22 October 2016
During the golden days of Cantopop in the 1980s, Hong Kong pop singers were cultural icons across Asia. Leslie Cheung was twice named the most popular foreign performer in South Korea. Photo: youtube
During the golden days of Cantopop in the 1980s, Hong Kong pop singers were cultural icons across Asia. Leslie Cheung was twice named the most popular foreign performer in South Korea. Photo: youtube

Why it is important to preserve Cantopop

The live TVB broadcast of the 2015 Jade Solid Gold (JSG) Top 10 Songs Music Awards ceremony Sunday went almost completely unnoticed by most television viewers in Hong Kong.

Very few people would be able to tell you who’s who among the winners.

Once the leading music awards in our city and dubbed Hong Kong’s equivalent of the Grammys, the JSG Music Awards used to be an eagerly awaited event on our music calendar, back in the golden days of Cantopop in the 1980s and ’90s.

The hotly contested Most Popular Male/Female and Gold Song Gold awards were regarded as the city’s most prestigious music awards and were often used as a benchmark to measure the success and popularity of a pop singer.

In fact, in those days a singer wouldn’t be considered as having truly risen to prominence until he or she had won at least one of these awards.

Music legends like Alan Tam Wing-lun, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, Anita Mui Yim-fong, Jacky Cheung Hok-yau and Faye Wong won them multiple times.

However, in recent years, the JSG Awards have been getting less and less public attention and media hype, and it appears that viewers no longer care who won.

Once a much anticipated music event held annually at the Hong Kong Coliseum, often with a sold-out audience, the show has been greatly scaled down. Since 2011 the venue has been moved back to TVB City in Tseung Kwan O.

Today, South Korean pop singers are all the buzz and have conquered the hearts and minds of young people in Hong Kong, the overwhelming majority of whom don’t speak any Korean. Local Cantopop singers have taken a back seat to their Korean counterparts in our pop music market.

In fact, the exchange of pop culture between South Korea and Hong Kong is so overwhelmingly one-sided that some have referred to it as a massive Korean cultural invasion that has not only heavily influenced our popular culture but also pushed local pop singers completely to the sidelines.

Few people, perhaps, remember that back in the ‘80s the cultural invasion was pretty much the other way around: it was actually Hong Kong Cantopop singers who dominated the South Korean entertainment industry.

Superstars like Leslie Cheung and Alan Tam were household names and cultural icons among South Koreans in those days, and their songs often topped the local music charts.

For example, Admiration (愛慕), Cheung’s 1987 album, sold 200,000 copies across South Korea in just a month. His 1995 album, Fondness (寵愛), proved to be another monster hit and sold a whopping 500,000 copies there.

In 1989 and 1994, Leslie Cheung beat Michael Jackson, Madonna and Whitney Houston to be named the most popular foreign performer in South Korea.

In the ’80s and early ’90s, Hong Kong was truly a cultural hegemon in Asia.

Unfortunately, the heyday of Cantopop is long gone.

In the ’80s and ’90s, big local stars could easily sell 200,000 to 400,000 copies of their albums in Hong Kong, but today there is hardly an album that is able to sell more than 10,000 copies.

The reasons behind the decline of Cantopop may be multiple and could make a good subject for academic study.

However, the dispute between TVB and the four major music labels in Hong Kong over copyrights between 2009 and 2010, which led to their subsequent boycott of the JSG Awards and other TVB music shows, has proved to be the last nail in Cantopop’s coffin.

Since then, big names such as Eason Chan Yik-shun and Kate Tse On-kei have rarely appeared on TVB’s music shows, still by far the most popular platform through which they could pitch their new releases, and have been excluded from the JSG Awards.

The damage is in fact mutual, because without these big stars, TVB’s music shows have become much less appealing to the TV audience.

The fewer the people who watch music shows on TV, the less the incentive for music producers to write new songs and make music videos, thereby accelerating the decline of Cantopop.

Cantopop is more than just pop songs.

Like Hong Kong movies and TV dramas, Cantopop is an irreplaceable vehicle for spreading and promoting our popular culture, values and above all, Cantonese, an ancient dialect that dates back to almost 2000 years ago.

That Cantonese has gained its cultural predominance and become probably the most spoken and influential dialect of Chinese among Chinese communities across the world in fact owes a great deal to the popularity of Cantopop.

Cantonese is also what defines the local culture of Hong Kong and has helped shape our sense of identity.

Although Cantonese still remains one of the most widely spoken forms of Chinese in the Greater China region, its cultural influence has been in continuous decline.

Preserving Cantopop is not just about keeping our local music industry alive but has a more important purpose as well: to keep Cantonese vibrant among Chinese people and allow it to thrive into the future.

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