Sounds good: Cantopop still riding a melodic tide

May 26, 2016 17:07
Eason Chan, an icon of Cantopop, performs in a concert.  Photo: MAMA

Eason Chan Yik-shun (陳奕迅) is now on a sold-out concert tour with gigs in some of the largest domes and stadiums across mainland China.

Tickets were snapped up almost instantly, and latecomers must turn to touts and pay a hefty markup, but as any fan of the Cantopop icon would say, his shows are worth every penny.

So, it’s somewhat baffling that while scrambling for tickets of the Hong Kong superstar, Chinese groupies say Hong Kong’s seminal Cantopop tunes have long been drowned out by K-pop or mainland productions.

Isn’t Eason’s cult following the proof of the ascendancy of Cantopop, the quintessential emblem of Hong Kong’s soft power?

A video of Eason’s electrifying solo, with no back-up dancers or any stunts, at K-pop’s most prestigious awards ceremony, the Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA), went viral on social media as enraptured South Koreans, most of whom don’t speak Cantonese, all joined in the chorus.

He also sang a cappella a Cantopop song when receiving an honorary doctorate from Kingston University in London, his alma mater.

Hong Kong boasts a magnificent lineup of heartthrobs and pop idols whose popularity reaches far beyond the city’s borders and the Cantonese-speaking region.

Faye Wong (王菲), Sammi Cheng Sau-man (鄭秀文), Miriam Yeung Chin-wah (楊千嬅), Joey Yung Cho-yee (容祖兒), Kelly Chen Wai-lam (陳慧琳), Nicholas Tse Ting-fung (謝霆鋒), Karen Mok Man-Wai (莫文蔚) and so on are still household names across Asia for their exalted stature in the pop music world.

And even the late Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing (張國榮) and Anita Mui Yim-fong (梅艷芳) are still beloved for their enduring charisma and dulcet tones.

Hong Kong singer-songwriter Gloria Tang Tsz-kei (鄧紫棋), better known as G.E.M. (an acronym for get everyone moving), is now leading the resurgence of Cantopop, garnering delirious followers, particularly in the mainland, after the 24-year-old topped pop reality shows and contests north of the border.

But you are considered out of sync with the latest wave of Cantopop if you think that, other than these big names, the industry is struck in a succession gap.

The fact is that we have more singers who are ready to tread the boards.

They include Hins Cheung King-hin (張敬軒), now in the heyday of his career; Denise Ho Wan-see (何韻詩), a versatile pop diva who is vocal about democracy and LGBT rights; Juno Mak Chun-lung (麥浚龍), who set a record when nine of his tracks made their way onto Apple's iTunes chart of top 10 downloads as his new album swept the city last year; and Kay Tse On-kei (謝安琪), whose fluid songs, nostalgic with a distinctive local consciousness, like her magnum opus Wedding Card Street (喜帖街), often top the local music charts, and whose latest single, Hillwood Road (山林道), became a sensation after it was sung in a band performance by sailors from the US Navy.

There are promising stars in the younger generation, whose works are now widely available on Apple Music, Spotify, KKBOX and Moov.

Singer-songwriter Agatha Kong (江海迦), also known as AGA, has been creating quite a stir since her 2013 debut with her sultry voice, R&B sensibilities and catchy lyrics. Half-Hongkonger and half-European, she’s also produced several English songs.

Acoustic duo Robynn & Kendy, who both started overseas as amateurs, have been gaining popularity following an initial hit on YouTube. Robynn was part of a university band, while Kendy did her fair share of busking on the streets of London. Their albums feature ukulele, crisp a cappella, brand-new takes on classic Cantopop and original ballads accented with gentle melodies and a touch of sensuality.

Indie band My Little Airport has also shot to fame. Critics say the twee-pop duo's bittersweet pop musings have become one-of-a-kind anthems for a disaffected generation. Over the years, the two journalists-turned-singers have touched on the city’s social woes in their irony-laced and politically charged vignettes, both in English and Cantonese.

They now have fans from outside Hong Kong and have proven their knack for commercial success even with their dissident take on the society: five performances at KITEC in Kowloon Bay in October grossed huge revenues as fans crowded the venue and scalpers reportedly sold tickets at a 60 percent markup.

Cantopop has never been merely about the local market of 7.3 million people.

Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian provinces have a total Cantonese-speaking audience of no less than 100 million.

In addition to Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries have for long been another home base for Hong Kong singers.

There are also more than 10 million Hong Kong and Guangdong expats and their descendants in Canada, Australia and the United States who proudly share the same lingua franca.

The combined market for Cantopop far exceeds that for K-pop.

That should be the basis of the confidence of stakeholders and groupies in the future of Cantopop.

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Read more:

Why it is important to preserve Cantopop

Tickets for Eason Chan's concerts sell out instantly. He is now on a gig tour in mainland China. Photo: Frankie Yam
Cantopop diva Joey Yung and singer Hacken Lee Hak-kan perform in a concert at the Hong Kong Coliseum. Photo: Emperor Entertainment Group
Agatha Kong, or AGA, a singer and songwriter, is the epitome of the new generation of Cantopop talent. Photo: Universal Music
A full house is normal at the Hong Kong Coliseum whenever there is a Cantopop concert. Photo: HKEJ

EJ Insight writer