actually shunned when trying to play their music in what was then a segregated America. Many left for Paris in order to have their music heard.

Just a thought, but wonder how many in Hong Kong so wanting to be seen as being about all that Jazz know the roots of the music genre and what exactly Jazz was and is and can be? Add Canto Pop to that question where even most of the younger generation of musicians sound like everything that’s been heard before. Why Can’t it be more than what it is? A snoozefest.

The Can Be part is what’s interesting because this leads to where music in this city is heading. And who’s going to have the foresight and the insight and the creativity to bring the right talent together and create something wonderfully exciting and straight outta a left field Bitches Brew or what Paul Simon did with the musicians from South Africa he brought along for his musical journey to “Gracelands”?

What’s needed is something/anything except more mawkish covers and tediously long jam sessions for the pretentious seals in the audience who clap but never know why. It’s also what’s kept Canto Pop shackled to the past. Audiences happy with what’s served up and not knowing sharp from flat and, like always, buying into style over substance.

How long has this being going on? This lack of respect for music that’s always been shoved into the background and never ever helped by the government to improve? Perhaps they’re scared that the truth might raise too many questions- questions that should have been asked decades ago?

For those too young to know, Hong Kong was deprived- yes, deprived- of Western music, especially hard Rock music, for over a decade. Music is music and about individuality and originality. Yet, somehow, this city lost out on Woodstock, bands like Cream, and Led Zeppelin plus an even more accessible artists like Joni Mitchell because Hong Kong’s “arbiters of good taste” came together to quash “the foreigners”.

Even the Beatles’ groundbreaking album Sgt Pepper’s never got a look in. I still remember a certain icon of local radio telling me how much the Beatles had changed with their moustaches and beards which made them look “dirty and like Indians” and how their new music had no meaning. Tell this to listeners often enough and they believe it. After all, it’s coming from “a voice of authority”. Dear gawd, please.

Of course the real modus operandi at work was to heavily promote what’s now known as Canto Pop, a term I coined when writing about Sam Hui, the one truly original Cantonese artist, for Billboard, at the time, the world’s leading music trade publication.

Whereas Hui created witty musical observations of life to instantly catchy melodies, the rise of Canto Pop was a carefully constructed business model that brought together the leading and most influential television station- HKTVB- and its Chinese channel- TVB Jade, Commercial Radio and the more successful music companies- and those in charge of running the engines behind them. It was a monopoly times three. It was about power and control. And power corrupts.

Their business plan was very simple: Screw promoting any type of music except for the music produced by the local artists we control along with the songwriters, arrangers and producers in our pockets.

The end result was a sausage roll factory of dim sum and more some- plodding formulaic ballads. And because of the restrictive nature of singing in Cantonese, a monotonous stream of similar sounding songs. But with listeners and viewers not being music critics, they accepted what was given. They had no choice. This choice had been silenced.

So while those with the power and control pulled the strings in the background and got extremely rich off the fat of the land and different forms of payola exchanged hands, everyone who could jumped aboard this Canto Pop bandwagon.

Suddenly, foreigners from the UK and the US singing in Cantonese arrived in Hong Kong. For the handful of non-Chinese in this tiny music scene, here, they thought, was a golden opportunity: a “gweilo” singing the Canto Pop hits by artists like Alan Tam and Jacky Cheung. Someone we can manage and from who we can make millions. Wrong.

Over the years, these “Canto Pop singing foreigners” have appeared out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly. They were novelty acts. Karaoke singers. They were good for one or two television appearances, a few appearances in a shopping mall and a little publicity, but that was it.

The real money was in local Canto Pop which started with those ponderous ballads and then became part of another money making platform where the two Chinese television channels in town- ATV and TVB- went overboard in producing “awards shows”.

TVB Jade with the much higher audience ratings, sponsors and friends in the music companies, and to a lesser degree, radio, were easily the winners when it came to these shows where everyone who played along won an award and feigned surprise when their names were called out.

Oh, the phoniness of it all and the need to act being sickly sweet and Hello Kitty cute when those in the business knew exactly who was for sale and being banged by whom.

What #MeToo movement? These were willing participants in, no pun intended, getting ahead.Don’t think these were only female artists either. Hardly, possums. But to middle aged, and largely female viewers, like in the US and the UK where television singing competitions cater to similar audiences- the very young and females who are not so young and know nothing about music, this was about the selling and buying into the phoniness of a squeaky clean images emitting nauseous insincerity.

These television awards shows were a long drawn out and carefully choreographed procession of celebrity spotting where the hairdressers, makeup people and costume designers were the real stars. The more over the top the better. It was style over substance. But who knew when it was the only show in town? You’re spoon fed congee, you eat congee.

These awards shows led to long and often tacky concerts that were bigger and more garish versions of the television awards shows. Concerts that went on and on and on with many many guests appearing, numerous costume changes, plenty of chit chat and thrown into the mix being a few songs.

These concerts still continue because there’s a market for them. Especially in Mainland China and everywhere in the world where there are large Chinese communities.

In Hong Kong, it’s the only game in town to those who grew up with all this style over substance and who passed it on to the next generation. It’s another business opportunity for the old Canto Pop “idols”, now in their Sixties to milk nostalgia dry and add more moola to their retirement plans. Enough is is never enough. And as there’s supply and demand and the demand is there, why not go for it?

Meanwhile, the fat cats in music companies who got the Canto Congee fish ball rolling, bailed at the right time before the ICAC caught up with them. But this was not done before producing more of those Canto Pop ballads based on “Desperado” and the Hong Kong version of Hello Kitty cutesy quirkiness peddled by now mercifully disbanded acts like Twins and Cookies. But don’t think they left empty handed. They’re financially set for life by playing the Hello Kitty game.

Worse, in the place of the old fat cats today are younger pussies in charge of many music companies but with everything being about side projects with various posses to fill their coffers and a lazy hazy approach to music. This is to feed everyone with more of the same Canto Congee.

There’s nothing in Hong Kong like the creativity of an artist like Julia Wu in Taiwan and the team of writers and producers around her. There’s nothing like the creativity of Yuna from Malaysia.

Why not? As a friend said, it’s to do with a malaise affecting Hong Kong- the same malaise affecting everything in this city- the restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels, lifestyles.

It also has to do with too many get rich quick schemes, money laundering, too much free time spent unwisely and no commitment to making things better. How does one make things better? Who really knows? But as an observer of life and especially what’s happening in music worldwide, now is the time for someone with something daringly new and with the wherewithal to break all the rules because there are no rules.

Today, no one and nothing is happening. Don’t believe everything you read. All those artists huge just a year ago have seen their latest releases flop. There’s very little interest in their tours.

In this region, though many in Canto Congee in Hong Kong seem stuck in the past and happy to be there, in places like Taiwan, Jakarta, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, the Philippines, and perhaps India if out of the confines of Bollywood, there are some incredibly talented musicians.

What many are lacking are, and as has been written here before, good A&R people and arrangers and producers who have erased the thought of trying to follow formulas for success and what’s happening in the West. Instead, it’s about starting from scratch with a new slate and looking at the sounds beats happening around us.

It’s what made Robbie Williams, Bowie, Placebo, Gorillaz and others come to us at EMI Asia to help give them something new. Working with Morton Wilson, below, and his Schtung Studios in Hong Kong and the various teams, along with a music production house in India and the great Asha Bhosle on vocals, we delivered. It was inspiring stuff.

We worked with Terry Lee and Chyna House on incredible Remixes for Kylie Minogue, crossover pianist Maksim and a very ambitious Remix of John and Yoko’s “Give Peace A Chance” featuring artists from all around the region who we named The Voices Of Asia.

I still listen to the one and only album from Parking Lot Pimp, below, the young band I signed to EMI from Singapore, and wonder why this record with such good songs didn’t make it, especially the track “Blow”, an original form Terry Lee and which broke all the rules of pop songwriting. It remains a personal favourite.

I’d like to think this track had something to do with me taking Terry to Tokyo to meet Pharrell and N.E.R.D and one long night at my place and having him listen to the Beatles and the genius of George Martin.

It was a time when everything seemed possible without any of the technology and delivery platforms available today. We did the best we could with what we had.

These days we have so much of everything. But other than gathering “views” and “likes” are we really pushing ourselves enough?

Forget answering that. We’re not. But we should be. Just maybe the right group of people coming together to create something extra special and not more weak knee dreckola is around the corner. And no more Canto Congee, thanks. I’ve had my fill of mediocrity and people secretly and openly doing the hanky panky.

#Music #CantoPop #Hongkong #Yuna #JuliaWu #Jazz #TerryLee #ParkingLotPimp

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