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7 May 2021 / by Wong Chi Chung

My Cantopop Stories: Four Snapshots

Close-up of the back of a young couple holding hands while walking towards the sea.

Scene from Henry Chu's Canto Cocktail (2020). © Henry Chu

This article is a written response to Henry Chu’s digital commission, Canto Cocktail.

Pop songs have always been a central part of my life. I've had many encounters with pop as a music industry professional, academic, and fan. From these experiences, I developed 'AcadeMediArTradExperiencEducation', a conceptual and practical framework for understanding the ambiguities and possibilities of the genre from the perspectives of academia, media, arts, trade, experience, and education.

Interdisciplinary, interactive, diverse, hybrid: these are the characteristics of pop music. Many people consider pop to be simply entertainment; others view it as an art form. Pop music is no stranger to academic research, dissertations, and forums, even while it is regularly broadcast on the media. We all have memories associated with particular songs—there can be deep personal and sociocultural significance within each karaoke hit.

Photograph of a smiling young man sitting in front of sound mixing board, push-button phone and microphone arm. The man is wearing glasses with a black turtleneck; his black hair falls over his eyes. A few documents hang on the wall behind him.

A young Wong Chi Chung at work in the radio station. Photo: Courtesy of Wong Chi Chung

Henry Chu's Canto Cocktail is a rather postmodern analysis of Hong Kong pop music. Take a moment to try his specially blended cocktail of fragments, remixes, and mash-ups, and you will discover that it's a far cry from the karaoke you're accustomed to. Its arrangements of melodies and lyrics might lead you to ask: is pop really so formulaic? Do great karaoke songs have to be profitable? What obstacles do musicians face in their careers?

Here are my interpretations of four selections from Chu's Cantopop playlist, along with stories of how I relate to the songs and singers. These songs may not represent Cantopop's complete history or the styles it encompasses, but they all have shared and personal significance. Produced between the 1970s and 1990s, they have a certain timeless, enduring quality. You might even recognise your own experiences and stories within them.

1. Sam Hui: The Private Eyes

Sam Hui is a key figure in the popularisation of Cantopop. From his days in the 1960s as frontman for the English-language band The Lotus, to his 1970s hits 'Eiffel Tower above the Clouds', 'Games Gamblers Play', and 'The Private Eyes', Hui has been celebrated for infusing his songs with Western-style music and themes that are close to Hong Kong life. His lyrics combine a mix of written Chinese and vernacular Cantonese, indicating a moment when Cantopop began to overtake Mandarin and English songs in popularity. Hong Kong's mother tongue was becoming part of popular culture and spurring people on a search for identity.

Hui was an upperclassman at two of my alma maters: Hong Kong University (HKU) and Ying Wah College. For their respective centennial and bicentennial anniversaries, each school released a new theme song with music written by Hui and performed by a line-up of alumni: 'Brighten Me with Virtues' and 'Heaven, Earth, and Man'. It was an honour and a dream come true to help produce a song and a music video with him.

When I asked Lin Xi to author the lyrics for HKU's centennial song in 2011, we talked about standing tall and firm in our convictions in the face of challenging, changing times. In the lyrics, he cleverly tweaked the university's motto, ming de ge wu (wisdom and virtue), to become ming wo yi de (brighten me with virtue). Then, with Adrian Chow as arranger and producer, we sang this uplifting song alongside fellow alumni Kay Tse and Alfred Hui, as well as a group of students. Today, ten years after it was written, the song has the power to resonate with many in Hong Kong, far beyond HKU.

Whether you're searching for your place in life, trying to make it through school, or tearing up the dance floor in Tsim Sha Tsui, Sam Hui's Hong Kong songs for Hong Kong people are essential listening.

2. Tat Ming Pair: The Story of the Stone

From the alternate title of Cao Xueqin's 1791 classic Dream of the Red Chamber, to the 1987 stage adaptation by experimental theatre group Zuni Icosahedron, and finally to the title track on pop duo Tat Ming Pair's second full-length album, The Story of the Stone transcends the boundary between literary arts and popular culture. Tat Ming Pair's song was a direct result of their collaboration with Zuni, and it was exhilarating to witness the Pop Art-style chemistry of vocalist Anthony Wong's first foray into theatre with bandmate Tats Lau's experimental blend of Western electropop with Chinese instruments.

While everyone loves breaking into the catchy chorus, the social content reflected in the song's lyrics could also be regarded as a case study for academic research and teaching. Like other tracks on the album that reference well-known books and films—'Street Angel', 'Man on the Road', 'Shang Shi', 'Rear Window’—'The Story of the Stone' is part of a broader narrative of internalising Eastern and Western influences and contemplating the present through the metaphor of the past. All of this makes for a fascinating journey full of collisions.

Since the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, the Hong Kong public has held disparate interpretations of the promise to keep the territory 'unchanged for 50 years'—some are optimistic about the city's future, others less so. Zuni and Tat Ming Pair's experimental collaboration was an attempt to explore these cultural and textual ambiguities.

In the mid-1980s, while studying communications and working in radio, I happened to witness Tat Ming Pair's launch on Breakthrough Hour at Commercial Radio Hong Kong. I had been regularly broadcasting their first single, 'Continual Search', so when 'The Story of the Stone' made it big two years later, I was delighted.

The melodies and style of the works that followed were cutting-edge for their time and kept close to the pulse of the city and its people, accompanying us through waves of historical moments. At their concert in Wan Chai's Queen Elizabeth Stadium in late 2020, we [the audience] sang along with the duo all night. Leaving aside any rational analysis, I am deeply moved.

3. Beyond: Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies

Every time I listen to 'Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies', I think of the untimely death of Wong Ka Kui in 1993. After his passing, it was sung by the other members of Beyond onstage. When people in Hong Kong or anywhere else belt out this song—in a karaoke room, on the street, or in their hearts—it is clear that the meaning of the lyrics have transcended the songwriter's initial vision.

Besides being one of Beyond's best-known works, 'Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies' has also made its way into local advertisements and is frequently played during social movements. In Peter Chan's film American Dreams in China (2013), the main characters sing it during their struggles to study abroad in the 1990s; in Taiwan, the film's title was simply Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies. This song resonates deeply across Chinese-speaking societies.

Is the song about idealism and reality? Or freedom and peace? Even if its chords were muted or its lyrics cut, we would still recognise it, as its life is planted deep within our hearts and culture.

I first came to know Beyond through their cassette tape Goodbye Ideal (1986). From the headphones of my Walkman, I could feel not only Ka Kui's stirring voice but also the spirit of rock and roll behind it. I decided to copy the title track to a large open reel tape and air it to the public. In the pre-internet age, when radio was the primary channel for broadcasting music, stations mainly played vinyl records. It was rare indeed for a self-funded cassette tape to be broadcast on-air.

In June 1992, I had the pleasure of celebrating Ka Kui's thirtieth birthday at the radio station, where I took a photo with him. When he passed away in June the following year, this photo became heavy with affection and sorrow.

4. Anita Mui: Life Written in Water

Movie theme songs can often transcend time and space. As we look back, they weave fragmented clips into concrete imagery and raw emotions.

Yim Ho's film Homecoming (1984) is about love for one's family, partner, and homeland. It was also one of the earliest Hong Kong movies to be shot in mainland China after the country's economic reform and opening, documenting the various desires and aspirations of that era. The theme song was a rare collaboration between Japanese film composer Kitaro and local television composer Michael Lai Siu-tin with lyricist Cheng Kwok-kong.

Its expansive, open-minded energy gently calms the soul, bringing one to quiet the mind and focus on the horizon. Of course, Anita Mui's rendition of 'Life Written in Water' can never be equalled, nor can that time ever return.

In 1990, when I was still working at Commercial Radio Hong Kong, I curated the exhibition Origin of Hong Kong Pop Music at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. This experience left me with a wealth of beautiful memories. Because of the exhibition, I was lucky enough to visit Anita's home and borrow a few of her stage costumes. I put great care into designing an oval rotating stage to showcase them; it was well-received by the fans, many of whom came by to take photos.

Photograph of a large exhibition interior. In the centre is a raised pedestal displaying various costumes on mannequins, flanked by two display cases. Blue and green banners hang from the ceiling.

The circular platform designed by Wong to display Anita Mui's costumes at the Aiwa Music Expo. Photo: Courtesy of Wong Chi Chung

When I was younger, I went backpacking in Europe and saw the different ways museums preserve various forms of arts and culture. I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Design Museum in London, whose focus includes music and popular culture. My experiences on this trip inspired me to produce a radio show on the history of the music scene in Hong Kong, curate the above exhibition, and develop my master's thesis and doctoral dissertation.

All of this was born from a music culture that is stylistically diverse but united in its power to move people.

Explore the Work

Henry Chu’s Canto Cocktail is commissioned for M+’s series of digital commissions, exploring online creative practices that sit at the intersection of visual culture and technology.

Wong Chi Chung is Head of General Education at The University of Hong Kong and a veteran radio DJ, music critic, and curator. He plays an active role in promoting international and local music culture through various cross-cultural projects, such as the Mandarin version of David Bowie’s Seven Years in Tibet (1997), Dream Come True 80 Days Around the World (2000), PoPo Song (2004), James Wong Study (2005), Centennial Exhibition of Chinese Records (2006), Hong Kong Pop/Performing Culture (2007), 'Farewell Ka Kui' 15th Anniversary (2008), Gen-S Concert (2010), Hong Kong Week in Taipei (2012), Ryuichi Sakamoto's async (2017), and Cantopop oral history for the Hong Kong Heritage Museum (2021). Wong currently hosts the radio show Chi Chung’s Choice on CR2 FM 90.3.

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